Timber circle

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Maelmin Henge, a reconstructed timber circle in England Maelmin - reconstruction of henge - geograph.org.uk - 420781.jpg
Maelmin Henge, a reconstructed timber circle in England

In archaeology, timber circles are rings of upright wooden posts, built mainly by ancient peoples in the British Isles and North America. They survive only as gapped rings of post-holes, with no evidence they formed walls, making them distinct from palisades. Like stone circles, it is believed their purpose was ritual, ceremonial, and/or astronomical.


British Isles

Modern pillars marking the post-holes of Woodhenge, facing northwards Woodhenge, Wiltshire.JPG
Modern pillars marking the post-holes of Woodhenge, facing northwards

Timber circles in the British Isles date to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. The posts themselves have long since disappeared and the sites are identified from the rings of postholes that they stood in. Aerial photography and geophysical survey have led to the discovery of increasing numbers of the features. Often a postpipe survives in the posthole fill aiding diagnosis.

They are usually more than 20 metres (66 ft), and up to 60 metres (200 ft), in diameter and the posts that constituted them were generally more than 50 centimetres (20 in) wide. Often they consist of at least two rings or ovals of timber posts, although some consist of only one ring. Wider gaps between the posts are thought to have served as entrance routes. The builders replaced the posts as they decomposed and in some cases stone circles were adopted instead during later phases.

They appear either alone or in the context of other monuments, namely henges, such as that at Woodhenge and henge enclosures such as those at Durrington Walls. The only excavated examples of timber circles that stood alone from other features are Seahenge and Arminghall in Norfolk and the early phases of The Sanctuary in Wiltshire.

Several Early Bronze Age timber circles have been found in Ireland. A huge timber circle with a diameter of 250 metres (820 ft) was built around a passage tomb on the Hill of Tara. [1] Smaller timber circles were built at sites including Newgrange and Navan. [2]

Timber circles in the British Isles likely served ritual purposes. Animal bone and domestic waste found at many timber circle sites implies some form of temporary habitation and seasonal feasting. They were built on high ground and would have been very conspicuous. Isolated burials have been found at some sites, but not enough to suggest a strong funerary purpose.

United States

Secotans dancing in a timber circle in North Carolina, watercolor painted by John White in 1585 North carolina algonkin-rituale02.jpg
Secotans dancing in a timber circle in North Carolina, watercolor painted by John White in 1585

Timber circles have a long history among Native American societies; their use stretches back for thousands of years and continues into the present day. From the 3400 year old Archaic period Poverty Point site in Louisiana to 2000 year old Hopewell tradition circles found in Ohio to the Sun Dance performed in wooden pole "corrals" by the Dhegihan-Siouan and Caddoan speaking peoples of the Great Plains. [3]

An early example of a timber circle witnessed by Europeans was recorded by watercolor artist John White in July 1585 when he visited the Algonquian village of Secotan in North Carolina. White was the artist-illustrator and mapmaker for the Roanoke Colony expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to begin the first attempts at British colonization of the Americas. [4] White's works represent the sole-surviving visual record of the native inhabitants of the Americas as encountered by England's first colonizers on the Atlantic seaboard. [5] White's watercolor and the writings of the chronicler who accompanied him, Thomas Harriot, describes a great religious festival, possibly the Green Corn ceremony, with participants holding a ceremonial dance at a timber circle. The posts of the circle were carved with faces. Harriot noted that many of the participants had come from surrounding villages and that "every man attyred in the most strange fashion they can devise havinge certayne marks on the backs to declare of what place they bee." and that "Three of the fayrest Virgins" danced around a central post at the center of the timber circle. [6]

Poverty Point

Concrete markers in the plaza area at Poverty Point Circular structures at Poverty Point IMG 7433.JPG
Concrete markers in the plaza area at Poverty Point

The oldest known timber circles in North American archaeology were found at Poverty Point in 2009 by archaeologists from the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Mississippi State University, led by Poverty Point station archaeologist Dr. Diana Greenlee. They discovered evidence in the 37.5 acres (15.2 ha) plaza area for multiple wooden post circular structures ranging from 82 feet (25 m) to 206 feet (63 m) in diameter; built during the earliest habitation of the site circa 2400 BCE. The site now has a ring of concrete posts marking the position of one of the circles. [7] [8] [9]

