BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access November 3, 2021

Setting the Boundaries of Early Neolithic Settlement Sites: The Ditch-Digging Practices in the Eastern Balkans

Nikolina Nikolova
From the journal Open Archaeology

Abstract

This article presents the current state of research on the Early Neolithic settlement enclosures in the Eastern Balkans (ca. 6200/6000–5500 cal. BC), with a focus set on the ditch-digging practices. A large database was accumulated in the last decade during surface surveys, large-scale excavations, and geomagnetic prospection, demonstrating conclusively that ditch enclosures were indeed a tradition rather than an exception. In the Eastern Balkans, enclosures consist mostly of single or multiple ditches and rarely a combination of ditch and wooden, emplectum, or a stone wall. Moreover, some sites existed long enough that the development of the settlement pattern demanded also changes in the enclosures’ layout and/or design. Most of the settlements were enclosed as early as their initial stages. However, no enclosure features have been identified at the earliest Neolithic sites in the area even though this might reflect biased research strategies.

1 Introduction

Even though the Early Neolithic[1] is one of the well-studied periods in the Bulgarian prehistory and great attention has been paid to its periodization and absolute dating, pottery tradition, settlement layout and house interior, rituals, and believes, the enclosure features are still relatively new topic. A large database was accumulated in the last two decades, with surface surveys and large-scale excavations demonstrating conclusively that ditch enclosures were indeed a tradition rather than an exception.

This article discusses the enclosure building practices based on evidence from the EN Eastern Balkans. The research of the EN settlement sites varies considerably in the area due to the preferred excavation strategies throughout the years as well as other subjective and objective reasons. Thus, the majority of the available enclosure examples show the stable distribution in the two best-studied regions of Upper Thrace and Southwest Bulgaria, which, undoubtedly, does not reflect the favored location for their construction but rather the current state of research. In accordance with the overview of the EN investigations in Bulgaria (vide infra), it is clear that digging a ditch was the preferred practice for enclosing settlement sites. The increased use of geomagnetic prospection in the past decade – admittedly, mostly in Upper Thrace – demonstrated the common appearance of such features. Therefore, the focus of this study is set on the EN ditches unearthed in the area rather than the extremely rare different enclosure types (wooden, emplectum or stone walls, and sometimes earthen ramparts).

The position and the layout of the ditches within the particular settlement area, the presence or absence of additional enclosure constructions, as well as the type of their backfills are all indirect evidence of the enclosures’ functions. The decision for the enclosures building along with the energy and time invested in their digging and maintenance makes a convincing case for the existence of well-organized collective labor in the EN of the Eastern Balkans. The digging of deep ditches, which enclosed more or less regular round or oval areas, seems to have followed a pre-planned strategy. Whether the planning was the result of a common decision or a centralized management, or a combination of both, the construction itself required the involvement of a significant portion of the population and possibly the engagement of people from neighboring villages (Whittle, 1988).

1.1 The Current State of Research on Early Neolithic Settlement Sites in Bulgaria

The Neolithic in Bulgaria has traditionally been divided into three phases: early, middle, and late. This periodization scheme was introduced for the first time by Georgi I. Georgiev in 1961 based on the stratigraphic evidence from Tell Karanovo in Upper Thrace and thus was called the “Karanovo Chronological System” (Georgiev, 1961, 1974). Georgiev considered the different Neolithic phases of Bulgaria in the context of the contemporaneous Neolithic cultures in the Balkans, which completely changed the chronological concepts of the time. According to the Karanovo System, the two lowermost levels (I and II) of the eponymous tell dated to the EN. The Karanovo division has been accepted by most Bulgarian archaeologists, with minor refining within the middle and late Neolithic (Nikolov, 1998; Todorova & Vajsov, 1993, pp. 64–93). Thus far, the available radiocarbon dates set the beginning of the Neolithic in Bulgaria ca. 6200/6000 cal. BC or a bit earlier although neither at Tell Karanovo itself nor in Upper Thrace for that matter. The earliest evidence comes from sites in the Struma, Yantra, and Rusenski Lom Valleys where the so-called “Early Neolithic monochrome” and/or a Pre-Karanovo phase has been identified (Boyadzhiev, 2009, pp. 10–19; Chohadzhiev, 2002; Elenski, 2000, 2008; Krauß, 2011; Krauß et al., 2014; Stefanova, 1998; Weninger et al., 2014). The EN ends with the Karanovo II phase after 5700–5500/5450 cal. BC (Görsdorf & Bojadžiev, 1996, p. 107, Add. 1; Thissen & Reingruber, 2017, pp. 137–160).

More than 180 EN sites have been recorded so far. Their actual number is probably much higher, but in this article, I consider only sites that have been published or referred to in the archaeological literature. Almost half of them were identified through surface surveys; the rest have been excavated to a lesser or greater degree, in smaller or larger trenches, and through regular or rescue digs. Just about 10% of the sites were investigated using geoarcheological techniques. All this determines the diverse value of the sites’ databases. I should also point out that some parts of the study area are underinvestigated, a common problem for the Balkans and Anatolia as well.

The study area is divided into five major regions (Figure 1 and Table 1): (1) Upper Thrace (the Maritsa, Tundzha, and Arda River Valleys); (2) Southwest Bulgaria (the Struma and Mesta River Valleys, Sofia Basin, and the Zlatitsa-Pirdop Basin); (3) Northwest Bulgaria (the Danubean Plain between the Timok and Yantra Rivers); (4) North Central Bulgaria (the Yantra and Rusenski Lom River Valleys); and (5) Northeast Bulgaria (the Danubean Plain and the Kamchia River Valley).

  1. Upper Thrace has been an area of archeological interest ever since the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century (Nikolov, 2003). No comprehensive study on the EN settlement network in the area has been done, except a few micro-regional analyses (e.g., Gaydarska, 2007; Leshtakov, 2014a; Lichardus & Iliev, 2000; Nikolova, 1998; Valchev, 2019), and a catalog of EN sites in Bulgaria was published by Gatsov and Boyadzhiev (2009). Until now about 60 EN sites have been registered along the Maritsa, Tundzha, and Arda Rivers and their tributaries. Around 30 of them are thought to have been settlement sites, and the type of the rest is yet to be clarified. The valleys along the middle courses of Sazliyka and Maritsa Rivers were the most densely populated areas in the Karanovo I period. The sites are distanced at 2–5 to 10–15 km from each other; they are situated next to the present river banks or at small tributary streams, even though their contemporaneity is questionable and should be further examined. They are located on sloping or flat floodplain terraces and sometimes on natural elevations. Flat and stratified sites predominate. Some of the EN settlements along the Sazliyka and stretches of the Tundzha Rivers as well as in the westernmost part of Upper Thrace evolved to become tell sites, e.g., Azmak, Kazanlak, Karanovo, Kapitan Dimitrievo, Chernichevo. There are no settlement mounds per se in the Middle Maritsa and Arda Valleys; open-air sites with deposits sometimes exceeding 2 or 3 m thick is the common type (e.g., the site of Kardzhali). EN materials have been unearthed in just one cave near the village of Yagodina (Georgiev, 1961, p. 61). The single pre-Karanovo site identified in this region is Kuklen, which is situated at the foothills of the West Rhodope Mountains (Chohadzhiev, 2002). No radiocarbon dates are available to place the monochrome horizon here in the timescale. Most of the recorded sites were founded within the first two centuries of the sixth millennium BC.

