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Fortified settlements or ceremonial sites: new evidence from Bylany, Czechoslovakia.


The Bohemian site of Bylany, near Kutna Hora, is well known in archaeological literature on account of its Neolithic, especially Linearbandkeramik (LBK) settlement (Bylany 1). Initially, the investigations of the Neolithic settlement here were conceived on a grand scale using the then rare open-area excavations. In the late 1960s the disadvantages of vast find material pertaining only to one site were highlighted and it also became evident that the site was too large for total excavation. Moreover, the question of the displacement of Neolithic settlement initiated investigation further afield -- taking into consideration the entire micro-region centred on the Bylanka river (Soudsky 1966; Soudsky and Pavlu 1972).

Being subject to natural erosion -- exacerbated by modern agricultural activities -- the micro-region of Bylany, however, represents a very fragile landscape. For this reason a different strategy was developed in the 1970s and 1980s which combined surface prospection, extensive mapping, sample excavation, geophysical survey and, recently, also aerial photography, with the objective of carrying out non-destructive research and causing the least damage to this fragile area (Pavlu 1982; Rulf 1983, 1989; Pavlu et al. 1986). As a result of this strategy, investigations in the immediate vicinity of Bylany revealed the presence of sites with other than residential function, namely the Stichbandkeramik (SBK) cemeteries (Zapotocka 1981) and a circular enclosure, a Rondel (Zapotocka 1983). The bi-ritual cemetery near Miskovice, comprising inhumations and cremations, is contemporary with the Rondel (SBK IVa phase); contemporary settlement traces were also noted in the area west of the Rondel. It is these later Neolithic finds and their spatial and temporal relationship that are the subject of current investigations at Bylany.

Results of current investigations

In the 1991 season the most important feature of the investigation was the Rondel, and a total of 2175 sq. m of continuous area in its southern part was excavated. The Rondel, originally identified through geophysical survey, consists of two concentric, slightly irregular ditches (115 m and 90 m in diameter) with four entrances oriented on the cardinal points. Thus, in comparison with the known contemporary Rondels, the Bylany structure falls into the category of medium-sized sites. Moreover, a geophysical survey carried out in the spring of 1992 confirmed the presence of a third ditch, about 75 m from the enclosure, which appears to run concentrically to the Rondel and must therefore be considered an integral element of the overall design.

The inner ditch of the Rondel is the larger of the two (3 m wide and 2.6 m deep) while the outer ditch is both narrower (2.5 m) and shallower (2.2 m deep at maximum). Three roughly concentric internal palisades were discovered 1 m, 2.5 m and 6.5 m respectively inside the inner ditch; a fourth, very poorly preserved palisade, which most probably also belongs to this complex system, was situated 20 m inside the inner ditch. Within the area delimited by the 3rd and 4th palisades over 100 post-holes were also excavated.

The only traces of habitation are documented by one house complex belonging to the earliest LBK. The house was delineated by typical outer trenches, a group of post-holes and the accompanying pits; the Rondel construction was clearly superimposed on the house. Additionally, a substantial number of SBK and LBK storage pits (individual or in groups), as well as three ovens, were encountered. There are two clear stratigraphies to show that the Bylany 4 area was used during the Stichbandkeramik both prior to the construction of the Rondel ditches and also after the use of the Rondel came to an end.


Both of the Rondel ditches are V-shaped, with conspicuously narrowing bottoms cut into the bedrock. Neither of the sections revealed any evidence of re-cutting or cleaning of the ditches nor traces of specific use of individual segments. Both ditches date to the later stage of Stichbandkeramik and contain relatively few pottery sherds, stone implements, daub and animal bones, all giving the impression of common refuse. Only the large number of grinding stones can now be seen as intentionally deposited. There was no unequivocal evidence of the existence of a bank (or banks) piled up from the soil excavated from the ditches, but the inner ditch contained slightly stony fill recorded in certain sections near the surface; this may represent the material which originally was piled up between the two ditches, while the white-grey fill in the upper part of the most of the inner ditch could derive from the compression of the loess in the possible bank between the two ditches.