Adena timber circles

Artists conception of Mt Horeb Site 1 Mount Horeb Site 1 HRoe 2022 350px.jpg
Artists conception of Mt Horeb Site 1

Postholes from a number of timber circles have been found during excavations of Adena culture causewayed ring ditch sites in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and adjacent regions of Ohio and West Virginia. [10] A notable example was found by archaeologist William S. Webb during the excavations of the Mount Horeb Site 1 in Fayette County, Kentucky in 1939. Webb discovered a circle of "paired-posts" inside of the embankment ring and ditch. [11] [12] The 48.5 feet (14.8 m) circle was made up of sixty two "paired" post sets and eight single posts. [13]

Hopewell timber circles

Other examples have been found at Hopewell culture sites in Ohio. Moorehead Circle was constructed about two millennia ago at the Fort Ancient Earthworks. It was discovered in 2005 by Jarrod Burks during magnetic surveys at the large hilltop enclosure near Lebanon, Ohio. [14] The site consists of three concentric circles; with the outer circle being about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter. [15] Robert Riordan, Professor of Archaeology at Wright State University and lead archaeologist investigating the site, estimates that about two hundred wooden 10 feet (3.0 m) to 15 feet (4.6 m) tall posts were set in the outer circle. According to radiocarbon dates performed on charcoal found at the site, it was built between 40 BCE and 130 CE, with other charcoal fragments from burnt posts dating to 250 to 420 CE, suggesting the circle was in use for several centuries. [16]

In September 2005 archaeologist Frank Cowan conducted excavations at the smaller circular enclosure at the Stubbs Earthworks in Warren County, Ohio; discovering a timber circle 240 feet (73 m) in diameter and composed of 172 large posts. Carbon dating of charcoal found in post molds at the site have dated the structure to 200-300 CE. [17]


Artist's conception of Woodhenge III at sunrise circa 1000 CE Cahokia Woodhenge at Sunrise HRoe 2017sm.jpg
Artist's conception of Woodhenge III at sunrise circa 1000 CE
Solstice and equinox markers at the Md 72 woodhenge, with the hypothesized full circle of posts Mound 72 Woodhenge diagram HRoe 2013.jpg
Solstice and equinox markers at the Md 72 woodhenge, with the hypothesized full circle of posts

The existence of the series of woodhenges at Cahokia was discovered during salvage archaeology undertaken by Dr. Warren Wittry in the early 1960s in preparation for a proposed highway interchange. Although the majority of the site contained village house features, a number of unusually shaped large post holes were also discovered. They formed a series of arcs of evenly spaced posts. Wittry hypothesized that the arcs could be whole circles and that the site was possibly a calendar for tracking solar events such as solstice and equinoxes. He began referring to the circles as "woodhenges"; comparing the structures to ones found in England. [18] [19] Additional excavations found evidence for five timber circles in the general vicinity, now designated Woodhenges I through V in Roman numerals. Each was a different diameter and had a different number of posts. Because four of the circles overlap each other it is thought they were built in a sequence, with each iteration generally being larger and containing 12 more posts than its predecessor. [20] A full sequence for what has become known as Woodhenge III was found (except for nine posts on the western edge that had been lost to dump trucks for road construction fill) and a reconstruction of the circle was built in 1985; with the posts being placed into the original excavated post positions. [20] The Illinois State Park system oversees the Cahokia site and hosts public sunrise observations at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices. Out of respect for Native American beliefs these events do not feature ceremonies or rituals of any kind. [21] [22] [23]

