Friday, November 28, 2008

An artist’s interpretation of the Viereckschanze at Winden (“Vinida”) in southeastern Germany based on aerial photographs and the results of excavations at other enclosures in Germany. The Winden enclosure measures about 80 × 80 meters. The drawing illustrates the characteristic shape and construction of a Viereckschanze with an uninterrupted rectilinear ditch, inner walls and gatehouse, and scattered interior buildings aligned with the enclosure’s walls. The artist has placed the Viereckschanze within a larger settlement following the current interpretation of excavated sites such as Bopfingen-Flochberg. © RUDOLF MÜNCH.

Viereckschanzen is a German word (Viereckschanze in its singular form) that may be translated as “rectilinear enclosures.” The term refers to enigmatic Late Iron Age “ditch-and-berm” constructions and associated archaeological deposits that are still visible in central and western European landscapes.


The Viereckschanzen are associated with pre-Roman Celtic populations living at the end of the Iron Age who produced a material culture known as the Late La Tène culture. Precise dendrochronological (treering dating) measurements of oak timbers preserved in wells at four Viereckschanzen in southern Germany (Riedlingen, Fellbach-Schmiden, Plattling- Pankofen, and Pocking-Hartkirchen) range across a 130-year period, from 181 to 51 B.C. These dates correspond to the La Tène C2 and D1 horizons of the central European Iron Age chronology and indicate that the Viereckschanzen were contemporaries of the large, defended settlements known as oppida.

Southern Germany, including the states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, is the main focus of the distribution of Viereckschanzen, where approximately five hundred enclosures have been identified. Significantly smaller numbers of sites are present in the Czech Republic and Moravia (to the east) and in northern Switzerland (to the south). Rectilinear enclosures, known in the French as enceinte quadrilaterale or enceinte carrées, also exist in eastern and northern France, but these terms are used to describe a variety of sites dating to the final millennium B.C. The classic southern German Viereckschanze can be differentiated from Belgic sanctuaries of northeastern Gaul, such as Gournay-sur-Aronde, by the Viereckschanze’s larger size and lack of structured deposits of weaponry and animal remains.


The classic Viereckschanze is identifiable by its standardized form and construction. A typical enclosure was created by excavation of a steepsided, V-shaped ditch in a square, rectangular, or slightly trapezoidal form. The excavated soil was placed on the inside edge of the ditch, forming a simple earthen berm or rampart. Ditches were maintained through periodic re-excavation. There is some evidence that a wooden palisade or other superstructure was placed along the top of the rampart to increase the height of the walls. Although the ditch was continuous, a single opening was left in the rampart. This opening was usually in the eastern or southern side of the enclosure, but never to the north. Access to the interior required construction of a wooden causeway over the ditch, which led to a small timbered gatehouse erected within the opening of the rampart. Dimensions of the enclosures range from less than 50 meters to more than 100 meters on a side, but most sites are between 80 and 100 meters across and enclose about 1 hectare. At some sites, a rectilinear palisade predated the ditched enclosure. About 5 percent of all enclosures have one or more internal divisions or external annexes, such as at Plattling-Pankofen in Bavaria and Mšecké Žehrovice in Bohemia (Czech Republic).

Viereckschanzen exhibit considerable diversity in the quantity, character, and arrangement of features in their interiors, such as post-built structures, wells, pits, and hearths. Sites such as Holzhausen, Arnstorf-Wiedmais, and Fellbach-Schmiden had few preserved features within their excavated interiors, perhaps an indication of short-term or intermittent occupation. Other sites, such as Bopfingen- Flochberg and Plattling-Pankofen, contained evidence of more intensive, long-term activities and greater accumulation of cultural debris. Well shafts (often wood lined) and distinctive buildings with wraparound porches or ambulatories are known from a number of excavated sites, but they are not found in all enclosures.


Viereckschanzen are found in a variety of landscape settings, including stream terraces, broad loess plains, and upland slopes and ridge crests. A significant number of sites in upland settings were established near natural springs, suggesting that the provisioning of water was an important consideration in site location. Sites in poorly watered locations often had wells placed in their interiors. Most enclosures that remain intact are sited in forested uplands on terrain unsuited to modern agriculture. Since the early 1980s, intensive aerial reconnaissance and large-scale excavations of cultivated portions of southern Germany have led to the discovery of many Viereckschanzen that had been leveled by plowing.

The ditch and wall suggest that defense was an important function of a Viereckschanze; however, the topographic placement of many enclosures shows that they were not effective fortifications. In southwestern Germany, approximately 40 percent of known enclosures are located on low-lying or sloped terrain, where their interiors would have been vulnerable to attack by ranged weapons (such as javelin, arrow, and slingshot). Viereckschanzen generally do not take advantage of the most strategically valuable terrain, so it is likely that defense was not a primary motive for their construction.

The location of Viereckschanzen in the cultural landscape provides clues to the nature of the enclosures. Earlier investigators used the distribution of preserved enclosures in the forests of southern Germany to suggest that the sites were placed in remote locations separate from settlement areas. The distribution of known sites extends into the most fertile agricultural regions. Walter Irlinger has pointed out the close geographic relationship between Viereckschanzen and undefended rural settlements. These types of site are either found near to one another or are mutually visible and connected through lines of sight. Some enclosures are even located within large settlement complexes, such as at Bopfingen- Flochberg and Plattling-Pankofen.

Viereckschanzen were also placed in apparent reference to older monuments, such as tumulus cemeteries from the Middle Bronze and Early Iron Ages. The situation at the Hohmichele (Heiligkreutztal- Speckhau) in Baden-Württemberg, one of the largest Early Iron Age burial mounds in western Europe, is the most dramatic example of this correspondence between a Viereckschanze and earlier burial monuments.


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