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Archeology in Germany : New discoveries at the Stonehenge in Saxony-Anhalt

Most of us are familiar with Stonehenge - but Pommelte? The ring sanctuary near Pömmelte-Zackmünde, south of Magdeburg, near the Elbe, discovered in 1991 through aerial photographs, can certainly compete with Stonehenge.

Since 2016, the importance of Pommelte can also be understood as a layperson, because at that time the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology of Saxony-Anhalt decided to reconstruct the ring sanctuary true to the original and to insert the wooden posts back into the exposed post holes.

Seen from the outside, the ring sanctuary initially looks like a fort from the pioneering days of the Wild West. Bare but smoothed tree trunks with a rounded top form a huge round picket fence.

Only the view from the nine-meter-high observation tower allows the visitor to understand why Pommelte can be compared to Stonehenge. Structure, size and age correspond to the system on the British island. The ring sanctuary was built around 2300 BC, the diameter is 115 meters as in Stonehenge and the four entrances in four directions are aligned with the so-called Mitviertel festivals at the beginning of the seasons in March, June, September and December.

A new excavation campaign is funded until the end of 2020

The only difference: At that time, oak logs were used in Pommelte because there was no quarry anywhere, says Franziska Knoll from the Institute for Art History and Archeology of Europe - Prehistoric Archeology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Since 2018, she has been in charge of the second major excavation campaign here since it was first developed from 2005 to 2008.

[Also read our reports on the latest discoveries around Stonehenge: Origin of the Sarsen Stones Clarified and The Mystery of the Sacred District]

For the reconstruction, however, robinia trunks were used, the underground part of which was treated accordingly. Oak could no longer be paid for today. The current excavation project, which is exploring the settlement around the sanctuary, will be funded by the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media and the State of Saxony-Anhalt until the end of 2020.

The view of the system from the tower is fascinating and puzzling at the same time. An outer ring of natural peeled posts surrounds a ring trench consisting of individual pits. This is followed by a circular moat with a densely placed palisade on the inside. There is an earth wall in front of it.

Inside the sanctuary you can see two more loosely placed wreaths of posts. Measured from the ditch, the diameter is still 80 meters. The passages are located in the northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest, respectively.

Splashes of color in the complex are the red-painted gates, which are formed with a crossbeam that is connected to the posts with ropes. The gates and individual posts are decorated with ornaments, inside the circle there are eight man-high wooden steles, which also have decorations.

Bows and arrows can often be seen, circles, grid patterns. But how do you know if organic material has not been preserved for so long? "We have modeled the ornaments on the well-known bell-cup steles from southern France," explains Franziska Knoll. The "farmers" of the band ceramics were the first to settle in Pommelte on the fertile black earth of the Magdeburg Börde in the 6th millennium BC.

Laced gates? It should have been like that

The trick for archaeologists in a Neolithic / Early Bronze Age complex is to determine as much information as possible from the objects, the archaeological findings, the soil, the plant remains and the bones without written sources. Red was a common color at that time, mineral pigments such as hematite for red and ocher for yellow, lime for white and charcoal and manganese from the resin for black can be detected.

Knoll admits that the straps with the straps are freely interpreted, but how else could the people of the bell-cup culture from 2500 to 2200 BC have installed the gates?

At that time, the Elbe flowed past the ring sanctuary, an analogy to the Avon River in the Stonehenge landscape. The Elbe facilitated the transport and the journey to the sanctuary, which certainly had a supraregional importance.

Injured people were ritually buried in the shafts

In the shaft pits in the wall in front of the palisade fence, the archaeologists found a still unknown organic base at the bottom. Millstones, pots, drinking vessels, worn stone axes or even partial burials of people with injuries lay on it. These are "perimortal", ie around death, whether the injury was the cause of the death or was inflicted afterwards is still unclear. "A shaft pit probably represents a ritual that took place in the sanctuary," suspects Knoll. The destroyed objects had to be buried as they could not be used again after the ritual.

