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Letter from Woodhenge

Stonehenge's Continental Cousin

A 4,000-year-old ringed sanctuary reveals a German village’s surprising connections with Britain

January/February 2021

Woodhenge Ring EnclosureIn the middle of a potato field not far from the small village of Pömmelte in central Germany, University of Halle archaeologist Franziska Knoll unrolls a five-foot-long piece of paper and tapes it to the graffiti-streaked side of a shipping container full of recently excavated artifacts. A set of concentric circles fills one corner of the paper. Under that, dozens of rectangles, all oriented in the same direction, march along the length of the page. The blueprint is the fruit of three years of excavation that has involved everything from earthmoving equipment to tweezers. The dig’s scale is hard to fathom. In 2020 alone, a 15-person team from the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt excavated more than six acres, in trenches as long as several football fields laid end to end.


Woodhenge MapKnoll has to raise her voice to talk over the rumbling of a 28-ton Caterpillar 323 excavator carving a new trench nearby. The rectangles on the paper, she explains, represent the outlines of dozens of houses, traces of a settlement that thrived here at the dawn of the Bronze Age. The circles represent the remains of a large wooden sanctuary that was built at the same time as the neighboring village. “It’s the largest Early Bronze Age settlement we know of in Central Europe,” Knoll says. “We’ve found sixty-five houses so far. This must have been a really significant place.”


The excavator’s operator maneuvers the machine’s metal bucket to scrape away a foot or so of dirt at a time while one of Knoll’s team members in a hard hat and steel-toed boots keeps a close eye on the soil. He is looking for dark patches that contrast against the light-brown soil—the decomposed remnants of wood posts sunk into the earth more than 4,000 years ago. When he spots one, he marks the posthole with a metal spike and fluorescent pink spray paint so it can be precisely mapped and, later, carefully excavated.


Unspectacular as the postholes at Pömmelte may appear, their discovery has the potential to resonate far beyond central Germany. The results of excavations here over the last 15 years suggest that the site is closely linked to Stonehenge. Knoll argues that Stonehenge and Pömmelte, or, as she calls it, Woodhenge, are in fact siblings. She thinks the wooden structure may perhaps even have been built by people who had visited the better-known British monument. Hers is a view of Europe’s distant past that wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago. Pömmelte is located in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, which, until 1990, was part of East Germany. Under Communist rule, aerial surveys were not possible, but the fall of the Iron Curtain and Germany’s reunification opened up a new era of archaeology in eastern Germany. For the first time, comprehensive aerial surveys allowed archaeologists to search for traces of structures invisible at ground level. Because the disturbed soil in ancient ditches or pits holds more moisture, crops planted there grow taller and greener, and the footprints of ancient structures show up as swaths of darker plants in the middle of farm fields.



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