Archaeology breakthrough: Researchers unearthed ancient homes at German ‘Stonehenge’
The Bronze Age site lies 85 miles away from Germany’s capital in the village of Pömmelte, and since its restoration in 2016 has become a key tourist attraction.
It is known for its wooden ringed structure, which researchers believe has ties to Wiltshire’s iconic Stonehenge site, and have even claimed may have been influenced after the people of Pömmelte visited the UK.
University of Halle archaeologist Franziska Knoll described the site as the “largest early Bronze Age settlement we know of in central Europe”, noting how it “must have been a really significant place”.
Also known as Woodhenge, excavations at the area have been ongoing for the past three years and conducted by archaeologists from the University of Halle, as well as the State Office for Monument Conservation and Archaeology.
During this work, researchers argue they have found evidence that shows dwellings on the site, including the unearthing of around 130 longhouses, Heritage Daily reported.
The 4,000-year-old settlement was believed to have been built by those who lived by the Bell Beaker culture, in around 2300 BC.
Out of the Bell Beakers came the Únětice culture, which then populated the site.
Experts speculate that it may have been used in astronomical rituals, a world away from the residential area it has now become.
After working on the site, archaeologists theorised that Pömmelte had been active for around 300 years – before it was abandoned after being burned down in 2050 BC.
Speaking earlier this year, Ms Knoll said: “We call it the German Stonehenge because the beginnings are the same.
“It’s got the same diameter, just a different orientation. They’re built by the same people.”
The archaeologist also argued that with Stonehenge pre-dating Pömmelte, the Wiltshire site could have been a blueprint for the German landmark.
She added: “It’s not coincidental.
“It’s coming from the same culture, the same view of the world.”
Pömmelte was originally found in 1991 after laws changed in East Germany to allow aerial photography to be used.
The images allowed experts to search for any signs of ancient buildings, such as areas of land where the soil is holding more moisture, leading to crops to grow taller and greener.
They showed rings of “postholes arranged in concentric circles where the Woodhenge once stood”.
Archaeologists searching for a royal palace in Germany have discovered a 1,000-year-old church constructed for Otto the Great (also called Otto I).
Otto I, who lived from A.D. 912 to 973, consolidated and expanded the Holy Roman Empire. The empire, which was centred in Germany, controlled territory throughout central Europe.
Historical records indicated that a palace and church were built near Helfta in Saxony for the Roman emperor; and archaeologists with the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt started searching for it in May, they said in a German language statement.
The three-aisled church is about 100 feet (30 meters) long and was shaped like a cross, excavations revealed.
The church was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation that swept through Europe in the 16th century and led to the creation of new branches of Christianity, the archaeologists said in the statement.
The church and palace would have “dominated” the valley where they were built, the archaeologists said.
Among the artifacts found so far is a Romanesque bronze crucifix decorated with enamel that was made in Limoges in New Aquitaine (in modern-day France) in the 13th century, archaeologists said.
Archaeologists also discovered a large fragment of a church bell, an enamelled ninth-century brooch and numerous coins.
The archaeologists have also found several burials around the church, including some tombs made out of bricks.
Excavations and analysis of the remains are ongoing at the site. Right now, excavating the church is a priority, but historical records indicate that the palace is nearby and remains of it may be found as work continues.
Historical records say that while Otto I ordered the construction of the church and a nearby palace, he himself only visited it once when the church was inaugurated around A.D. 968.
The archaeologists noted that Otto I had numerous palaces with nearby churches located throughout his empire.
Felix Biermann, an archaeologist with the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt is leading the excavation team.
A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behaviour
The toe bone of a prehistoric deer carved with lines by Neanderthals 51,000 years ago is one of the oldest works of art ever found, according to a study released Monday.
The discovery is further evidence that Neanderthals — Homo neanderthalensis — were able to express symbolism through art — which was once attributed only to our own species, Homo sapiens.
“This is clearly not a pendant or something like that,” said Thomas Terberger, a professor and prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who co-authored a study of the object in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. “It’s clearly a decoration with a kind of symbolic character. … You might even call it the initial start of art, something which was not done by accident, but with a clear plan in mind.”
The bone was unearthed in a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, about 150 miles southwest of Berlin. The front is carved with overlapping chevrons — lines in the shape of inverted V’s — that appear to point upward, and archaeologists have also discerned a line of smaller incisions on its lower edge, which seems to have served as its base.