  2. The middle and upper Struma Valley and the Sofia Basin is another well-studied region in Bulgaria. The first archeological excavations began in the early twentieth century, and the research intensified in the second half of the century (Čohadžiev, 1998). Several works discuss in detail the settlement distribution in the area (Chohadzhiev, 1978; Chohadzhiev, 2007; Genadieva, 2007; Grębska-Kulow, 2017; Grębska-Kulowa & Kulow, 2007; Lichardus-Itten, Demoule, Perničeva, Grebska-Kulova, & Kulov, 2002; Pernicheva, 1995). The number of the identified EN sites exceeds 40, and half of them have been partially excavated. Usually, the settlements are located on river terraces. The sites are mostly of the flat and stratified type; only two settlement mounds (Galabnik and Negovantsi) and a cave settlement (Chetirtsi) have been found. Settlement areas vary considerably between 1 and 7 ha; deposits measure from only 0.20–0.50 to 2.50–4 m thick (Chohadzhiev, 2007, p. 51). The Upper Struma valley seems to have been densely populated, but then again, I should remind that not all of the sites existed contemporaneously. Many of the sites yielded pottery assemblages of a pre-Karanovo style (e.g., Kovačevo, Galabnik, Vaksevo, Eleshnitsa, Slatina); only at Krainitsi, the lowermost horizon has been assigned by the excavators to the monochrome phase (Chohadzhiev, Bakamska, & Ninov, 2007). Kovačevo is the best-investigated settlement in the region; it was excavated from 1986 to 2002 (Lichardus-Itten et al., 2002). Four EN phases have been distinguished (from Ia to Id), covering the time span between 6120 and 5640 cal. BC and thus being one of the earliest EN sites in Bulgaria. It seems that several chronologically successive villages have existed, extending over an area of about 5 ha, whose buildings were at roughly the same levels. A terrace layout for the settlement organization has been also proposed.

  3. The investigation of the EN in Northwest Bulgaria began relatively late with the exception of a brief campaign at the Devetaki Cave in the 1920s. The excavation at that site has been relaunched as late as the 1950s (Mikov & Djambazov, 1960), and in the following two decades, Bogdan Nikolov carried out numerous surface surveys and digs, mainly between the Ogosta and Iskar Rivers (Nikolov, 1962, 1974). So far, about 20 sites have been identified altogether, mostly of the flat types as well as two cave settlements. They are situated on river terraces or gentle slopes and in fluvial plains and cover between 0.5 and 2 ha, with a single exception (7 ha). Where data are available, deposits vary from 0.20–0.50 to 1–1.40 m thick. Ohoden is the single site that has been the subject to long-term excavations. It is located on the bank of a stream and seems to have existed throughout the whole EN sequence, from ca. 6060 to 5550 BC (Ganetsovski, 2009; Ganetsovski, Miteva, & Zlateva-Uzunova, 2020, pp. 14–15).

  4. More than 20 EN sites have been identified in North Central Bulgaria. No evidence of EN occupation has been discovered in the flat parts of the Danubean Plain but rather in the foothills of the Balkan Range or in the rolling terrain in the west periphery of the Ludogorie Plateau. Small-scale archeological investigations started at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, first by Rafail Popov at the Belyakovets Plateau. However, it was not until the 1970s that intensive research took place (Popov, 1996, pp. 10–20; Stanev, 2002, pp. 16–30). The flat site is the most common settlement type. A single stratified site has been identified, and EN pottery sherds have been found at several cave sites, for the most part near Hotnitsa and Belyakovets villages. The settlements are situated on river or stream terraces, on low plateaus near springs or on gentle slopes, and are distanced at 2–10 to 20–30 km from each other. The occupied area measures from 0.2 to 1 ha, and the deposits vary between 0.4–0.7 and 1.5–2 m thick. It has been noted that most of the earliest settlements were founded close to water sources but on a relatively high ground compared to the surrounding area (Chohadzhiev, 2002, pp. 15–16). Dzhulyunitsa is the single EN site in the region that has been subject to long-term investigation; it has been excavated from 2001 up to the present day. Four EN levels were identified, with radiocarbon dates concentrating between 6100 and 5900 cal. BC. The pottery assemblage shows characteristics of the so-called pre-Karanovo I style, being one of the earliest EN sites not only in the region but in Bulgaria as well (Dzhanfezova, Doherty, & Elenski, 2014; Krauß et al., 2014).

  5. Northeast Bulgaria stands out as a blank spot on the map of EN sites’ distribution. The only excavated site in the Danubean Plain is Malak Preslavets, which is situated on the shore of a lake less than 200 m from the right bank of the Danube River (Panaiotov, Gatsov, & Popova, 1992). The rest of the sites have been recorded mostly through surface surveys in the Kamchiya River Valley. Of approximately 30 registered sites, less than ten have been excavated. The material culture mostly dates to a later EN phase (Klasnakov, 2010; Todorova, Vasilev, Yanushevich, Kovacheva, & Valev, 1983, pp. 7–15; Venelinova, 2014). The stratified site of Varbitsa was founded in the first half of the EN (Venelinova et al., 2018), and at Polyanitsa-Platoto, a monochrome horizon is attested (Todorova, 1990). The lack of published research restricts us from outlining the basic settlement characteristics and precise location preferences.

Figure 1 
                  Distribution map of the Early Neolithic sites (black dots) and enclosed sites (red dots) in Bulgaria. (1) Yabalkovo 1; (2) Yabalkovo 2; (3) Nova Nadezhda; (4) Pilyov kaynak; (5) Kazlacha; (6) Azmak; (7) Eleshnitsa; (8) Kovačevo; (9) Ilindentsi; (10) Brezhani; (11) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi; (12) Vaksevo–Studena voda; (13) Bersin; (14) Mursalevo; (15) Slatina–Sofia; (16) Mirkovo; (17) Chavdar; (18) Ohoden; (19) Samovodene; (20) Kovachevets; (21) Varbitsa; and (22) Ovcharovo-Gorata.

Figure 1

Distribution map of the Early Neolithic sites (black dots) and enclosed sites (red dots) in Bulgaria. (1) Yabalkovo 1; (2) Yabalkovo 2; (3) Nova Nadezhda; (4) Pilyov kaynak; (5) Kazlacha; (6) Azmak; (7) Eleshnitsa; (8) Kovačevo; (9) Ilindentsi; (10) Brezhani; (11) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi; (12) Vaksevo–Studena voda; (13) Bersin; (14) Mursalevo; (15) Slatina–Sofia; (16) Mirkovo; (17) Chavdar; (18) Ohoden; (19) Samovodene; (20) Kovachevets; (21) Varbitsa; and (22) Ovcharovo-Gorata.

