Archaeologists digging at an ancient site in the central Netherlands over the course of several years discovered something remarkable and unexpected. Following an analysis of excavations that have been ongoing since 2017, the archaeologists have confirmed that this site contains burial mounds, ditches, cemeteries and pathways lined with wooden poles, all of which were part of a sprawling religious sanctuary or ceremonial complex that was constructed more than 4,000 years ago.
This amazing site, which some are already referring to as ‘the Netherlands’ Stonehenge,’ was unearthed not far from the town of Tiel, a municipality located 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of Rotterdam. The complex is enormous, spanning the length of three football fields from end to end. Nothing like this has ever been discovered in the Netherlands before, and its implications for the study of the nation’s Bronze Age societies are immense.
Ritual Observances and Solar Worship in the Bronze Age
As was the case at Stonehenge, the various features of the complex were carefully built to align with the Sun, planets or stars, or to signal important astronomical events that had a deeper meaning to Bronze Age Europeans . At both sites, marking the arrival of the summer and winter solstice appears to have been a major priority.
“The largest mound served as a sun calendar, similar to the famous stones of Stonehenge in England,” the archaeologists behind the new analysis said in a statement published by Reuters.
“This sanctuary must have been a highly significant place where people kept track of special days in the year, performed rituals and buried their dead. Rows of poles stood along pathways used for processions.”
Archaeologists working at the site have discovered approximately 80 burials so far. Interestingly, one of the graves contained the remains of a woman who was entombed along with a glass bead that was imported from ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). This is the oldest glass bead discovered during excavations in the Netherlands, and the researchers say it proves that Bronze Age trading networks connected northern Europe with parts of the ancient Near East, despite the tremendous separation in distance.
In addition to the burial sites, archaeologists also discovered the remains of animal skeletons, human skulls, and bronze tools and weapons that were placed close to spots where the sun shone directly through openings into the complex’s central mound. This suggests they were piled up in those locations for ritual purposes, possibly as sacrifices to some ancient forgotten god.
This is actually just a small sampling of what was discovered at this astonishing site. Over the course of the past six years, archaeological teams working at the sanctuary have unearthed more than one million objects.
While they believe the sanctuary site was first constructed during the Bronze Age, or approximately 4,000 years ago, many of these objects are linked to both earlier and later eras. This includes items made when the region was part of the Roman Empire and also during the Middle Ages . It is estimated that the site was used as a religious sanctuary for approximately 800 years after its initial construction in the late third or early second millennium BC, but it seems occupation continued for long after that.
From Archaeological Chaos the Truth Emerges
Even though the site near Tiel was first discovered in 2017, the archaeologists weren’t certain about what they’d found at first. Scattered locations produced gravesites, mounds and other fascinating installations, but it wasn’t always apparent how everything fitted together. Complicating things further, approximately 200 archaeologists participated in digs at the site at one time or another, leading to a chaotic situation where work wasn’t always well coordinated and where important findings were not always shared.
But while progress was often slow, ultimately the truth was destined to be revealed. Research centering on the burial mounds specifically was carried out under the supervision of Cristian van der Linde from BAAC Archaeological and Historical Research, and it was the team of archaeologists working under his authority that made the announcement confirming they’d located an ancient religious complex.
The archaeologists determined that the largest mound at the center of the complex was the most important ceremonial location. There was a solar calendar constructed there, which could have been used to calculate harvest days and other important seasonal events.
In a quote published by De Telegraaf , the Netherlands’ largest newspaper, a spokesman for the archaeologists provided further details about how measurements of time were made using the sun.
“A person, for example a priest or priestess, stood on the hill, which was flat on top and on which probably stood a large pole,” the spokesperson explained. “The priest then viewed the position of the sun from the fixed point of the pole. There were more posts around the hill as markers. They helped the priest determine the exact time of the year.”
A shallow ditch with multiple passages surrounded the central mound, and it also had ritual significance.
“On certain days the sun shone straight through those passages on the hill,” the spokesperson said. “Just like in Stonehenge, where the sun shines through the stones on important days.”
The analysis of the site has already revealed fascinating facts about the ritual and religious practices of the people who built it. With over one million artifacts to study and catalog, more interesting data about these ancient inhabitants of the Netherlands is bound to emerge in the coming years. In the meantime, some of the artifacts that have been analyzed are currently on display at the Flipje and Regional Museum in Tiel and at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.
By Nathan Falde