Archaeologist Marvin Fowler has speculated that the woodhenges also served as “aligners” and that there may have been as many as 3 more in other strategic locations around the city of Cahokia, built to triangulate and lay out construction projects. At least one other possible circle at Cahokia has been put forward by Fowler, but his suggestion has not yet gained full acceptance by other archaeologists. [20] This location was discovered near Mounds 72 and 96, directly to the south of Monks Mound. Several post holes of what may have been a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle and 48 posts. [24] Archaeologists have dated the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE. [25] Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, with eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions. This setup is nearly identical to the diameter and post positions of Woodhenge III, differing only in that Woodhenge III was 2 feet (0.61 m) smaller in diameter. The placement of the two mounds at the location and the directions in which they are oriented correspond to several of the solstice marking posts. [24] The post nearest the later elite burial of the "Birdman" is the location that marked the summer solstice sunrise at the times of the sites use. [26] The early stages of the mounds were actually constructed around the posts, although at a later point the posts were removed. [24]

Related Research Articles

A solstice is an event that occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere. Two solstices occur annually, around June 21 and December 21. In many countries, the seasons of the year are determined by reference to the solstices and the equinoxes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Woodhenge</span>

Woodhenge is a Neolithic Class II henge and timber circle monument within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, England. It is 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge, in Durrington parish, just north of the town of Amesbury.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hopewell tradition</span> Ancient North American indigenous civilization

The Hopewell tradition describes the common aspects of an ancient pre-Columbian Native American civilization that flourished in settlements along rivers in the northeastern and midwestern Eastern Woodlands from 100 BCE to 500 CE, in the Middle Woodland period. The Hopewell tradition was not a single culture or society, but a widely dispersed set of populations connected by a common network of trade routes. This is known as the Hopewell exchange system.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cahokia</span> Archaeological site near East St. Louis, Illinois, USA

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. This historic park lies in south-western Illinois between East St. Louis and Collinsville. The park covers 2,200 acres (890 ha), or about 3.5 square miles (9 km2), and contains about 80 humanmade mounds, but the ancient city was much larger. At its apex around 1100 CE, the city covered about 6 square miles (16 km2) and included about 120 earthworks in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and functions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henge</span> Type of Neolithic earthwork

There are three related types of Neolithic earthwork that are all sometimes loosely called henges. The essential characteristic of all three is that they feature a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank. Because the internal ditches would have served defensive purposes poorly, henges are not considered to have been defensive constructions. The three henge types are as follows, with the figure in brackets being the approximate diameter of the central flat area:

  1. Henge (> 20 m). The word henge refers to a particular type of earthwork of the Neolithic period, typically consisting of a roughly circular or oval-shaped bank with an internal ditch surrounding a central flat area of more than 20 m (66 ft) in diameter. There is typically little if any evidence of occupation in a henge, although they may contain ritual structures such as stone circles, timber circles and coves. Henge monument is sometimes used as a synonym for henge. Henges sometimes, but by no means always, featured stone or timber circles, and circle henge is sometimes used to describe these structures. The three largest stone circles in Britain are each within a henge. Examples of henges without significant internal monuments are the three henges of Thornborough Henges. Although having given its name to the word henge, Stonehenge is atypical in that the ditch is outside the main earthwork bank.
  2. Hengiform monument (5 – 20 m). Like an ordinary henge, except the central flat area is between 5 and 20 m (16–66 ft) in diameter, they comprise a modest earthwork with a fairly wide outer bank. The terms Mini henge or Dorchester henge are sometimes used as synonyms for hengiform monument. An example is the Neolithic site at Wormy Hillock Henge.
  3. Henge enclosure (> 300 m). A Neolithic ring earthwork with the ditch inside the bank, with the central flat area having abundant evidence of occupation and usually being more than 300 m (980 ft) in diameter. Some true henges are as large as this, but lack evidence of domestic occupation. Super henge is sometimes used as a synonym for a henge enclosure. However, sometimes Super henge is used to indicate size alone rather than use, e.g. "Marden henge ... is the least understood of the four British 'superhenges' ".
Pinson Mounds Archaeological park

The Pinson Mounds comprise a prehistoric Native American complex located in Madison County, Tennessee, in the region that is known as the Eastern Woodlands. The complex, which includes 17 mounds, an earthen geometric enclosure, and numerous habitation areas, was most likely built during the Middle Woodland period. The complex is the largest group of Middle Woodland mounds in the United States. Sauls' Mound, at 72 feet (22 m), is the second-highest surviving mound in the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adena culture</span> Pre-Columbian Native American culture