“We were trying it out, and this object can stand alone on its base. It doesn’t shake or tip over or anything,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage, who led the excavations that discovered the bone. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave.”
The carved bone was unearthed alongside the shoulder blade bones of deer and the intact skull of a cave bear — rare objects that may have indicated that the assemblage had ritual meaning, he said.
Radiocarbon dating has established that the bone is 51,000 years old — older than any comparable works of art attributed to Neanderthals.
Archaeologists have also found ancient eagle talons used as pendants by Neanderthals, as well as cave paintings in Spain that may be older — their date is disputed. Terberger said, “In this case, for the first time, we have a reliably dated object.”
The Einhornhöhle — or “Unicorn Cave” — where the carved bone was unearthed has been famous since at least the 16th century; it is now a tourist attraction. It got its name from the fossilized bones found there, supposedly from unicorns, that were once ground up to make medicines.
Excavations since the 1980s have established that the cave was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals, from at least 130,000 years ago until about 47,000 years ago.
Later groups of Homo sapiens also inhabited the cave, but only much later, after about 12,000 years ago, Leder said. The earliest evidence for Homo sapiens in the southeast of Europe is from about 45,000 years ago, and it’s not thought that they arrived in central Europe until at least 10,000 years after that, he said.
The archaeologists can only guess at the meanings of the carvings — if they have any meaning at all. “This is quite unique,” Leder said. “We don’t see it anywhere in the Paleolithic literature.
“We were discussing different interpretations. … The shape could be like a female figurine with the head and the chest part, but then the chevron pattern to some of us looked like three mountains in a row — a landscape view,” he said.
Microscopic analysis of the bone shows that the carvings are very deep, which suggests that it was boiled to soften it before carving began. The species of prehistoric deer that the bone was from was also rare in the region at the time and extremely large, which could suggest that the artwork had special importance, he said.
The discovery is more evidence that Neanderthals weren’t just dumb cavemen, as scientists once believed, but that they were capable of artistic or symbolic expression — which was once thought to be unique to Homo sapiens, said Bruce Hardy, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College in Ohio, who wasn’t involved in the latest study.
It’s likely that a lot of Neanderthal artistic objects were carved from wood — a much easier medium to work with than stone or bone — that has perished after many thousands of years, he said.
The increasing evidence of symbolic artistic expression by Neanderthals, as well as by later Homo sapiens, suggests that the hominin species that were the ancestors of both were also artistic, he said.
“If those two different groups also share a common ancestor, chances are that common ancestor also has some degree of symbolic ability, as well, which means it goes much further back,” he said.
Hardy’s own research has included the discovery of what seems to be a piece of Neanderthal string — a Stone Age technology not seen before. Archaeologist Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University in the Netherlands said that the analysis of the marks on the bone shows that they can’t have been the result of random gnawing by carnivores.
“The relatively regular angles of the intersecting lines is particularly convincing that these marks were created intentionally by Neanderthals,” he wrote in an email.
The possibility that the bone had been boiled to make it easier to work with was especially interesting, he said. His own research focuses on the use of fire by Neanderthals, which is also seen as evidence of their ability to use relatively advanced technologies.
Earliest known bubonic plague strain found in a 5000-year-old skull
Five thousand years ago, a rodent bit a Stone Age hunter-gatherer. The creature carried a strain of pernicious bacteria called Yersinia pestis – the pathogen that caused the Black Death, or bubonic plague in the 1300s.
The bacteria likely killed the Stone Age man, who died in his 20s, according to a study published Tuesday. It’s the oldest strain of plague known to science so far.
The strain’s genome closely resembles the version of plague that wrecked medieval Europe more than 4,000 years later, killing up to half the region’s population over the course of seven years. But it’s missing a few key genes – notably, traits that helped it spread.
Unlike its microbial descendants, the plague that sickened the ancient hunter was a slow-moving disease and not very transmissible, according to Ben Krause-Kyora, a professor of ancient DNA analysis at Kiel University in Germany.
“It lacked the genes that enabled transmission by flea,” Krause-Kyora, who co-authored the new study, told Insider. During the Black Death, bites from fleas and lice were the key source of infections.
So in the millennia between the hunter-gatherer’s demise and the Black Death, Y. pestis bacteria mutated in a way that gave it the ability to jump between species via fleas.
“The change was a major driving force of a fast and widespread plague,” Krause-Kyora said.
