1) Czech Republic has Neolithic structures older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids

Visualisation of Těšetice-Kyjovice roundel
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Almost everyone has heard of the Great Egyptian Pyramids of Giza, the oldest-known of which was built around 2600 BC; most people in the West have heard of England’s Stonehenge, believed to have been constructed somewhere between 3000 BC to 2000 BC; and some may even have heard of Newgrange in Ireland (Sí an Bhrú in Irish), a grand passage tomb built around 3200 BC. But very few people know about Central Europe’s ‘roundels’ – Neolithic circular enclosures, the construction of which between 4600 – 4900 BC makes them far older than all of the more famous prehistoric sites mentioned above. Radio Prague International spoke to archaeologist Jaroslav Řídký about these ancient structures.

Jaroslav Řídký | Photo: Neuron / YouTube

Meet Jaroslav Řídký - interested in history and human evolution from a young age, he tried out various disciplines and areas of study before realising that the one that best allowed him to take advantage of the various branches of science and to work with experts from different fields was the subject of archaeology. Now at the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, he focuses on the Neolithic Period and Late Stone Age in Central Europe, Northeast Africa and West Asia, especially Turkey. He is also one of the Czech Republic’s leading experts on so-called ‘roundels’ (known as ‘rondely’ in Czech) – large circular structures from the Neolithic period that have been found all over central Europe, including Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and, of course, the Czech Republic.

“The so-called roundels are the oldest evidence of architecture in the whole of Europe. They are a series of circular ditches and they are always arranged in a circle with two, three, four or more entrances to the centre, four being the most common. The circular ditches usually number between one and three, or very rarely four. The whole structure reaches an average of between 30 to 240 metres, but you most commonly find them in the range of 60 - 80 metres. Perhaps I should emphasise that these ditches are usually around one and a half metres wide, but we know of ditches up to fourteen metres wide and six metres deep.”

Roundel near Kolín | Photo: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Unfortunately, today only remnants of these structures remain – if you google them, the images you see are just reconstructions of what they might have looked like. It is suspected that the inner structure was mostly made of wooden poles, probably standing next to each other, so they would have looked like circular enclosures interrupted by two to four entrances. Another hypothesis is that roundels were not simple enclosures, but rather the trenches are the remains of walls of more complex structures, plastered by mud and maybe even with roofs.

You can visit to-scale replicas of roundels in Goseck, Germany and Heldenberg, Austria, but there are currently no life-size models in the Czech Republic, which Řídký thinks is a shame. At present, around 200 roundels have been discovered, of which about 55 are in the Czech Republic. At least two are particularly worth mentioning.

Třebovětice roundel | Photo: Petr1888,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

"A total of three roundels were found during the construction of the Kolín bypass, and one of them was the absolute largest in all of Central Europe - we call it a megarondel. Just shy of 240 meters in diameter, it had three completed trenches - the fourth was not completed, but if it had been, it would have made it to 240 metres - and four preserved entrances to the centre. And interestingly, about fifty meters away, another roundel was built at around the same time, but this time with only one ditch. So that is one example.

And then I would definitely mention the roundel in Třebovětice, in the Jičín district, which is preserved in the forest and was confirmed relatively recently. It was discovered thanks to these ramparts, the existence of which has been a hot topic of discussion among experts in the last thirty to forty years – indeed, discussion about whether they even existed or not. So now we know that they did exist, and those ramparts are still visible today. They are right in the middle of the woods, you can walk there and they are quite obvious."

Roundel near Kolín | Photo: Frederik Velinský,  Czech Radio

Roundels were first discovered in the second half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s, with the advent of aerial archaeological surveys using aeroplanes and drones, that their ubiquity in the region became apparent.

“The first discoveries were made in the second half of the 19th century, but of course at the time no one knew what they were. The first interpretations considered were that they were built for defense, or they were pens for cattle. Then, the biggest boom in roundel research in Central Europe began in the second half of the 1980s with the development of aerial archeology - archeology that deals with the documentation of objects from a height, not just from a plane, but nowadays also using drones. So the first half of the 90's saw the biggest boom, we have the most data from that time.”

Archaeological survey near Kolín | Photo: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Interestingly, roundels only appear to have been built in a period of around 200 – 300 years, between around 4900 – 4600 BC, and then they suddenly disappear from the archaeological record.

“There was simply some kind of societal change, where the roundels could no longer fulfill the function they had before and they just stopped being used. And we know that it was sometime around 4600 BC, we have evidence of that from all areas where roundels occur. Sometime around the year 4800 BC or just before, the construction began, the roundels were rebuilt, cleaned, and people took care of them, and around the year 4600 BC at the latest, but probably before, some kind of dramatic change occurred, and we see it in archaeological sources, actually the archaeological record completely changes. The structure of settlements changes in some areas, the ornamentation changes.”

Visualisation of Kolín roundel | Source: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Of course, as always with ancient and mysterious constructions, the first question on most people’s lips is: what were they for? What were the men and women who built them thinking – what purpose was behind them? Many theories have been proposed – that they were built in an attempt to seize power, or that they had a ritual purpose or an astronomical function, such as signalling the spring equinox or the winter solstice.

“In addition to the ritual function, we have to add a function that there is probably no doubt about today, and that is the social one. So socio-ritual - there was a gathering of some larger number of people, probably from a larger area, because we assume that the capacity of one settlement was not enough, if it was built in a short time, to be able to create something like this.”

But as with most theories about the distant past, we are left with more questions than answers – speculations, musings, and wonderings about these people, our ancient ancestors, whose lives and thoughts still mostly remain a mystery to us.