Table 1

List of the Early Neolithic sites in Bulgaria grouped in the five major regions discussed in the text and shown in Figure 1

Region 1. Upper Thrace – the Maritsa, Tundzha and Arda River Valleys
Azmak mound Dositeevo (Northeast) Kazlacha Lesovo 2 Perushtitsa (Izvora) Svilengrad-Burdenis
Banya Dunadzhijska mound Kliment-Banyata Lesovo 3 Petelovo Tsiganova mogila
Belovo Glufishevo Kliselika Madzherito Podkova Velikan
Belozem Grafitovo Konevets Mechka Rakitovo Vetren
Bereketska mound Kalitinovo gerena Kovach Mednikarovo Sedlari Yabalkovo 1
Bikovo Kapitan Dimitrievo Krepost Miladinovtsi Shishmanovo Yabalkovo 2
Chernichevo Karanovo Krumovgrad Mogilovo Simeonovgrad Yagodinska cave
Dabene-Pishtikova mogila Kardzhali Kuklen Muldava Sladak kladenets Yambol (Garlata)
Dobrich (Elhovo) Karlovo Lalkovo Nova Nadezhda Starozagorski min. bani Zavoi (Golyamata mogila)
Dorkovo Kazanlak Lesovo 1 Pilyov kaynak Stara Zagora Zlatna mogila
Region 2. Struma and Mesta River Valleys and the Zlatitsa-Pirdop Basin
Bachevo Divotino Gabrov dol Kovačevo Negovantsi Sapareva banya
Balgarcevo Dobrinishte Galabnik Krainitsi Nevestino Saparevo
Belitsa Dolistovo Ginova mogila (Chelopech) Kremikovtsi Pchelintsi Shishkovtski
Bersin Drenkovo (Ploshteko) Ilindentsi Kurilo Pernik Slatina
Brezhani Drenkovo (Garleshki nivi) Kamenik Kutugertsi Piperkov chiflik Vaksevo (Studena voda)
Buhovo Dupnitsa Katuntsi (Balkona) Lozen Ploski Vinogradi
Chavdar Dzherman Katuntsi (Turski dol) Mirkovo Priboi Yakoruda
Chetirtsi Eleshnitsa Kocherinovo Mursalevo Rebrovo Yana
Region 3. Danubean Plain between the Timok and Yantra Rivers
Banitsa Devetaki cave Gradeshnitsa – Malo pole Mayor Uzunovo Tabashka cave Varbitsa
Barkachevo Dolna Gnoenitsa Kameno pole Ohoden Tlachene Vidin (site 10003442)
Belotintsi Gorna Beshovitsa Kosta Perchevo Rebarkovo Tsakonitsa Yarlovitsa
Brenitsa Gorna Kremena Kunino
Region 4. Yantra and Rusenski Lom River Valleys
Belyakovets-plochite Dzhulyunitsa (Smardesh) Harlovata peshtera (cave) Koprivets Orlovets Strelets
Borovo (Chakmaktepe) Emenska cave Hotnitsa (Mechata dupka cave) Kovachevets Pomoshtitsa Suhindol
Cherven (Chochana) Golyamata lisitsa (cave) Hotnitsa (The east cave) Malkata lisitsa (cave) Samovodene Tsarskata peshtera (cave)
Drinovo (rezervata) Golyamata peshtera (cave) Hotnitsa (vodopada) Malkata peshtera (cave)
Region 5. Kamchiya River Valley and the Danubean Plain east of the Rusenski Lom River
Bata-Bozalatsite Gebeklise Malak Preslavets Ovcharovo-Platoto I Rish 2 Targovishte (Kalkovo)
Boryana Golyamo Delchevo Malomir Ovcharovo-Zemnika 1 Ruetz 1 Tranak
Bozhurovo Imrenchevo Martvitsata Pevets Ruetz 2 Tsonevo
Byala reka Komunari Obitel Polyanitsa-Platoto Saedinenie Varbitsa
Dalgopol Balkuzu Lilyak Ovcharovo-Gorata Rish 1 Strazha 1 Veselinovo
Draganovets Lovets

2 Setting the Boundaries of the First Farmers’ Settlements

Until recently, the EN settlements have been thought to be unenclosed, and only few features were said to represent fortification works (Nikolov, 2011, pp. 81–82; Raduncheva, 1992; Todorova & Vajsov, 1993, p. 57). New research in the past decade necessitates a reconsideration of this concept. More than 20 enclosed sites were found that give insights into the ways the earliest settlers used to set the boundaries of their settlements.

The method by which an occupation area can be demarcated varies considerably from physical to invisible barriers. The latter form imaginary lines, which are known only to the inhabitants of the specific settlement and its neighbors (Tringham, 1972, pp. 464–465). These were probably defined by some landmarks in the surrounding area. The visible settlement boundaries can be natural or artificial features, and sometimes the two alternatives are combined together. In some of the cases, the decision of a community to physically enclose its settlement area seems to have depended, at least partially, on environmental determinants. It is reasonable to suggest that when settling at naturally prominent places such as hills, promontories, areas delimited by river, ravines, cliffs, or other landscape features, no additional demarcation was of crucial importance. On the contrary, when the chosen place was not naturally “delineated,” the construction of an artificial barrier was usually required. In the cases of a combination of prominent landscape features and artificial boundaries, one should look what was the specific motivation, e.g., fortification strategies and/or declaration of social identity or power. In several instances, one or more sides of the settlements were naturally defended, and a construction or modification of the terrain delimited the approachable sides. The chosen type of physical boundary was determined by specific needs, the environment, and the available raw materials as well as by the technological skills of the social group. For example, stone walls would have been built in rocky areas where the technological know-how of stone working has been already developed. Ditches would have been dug where the land characteristics were favorable, i.e., not in rugged terrains.

Thus far, evidence of artificial enclosures is available from 22 sites in Bulgaria dating to various phases of the EN (Figure 1). The limited number of enclosures seems to be the result of the state of research in the described regions and specifically of the excavation strategies. In the twentieth century, the archeological research was focused mostly on settlement mounds and in their core area. Moreover, the thickest deposits in their central and highest parts were selected for excavation trenches, where no enclosures are located. More recently, geomagnetic prospection showed that settlement enclosures were indeed a common practice rather than an exception.

