Over the last 20 years, much fieldwork and research has been undertaken on the so-called Kreisgrabenanlagen or rondels, a type of circular monument comprising ditches and post-built rings that appeared and flourished across Europe in the early fifth millennium BC. In light of the increase in data, the monograph under review is an important contribution to rondel research. The authors have a profound knowledge of the archaeology of this period in Central Europe and in the field of rondel research, having undertaken excavations on numerous sites. As the title suggests, however, the authors’ aim goes beyond Kreisgrabenanlagen, and they challenge the traditional view that societies in the Stroke pottery/Lengyel periods were egalitarian.
Chapter 2 summarises anthropological schemes of social differentiation that classify communities, particularly with respect to hierarchy and the size of the social unit. The problems inherent in studies of demographics and population are emphasised, but unfortunately are not returned to subsequently. The chapter includes a list of archaeologically detectable attributes of Big Man and chiefdom societies. The application of these criteria is difficult, however, as the authors acknowledge. As the table is considered a central tool for interpretation, it merits a more detailed explanation than it receives, which is limited to how anthropology may be translated into archaeological criteria. Another shortcoming is the lack of alternatives presented, such as rondels as expressions of common social practices rather than leadership.
There is consensus amongst archaeologists that rondels were sacred structures, although they may also have served other purposes and, indeed, have been multifunctional. In Chapter 3, it is concluded that a sacred function for rondels cannot be sustained on the current evidence. Despite increasing discussion in the literature, detailed publications of excavated rondel sites are, with a few exceptions, unavailable. It would therefore have been instructive to consider that similar circular monuments existed until the early first millennium BC in Central Europe. These, particularly Pömmelte, in Germany, point towards a primarily sacred use. This is relevant as the existence of sacred centres as a characteristic of chiefdom societies is a central tenet of the argument for hierarchical society during the early fifth millennium BC.
Chapter 5 is dedicated to rondels with nearby settlements. While the rondels and associated features are considered extensively, nearby settlements are mentioned only briefly, and should have been more thoroughly explored. Furthermore, some of the chosen case studies beyond Bohemia—where the authors’ expertise lies—have few publications on nearby settlements. The reasons for the choice of sites are unclear and, regrettably, Hungarian sites are not considered.
The structural analysis of rondels in Chapter 6 begins with the premise that if “a certain rondel prototype, or prototypes, occurs repeatedly throughout a large area [these could be] a shared manifestation of (religious?) activities that transcend […] archaeological cultures and cultural groups” (p. 67). Equally, however, it can be argued that the very existence of rondels already supports this idea. The observation that slight variations, concerning only a few characteristics of the palisade trenches and ditches, suggest a regional differentiation is disputable. It is more plausible to assume local building traditions with minor differences in the overall distribution area of rondels, as other characteristics fail to show distinct regional variation.
The main question, flagged in the book's title, is addressed in Chapter 6. After considering labour effort and the idea of collaborative construction as important aspects of rondels, the authors suggest that an individual or group with capabilities exceeding those of a Big Man must have planned and organised construction. Although a central authority certainly is a prerequisite, this does not necessarily imply the expression or demonstration of power of a high-status social entity. It is equally conceivable that the will of the community was realised by someone in charge, who perhaps also possessed the required knowledge and the social skills.
Chapter 7 presents, rather briefly, radiocarbon data collected for 15 rondels (representing only one-tenth of all known rondels). The authors focus on the chronology of the ditches. Using Bayesian modelling, they observe that in the western rondel areas (Germany, Czech Republic), infilling started before 4800 BC; in the eastern areas (Lower Austria, Hungary), it was later. This is a controversial conclusion as Hungarian ring enclosures at Sé-Malomi-dűlő and Sormás-Török-földek are supposed to date before 4800 BC. The latter site is interpreted as showing the evolution of a genuinely ritual space in the form of a typical Lengyel rondel and its separation from domestic space, that is, the birth of the rondel phenomenon. That Hungarian rondels have not been considered is therefore a regrettable shortcoming. The authors’ proposition of a longer tradition with maintenance (e.g. cleaning or recutting) of the ditches in the (south)east may support a western origin for the rondels.
Chapter 7 goes on to reveal perplexing results from the ditches of four Czech rondels. The results of Bayesian modelling show an inverse stratigraphy, with the lower fills returning a later date than the upper fills. The results are an important contribution to understanding taphonomy and the construction and maintenance of rondels. A more detailed discussion of the infill sequences and their Bayesian chronology, including the modelled dates, would have been a welcome addition. Furthermore, the limited sampling strategy (in almost all cases only one date per level) makes detailed modelling difficult.
In Chapters 8 and 9, rondels are seen in the context of regional settlement systems in order to search for evidence of a settlement hierarchy, interrelation and social ranking. Notably, the only evidence demonstrating this comes from the Great Hungarian Plain—the only time this region is considered—whereas little or no evidence exists from rondels in other regions, although a certain ‘centralisation’ can be observed in all regions. These conclusions are verified with detailed studies of Bohemia, emphasising the distinction between rondel settlements and settlements without rondels. Again, there are no, or at best slight, indicators of a difference between them. The suggestion of a general trend for large settlements or settlement agglomerations in Middle Neolithic Bohemia is compromised by the simple chronology applied. The fact that several areas, with and without rondels, with a much higher site density are available for study relativises these conclusions.
The synthesis in Chapter 10 reconsiders arguments to interpret rondels as the architecture of power. The conclusion that rondel settlements were particularly important is, however, not supported by the data presented throughout the book. It rather demonstrates the contrary (with the exception of the Hungarian Plain), that rondel settlements do not differ from other settlements. Nevertheless, the authors believe that rondels imply some sort of leadership, particularly of a chiefdom society. As archaeology alone cannot answer this question, among the presented anthropological models that of ‘group-oriented chiefdoms’ is favoured. Finally, the authors propose a narrative of the rondel builders in the fifth millennium BC, suggesting that ‘mini-systems’, connected by a mutual spirituality, stimulated the emergence of hierarchical clan structures, and that the emancipation of formerly subsidiary clans led to the spread of the rondel phenomenon. This is a plausible explanation but difficult to prove. The interpretation demonstrates the limits of archaeology and the need to turn to other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, as the authors do in an exemplary way in this book. Limitations notwithstanding, this book offers an integrative approach focusing on Bohemia and combining data on a distinctive form of communal architecture, with evidence from settlements and burials to understand rondels within micro-regional settlement systems and wider social organisation.