The outer entrances to the Rondel may be described as long (up to 8 m) and narrow corridors created by the outcurving of the outer ditch ends. The entrances across the inner ditch are 6 m to 7 m broad causeways but the investigated southern entrance was in fact narrowed by a complex system of palisades to 2 m. The discovery of the narrow concentric inner palisade slots within the space enclosed by the ditches underlines the existence of an elaborate system of internal timber palisades. The way in which the palisades and ditches mutually respect one another suggests that they were all constructed at the same time, as part of an overall ditch/palisade design. One of the possible functions of the first three palisades could have been the fortification and narrowing of the entrance to control access to the interior of the enclosure.

The arrangement and the course of the Bylany palisades are most closely comparable with similar features at Tesetice-Kyjovice in Moravia (Podborsky 1988: figure 10) and the Bucany and Svodin Rondels in Slovakia (Pavuk 1991: figures 2 & 3), where these features also appear to have a constricting function with respect to entrances across the ditches.

The interpretation of over 100 post-holes from the area between the 3rd and 4th palisades is difficult. On the one hand, familiarity with the ground-plans of LBK and SBK houses recovered in various sectors of Bylany (Pavlu et al. 1986) makes it quite clear that none of the patterns discernible in this area conform to those characteristic of the domestic structures of these two cultural complexes and the post-holes under consideration cannot be argued to represent the truncated foundations of ordinary houses, as we know them from the archaeological record at Bylany. A preliminary analysis of the post-holes reveals two double rows (17 m and 15 m in length) running at right angles to one another with the individual post-holes clearly arranged in pairs (c. 25% of post-holes); the remainder of the post-holes do not appear to form any immediately recognizable patterns, although both short curves and straight alignments can be identified.

While there are no immediate parallels for interior post-structures among the Bohemian Rondels, one should bear in mind the existence of a relatively simple inner post-structure at Bucany as well as the more complex arrangements at Zlkovce in the neighbouring Slovakian enclosures (Pavuk 1991); the two double rows of post-holes may represent a partially surviving timber-framed inner structure within the Rondel, additionally defining a central area within the enclosure. If, as the palisades appear to suggest, the constriction of and clear definition of access to the interior of the Rondel were significant features, the remaining post-holes may represent the vestigial traces of some sort of barrier placed transversely between the 3rd and 4th palisade and the central structure.

The question of the emergence and the development of 'fortified' settlement sites in the Stichbandkeramik and Lengyel culture complexes in Central Europe is currently a subject of debate and doubtless, with a flood of new discoveries facilitated by the sudden outburst of aerial photography in this region (a 15-minute flight over Bylany last summer revealed a substantial rectangular enclosure close by, although its date is not yet known), will continue to be debated for some time to come. However, even at this early stage of the investigation, the Bylany Rondel reveals that the origin and, especially, the function of such sites may be more complex and varied than their apparent formal similarity of layout implies.

Although the temporal dimensions of the various features in the area of the Rondel are not yet entirely clear, the concentration of pits and granaries, nearly twice as high as anywhere else at Bylany, and a correspondingly lower proportion of houses (1 house in 2175 sq. m here as opposed to 1 house in 447.9 sq. m at Bylany 1) suggest that this area, from the very beginning of the LBK period, was not residential in nature but rather fulfilled other functions which are manifested in the higher density of certain features. This appears to have continued during the Stichbandkeramik period: neither inside nor outside the Rondel were there any traces of SBK houses. On the other hand, inside the Rondel there was a conspicuous oval pit filled with a mixture of black and clay layers whose rich finds suggest a special function -- a votive pit or possibly a grave.

Having considered the various possible functional interpretations of the Central European Rondels (cf. Podborsky 1988: 258-76; Mercer 1989a & b) and, assuming the existence and relative stability of spatially defined and functionally distinct areas within the context of a Neolithic settlement on a micro-regional scale, one can suggest that Rondels demarcate 'enclosed' ceremonial areas, distinct and separate from the residential areas with long houses. This certainly seems to be the case at Bylany where, on present evidence, the concept of a 'fortified' settlement is not applicable. The excavations at Bylany 4 suggest that the same areas could have been in use long before without any specific 'fortifications', existing as an accumulation of features lacking strong residential elements. The Rondels of Bohemia would therefore represent a formal manifestation of this phenomenon, seemingly of a relatively short duration, at the beginning of the later SBK.


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Author:Midgley, M.S.; Pavlu, I.; Rulf, J.; Zapotocka, M.
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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