For the first time, man-made barriers were revealed during the excavations in the late 1960s and the 1970s when the uncovered features were interpreted as fortification works. An earthen bank enclosed the earliest settlement at Tell Azmak (Georgiev, 1965, p. 7). The settlement of Chavdar was surrounded by an earthen rampart with a wooden palisade on top and probably by a shallow ditch that defended it from the north, east, and west, and from the south, it was naturally delineated by the Topolnitsa River (Georgiev, 1981, p. 69; 1972, p. 298; Kovachev, 2012, p. 12). A feature uncovered at the southern edge of the Ovcharovo–Gorata flat site has been debatably interpreted as an emplectum wall, a rampart, or a ditch with a gravel covered base (Angelova, 1992; Todorova & Vajsov, 1993, p. 157; Krauß, 2014, pp. 297–298). In the last three decades of the twentieth century, four more enclosures have been unearthed. A ditch was probably surrounding the southern periphery of the Kovačevo Ic settlement, and another ditch or a drainage channel runs south of it in the next Id phase (Lichardus-Itten et al., 2002, pp. 115–116). A small stretch of a ditch was uncovered at the settlement of Eleshnitsa (Raduncheva & Nikolov, 1985, p. 22). At Vaksevo–Studena voda, remains of an emplectum wall seem to have been found (Chohadzhiev, 2001, p. 15). The earliest settlements at Samovodene (phase A, XI–X horizons) were bounded to the west by a palisade. To the east, north, and south, the settlement was naturally defended by the high steep bank of the Yantra River and by small streams (Stanev, 2002, pp. 58–59). During the Middle Neolithic A2–B1 phase, when the settlement area expanded to the west, the fortification system evolved into a combination of a ditch, an earthen rampart and an emplectum wall (Elenski, 2005; Stanev, 2002, p. 59). Another example comes from an EN site at Kovachevets where the debris of stone wall was recorded during surface surveys (Torbatov & Stoyanov, 2011, p. 538).

A good illustration for the combined use of both natural features and artificial construction is the enclosure found at the settlement of Mursalevo, which is situated on the first river terrace on the left bank of the river Struma (Nikolov et al., 2015). The EN site is located between two deep ravines surrounding it from the north/northwest and south/southeast. Stone foundation of a wall was unearthed immediately next to the inner edge of the southern ravine. To the west, the settlement was bounded by the Struma River and thus was entirely enclosed by the available landscape features and by the additional wall construction that was probably built for practical reasons.

3 Ditch Enclosures

Most of the enclosed sites have been discovered over the past decade. Almost exclusively, the physical boundaries of the sites are related to the ditch-digging practice. The ditches are mostly of the continuous type, single or multiple (but, for the most part, asynchronous), entirely or partially surrounding the residential area. The very rare segmented examples consist of elongated or more rounded pit-like sections. Although mostly stretches from ditches have been excavated, the available results of magnetic mapping suggest that the enclosures’ layout tends to be more or less circular or slightly oval. The enclosure area varies considerably throughout the study region from only 0.1 to 0.5 ha to the remarkable 3.8 ha.

The available database for the ditches displays two main distribution zones (Figure 2). Ditch enclosures are found predominantly in Upper Thrace as well as in the Struma Valley and the Sofia Basin. Only three examples were identified north of the Balkan Range, and the single enclosure was excavated in the area, at Ohoden, where the excavator described two parallel ditches flanking a platform feature from the east and west (Ganetsovski, 2016, 2018). It remains unclear to me whether these were indeed ditches and not trenches or features with special purposes as different ritual activities have been identified at the site (Ganetsovski, 2009, 2018). Furthermore, at this stage, it is difficult to determine the position of the ditches within the site’s layout. There are two more cases, in the Upper Kamchiya River Valley, distanced at ca. 20 km from each other: the aforementioned debatable enclosure feature at Ovcharovo–Gorata (wall/rampart/ditch) and most probably a ditch surrounding the west/southwest periphery of the site of Varbitsa (Grigorov, Venelinova, Boyadzhiev, Gurova, & Vasilev, 2016, p. 79, Figure 1; Tsankov, Grigorov, & Venelinova, 2015). The latter was mapped by a geomagnetic prospection and later was test trenched. The excavators describe it as a natural ravine (Grigorov et al., 2016), but the results of such a limited excavation area should not be concluding.

Figure 2 
               Distribution map of ditch enclosures in Northwest Anatolia (Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic), Bulgaria (EN), Republic of North Macedonia (EN), and North Greece (Early and Middle Neolithic). (1) Aktopraklık; (2) Barcın Hӧyük; (3) Ilıpınar; (4) Pendik; (5) Aşağı Pınar; (6) Nova Nadezhda; (7) Yabalkovo 1; (8) Yabalkovo 2; (9) Pilyov kaynak; (10) Kazlacha; (11) Varbitsa; (12) Ohoden; (13) Mirkovo; (14) Slatina–Sofia; (15) Bersin; (16) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi; (17) Brezhani; (18) Ilindentsi; (19) Kovačevo; (20) Eleshnitsa; (21) Anzabegovo; (22) Govrlevo; (23) Tumba–Brvenitsa; (24) Vrbjanska Čuka; (25) Apsalos–Grammi; (26) Giannitsa B; (27) Nea Nikomedeia; (28) Lete I; (29) Stavroupoli; (30) Paliambela Kolindros; (31) Korinos–Revenia; (32) Ag. Nikolaos–Ritini; (33) Kryovrysi of Kranidion; (34) Anarghiri XI; (35) Servia; (36) Makrychori; (37) Soufli Magoula; (38) Argissa; (39) Achilleion; (40) Perdika 1; (41) Almiros 2; and (42) Rizomilos 2.

Figure 2

Distribution map of ditch enclosures in Northwest Anatolia (Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic), Bulgaria (EN), Republic of North Macedonia (EN), and North Greece (Early and Middle Neolithic). (1) Aktopraklık; (2) Barcın Hӧyük; (3) Ilıpınar; (4) Pendik; (5) Aşağı Pınar; (6) Nova Nadezhda; (7) Yabalkovo 1; (8) Yabalkovo 2; (9) Pilyov kaynak; (10) Kazlacha; (11) Varbitsa; (12) Ohoden; (13) Mirkovo; (14) Slatina–Sofia; (15) Bersin; (16) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi; (17) Brezhani; (18) Ilindentsi; (19) Kovačevo; (20) Eleshnitsa; (21) Anzabegovo; (22) Govrlevo; (23) Tumba–Brvenitsa; (24) Vrbjanska Čuka; (25) Apsalos–Grammi; (26) Giannitsa B; (27) Nea Nikomedeia; (28) Lete I; (29) Stavroupoli; (30) Paliambela Kolindros; (31) Korinos–Revenia; (32) Ag. Nikolaos–Ritini; (33) Kryovrysi of Kranidion; (34) Anarghiri XI; (35) Servia; (36) Makrychori; (37) Soufli Magoula; (38) Argissa; (39) Achilleion; (40) Perdika 1; (41) Almiros 2; and (42) Rizomilos 2.

In this text, I will focus on the ditches south of the Balkan Range as they constitute the main part of the database and have been investigated much better. In addition, several enclosures have recently been the subject of large-scale rescue excavations and thus yielded more complete evidence on the construction, filling, and recutting of the ditches as well as on their use.

