The beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic is known for its rich history, Gothic cathedrals, medieval squares, art scene, nightlife and restaurants. On the other hand, its name rarely comes up when the discussion turns to ancient monuments and monoliths like the Great Pyramid of Giza or Britain’s Stonehenge. That may change soon as the world learns of the discovery of mysterious round monumental building on the outskirts of the city that dates back to about 4900 BCE – making it older than the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge. And, despite being well-preserved, its purpose to the people living there in the Neolithic period is a mystery.
“Roundels were built during the Stone Age when people had not yet discovered iron. The only tools they could use were made of stone and animal bones.”
Despite being erected by people of the New Stone Age using stone and bone tools, Jaroslav Rídký from the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague marvels that the “roundel” – a circular enclosure (‘rondely’ in Czech) – discovered recently in the Vinoř district on the outskirts of Prague is in such ‘monumental’ condition for its age of 7,000 years. Roundels are actually common structures in Central Europe – about 200 have been uncovered in total, with 35 in the Czech Republic. Despite their size, most tourists and even many Europeans have never heard of them.
“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 center, four being the most common.
The whole structure reaches an average of between 30 to 240 meters, but you most commonly find them in the range of 60 – 80 meters.”
Jaroslav Rídký has seen roundels reaching 787 feet (240 meters) in diameter, but the newest discovery in is 180 feet (55 meters) across. (Photos of it here.) The “ditches” – all that is left of the mysterious structures – average about one and a half meters (5 feet) in width but some of the largest span fourteen meters (46 feet) and are six meters (20 feet) deep. Only a few of the roundels discovered are well-defined – most are mere outlines of where the ditches once were. That explains why the first ones weren’t discovered until the 19th century and most were unknown until the 1980s with the advent of aerial photography, using drones and planes, and satellite imagery. As they were uncovered, the first mystery of the roundels emerged – virtually all of them across Central Europe were built during a brief 300 year period between 4900 and 4600 BCE. Here is how Jaroslav Rídký describes it:
“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.
The structure of settlements changes in some areas, the ornamentation changes.”
What happened to cause Neolithic cultures across Central Europe to abandon such huge round structures they spent so much time building and maintaining? The largest (787 feet) is in the Czech Republic and is a series of three concentric ditches with a fourth apparently under construction when it was abandoned. The massive structure had four gates leading to the center. In addition, a second single-ditch roundel was located a mere 165 feet (50 meters) away. Another Czech Republic roundel recently located in Třebovětice in the Jičín district was hidden in a thick forest and, back in its time, was protected by ramparts (fortifying barriers) which are still visible today. It is details like these, along with the discoveries of more roundels like the one in the Vinoř district, which give Miroslav Kraus, the principal investigator of that roundel for the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences (IAP), some hints to their mysterious purpose.
“One of such theory is that it could have been used as an economic centre, a centre of trade. It could also have been a centre of some religious cult, where rites of passage or rituals connected to the time of year were performed.”
Kraus and others believe that some of the Czech roundels – and possibly more elsewhere -- were built by the so-called Stroked Pottery culture noted for making zig-zag bands on its pottery vessels. The Stroked Pottery culture existed in Poland, eastern Germany and the northern Czech Republic between 4900 and 4400 BCE, but were more known for building longhouses -- large, rectangular buildings that held 20 to 30 people. If the roundels were built the same way, the inner ditches would have been lined with wooden poles with mud between the gaps. These tightly-erected poles may have been protective fortress walls, but they could also have been load-bearing walls to hold roofs also made with wood like the longhouses. The research team is continuing to comb the area for clues.
Organic material found at the site are being carbon-dated to determine exactly when the Czeck roundel was built and if the builders were indeed part of the Stroked Potter culture. If the roundel was for social gatherings or ritual functions, the organic materials should show where the people gathering there came from, since they appear to have been too large to serve just the local population. It would be impressive to find that these Late Stone Age people living 7000 years ago – before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid – built such impressive structures for socio-ritual purposes rather than just religious – commemorating events such as rites of passage, astronomical occurrences or economic activities. All of this was done by people working with stone and bone tools.
Who were the people of these Czech roundels? What were their purposes? How did they build them? Why did the suddenly and mysteriously abandon them? If we can answer any or all of these questions, perhaps we can apply that knowledge to other mysterious civilizations which have flourished, then vanished. Perhaps we can find some solutions to our own problems before we vanish as well.
It will be just our luck that the research into the roundels of the Czech Republic will show their builders left because of climate change.