Bacteria in the bloodstream
The Stone Age hunter-gatherer died in a region that’s now Latvia. Near his bones, anthropologists also excavated the remains of another man, a teenage girl, and a newborn, but none had been infected. Krause-Kyora’s group hadn’t gone looking for ancient plague victims – rather, they wanted to see if the four buried people were related. But before completing their planned genetic analysis, the team screened ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth for traces of pathogens. That’s how they found the bacteria.
The researchers then compared the bacteria’s genome to other ancient plague strains. A previous study described other strains that are roughly 5,000 years old, but Krause-Kyora said this particular one is a couple hundred years older. So his team concluded it was the earliest-known version of Y. pestis.
The hunter-gatherer’s DNA also showed that he had a large quantity of bacteria in his body, which suggests that he died from it. His grave site indicated that other members of his group meticulously buried him, according to the study.
“It’s hard to tell if he died quickly,” Krause-Kyora said, adding, “from the number of bacteria present, it seems he survived a higher dose and lived longer or in a more chronic way with it.”
The plague can take three forms. Bubonic is the type that ravaged Europe and left victims with swollen, painful lymph nodes. Septicemic refers to infections in which the bacteria enters the bloodstream and the patient’s skin turns black and dies. Pneumonic plague, meanwhile, can cause respiratory failure.
Krause-Kyora thinks the ancient hunter had the septicemic plague, which could explain why no other members of his small group got the disease.
“They would’ve had to have direct contact with his blood,” he said – or another infected rodent would have had to bite them.
The plague is mostly zoonotic, meaning it hops from animal hosts to humans. Krause-Kyora said that the hunter-gatherer’s case can show epidemiologists how zoonotic pathogens – like Ebola, swine flu, and (most likely) the new coronavirus – change over time.
“We really have to think about how the evolution of zoonotic events could take thousands of years,” he said.
During the era when the Stone Age man lived, the plague didn’t cause widespread outbreaks. Y. pestis would pop up here and there in groups of hunter-gatherers, farmers, and nomads across Eurasia, but there was never a Black Death-level event.
“The finding confirms the early strains are associated with sporadic outbreaks that didn’t spread far,” Krause-Kyora said. What changed by medieval times, he thinks, is that people started to live in bigger communities and in closer proximity. That shift might have influenced the evolution that led the plague to live in fleas – which bite people more easily.
“It’s the bacteria adapting to population density,” Krause-Kyora said.
Live Science reports that a gold artefact thought to have been worn as a hair ornament has been found in a woman’s grave in southwestern Germany.
Archaeologists have uncovered the 3,800-year-old burial of a woman who was around 20 years old when she died in what is now Tübingen, Germany. Inside her tomb, archaeologists found just one grave good — a spiral gold wire that may have been used as a hair ornament.
It’s considered the oldest gold artefact found in southwest Germany. “The gold contains about 20% silver, less than 2% copper, and has traces of platinum and tin.
This composition points to a natural gold alloy typical of gold washed from rivers,” a chemical composition that suggests it came from the Carnon River area in Cornwall, England, the researchers said in a statement.
“Precious metal finds from this period are very rare in southwestern Germany,” the researchers said in the statement.
“The gold finds from the Tübingen district [is] evidence that western cultural groups [such as from Britain and France] gained increasing influence over central Europe in the first half of the second millennium [B.C.],” researchers said.
The woman was buried in a fetal position facing south, not far from a prehistoric hilltop settlement where other graves have been found.
The researchers found no evidence of any injuries or disease, so they have no idea what she died from, Raiko Krauss, a professor in the Institute of Prehistory and Medieval Archaeology at the University of Tübingen, told Live Science.
Krauss and Jörg Bofinger, a conservator with the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Cultural Heritage Management, led the excavation of the grave.
The fact that the artefact is made of gold suggests that the woman may have had a high social status, the researchers said.
They ran radiocarbon dating on the woman’s remains, finding she died sometime between 1850 B.C. and 1700 B.C.
At that time, writing had not yet spread to southwest Germany so there are no written records that could help to identify who she might have been.
Oldest Ever Fly With Stomach Full Of Food Found After 47 Million Years
When scientists investigated a 47-million-year-old fossilized fly found at the Messel Pit fossil site in Germany, they noticed it looked a bit chonky. So they took a closer look at its “bulging abdomen” and discovered it was stuffed with pollen from different plants.
“The rich pollen content we discovered in the fly’s stomach suggests that flies were already feeding and transporting pollen 47 million years ago and shows it played an important role in the pollen dispersal of several plant taxa,” said paleobotanist Fridgeir Grimsson in a University of Vienna statement Thursday.
