As you walk through the Redwood forests of Northern California, you see the evidence of a natural process found in many forests: a tree dies, and around its stump shoots rise, and eventually become trees themselves, arranged in a circle around the “ghost” of the original tree.
The tree-worshipping cultural groups of Northern Europe prized these tree circles, and indeed wooden circles and stone circles are associated with the Celts, who through prehistory migrated right across Europe from its southeastern to northwestern corners, leaving wooden and stone circles in their wake.
Celtic stone circle in Nesselstauden, Austria, near the Danube. It took us three days to find this one when we stayed near there in 2005.
Ireland has many, and of course England with the most famous being Stonehenge and Avebury. Why circles? They align with astronomy, of course, and are a reasonably efficient form for enclosure and defense. Indeed, the circular form survived in Ireland throughout the historic period, evolving from prehistoric ringed earthworks and stoneworks to post-conquest motte and bailey castles.
double-ringed earthworks at Sier Keiran, Roscrea
rare round tower house c 15th century, Ballyvaughan, County Clare
But the circular format is hardly limited to Europe. The Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe (the only country in the world named after a heritage site!!) is a circular stone fortress built in the medieval era, surrounded by many others such circular enclosures. There are significant stone circles in Senegambia. You can see all these on our amazing database Global Heritage Network (best with Google Chrome).
In fact, it seems here at Global Heritage Fund we are working in circles, so to speak: Our latest China project are the only non-rectilinear courtyard houses, the circular tulou of Fujian. These are an anomaly for their form, especially since the circle (yin) form was primarily associated with heaven and likely only the province of the Emperor, as in the round Temple of Heaven in Beijing. I guess Fujian was backcountry enough to get away with it (and no one from up north understood Hakka anyway…)
GHF Photos by Kuanghan Li, 2009
From a purely structural point of view, orthogonal architecture is generally easier to design and build, more modular and expandable. Trabeation – the use of columns and lintels or beam – is the basic wooden structure used worldwide. Round structures are rarer, especially roofed ones like the tulou. They also tend to be small, such as the famed trulli in Puglia, Italy, or the round hermitages of Skellig Michael. Generally, the round form has an externalized rather than an enclosed quality – think amphitheatres and their natural outgrowth, the stadium:
i took this photo in 1982
The round form has acoustical advantages, especially for large crowds and assemblies, and it seems in many ways that the round structure is all about assembly, which brings us to one of the most exciting archaeological sites today, the stunning Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, hailed as the world’s oldest religious site. Huge t-shaped stones 5m high, seemingly erected in a circle by a migratory Neolithic population over 10,000 years ago, carved with zoomorphic figures.
Only four have been exposed, but there may be 20 of these circular (or oval) enclosures on this tell, or hill in southeeastern Turkey. Our brief includes the conservation of these amazing standing stones and aiding in the erection of a shelter to protect the excavation. What we do not know far exceeds what we know, but even that is intriguing: the stones were set in shallow notches, hence likely part of some other structure of less permanent materials. The site was some distance from any permanent settlement, a ceremonial center plausibly used by hunters and collectors. I imagine some sort of neolithic Burning Man or Woodstock, a camp meeting if you will. The circles were then deliberately buried. To learn more about Göbekli Tepe and the excavations that the German Archaeological Institute has been doing since the 1990s, visit our website at www.globalheritagefund.org.