Ritual Sites: Viereckschanzen

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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 (tree-ring 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 (fig. 1). A typical enclosure was created by excavation of a steep-sided, 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.


The material culture of excavated Viereckschanzen includes common categories, such as pottery, metalwork (bronze and iron), glass, coins, and animal bone. Excavators often lament the lack of finds from Viereckschanzen, but excavations of enclosures within larger settlement complexes have yielded more extensive and diverse artifact assemblages. Few detailed analyses of the material culture or even comprehensive excavation catalogs from Viereckschanzen have been published, so it is very difficult to assess in what ways the enclosures may be similar to, or different from, other kinds of Late Iron Age sites.

Artifacts from Mšecké Žehrovice apparently reflect a prosperous rural habitation in Bohemia. In contrast, the composition of published ceramic assemblages from some enclosures in southern Germany is different from other settlements of the period. Metalwork, such as tools, weaponry, and jewelry, that is common at larger settlements is rare in Viereckschanzen, although small hoards of iron implements have been found in a few enclosures. The faunal assemblages generally reflect normal proportions of animal species (such as pig and cattle) present at contemporary settlements, but there is an unusually large proportion of horse in the small assemblage from the newly excavated enclosure at Plattling-Pankofen. No Viereckschanzen have yielded deposits of animal parts that compare to patterns of ritual consumption and sacrifice at Belgic sanctuaries like Gournay-sur-Aronde. Human remains within Viereckschanzen are infrequent, although they are relatively common at the larger settlements, such as oppida. Celebrated finds of three-dimensional artwork, such as the stone head from outside the Mšecké Žehrovice enclosure and wooden carvings within the well at Fellbach-Schmiden, have generated much interest, but these discoveries are unique and provide little insight into the nature of other Viereckschanzen.


In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, German scholars developed a lively but speculative debate about the date and nature of the Viereckschanzen. They were originally interpreted as Roman storehouses or forts and eventually as indigenous Celtic stockyards, farms, cultic places, or fortifications constructed during the Roman conquest.

From 1957 to 1963, Klaus Schwarz conducted the first large-scale excavation of a well-preserved Viereckschanze at Holzhausen. Although there were few features and artifacts in the excavated portion of the interior, Schwarz uncovered three shafts (7 to 35 meters deep), a large post-built structure with a wraparound porch or ambulatory, and several hearths and burned areas. Schwarz believed that the Viereckschanze represented a Celtic sanctuary, or temenos, copied from Mediterranean examples and characterized by a cultic triad consisting of a temple with ambulatory (Umgangstempel), a ritual shaft, and devotional offerings or sacrifice. Schwarz's enthusiastic arguments for Viereckschanzen as Celtic religious sanctuaries colored their interpretation for the next three decades.

From the late 1950s to the 1980s, substantial portions of several Viereckschanzen were excavated in southern Germany. Although interpretations of the sites adhered faithfully to Schwarz's cult model, excavations showed that the interiors were characterized by considerable variability. Investigators discovered shafts similar to those at Holzhausen in a few enclosures (that is, Dornstadt-Tomerdingen, Fellbach-Schmiden, and Arnstorf-Wiedmais) but not in others (such as Ehningen). The discovery of a wooden bucket and well-house timbers in the base of the Fellbach-Schmiden shaft indicated that it was originally a well. Some sites had numerous buildings and associated features, while others were sparsely built or contained no identifiable structures. Buildings with ambulatories were reported at about half of the sites. All Viereckschanzen yielded relatively few artifacts compared to other Late Iron Age sites.

In the early 1990s, large-scale excavations in southern Germany (that is, Bopfingen-Flochberg, Plattling-Pankofen, and Nordheim) yielded evidence of Viereckschanzen embedded in larger settlement areas, and investigators began to question the assumed cultic nature of the Viereckschanze. Also, the cultic triad originally proposed by Schwarz for Holzhausen could not be consistently identified at an increasing number of excavated Viereckschanzen. Reflecting on the excavation of Bopfingen-Flochberg, Günther Wieland suggested that Viereckschanzen were focal points for groupings of associated farming communities. These "rural centers" embodied a multiplicity of functions: habitation, storage, sanctuary, refuge, communal ceremonies, and the protection of water sources, such as wells and springs. The model of Viereckschanze as rural center must be tested against fine-scale chronological studies of feature components at complex sites like Bopfingen-Flochberg. Since the traditional "relative" chronology for the Late La Tène horizon based on artifact typologies ranges across several generations (100 to 150 years), it is possible that individual settlement units and the Viereckschanze were actually occupied at different times. Evidence that some enclosures were used as habitations also comes from the eastern limit of the distribution of Viereckschanzen, where Natalie Venclová and her colleagues interpret the enclosure at Mšecké Žehrovice in Bohemia as an elite rural-industrial residence.