Grimsson is a co-author of a paper on the fly published in the journal Current Biology on Wednesday. The researcher suggested that flies of the time period may have outshined bees as pollinators.
The team was able to extract and study the fossil pollen grains and traced them mostly to water willow and virgin ivy plants. Electron microscope images helped to identify the origin of the pollen.
The plant types suggest the fly was feeding around an area of shallow water.
The Messel Pit in Germany is listed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites as “the richest site in the world for understanding the living environment of the Eocene, between 57 million and 36 million years ago.”
The area was once home to an oil shale mine, but now it’s the subject of scientific study for the many well-preserved fossils of mammals and other animals.
Flies may be considered a modern-day nuisance, but this fossilized fly and its big appetite show they can also be useful emissaries from the deep past.
Germany Will Return Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in 2022
After museum experts and political leaders reached an agreement on Thursday, Germany expects to return the antique, pillaged artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria next year. During a military expedition to the kingdom in what is now Nigeria in 1897, the majority of the artefacts were looted by British forces.
The 16th-18th century metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin are among the most highly regarded works of African art. They are now scattered around European museums. After the decision on Thursday, the next step will be to develop a road map for the return, which should be completed in the next few months.
That will mean inventorying all the items by June 15, followed by a meeting on June 29 to consider the best approach.
Germany puts museum cooperation with Africa on the agenda
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the agreement “a turning point in our approach to colonial history.”
“We have been working intensively for months to create the framework conditions for this,” he said, adding: “We have put the issue of museum cooperation with Africa on the political agenda and sought dialogue with our Nigerian partners, the architect and the initiators of the Benin Museum.”
“From archaeological cooperation to the training of museum managers and assistance with cultural infrastructure, we have put together a package and are continuing to work on it with our Nigerian partners.”
Nanette Snoep, a Dutch anthropologist and curator from the Rautenstrach-Joest-Museum in Cologne, said, “museums and politicians have become aware of the fact that it is really necessary to decolonize museums. And decolonizing also means restitution.”
With this decision, Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said, “We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonization.”
The debate over Benin bronzes gains momentum in Germany
Hermann Parzinger of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation said the goal is to return the first items by 2022. He said talks are planned with the group’s Nigerian counterparts to ensure “substantial returns and future cooperation.”
Those would include talks about allowing some of the items to remain on display in German museums. However, Snoep says this decision must be made by the Nigerians.
“Nigerian partners can decide by themselves how this restitution will take place, how this repatriation will take place and, if some of the looted art will remain in German museums, it must be their decision how we will represent the Benin artworks in our museums and also what kind of story we will tell in our German museums,” said Snoep.
The famous bronzes are to be found in a number of German museums. The Berlin Ethnological Museum holds around 530 artefacts from the kingdom of Benin, including around 440 bronzes.
Some 180 of the bronzes are due to be exhibited this year in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a new museum complex that opened in December.
Pressure on former colonial powers to return looted artworks
The restitution debate began many years ago but was largely ignored by Western museums. It was also a taboo topic among anthropologists. According to anthropologist Snoep, a lot of Africans began making the call decades ago. “African intellectuals first started this debate. Now we only hear the voices of Western museum directors and politicians. But the good fight started in Africa,” Snoep said.
The curator adds that she hoped “it doesn’t become a white on white dialogue again.”
Most European former colonial powers have begun a process in recent years of considering the return of looted artefacts to the former colonies, especially in Africa. Last month, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze sculpture to Nigeria, saying it was acquired by British soldiers in 1897 in “reprehensible circumstances.”
That decision raised pressure on other establishments, including the British Museum, to follow suit. The British Museum meanwhile is reportedly considering lending its Bronzes to Nigeria.
In Nigeria’s capital Abuja meanwhile, many people welcomed the announcement, describing it as a historic moment for Nigeria. “I think it is a good development because those artefacts are our history in physical form,” said Okwuchi Jim-Nna. “It shows that Africa in general and Nigeria, in particular, has values and they are beginning to respect the culture of the people,” Steve Farunbi added.
Jemilah Idomas said it was a “laudable effort” by Germany. “Kudos to the German Government.”
However, a few Nigerians meanwhile believed their country was not ready to host the artefacts. “Bringing such artefacts into the country which have immeasurable value will not serve the purpose,” Samson Orija argued. “We are not ready, yet. I think they should still hold onto it.”