Graves can also be found around the sanctuary, today only the ring trenches indicate this. In the reconstruction, white stone slabs with a skeletal relief in embryo position show where the graves were. In the past, however, a burial mound covered the site, so that the surface impression with many burial mounds was completely different back then. A second ring shrine with a diameter of around 80 meters was discovered at Schönebeck around 1.5 kilometers from Pommelte in the early 1990s. It is very similar to the - albeit much larger - sanctuary of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge, around which a circle of shaft pits has recently been discovered. The sanctuary of Schönebeck was 75 percent excavated in 2011 and is dated to 2150 BC.

Shaft pits have not been dug up, measured and researched here, but in Pommelte - something English archaeologists still dream of, because it is not so easy to get an excavation permit in England. The students from Southampton's partner university would therefore be very happy to come to Pommelte to gain practical experience during the excavation. But the pandemic has thwarted these plans for this year.

But Pommelte is more than just a ring shrine. After extensive geophysical investigations into the area, the excavators arrived in 2018 to begin digging the area. The aim was and is to explore the settlement on the edge of the sanctuary. It looks martial when the excavator scrapes the ground with its large shovel and removes the subgrade, the fertile top layer of soil that is used for agriculture. “The excavator operators have the feeling that they can feel the difference and don't go too deep. Yes, they even sharpen the edge of their shovel in order to dig more precisely, ”says Knoll.

Largest early Bronze Age settlement in Central Europe

About 50 longhouses, some of them from the bell beaker culture and most of the subsequent Aunjetitz culture (first discovered in Bohemia), have been identified so far. This means that Pommelte can already be regarded as the largest early Bronze Age settlement in Central Europe.

Recently, a new house was discovered on the edge of the study area, which has a completely different orientation and two apses, which corresponds to a type that is known from the Nordic Bronze Age and that appears here after a break between 1400 and 1100 BC.

You can currently see a rectangular pit, just recently dredged, maybe 40 centimeters deep. Metal rods mark the post holes, a red circle is sprayed around each. The middle row of posts and the rounding of the apse are clearly visible.

“We actually wanted to stop here, as the number of finds decreased, but the excavation manager wanted to make one last attempt - and found post holes again,” reports Knoll. Sometimes chance helps.

The amount of work that Knoll undertakes with her colleagues and a group of experienced and less experienced students is immense: Each marked post hole is measured, sampled for further chemical and botanical investigations and a cut is made through the hole.

Search for ways to connect

The archaeologists found a deep pit near one of the newly discovered houses. A fountain? The researchers soon rejected the idea: In the section, a wooden floor appears at the very bottom, and another one above, only wider. The hole was later filled, presumably an earth cellar.

The archaeologists found mussel shells here: this indicates food, but also a basis for burning lime. A storage vessel embedded in the floor speaks for the basement thesis. But there were also large storage pits, about half a meter deep, in which grain was stored. The surface molds and thus preserves the rest of the grain.

The current excavations showed a more or less constant settlement of the Neolithic Baalberg culture in the 4th millennium BC via findings from the cord ceramic culture, which originated from the Circumpontic steppe, in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Until the Aunjetizer culture.

Why Pommelte burned down in 2050 BC and finally abandoned around 1950 BC is not yet clear. Also, it has not yet been researched where the path was that led to the ring sanctuary of Schönebeck. Franziska Knoll suspects it to be along the burial ground of the Bell Beaker Culture discovered last year, but future excavations will have to prove it. This year, digging will continue until the beginning of November.

The finds are saved daily, washed at the nearby model airport and then brought to the museum. During the winter months, the archaeologists have to process the finds such as ceramics, bones, bone tools and stone axes.

In the coming year the national exhibition “The world of the sky disk of Nebra. New Horizons ”planned in Halle in cooperation with the British Museum, which will create links between Stonehenge and the world of the Nebra Sky Disc. A visitor center is also due to open in Pömmelte in 2021 - built from wooden posts and rammed earth.

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