A Mysterious Neolithic Labyrinth Has Been Found in Denmark

Artifacts unearthed from various pits at the site appear to share features that are typical of an ancient archaeological practice developed by the first farmers in Scandinavia.

A large, puzzling labyrinth from the Neolithic period was recently discovered in Denmark during a trial archaeological excavation in an area where a sports arena will be built.

Found at Stevns, located some 40 miles from Copenhagen, the structure is an oval palisade enclosure made by five rows of posts covering about 60,000 square feet.

"Since 2013, rescue archaeology related to large-scale development of infrastructure has allowed us to locate a number of features, but we very rarely get the opportunity to reveal such a big part of a palisade enclosure," Pernille Rohde Sloth, the archaeologist from the Museum Southeast Denmark who led the excavation, told Seeker.

Her team has so far excavated just a small part of the enclosure, finding postholes and a number of pits.

"The pits contained numerous flint flakes," Rohde Sloth said. "Some pits also held ceramic sherds and axe fragments."

The artifacts unearthed from the pits in the interior area of the structure appear to share features that are typical of the latter part of the Middle Neolithic Funnel Beaker Culture, an ancient archaeological practice developed by the first farmers in Scandinavia and the north European plain. It is named for ancient vessels characterized by their flat bottoms and funnel-shaped necks.

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The site's artifacts are believed to be roughly 4,900 years old, but they haven't yet be subjected to radiocarbon dating, and no precise dating for the palisade enclosure has yet been determined.

"The results of radiocarbon dating can give more detailed information about the period of construction and use," Rohde Sloth explained. "The current picture does not tell us whether all five palisade rows were built at the same time or for how long the structure was used."

Palisade constructions were usually created for protection, but some puzzling features in the Stevns structure suggest to a different interpretation.

The openings - their form, size, number and directions - show an irregular design that was most likely intentional.

"The openings in the parallel fence rows are not always opposite one another," Rohde Sloth said. "It has been suggested that the fence rows and their openings form a sort of labyrinth."

She was quick to note that too little of the palisade has been excavated to draw any conclusion. Whatever was going on inside the enclosure remains a mystery.

Most archaeologists agree that palisade enclosures in southern Scandinavia were built to frame ritual gatherings.

Indeed, ritual sacrifices have already been documented in the Stevns palisade's predecessors from the Early and Middle Neolithic period, dating back to 6,400-6,200 years ago.

"The palisade enclosure in Stevns thus reflects a sort of continuity in ritual practice," said Mette Madsen, an archaeologist and curator at the Museum Southeast Denmark.

The Stevns structure, he noted, "clearly shows some new tendencies as well, and the rituals themselves remain somewhat elusive."

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A number of palisade enclosures have been found in recent decades in Denmark and Sweden.

One in particular, which was discovered during the late 1980s on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, featured a big palisade made of timber. Excavation at the site, known as Vasagårds Field, uncovered burnt finds, flint tools, animal bones and sunstones, pointing to the existence of a sun temple.

A similar temple was discovered on the same island at the Risbebjerg archaeological site.

"Those offerings were not found on the new Stevns site, so I don't believe the enclosure is a temple area," said Finn Ole Sonne Nielsen, head archaeologist at the Bornholm Museum. "Stevns could be a fenced settlement or, more likely, a fortification."

Moreover, the palisade in Bornholm, which probably predates Stevns, was constructed differently, with the poles located much closer together.

It's impossible to determine the purpose of this ancient and puzzling labyrinth without further excavations, but the archaeologists who are involved hope that additional funding will allow them to investigate the rest of the enclosure.

As Rohde Sloth remarked, "The site holds great potential for the future."