Timber Circles

Text by Anne Teather.

What are timber circles?

Timber circles are a type of late Neolithic monument consisting of individual upright timbers which have been constructed to form a circle. At times these circles can be concentric, creating rings of timbers of differing sizes which nest inside each other. However the form and size of them differs greatly; sometimes they combine wood and stone in the architecture; some have open avenues like Mount Pleasant Site IV (Dorset) or The Sanctuary (Wiltshire), whereas others do not, e.g. the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls (Wiltshire).

They often form part of wider monumental architecture and timber circles are often located within other types of monument, e.g. timber circles are shown to have been inside henges such as Stanton Drew (Somerset). Timber alignments can also be found which create avenues leading up to a timber circle (rather like the avenues of trees which occur in the gardens of stately homes, or the West Kennet Avenue constructed of stone at Avebury).

How do we find timber circles?

They are often located by aerial photography, through remote sensing or excavation. Because they do not have any above ground features they can’t be found any other way! Archaeologically we only find the holes in the ground which were dug to house the tree trunk. We call these postholes and they often contain the remains of the packing material which helped keep the post upright. The packing material can be soil or stones which helped stabilise the post.

Estimates are often made that one third of the post (tree trunk) would have been below the ground and two-thirds over. Therefore if we know the depth of the hole we can estimate the height of the post.

There were probably many more timber circles than we will ever find because of this lack of surface indicators, and so while we may begin to understand how timber circles relate to monuments in the later Neolithic, we’re probably never going to understand how many may have stood in isolation or within other Neolithic landscapes. Where timber circles appear alongside henges, standing stones or stone circles, there are a variety of interpretations. One of the most challenging aspects is how we can determine which parts of any structure were contemporary with other parts.

Dating timber circles.

It is very difficult to date timber circles. Dating in archaeology is achieved through either direct dating evidence (such as radiocarbon dating of organic materials) or comparative dating (similar types of pottery or flint tools styles). Wood does not survive well in archaeological deposits and so it is unusual to find any of the actual timber which was held in the posthole. Often, little remains in the posthole or its packing, but artefacts and dating evidence can be found in what were thought to be ‘weathering cones’ in the tops of the posthole.

These ‘weathering cones’ were thought to have been created by the post rotting away and leaving a v-shaped hole which then accumulated material such as pottery or flint in it. However more recently it has instead been suggested that these were re-cuts into the hole. This means that we think after the posts had rotted away, people in the past went to the monument and deliberately dug a hole and made deposits of material as a kind of offering into the tops of the posthole, probably because this was important to their religion. This suggests that timber circles were both important as they were built, but equally retained importance after they’d rotted away and were no longer standing.

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