When pottery assemblages from Viereckschanzen are compared to those from other settlements of the time, certain differences between the assemblages may indicate that Viereckschanzen were used for communal rituals, such as feasting, which could explain their central role in some Late Iron Age settlement complexes. However, Venclová has criticized the suggestion that pottery from Viereckschanzen is distinguishable from domestic assemblages.

The Viereckschanzen were prominent elements of the Late Iron Age landscape in southern Germany and adjacent regions, and they probably served multiple functions. They were integrated into contemporary settlement systems and were also placed to take advantage of preexisting funerary monuments. Although there is a range of complexity in interior layout and material culture, all Viereckschanzen shared a similar conception, which was the act of enclosing space through construction of a ditch and rampart into which access was restricted. This act of enclosing was based on a tightly controlled construction template that had no uniform defensive purpose but instead created a systematically delineated and enduring place in the landscape.

See alsoDating and Chronology (vol. 1, part 1); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6).


Bittel, Kurt, Siegwald Schiek, and Dieter Müller. Die keltischen Viereckschanzen. Stuttgart, Germany: Kommissionsverlag K. Theiss, 1990. (A comprehensive catalog of all known Viereckschanzen in Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany. Includes many informative essays about the construction, layout, setting and topography, artifact assemblages, and chronology.)

Irlinger, Walter. "Viereckschanze und Siedlung—Überlegungen zu einem forschungsgeschichtlichen Problem anhand ausgewählter südbayerischer Fundorte." In Festschrift für Otto-Herman Frey zum 65. Geburtstag. Edited by Claus Dobiat and Dirk Vorlauf, pp. 285–304. Marburg, Germany: Hitzeroth, 1994.

Murray, Matthew L. "Viereckschanzen and Feasting: Socio-Political Ritual in Iron-Age Central Europe." Journal of European Archaeology 3, no. 2 (1995): 125–151. (The only English-language summary of Viereckschanzen research; includes an original analysis of ceramic assemblages that suggests Viereckschanzen were feasting places.)

Rieckhoff-Pauli, Sabine, and Jörg Biel. Die Kelten inDeutschland. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 2001. (A summary of the Iron Age archaeological record in Germany. Provides important background context to the Viereckschanzen.)

Schwarz, Klaus. "Die geschichte eines keltischen temenos im nördlichen Alpenvorland." Ausgrabungen in Deutschland. Vol. 1. Mainz, Germany: Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseums, 1975. (A summary of excavations at the important site of Holzhausen, which was the basis for the persistent interpretation of Viereckschanzen as religious sanctuaries until the early 1990s, an idea disputed by Günther Wieland in his 1999 book.)

Venclová, Natalie. Mˇsecké Žehrovice in Bohemia: Archaeological Background to a Celtic Hero, 3rd–2nd Cent.b.c. Sceaux, France: Kronos Editions, 1998. (A comprehensive English-language report of excavations conducted at a multiple enclosure in the Czech Republic; presents the author's belief that the site is an elite rural-industrial household.)

——. "On Enclosures, Pots, and Trees in the Forest." Journal of European Archaeology 5, no. 1 (1997): 131–150. (A critique of Matthew L. Murray's idea that feasting can be identified in the ceramic assemblages of Viereckschanzen in southern Germany. Argues that the assemblages from Viereckschanzen cannot be distinguished from settlement remains.)

Wieland, Günther, ed. Keltische Viereckschanzen:Einem Rätsel auf der Spur. Stuttgart, Germany: Theiss, 1999. (Presents the argument that Viereckschanzen were central foci within associated rural communities. Provides useful summaries of many of the most important Viereckschanzen, including all sites mentioned in this entry.)

Matthew L. Murray