3.1 Ditch Enclosures in Upper Thrace

Five ditch enclosures have been discovered along the Maritsa, Sazliyka, and Tundzha Rivers (Table 2). I have discussed the enclosures in more detail elsewhere (Nikolova, 2016, 2018) and will only briefly consider them here. Yabalkovo and Nova Nadezhda are situated immediately next to the right bank of the Maritsa and were large-scale excavated in advance of infrastructure projects (Bacvarov, Todorova, Katsarov, Petrova, & McSweeny, 2016; Roodenberg, Leshtakov, & Petrova, 2014). The EN existence of both sites covered the first half of the 6th mill. BC. Parts of two enclosures were revealed at Yabalkovo that seem to correspond to two consecutive settlements and thus are labeled as Yabalkovo 1 and 2 here although this does not reflect their relative chronology (Figure 3). Kazlacha and Pilyov kaynak were identified during magnetic prospection projects, and only a small-scale dig has been conducted at the former site (Bacvarov et al., 2016a; Petrova, Zidarov, & Miteva, 2016). The diagnostic pottery sherds that have been found suggest that both sites date to the white-painted phase of the EN. A circular or oval layout is common for all examples; it consists of three to five parallel ditches that existed consecutively. At Yabalkovo 1, three concentric ditches enclose entirely the settlement, and in the southern part, the innermost ditch intersects an earlier segmented ditch (Figures 3 and 6). Five parallel ditches are recorded at Nova Nadezhda and a wooden palisade complements the outermost ditch 5, plausibly one of the last functioned enclosures (Figure 4). Of course, when excavations have not been carried out, the chronology of the mapped anomalies remains unclear. In the case of Kazlacha (Figure 5a), the magnetic map shows that five separate enclosures comprised 1–4 concentric ditches, intersect each other, and thus probably date to different periods. Enclosure E was test-trenched, and two of the four ditches were confirmed. In the Pilyov kaynak example (Figure 5b), three concentric ditches are detected together with a smaller circular ditch in the enclosed space.

Table 2

Early Neolithic ditch enclosures in Upper Thrace: location, basic features, and dimensions

Site Region Location Number of ditches Research Surveyed area Layout or position to the settlement Enclosed area (ha) Additional features Description of the ditch Entrance Features in the enclosed area
Depth (m) Width top (m) Width base (m) Cross section
Yabalkovo 1 Upper thrace First river terrace of the Maritsa 4 Geomagnetic, excavations Around 1/4 of the circuits 3 Concentric ditches and a segmented ditch cut by the innermost ditch Pits, hearths/ovens, and buildings
Segmented ditch 70 m S Periphery 1.5/2 1.5 0.4/0.5 V
Inner ditch 160–170 m Slightly oval 2.5 2.5/2.8 2/3.5 0.3/0.8 V/U 2
Middle ditch 180–185 m Slightly oval 3.2 3.5/5 2.5/4 0.2/0.8 V
Outer ditch 170–175 m Slightly oval 3.8 2.2/3 1.5/3.5 0.2/0.8 V
Yabalkovo 2 Upper Thrace First river terrace of the Maritsa 5 Excavations Partially Probably the ditches from the E and W part correspond to one or two enclosures ∼1–2 Pits, hearths/ovens, buildings, and burials
Ditch 1 55 m NE periphery 1.8 2/3 0.4/0.9 V/U
Ditch 3 20 m E periphery 1.4 1.3/2.5 0.2/0.8 V
Ditch 4 15 m W periphery 0.5/0.7 1.5/1.8 0.4/0.7 V
Ditch 5 15 m W periphery 0.7 1/3 0.2/0.3 V
Ditch 6 15 m W periphery 1.4 2/2.5 0.3/0.7 V
Nova Nadezhda Upper Thrace High river terrace of the Maritsa 5 Geomagnetic, excavations Partially Open to the E towards a ravine Pits, hearths/ovens, and building(s)
Inner ditch 1 (feature 3) 9 m Oval 0.1 2.1 2 0.2/0.5 V
Ditch 2 (feature 56) 15 m Oval 0.18 1.3 1.3 0.2/0.4 V/U
Ditch 3 (feature 55) 20 m Oval 0.18 1.4 1.5/2.5 0.2/0.5 V/U
Ditch 4 (feature 54) 35 m Oval 0.3 2/2.9 2.5/4 0.2/0.7 V/U
Outer ditch 5 (feature 53) 40 m Oval 0.4 Palisade 1.8/2.5 2.3/3.5 0.2/0.5 V
Kazlacha Upper Thrace First river terrace of the Tundzha 4 Geomagnetic, trench Circular 2.2 ? Rectangular anomalies – buildings?
Inner ditch E1 Trench 1.5 m Circular ∼2 2.8 6.5 1.3 U
Ditch E2 Trench 1.5 m Circular ∼2.1 2 4.3 0.2 V
Pilyov Kaynak Upper Thrace River terrace of the Sazlijka 4 Geomagnetic Circular 0.13–1.45 ? Rectangular anomalies – buildings?

? – Unknown.

Figure 3 
                  Yabalkovo enclosures (after Roodenberg, Todorova, & Petrova, 2013, Figure 1, with modifications by the author). Main plan of Yabalkovo 1 enclosure (left); main plan of Yabalkovo 2 enclosure (top right); and the position of both enclosures within the infrastructure projects that affects them (bottom right).

Figure 3

Yabalkovo enclosures (after Roodenberg, Todorova, & Petrova, 2013, Figure 1, with modifications by the author). Main plan of Yabalkovo 1 enclosure (left); main plan of Yabalkovo 2 enclosure (top right); and the position of both enclosures within the infrastructure projects that affects them (bottom right).

Figure 4 
                  Nova Nadezhda enclosure (after Bacvarov, Katsarov, Nikolova, & Tsurev, 2020, with modifications by the author). Main plan of the excavated areas of the EN site (left) and main plan of the enclosure ditches in the northern part of the site (right).

Figure 4

Nova Nadezhda enclosure (after Bacvarov, Katsarov, Nikolova, & Tsurev, 2020, with modifications by the author). Main plan of the excavated areas of the EN site (left) and main plan of the enclosure ditches in the northern part of the site (right).

Figure 5 
                  Magnetic plans of ditch enclosures: (a) Kazlacha (Petrova et al., 2016, Figure 1); (b) Pilyov kaynak (Bacvarov et al., 2016a, Figure 2); (c) Brezhani (Grebska-Kulova & Zidarov, 2011a, Figure 2); (d) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi (Grebska-Kulova & Zidarov, 2011b, Figure 2).

Figure 5

Magnetic plans of ditch enclosures: (a) Kazlacha (Petrova et al., 2016, Figure 1); (b) Pilyov kaynak (Bacvarov et al., 2016a, Figure 2); (c) Brezhani (Grebska-Kulova & Zidarov, 2011a, Figure 2); (d) Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi (Grebska-Kulova & Zidarov, 2011b, Figure 2).

Structures, including buildings, thermal installations, and pits of various types, have been recorded within the enclosed area at Yabalkovo 1 and 2 and at Nova Nadezhda. Rectangular anomalies resembling burnt houses have been mapped within the enclosed areas at Kazlacha (enclosure E) and Pilyov kaynak.

