Human Sacrifice at 'German Stonehenge': Women and Children Brutally Murdered, Archaeologists Find

Festivalgoers celebrate summer solstice at Stonehenge in June 2017 in southern England. Excavators recently unearthed violently injured bodies at Pömmelte, a site considered the "German Stonehenge." (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images)

A team of excavators set out to explore a site considered the "German Stonehenge," an ancient monument that shares the same circular construction and ritualistic purpose with the British landmark—then they stumbled across the dismembered remains of 10 women and children.

In an archaeological study of the German henge, called Pömmelte, researchers unearthed bodies, some with severely fractured skulls and ribs, in positions that suggested they'd been thrown in burial shafts. Although artifacts from religious and social rituals link it to its British counterpart, the remains prove the German grounds had a much grislier history.

It's unclear whether the women and children were killed during a ritual sacrifice or in a raid of the grounds, the study's authors said, though they called the gender-specific violence "meaningful to ritual activities." In a separate section of the henge, they found the bodies of men buried in a more dignified manner, evidence that burials were likely indicative of social status.

Like Stonehenge, Pömmelte has a ringed structure, with wooden posts instead of stones, and contained smashed pots, axes and animal bones that suggest ancient inhabitants used them in ritual practices like those held at the ancient British site. It was built around the 20th century B.C. in a ringed structure atop mounds and ditches. The ritualistic function and circular shape the sites share reflect the cultural beliefs of the Bell-Beaker people, who adopted Stonehenge around 2300 B.C. and are likely responsible for its famed stone monoliths.

Though Stonehenge was once thought to be an ancient anomaly, Pömmelte is evidence that monuments built during the same era are likely scattered across Europe, researchers wrote.

"The henge monuments of the British isles are generally considered to represent a uniquely British phenomenon, unrelated to continental Europe," lead author Andre Spatzier wrote in the journal Antiquity. "This position should now be reconsidered."

Archaeologists uncovered human remains at Stonehenge in 2013, though they likely belonged to "high-status people." In a study of more than 50,000 bone fragments of 63 bodies, almost equally men and women, researchers posited the British henge also served as a cemetery for political and religious elites.

"Clearly these people were special in some way," lead archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson told The Guardian.

Excavations of other Bronze Age sites have led to more gruesome discoveries. Archaeologists found the bodies of 11 young people at a Mesopotamian cemetery from the same era in a study published just days earlier. They were likely killed in a ritual sacrifice based on their violent injuries and positioning of the corpses, researchers wrote.