The Adena culture was a Pre-Columbian Native American culture that existed from 500 BCE to 100 CE, in a time known as the Early Woodland period. The Adena culture refers to what were probably a number of related Native American societies sharing a burial complex and ceremonial system. The Adena culture was centered on the location of the modern state of Ohio, but also extended into contiguous areas of northern Kentucky, eastern Indiana, West Virginia, and parts of extreme western Pennsylvania.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">September equinox</span> When sun appears directly over equator

The September equinox is the moment when the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, heading southward. Because of differences between the calendar year and the tropical year, the September equinox may occur anytime from September 21 to 24.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">March equinox</span> When sun appears directly over equator

The March equinox or northward equinox is the equinox on the Earth when the subsolar point appears to leave the Southern Hemisphere and cross the celestial equator, heading northward as seen from Earth. The March equinox is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and as the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.

Moorehead Circle was a triple woodhenge constructed about two millennia ago at the Fort Ancient Earthworks in the U.S. state of Ohio.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Portsmouth Earthworks</span> Archaeological site in Ohio, United States

The Portsmouth Earthworks are a large prehistoric mound complex constructed by the Native American Adena and Ohio Hopewell cultures of eastern North America. The site was one of the largest earthwork ceremonial centers constructed by the Hopewell and is located at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, in present-day Ohio.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mount Horeb Earthworks Complex</span>

The Mount Horeb Earthworks Complex is an Adena culture group of earthworks in Fayette County, Kentucky. It consists of two major components, the Mount Horeb Site 1 and the Peter Village enclosure, and several smaller features including the Grimes Village site, Tarleton Mound, and Fisher Mound. The Peter Village and Grimes Village enclosures were mapped by Rafinesque and featured in Squier and Davis's landmark publication Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley in 1848 as Plate XIV Figures 3 and 4.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mound 72</span> Small ridgetop Mississippian mound near Collinsville, Illinois

Mound 72 is a small ridgetop mound located roughly 850 meters (2,790 ft) to the south of Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois. Early in the site's history, the location began as a circle of 48 large wooden posts known as a "woodhenge". The woodhenge was later dismantled and a series of mortuary houses, platform mounds, mass burials and eventually the ridgetop mound erected in its place. The mound was the location of the "beaded burial", an elaborate burial of an elite personage thought to have been one of the rulers of Cahokia, accompanied by the graves of several hundred retainers and sacrificial victims.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cahokia Woodhenge</span> Series of large timber circles at the Mississippian culture Cahokia archaeologial site, US

The Cahokia Woodhenge was a series of large timber circles located roughly 850 metres (2,790 ft) to the west of Monks Mound at the Mississippian culture Cahokia archaeological site near Collinsville, Illinois. They are thought to have been constructed between 900 and 1100 CE; with each one being larger and having more posts than its predecessor. The site was discovered as part of salvage archaeology in the early 1960s interstate highway construction boom, and one of the circles was reconstructed in the 1980s. The circle has been used to investigate archaeoastronomy at Cahokia. Annual equinox and solstice sunrise observation events are held at the site.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">McLaughlin Mound</span> Archaeological site in Ohio, United States

The McLaughlin Mound, also called Cemetery Mound, is a Native American mound in the central part of the U.S. state of Ohio. Located in Mound View Cemetery near the city of Mount Vernon in Knox County, it is an important archaeological site.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cedar-Bank Works</span> Archaeological site in Ohio, United States

Cedar-Bank Works is group of Adena culture earthworks located in Ross County, Ohio in the United States. It is located approximately five miles north of the town of Chillicothe, Ohio.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stubbs Earthworks</span>

The Stubbs Earthworks was a massive Ohio Hopewell culture archaeological site located in Morrow in Warren County, Ohio.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shriver Circle Earthworks</span> Ohio Hopewell culture archaeological site

The Shriver Circle Earthworks are an Ohio Hopewell culture archaeological site located in Chillicothe in Ross County, Ohio. At 1,200 feet (370 m) in diameter the site is one of the largest Hopewell circular enclosures in the state of Ohio.


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