Square dance: late Neolithic square-in-circle or ‘four-poster’ monuments

Sue Greaney, PhD candidate
Cardiff University

I am a part-time PhD student at Cardiff, nearing the end of my research into Neolithic monument complexes in Britain and Ireland. I have recently become intrigued by one type of timber monument, known as square-in-circle monuments or four-post structures. These structures consist of four substantial postholes set in a square, usually with two entrance posts or pits, and often surrounded by a ring of smaller posts.

Image 1 – Plan of square-in-circle monument set within a stone circle at Machrie Moor, Arran

These structures are found all over Britain and Ireland, usually within complexes of other monuments. But it is only recently, with several excavated and published, that the type has become established and recognised. These structures are generally associated with late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery, and were places were animal bones, flint tools, antler and sometimes human cremations were deposited. Although dating of these sites is not precise, collating all the available radiocarbon dates so far shows that they are likely to date to between 2800 and 2500 cal BC.

Image 2 – Map showing excavated examples of square-in-circle monuments in Britain and Ireland and an example of Grooved Ware pottery.

Some of these timber structures were elaborated over time. At the Southern Circle at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge, what began as a simple square-in-circle structure later became a monument of six concentric rings of timber posts. Others were enclosed within stone circles, such as Machrie Moor and two recently discovered within the smaller stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset, although this latter site has not yet been excavated. Some of these timber structures are unexcavated, having been recognised from the air, such as this cluster in Chapeltown in Angus, Scotland, or through geophysical survey – several new ones have been discovered recently in the Boyne Valley by Steve Davis for example.

Image 3 – Geophysical survey of the south-west circle at Stanton Drew, clearly showing that the stone circle surrounds a square-in-circle monument. Historic England geophysical survey, full report: http://ow.ly/gOph30jkqvI

People have speculated about what the purpose of these structures. They are often regarded as a temple or shrine in the form of monumentalised house. Indeed, some have rectangular hearths or settings at their centres, like at Ballynahatty. Some have suggested that the four posts supported a platform. At Pittentian, Perth & Kinross, Scotland, the posts had decayed at an angle 12° from vertical, suggesting that they supported some weight. One has been reconstructed at Knowth showing simply free-standing posts. Often square-in-circle monuments are found in within or close to with palisaded enclosures or henges. Similar structures were built in stone and may be related – such as Four Stones, part of the Hindwell/Walton complex in Powys.

Image 4 – The reconstruction timber circle adjacent to Knowth passage tomb, Co. Meath, Ireland

The orientation of these structures is intriguing. When their axis of orientation, as defined by the two additional pits or posts, entrance gaps or elaborate façades, are plotted, they demonstrate a consistent orientation between the north-east and south, clustering towards the south-east, particularly for Irish examples. Rather than precise astronomical alignments, these monuments seem to conform to a pattern of quartering or directionality.

Image 5 – The orientation of excavated square-in-circle monuments in Britain and Ireland.

It might be that the four posts marked significant directions, divided the world into equal quarters or represented pillars of the world. In Northern Caddoan (Pawnee) lodges, the four posts which support the roof represent semi-cardinal directions, each associated with animals and colours. The northeast was thunder, bear and black; the northwest lightning, mountain lion and yellow; the southwest winds, bobcat and white and the southeast clouds, wolf and red. Posts, partly buried underground and partly reaching up into the sky, may have linked different worlds together. Among many historic-period Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indians, upright posts served to directly tie the beings of the sky to the powers of a world beneath. Perhaps these monuments were built to encompass or create an image of the universe as Neolithic people understood it, linking together the underworld and the upper world, together with important directions.

These are preliminary discussions, and there are many more of these square-in-circle monuments out there to be found, excavated and studied. Hopefully this blog post has piqued your interest in these intriguing structures.

2 thoughts on “Square dance: late Neolithic square-in-circle or ‘four-poster’ monuments”

  1. Being particularly interested in, and fascinated by, the Neolithic Sue Greeney’s account of the square-in-circle structures was indeed of interest. What has struck me about this Centenary Week is the range of subjects covered. May I offer some speculation Sue on what these structures may have been used for? Possiby places where the elite lay in state so that the community could pay their last respects. The idea of the four posts supporting a platform appeals, a sort of catafalque. Given that henge monuments formed a major part of life at that time the “house” having a surround of posts might have been an obvious addition. Or possibly erected to differentiate the structure from everyday dwellings. The finds inside could well have been items to accompany the dead into the afterlife though the presence of animal bones, cremations and fires does not sit neatly with that. Unless they were part of a funerary ritual.

    The Northern Caddoan lodges’ structure is appealing. The upright posts in those Neolithic “houses” could also represent a link between life on Earth and the afterlife and a four segment arrangement possibly representing the seasons which were so critical to the survival of those Neoliths. The location of the structures may also have formed part of the transition of the dead from the land of the living to that of the dead. Probably it will never be known what purpose they served. But it is good to be able to speculate and even try to get into the minds of those Neoliths who clearly attached considrable importance to ensuring that their dead, or perhaps raher the prominent members of their communities, were sent off in style on their way to an afterlife.

    Now to speculate further on those Bluestones and Stonehenge and the possibility that the monument was in fact the work of a Welsh architect from Neolithic West Wales.

    Les Phillips


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