Bronze Age Wonder German Stonehenge Slowly Reveals its Secrets

For two years, archaeologists have been studying a Bronze Age place of worship in eastern Germany. The site has a number of parallels with Stonehenge in England. By the end of the summer, researchers hope to know the full story.

The first thing you have to get used to, if you speak to Andre Spatzier, is all the noise. The young, tanned Ph.D student from the Martin Luther University in the eastern German city of Halle is standing on what looks like a busy construction site -- excavators and trucks are driving to and fro. "We're just opening the excavation area," says Spatzier, who is the site's director. He is standing in a field, not too far from the river Elbe in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt -- near the village of Pömmelte-Zackmünde.

Here in the fertile soil beneath Spatzier is a Bronze Age place of worship, one which in the last two years of work has shown remarkable similarities with Stonehenge. This summer, work on the site has just been resumed, and Spatzier's team hopes that by the end of the digging season, they will have completely excavated and deciphered the site. It has, though, not been easy -- While Stonehenge is made out of stones that have weathered thousands of years, the German prehistoric site was built of wood, which rotted away many years ago.

Still, the scale of the site must have been impressive. Archaeologists have already discovered six rings of wooden pillars -- the biggest of which has a diameter of 115 meters. In one of the structure's outer areas there was also a circular ditch with a diameter of 90 meters. By analysing ceramic vessels found at the site, the researchers have worked out the place of worship dates back to the 23rd century before Christ and was used until the 21st century BC.

"We don't know of any other structure like this on the European mainland from this time," Spatzier said. It was, in fact, an exciting time in Europe: trade networks for ores, amber and salt were rapidly developing. Mankind's knowledge was also growing by leaps and bounds, as not only goods but ideas were travelling across the continent. Around 2,500 years earlier at the very end of the Stone Age, Neolithic people had already constructed the nearby Goseck Circle -- a wooden ring 70 meters across considered the oldest solar observatory in Europe. In the Bronze Age, some 500 years after the Pömmelte site was built, the famous Nebra sky disc was made. The circular bronze object likewise depicts the heavens.

First observed from an airplane in 1991, researchers are now trying to figure out how exactly the new site -- dubbed by the media as the "German Stonehenge" -- was used. They believe the place must have been a site for celebrations and ritual acts, as the earthen walls could not have offered defensive protection against attackers. Animal bones and vessels found at the site also point to it being a cult site. And human skeletal remains -- not unlike findings at the original Stonehenge -- have also been dug up. The researchers are especially intrigued by the graves of a child, aged between five and 10, who was buried in a fetus-like position, and that of a higher ranking dignitary.

On top of that, another wooden pagan structure, which probably came into use directly after the one being dug up, has been found nearby. So far, archaeologists have undertaken only a small exploratory excavation. "We might start a bigger excavation there next year," Spatzier said -- in the hopes of completely uncovering the mysteries of the German Stonehenge.

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