Early Medieval Poland: One or many models of the Slavs’ material culture?

Friday, August 24, 2012

A typical early Slavic hut from the 6th–7th century (after K. Godłowski, digital processing: A. Buko).

Szeligi near Płock: reconstruction of an early Slavic fortified settlement of the 6th century (after T. Kordala).

The material culture of the Slavs from the first phase of the Early Middle Ages became the focus of interest in Poland in the mid-1950s. Since then quite a lot of time has passed yet the number of discovered and excavated early Slavic sites of the earliest phase is still quite small. For that reason the material evidence is scant, which leads to weaknesses in argumentation and makes it impossible to settle the debate on the origin of the Slavs. The beginnings of the Slavs’ settlement of Polish lands are usually fixed for the turn of the 5th and 6th century; in the late 6th or the early 7th century they are thought to have reached the middle Elbe and Saale.

The advocates of the allochthonous theory assume that the material correlates of the early Slavs are not uniform in Polish lands and vary across the area. This fact is interpreted as an outcome of the Slavs’ contacts with local milieus of other peoples, including the older Germanic population. At the same time it is stressed that in the region a set of features characteristic for all the Slavs can be distinguished. The most distinctive features are the settlement form, economy, crafts and burial rites.

Settlement form
Typically open settlements consisting of a few square sunken-floored huts with an oven in the corner located along the river valleys. There are no fortified sites.

The early Slavic hut is generally considered as an important trait of this people. That form of habitation which developed in the 3rd–4th century especially within the Cherniakhovo Culture (the Prut and Dniester basins in Ukraine) traveled with the Slavs to the west. These structures are quite characteristic: usually they had 3–4 meter long walls and in their classical form these were square 4 x 4 m huts, although the dimensions might have varied in different regions; in Polish lands their average floor area was 13 m2. Most often they were sunken in the ground down to no more than several dozen centimeters. In one of the corners (usually the north-eastern one) there was a heating device in the form of a 0.5 x 0.5 m stone oven. Surprisingly, this type of structure did not appear in Great Poland and Pomerania. Instead so-called tub-shaped (slightly sunken oval) 2 x 3 m features of unclear function sunken in the ground to c. 0.5 m are found there. None of them had an oven.

The advocates of the autochthonous theory see more similarities between the early Slavic and Przeworsk culture huts than between the Slavic and Germanic structures. Namely, except for a few cases (e.g., Wólka Łasiecka), the Slavs had no tradition of the long house so popular among the Germans, commonly appearing in the area between the Rhine and Elbe and in Scandinavia. Thus if the population inhabiting the Polish lands before the Slavs was of Germanic origin, how can it be explained that it did not build houses following the tradition of the latter? It is worth noting here that the Przeworsk culture had an incomparably greater variety of structures than the early Slavs. The analyses of the arrangement of buildings in Slavic settlements shows that, unlike the Roman ones, they were not arranged in a circle surrounding an empty central area and had no separate production zones. In this respect the arrangements of houses in the Slavic settlements resemble the later peasant farmsteads commonly known from Polish lands. The huts and settlement patterns were gradually replaced by above-ground buildings in the 7th or early 8th century. The followers of the autochthonous theory, however, add that circular villages were not entirely unknown among the Slavic population as there is a group of sites (e.g., Biskupin, Dessau-Mossigkau) where such settlements were identified and excavated.

The origin of fortified settlements is another debatable issue. It is generally assumed that they did not appear during the initial phase of the Slavs’ settlement; they were first built when the lands had been well settled, that is, in the tribal period; in extreme cases their origin was dated to the late 9th century. However, in some areas, including the Polish lands, fortified settlements are known from the earlier phase of the Early Middle Ages, although their character and functions have not been ultimately established. It is possible that such features as Szeligi near Płock, or Haćki in Podlasie were of symbolic and ceremonial rather than military character.

The Polish lands between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: a gap or continuity?

An unequivocal answer to the question posed in the subheading requires adopting a position on either the migration of the Slavs into the territory of modern Poland in the case of the first option, or its ‘eternal indigenousness’ in the case of the second. What is the evidence which has led researchers to the formulation of such different conclusions?

According to the Allochthonists, before the Slavs appeared in the Polish lands (the 4th and 5th centuries), two large archaeological cultures dominated in the region: the Przeworsk culture in southern and central Poland (traditionally the Vistula river is the borderline of this culture in the Late Roman period) and the Wielbark culture, located to the east of the Vistula and on the lower Vistula over to the Pasłęka river. The archaeological data indicate a progressive depopulation of these areas, which is reflected in the diminishing number of finds of Roman coins becoming most marked in the 4th century. At the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries also the population in southern Poland became more and more sparse and in this context the episode of settling the higher part of the Carpathians (as well as occupation of the caves in the Cracow-Częstochowa Uplands) is particularly interesting. It may indicate that the population left the lowlands and looked for shelter in the uplands. The only settlement concentration which probably existed to as late as the late 5th century seems to be the one at the Prosna river and on the left bank of the middle Warta river. The situation was quite different in Pomerania, which remained quite densely populated until the early 6th century.

The phenomena discussed here are linked with two events: the Huns’ invasion in Europe and the migrations of large groups of people from the area of modern Poland to the west and south where, together with the Ostrogoths, they took part in the occupation of Italy.

