4,000-year-old Stonehenge of the Netherlands reveals its secrets

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old sanctuary in the Netherlands that marks the solstices and equinoxes, and was also used as a burial ground.

Archaeologists in the Netherlands discovered a 4,500-year-old sanctuary with earthen mounds that line up with the sun on solstices and equinoxes. The sanctuary, like Stonehenge, was also utilized for burials and rites.

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An artist’s interpretation of the sanctuary’s layout for rituals in what is now the Netherlands. Image Courtesy: Illustration by Alexander van de Bunt; Municipality of Tiel / Fair Use

People were buried at the sanctuary over a period of 800 years, according to a translated statement from the Municipality of Tiel, where the remnants of mounds, ditches, a flat burial field and a farm were discovered.

The largest of the three mounds holds the remains of men, women and many children who died between about 2500 BC and 1200 BC, the researchers said.

Excavators also discovered ancient burials surrounding the sanctuary, making the entire site about 9.4 acres (3.8 hectares), larger than seven American football fields.

More than 80 individuals were unearthed at the site; some were buried, and others were cremated, according to the statement, which noted that “these deceased must have played an important role in the rituals.”

Although the sanctuary doesn’t have stone boulders like Stonehenge does, it appears that the largest burial mound served as a calendar that helped people mark the sun’s movements, the researchers said in a translated statement. For instance, precious artifacts, such as a bronze spearhead, were buried where the sun’s rays hit the ground through an opening at the sanctuary.

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The excavation site at the Municipality of Tiel. Image Courtesy: Municipality of Tiel / Fair Use
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The excavation site with the large burial mound highlighted with a virtual grass overlay. Image Courtesy: Municipality of Tiel  / Fair Use

Tracking the solstices and equinoxes was “important for religious festivals, for example, but also to calculate what the sowing and harvesting times were,” according to the statement. It’s likely these special solar days were celebrated, and a farm at the site might have served as a spot for festive gatherings, the archaeologists added.

The team also discovered pits and the remains of poles and buckets. It appears that these pits held water, suggesting they were involved in cleansing rituals, according to the statement.

Researchers discovered the site at an industrial estate known as the Medel business park in late 2016 and spent the next year excavating it.

During that time, they uncovered more than 1 million finds from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Empire and Middle Ages, the team said in the statement. It took six years to analyze and piece together the finds, which included artifacts of pottery, bone, loam (soil and clay), stone, flint and wood.

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While excavating the sanctuary, archaeologists discover the grave of a woman who was buried with a green bead from Mesopotamia, in Tiel, a town in the centre of the Netherlands in this handout picture obtained on June 21, 2023. Image Courtesy: Municipality of Tiel / Fair Use

“Rarely do archaeologists get the chance to excavate so much terrain around burial mounds,” the researchers wrote in the statement. “Now it is clear how unique this find and this sanctuary” are.

In the oldest section of the burial field, archaeologists excavating a woman’s burial found a glass bead from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). This bead, which is the oldest known glass bead in the Netherlands, reveals that people in the region 4,000 years ago had contact with cultures nearly 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) away.

Although the site is not open to the public, archaeologists have set up two exhibitions featuring sanctuary relics. A collection of Bronze Age grave findings will be on exhibit at the Flipje and Regional Museum until October 2023, and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden is displaying artifacts from a group grave located about 660 feet (200 meters) south of the burial mounds.