In some cases, the settlement area is not completely enclosed by ditches, e.g., at Nova Nadezhda, where the enclosures are open toward a creek ravine running east of the settlement. A similar “open” layout can be suggested for the Yabalkovo 2 enclosure, where stretches of five ditches were unearthed at the westernmost and easternmost parts of the site (Figure 3). To the north, the ditches have probably terminated toward the old river bed of the Maritsa. The ditches in the western and eastern periphery of the site seem to correspond to one or two consecutive enclosures.

Some of the already filled – at least partially – ditches were later used as a ritual arena, as at Yabalkovo 1 where single burials were found in the three concentric ditches, and especially at Nova Nadezhda, where nearly 30 individuals were buried within and along ditch 4. Various deposits as completely or partially preserved vessels, situated on or closely to the ditch bottoms, can also be associated with ritual practices at these two sites.

Most of the enclosure ditches seem to have been in use for a long time, and the communities took special care to maintain them. This is visible in the cross sections of their fills as multiple cleanings and recuts (Figure 7), e.g., in the innermost ditch at Yabalkovo 1 where two parallel recuts, intersecting at some places, were uncovered as well as a third and latest one, consisting of elongated segments, which was exposed partially in the northern half of the enclosure (Figures 3, 6b, and 7). Similarly, both earlier recuts of the same ditch 4 at Nova Nadezhda were disturbed by the latest one that was later intentionally packed with burnt house debris (Figures 4 and 7).

Figure 6 
                  Yabalkovo 1 enclosure ditches: (a) panorama of the three concentric ditches in the southern part of the enclosure, view from the west (Leshtakov, 2014b, p. 192, Figure 64); (b) photograph of the two recuts of the inner ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the west; (c) photograph of the middle ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the west; (d) photograph of the outer ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the east (b–d, after Petrova, 2014).

Figure 6

Yabalkovo 1 enclosure ditches: (a) panorama of the three concentric ditches in the southern part of the enclosure, view from the west (Leshtakov, 2014b, p. 192, Figure 64); (b) photograph of the two recuts of the inner ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the west; (c) photograph of the middle ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the west; (d) photograph of the outer ditch in the northern part of the enclosure, view from the east (b–d, after Petrova, 2014).

Figure 7 
                  Drawings of ditch sections. Top: the three recuts of ditch 4 at Nova Nadezhda (Bacvarov et al., 2016, p. 154, Figure 3.1); and bottom: the three recuts of the inner ditch at Yabalkovo 1 (Petrova, 2014, p. 238, Figure 8.2).

Figure 7

Drawings of ditch sections. Top: the three recuts of ditch 4 at Nova Nadezhda (Bacvarov et al., 2016, p. 154, Figure 3.1); and bottom: the three recuts of the inner ditch at Yabalkovo 1 (Petrova, 2014, p. 238, Figure 8.2).

New ditches were usually constructed – closer or further but still parallel – outside of the earlier ones after an earlier ditch had been filled for good, whether as the result of natural processes or of deliberate human actions. These investments of time and efforts are suggestive of the ditches’ importance to the respective communities.

3.2 Ditch Enclosures in the Sofia Basin, the Struma and Mesta River Valleys

More perimeter ditches have been found in this area than in Upper Thrace (Table 3), but most of them are poorly published, and only small segments of their length or circumference were excavated, with the exception of the enclosures at Slatina–Sofia (Nikolov, 2019; Nikolov et al., 2019). The latter settlement was founded in the very beginning of the sixth millennium BC when it was surrounded by two (consecutive?) parallel ditches from the west (Figure 8a). A row of post-holes from wooden palisade has been recorded on the bottom of the inner ditch, immediately next to its outer wall. It seems that the ditches enclosed the settlement from three sides (?) and were probably open to the Slatinska River to the north/northeast. A massive wooden wall was constructed later (but within the same Slatina VIII phase) within the enclosed area, close and parallel to the inner ditch. Features associated with the two ditches in the enclosed area are yet to be revealed, but considering the close spacing of the houses in the upper levels (Nikolov & Takorova, 2018), a similar pattern might be suggested.

Table 3

Early Neolithic ditch enclosures in the Struma and Mesta River Valleys, Sofia Basin, and the Zlatitsa-Pirdop Basin: location, basic features, and dimensions

Site Region Location Number of ditches Research Surveyed area Layout or position to the settlement Enclosed area Additional features Description of the ditch Entrance Features in the enclosed area
Depth (m) Width top (m) Width base (m) Cross section
Kovachevo Middle Struma Valley Sloping edge of a stony alluvial terrace 1 Excavations Partially ∼30 m S Periphery ? Stone wall and palisade (?) ? ? ? \_/ Pits and buildings
Ilindentsi Middle Struma Valley On a slope at the foot of the Pirin Mountain 1 Geomagnetic, excavations Partially ∼15 m N periphery ∼3 ha Stone wall and palisade 0.6/1.8 2.2 1.2 \_/ Pits and buildings
Brezhani Middle Struma Valley High river terrace 3 Geomagnetic Circular ∼1.3 ha ? Buildings
Drenkovo (Garleshki nivi) Middle Struma Valley High river terrace 2 Geomagnetic Circular ∼2 ha ? Rectangular anomalies – buildings?
Bersin Upper Struma Valley River terrace 1 Excavations Partially 6 m W periphery ? 1.2/1.3 2.3/2.8 0.6/0.9 U Pits and buildings
Slatina Upper Struma Valley Left bank of the Statinska tiver 2 Excavations Partially Probably open towards the river to the E/NE ? Wooden wall E of the inner ditch (a bit later) No data for the enclosed features yet
Inner Ditch (feature 49) 25 m W periphery ? Palisade 0.8/1 2.4/3.5 0.9/1.8 U
Outer Ditch (feature 50) 18 m W periphery ? 0.8/1 >3 1/2 U?
Mirkovo Zlatitsa-Pirdop Basin River terrace 1 Geomagnetic, core drilling Circular ∼2 ha 5 ? Rectangular anomalies – buildings?
Eleshnitsa Upper Mesta Valley High river terrace 1 Excavations Partially 13 m SE periphery ? 1.2 2.2 1.6 \_/ Buildings

? – Unknown.

Figure 8 
                  Ditches in Southwest Bulgaria: (a) aerial photograph of the enclosure at Slatina–Sofia (Nikolov & Takorova, 2018, p. 15); (b) photograph of the ditch at Bersin, view from the south (Vandova, 2020, p. 234, Figure 1.1); (c) photograph of the section of the ditch at Ilindentsi (Grębska-Kulow & Zidarov, 2020, p. 172, Figure 5).

Figure 8

Ditches in Southwest Bulgaria: (a) aerial photograph of the enclosure at Slatina–Sofia (Nikolov & Takorova, 2018, p. 15); (b) photograph of the ditch at Bersin, view from the south (Vandova, 2020, p. 234, Figure 1.1); (c) photograph of the section of the ditch at Ilindentsi (Grębska-Kulow & Zidarov, 2020, p. 172, Figure 5).