“With the insecurity now, the safety of those artefacts cannot be guaranteed,” said Shegun Daramola. “So, until we are ready they should still hold onto it. When they bring it now maybe another country will steal it. Or it gets missing within the country or gets destroyed.”
Museum to be built in Benin City
Nigeria plans to build a museum in Benin city to house the looted artefacts after they are returned, a €3.4 million scheme in which the British Museum will participate. Late last year, France approved the restitution of 26 items from the Kingdom of Dahomey, located within present-day Benin, which had been pillaged in 1892.
“Restitution is really righting [the wrongs] of your own history. And so that’s why African voices are crucial in this debate, that we do not, as white directors, recolonize a debate about restitution,” said anthropologist Nanette Snoep.
Iron Age Weapons Found at Hillfort Site in Germany
Live Science reports that a metal detectorist working with the Regional Association of Westphalia-Lippe archaeologists has discovered more than 150 objects at Wilzenberg, an Iron Age hillfort site in western Germany.
The hoard contains more than 150 objects, including deliberately bent weapons, such as 40 spearhead and lancehead tips, swords and fragments of shield bosses (round structures at the centre of a shield); tools; belt hooks; horse gear; three silver coins; bronze jewellery; and one fibula, or lower leg bone, Manuel Zeiler, an archaeologist at LWL, told Live Science.
“The arsenal is the largest in [the German state of] North Rhine-Westphalia and also links the [state’s region of] Sauerland with complex processes in Iron Age Europe,” Michael Baales, an LWL archaeologist and head of the Olpe branch in North Rhine-Westphalia, said in a translated statement, released March 31.
Moreover, the damaged weapons — which ancient people would have purposefully destroyed by bending them — shed light on how victorious Iron Age warriors treated the losing side’s arsenal, Baales said.
Researchers have known about a possible hoard at the Iron Age hillfort for several decades. In the 1950s, while workers were constructing a pavilion, “two swords wrapped in two spearheads and two lanceheads were discovered by chance,” Zeiler said.
The swords were bent, and their tips had been purposefully deformed, he noted. But it wasn’t until 2013 that archaeologists did a more thorough excavation at this spot to discover the full context of the archaeology there, Zeiler said.
From 2018 through 2020, metal detectorist and local history researcher Matthias Dickhaus, who worked with the LWL and the town of Schmallenberg, searched the site for additional metal artifacts.
In all, Dickhaus hit the jackpot, finding 100 objects, the LWL reported. Among the findings, archaeologists marvelled over a rare type of horse bridle.
“The existing handle parts for guiding the horse suggest that this type of bridle was used on horses that were pulling a chariot,” the LWL wrote in the statement. “The bit allowed the horse to be steered very precisely and directly — vital for a warrior on a chariot in the thick of a battle.”
The hillfort, Zeiler added, is located on the 2,158-foot-tall (658 meters) Wilzenberg mountain. This site was visited by people during the Iron Age, from about 300 B.C. to the birth of Christ, and the walls of the ancient hillfort, known as the Wallburg, are still visible today, largely seen by pilgrims and hikers who frequent the mountain.
Most of the artifacts from the hoard date to about 300 B.C. to the first century B.C., although the coins and the swords had a more narrow window of only the first century B.C., Zeiler said.
Although the hillfort at Wilzenberg is far away from the centres of Celtic culture in other parts of continental Europe, its architecture and the hoard’s bent objects are “comparable with the Celtic culture,” Zeiler noted.
Celtic and other Iron Age cultures are known to have bent the weapons of a defeated enemy in a similar way to the newfound hoard. For instance, archaeological investigations at sanctuaries in Gournay and Ribemont-Sur-Ancre in France “shows that weapons of conquered warriors after the battle were destroyed by the winner,” Zeiler said. “This ceremony was possibly the last step to celebrate the triumph.”
The new analysis of the hoard shows that “far away from the Celtic civilization, people celebrated a triumph after battle similar to the Celtic world,” Zeiler told Live Science.
Despite the many weapons and parts of horse gear found at the hillfort, there’s no evidence of an epic battle there, Zeiler noted.
“The damage was clearly not caused during a fight, and consequently the Wilzenberg is not a battlefield,” Zeiler said in the LWL statement. Many of the weapons cannot be precisely dated, so it’s not clear whether they were damaged and laid down over the centuries, or whether they were deliberately twisted at a single event, he said.