A ditch enclosure was identified through magnetic mapping and core drilling around the low settlement mound at the village of Mirkovo (Dumanov, Zidarov, & Boyanov, 2013). Two rows of anomalies in the southern part of the enclosed area resemble burnt houses. The collected pottery sherds date to the later EN stages.

There are five more examples in the Struma River Valley south of Slatina. Small segments of ditches were found at Bersin, Ilindentsi, and Kovačevo. The ditches at the two latter sites date to the second phase of the EN. The ditch at Bersin (Figure 8b) was uncovered in the western periphery of the settlement and has been interpreted as drainage (Vandova, 2020). More elaborate construction was recorded at Ilindentsi where the north periphery of the settlement was enclosed by a ditch (Figure 8c). The excavators argued that remains of a stone wall were found within the ditch, and a wooden palisade was uncovered at its inner edge along with another palisade constructed south of the ditch (Grębska-Kulow, 2017, p. 250). The ditch as well as the stone wall and the palisades were interpreted as a fortification system even though the contemporaneity of these features seems questionable. Several almost complete vessels were found at the bottom of the ditch, which may refer to ritual deposition activities (Grębska-Kulow & Zidarov, 2020, p. 175). The ditch at Kovačevo Ic probably enclosed the southern periphery of the settlement (Lichardus-Itten et al., 2002). It has been suggested that this ditch and the ditch at Ilindentsi share similarities in their construction such as flat bases, stone walls in the middle, and palisades (Grębska-Kulow & Zidarov, 2020, p. 177).

Magnetic prospection that was made at Brezhani (Figure 5c) and Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi (Figure 5d) showed that the former site had been enclosed by three, and the latter by two concentric ditches (Grębska-Kulow, 2017, pp. 253–254). Two strata of burnt houses have been found at Brezhani, and the magnetic survey at Drenkovo identified linear anomalies within the enclosure that could have been the remains of burnt buildings. The EN occupation of both sites date to the end of the period.

The last example was found at Eleshnitsa, which is situated on the left bank of the Mesta River. During the earliest occupation phase, the southeast periphery of the site seems to had been enclosed by a ditch (horizon II, the beginning of the 6th mill. BC), a small stretch of which was excavated (Raduncheva & Nikolov, 1985, p. 22).

Apart from the enclosures that were recorded through magnetic prospection – Mirkovo, Brezhani, and Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi, all of them showing a circular pattern – the rest of the ditches were excavated to a limited extend and thus their layout can hardly be reconstructed. It is worth mentioning the similarities in the design of the ditches at Ilndentsi, Kovačevo, Bersin, and Eleshnitsa, each of them having a flat and wide base. Wide bottoms were also documented at the Slatina–Sofia ditches (Figure 8). By contrast, the ditches in Upper Thrace mostly have V-shaped cross sections, steep walls, and narrow bases (Figure 6; Tables 2 and 3).

Additional dissimilarities can be seen in the overall layout of the enclosures in the two regions. In Upper Thrace, they consist of multiple (three to five) parallel ditches, and the enclosed areas are circular or slightly oval in form. Conversely, most of the enclosures in Southwest Bulgaria feature single ditches (with an unclear layout). Only two examples correspond to the concentric pattern in Upper Thrace (Brezhani and Drenkovo–Garleshki nivi) and one is a single circular enclosure (Mirkovo). The most distinctive difference between the two groups of ditches, however, can be seen in their backfills and cross sections. While most of the Upper Thracian ditches were the subject of multiple cleanings and recuts, which refers to careful maintenance and longevity, no such practices have been established so far for the ditches in the Struma and Mesta River Valleys. On the contrary, when information is available, the cross sections seem to show uniform backfills or hardly distinguishable layering. This may reflect the different ideas of the enclosure building and the activities associated with the ditches that have existed in the two geographical regions during the Early Neolithic.

4 Supraregional Context

Based on published evidence, it appears that ditches were a regular element of the settlement planning and organization in the neighboring regions, and especially in Northern Greece (Figure 2).

Several sites in the Marmara region were enclosed by ditches, the earliest being Barcın Hӧyük where the small excavated part of a perimeter ditch bounded the northern periphery of the earliest settlement in phase VIe (ca. 6600 cal. BC), and was later replaced by a wall (Gerritsen & Ӧzbal, 2016, 2019). Ditch enclosures were partially excavated at Pendik, Aktopraklık A and B, and Ilıpınar X (Karul, 2017; Özdoğan, 2013; Roodenberg & Roodenberg, 2008). The ditch at Pendik has been dated to the Archaic phase of the Fikirtepe Culture, and the ditches at the latter three sites have been dated to its Classical stage (Özdoğan, 2013). It is worth paying attention to the case of Aktopraklık B where a row of houses flanked the inner edge of the ditch, thus enhancing the circular concept of the settlement’s design (Karul, 2020). A similar circular pattern is found at Barcın VId–e and Ilıpınar VI–VA and can also be proposed for the later stages of the development of Yabalkovo 1 enclosure when a row of houses was built partially overlapping the already filled inner concentric ditch. It can be suggested that the houses were associated with the middle and/or the outer ditch; however, they were situated only in the northern part of the enclosed area (Leshtakov et al., 2007, Figure 4).

The extensive investigations at Aşağı Pınar in Eastern Thrace revealed three consecutive ditches enclosing the south periphery of the earliest settlements in phases VII.1–3 (Özdoğan, 2013; Ӧzdoǧan et al., 2016, 2017; Ӧzdoǧan & Schwarzberg, 2020). The best-studied ditch 2 has a continuous course and shows many similarities with the enclosures in Upper Thrace (Yabalkovo 1 and partially Nova Nadezhda and Kazlacha) such as construction and design, numerous cleanings, ritual activities, and long use. Conversely, ditch 1 is composed of elongated segments and together with the segmented ditch at Yabalkovo 1 – which consists of pit-like cuts – and the latest recut of the inner Yabalkovo 1 ditch represents the only EN examples of this enclosure type discovered in the Balkans and Northwest Anatolia up until now.

More enclosure ditches were uncovered in Northern Greece, but much-published evidence is not available. In the Greek Early and Middle Neolithic (ca. 6600/6500 – 5500 cal. BC), they surrounded the whole sites – either flat sites or settlement mounds or certain spaces within the occupation area (see Demoule & Perlés, 1993; Halstead, 1999; Kotsakis, 2014; Runnels et al., 2009; Toufexis, 2017 for overview). Most of the enclosures were used from the end of the EN and throughout the Middle Neolithic (e.g., Soufli Magoula, Achilleion, Servia, Nea Nikomedeia, Giannitsa B, Apsalos–Grammi, Paliambela Kolindros, Liti I, Ag. Nikolaos–Ritini, Stavroupoli Ia). The enclosed settlements are situated exclusively in the areas of Macedonia and Thessaly; no enclosures have been identified to the south thus far, probably due to the rugged terrain in this area.

Several ditch enclosures were detected recently in the Republic of North Macedonia as a result of magnetic prospection projects. These are single or multiple concentric ditches encircling settlement mounds and are situated almost exclusively in Pelagonia (Naumov et al., 2014; Naumov, John, & Chvojka, 2017; Rujak, Zidarov, & Kanzurova, 2019). Even though most of them are considered to be of EN age, when archeological excavations have not been conducted, the date remains conjectural and is yet to be verified. The dating of the single circular enclosure ditch at Vrbjanska Čuka appears to be unquestionably attributed to the EN, as excavations take part within the enclosed area and the prehistoric occupation of the mound dates exclusively to the beginning of the Neolithic (Naumov et al., 2016; Naumov, Mitkoski, & Talevski, 2018).

A part of a deep ditch with a row of postholes on its outer (?) edge has been unearthed at Cerje–Govrlevo (Fidanoski, 2015). The ditch was revealed beneath the remains of the lowermost level and thus is the earliest feature at the site so far. It is still unclear whether it was associated with settlement features or was related to certain practices. Small segments of two parallel ditches have been excavated at the Tumba–Brvenitsa site (Abazi & Tolevski, 2019). Unfortunately, the layout of the ditches, their chronological position to one another, as well as their place in the settlement organization are to be further established. A depression at Anzabegovo settlement mound has been recently reinterpreted as a ditch (Abazi & Tolevski, 2019, pp. 18–19).

5 Discussion

Settlement boundaries are key to understanding network connectivity and also provide insights into the questions of identity, belonging, political conflict, and societal transformation (Nail, 2016). They are fixed but not static; they change in the course of time and so is their purpose and perception of meaning. The interpretation of built or cut enclosures has considerably changed over the years: from fortification systems, through animal kraals, ritual/religious/political/market sites, to the idea of their multifunctionality and the various reasons for their construction. The physical demarcation of an occupation area is often linked to subsistence intensification of the agricultural societies and thus to the progressive development of territoriality and property in land (Bintliff, 1999; Earl, 2000). Needless to say, land ownership does not necessarily imply that neighboring groups may not have access to this place (Ingold, 1986).

Be that as it may, ditch enclosures seem to constitute a common element of settlement planning. The processes related to organizing, digging, and maintaining enclosure ditches would have brought the inhabitants of the village(s) together in communal activities enhancing the social identity and/or memory of the group. The boundary itself did not simply separate certain spaces from one another but distinguished the enclosed society.

It seems that there was a preconceived idea of how the completed enclosures should look like. There was a concept of their layout and specific location, which was directly related to their purpose. Although the function of some ditches tends to change over the course of their “life” (e.g., from symbolic boundaries to fortifications or to ritual arenas), the initial impulse for the construction predetermines their design. Undoubtedly, the endurance of the defensive enclosures was the result of a strategy, which is evidenced in the archeological record by the outlines of the ditches: their great depth, steep walls, narrow bases, as well as the solid ground – natural – where the ditches have been dug in, e.g., the outermost ditch at Nova Nadezhda and the middle and outer concentric ditches at Yabalkovo 1 (Figure 6c and d). The palisades associated with such ditches make an obvious case for the preplanned concept of the enclosures in accordance with given reasons and the need for protection or manifestation of power (Figures 4 and 8a).

In addition to the planning, the investment of time and energy as well as the organization of the construction works help us to better understand the significance of the enclosures for the EN societies. For example, the estimated circumference of the outer concentric ditch at Yabalkovo 1 is ca. 690–700 m, and with the average values of its parameters (Table 2), it would have taken between 2.5 and 3 months for about 50 workers to complete the enclosure. The more crucial the enclosure building was, the more people would have been involved in its completion and vice versa; one should still keep in mind that the suitable time for digging a ditch is limited to 3 or 4 months during the year, usually June to August, depending on the geographical location of the site. The number of Yabalkovo 1 inhabitants is unknown, but most probably the potential workforce was not big enough. The employment of such labor resources should have been planned in advance within a broader social context and, if necessary, the population from the neighboring (?) villages had to be engaged in the construction. Chapman (1988, p. 29) argues that in the Neolithic of many regions, there was a shortage of labor relative to land, and a major goal of these small-scale societies would have been the generation of larger alliance networks, in which the increased labor could be converted into higher productivity. The implementation of large construction projects such as digging a deep circular ditch seems to have also been dependent on the collective effort of people from more than one village even though the concept of the enclosure building was initiated by the respective community.

Digging a ditch for the purpose of its intentional filling, e.g., the latest recut of ditch 4 at Nova Nadezhda (Figure 7) and ditch 2 at Aşağı Pınar, is probably related to specific events in the history, calendar or development stage of the considered society. Such work would have required mobilizing the entire population to accomplish the project for a short period of time, which probably has been supplemented by various ritual activities.

Nonetheless, one should not neglect the practical purposes of enclosure ditches. Some of the ditches in the Struma Valley were clearly parts of water management strategies. Regardless of their primary functions, it would be unreasonable to think that once the ditches were cut, they did not serve as drainage systems or that the extracted clay was not used, e.g., for construction purposes. This also applies to the use of ditches as defenses. Even though no direct evidence of warfare is available for the EN in the Eastern Balkans, the presence of deep ditches or the coexistence of a ditch and a wall is an indication of a territory that has been protected, whether from human or wild animal invasions.

The enclosures were carefully maintained, and the tradition of digging new ditches in close proximity to the earlier, already filled cuts is indeed an indication not only of social memory but also of the ideology and aspirations of the EN communities. The time and effort invested in the enclosures’ construction, whether in places where the landscape was quite prominent or the terrain was not favorable for that, is the best evidence for their distinct meaning and their role in both everyday life and special activities.

6 Conclusion

The EN sites in the Eastern Balkans were enclosed mostly by ditches, by a combination of a ditch and a palisade, or rarely by three different (but probably asynchronous) features, e.g., a ditch, a rampart, and a wall. Few examples represent single stone/emplectum/wooden walls or an earthen bank. Most of the enclosures, especially the ditches, seem to have existed throughout the EN sequence, appearing immediately at the settlements’ foundation. Admittedly, such features have not been found at the earliest EN sites in Bulgaria, but this seems to reflect earlier excavation strategies rather than a demonstrated fact as enclosures were uncovered in the earliest occupation phases in Northwest Anatolia and Northern Greece. The latter suggests that enclosure ditches were a part of the settlement planning as early as the beginning of the EN, and their low number in Bulgaria is the result of limited research.


Special Issue: THE EARLY NEOLITHIC OF EUROPE, edited by F. Borrell, I. Clemente, M. Cubas, J. J. Ibáñez, N. Mazzucco, A. Nieto-Espinet, M. Portillo, S. Valenzuela-Lamas, & X. Terradas


  1. Funding information: This research was partially funded by the Young Scientists and Postgraduates National Scientific Program (International Assessment Panel implemented under the Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility) of the Ministry of Education and Science, Republic of Bulgaria.

  2. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.

  3. Data availability statement: All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article and in the author’s PhD thesis (in preparation).

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Received: 2020-10-31
Revised: 2021-03-24
Accepted: 2021-06-18
Published Online: 2021-11-03

© 2021 Nikolina Nikolova, published by De Gruyter

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