That settlement void was filled in by the Slavs in the second half of the 5th century. They first occupied the deserted areas in Little Poland, Silesia and Mazovia, and about the mid-6th century, also the areas of central and northern Poland. The Polish lands became completely settled by the Slavs in the 7th century when Eastern Pomerania and some parts of Upper and Lower Silesia were occupied. In this interpretation, in the 6th century the Polish lands were the scene of large scale population shifts. The Slavs settled mainly in the basin of the upper and middle Vistula and initially did not occupy Silesia or the fertile lands of Kuiavia. As a result of these processes they gradually created three territorial concentrations: the Little Polish, Mazovian and Lower-Silesian—Lusatian ones.

The oldest zones of settlement of the early Slavs in Polish lands (by A. Buko, digital processing: M. Trzeciecki).

The Autochthonists interpret these issues in an entirely different way. The idea of a settlement void at the end of Antiquity is for them completely groundless just like that of identifying the peoples of that period with the Germans. The latter, who from the 3rd century A.D. migrated across large expanses of Europe crossing the Polish lands in the process, may be identified only at the north-western periphery. The Autochthonists agree, however, that it has to be explained why at the end of the Antiquity the ‘Przeworsk’ model of material culture was replaced by the Slavic one. At the same time they question the possibility of deriving the early Slavic culture from the Kiev culture group, for the latter ones formed in a different ecological niche: mainly in the forest and marsh zone. Furthermore they believe that the early Slavic culture was an outcome of a crisis which arose as a result of the fall of the Roman civilization during the period of the Great Migrations. The Germanic tribes were not so much affected by the crisis because they adapted the model of the Merovingian culture, which extended as far as Scandinavia.

There are some new data in favor of continuity in Polish lands during the Migration period. This comprises the so-called pseudo-Medieval ceramics recognized until now on 66 sites from Polish lands, particularly in Silesia and Great Poland. According to B. von Richthofen such products, despite their resemblance to Late Medieval pottery, were characteristic of Roman provincial pottery from the 4th century. That is why many other authors believed they are intrusions of Late Medieval or even post-Medieval productions or imported products from Roman Empire provinces. During the recent decades the number of sites with such pottery has increased—already there are 66 sites in Poland with such finds. According to T. Makiewicz the pottery under discussion is evidence of pottery making from the Migration period (5th–6th centuries) which began under cultural inspiration from the areas of Slovenia, Carinthia, Tyrol and eastern Italy (Friuli). Hence its producers are defined as a migrating potters from the eastern Alpine zone, producing and distributing their native products among central European societies during the Migrations period.

Reconstructing the urban past

Reconstructing the urban past: (a) excavated plan of the Wytelard property, Monkgate, Hull in the early to mid-fourteenth century (after Armstrong and Ayers 1987, Figure 31); (b) the archaeologist’s reconstruction of the building based on the plan and on standing buildings of the period (East Riding Archaeological Society)

An imaginative reconstruction of Roman Canterbury in its heyday, looking west with the theatre in the centre, temple upper right and public baths lower right (drawn by J.A.Bowen, Canterbury Archaeological Trust)

It often comes as a surprise to the general public that archaeologists do not spend all their time digging, and that much more time—and money— is spent in the office or laboratory writing up the results of fieldwork. As research methods and analytical techniques have improved and archaeologists have become more ambitious about what can be discovered, the ‘post-excavation’ process has become more and more expensive and time-consuming, and the comprehensiveness expected of archaeological reports is now much greater than it has ever been. This is not to say that reports produced in the early years of field archaeology were necessarily poor, rather that they often suffered from a lack of resources of both a financial and technical nature.

However much one might, on occasions, agree with its sentiments, it would, none the less, be difficult for an archaeologist today to offer as an excuse for a report’s shortcomings that once used by Wheeler:

The mechanical, predictable, quality of Roman craftsmanship, the advertised humanitas of Roman civilisation, which lay always so near to brutality and corruption, fatigued and disgusted me so that my Verulamium report fell short in some parts of its record.

In Wheeler’s defence, of course, one could say that few archaeologists today are able to write with the gusto, style and imagination of the great man. Indeed, anyone expecting a good read out of the modern archaeological site report will probably be disappointed. The reason is that, very properly reports have as their primary function the presentation of information on strata, finds and so forth which is often of a very detailed and specialist nature. The production of such a report with its accumulation of facts is, however, not the end of the archaeologist’s work. The final step is to interpret these facts, to infuse them with some meaning so that we may gain a new understanding of the past.

A fundamental aspect of the process of interpretation is the reconstruction of the physical environment in the past, either in the form of an individual structure or the entire townscape. There are a number of illustrations which show how effective the reconstruction of buildings is as a means of interpretation, but the exercise is not without problems, since it is rare for a buried urban structure to survive in such good condition as the twelfth century merchant’s house recently excavated at St Martin-at-Palace-Plain in Norwich. More often than not structural remains are extremely vestigial, existing, perhaps, as walls which are largely demolished, patchy floor surfaces and a few post holes. Occasionally there are below-ground features, such as cellars or garderobe pits, and even more occasionally such superstructural elements as collapsed walls and roofs. It is often impossible, therefore, to come to valid conclusions about a building’s original plan, let alone its overall appearance and function. Should sufficient survive, however, archaeologists may employ not only the excavated evidence itself as a basis for reconstruction, but also analogues in the form of surviving buildings of the period which appear to share common features with the buried example. The existence of useful analogues, of course, varies considerably. At one end of the scale there are, for instance, quite a number of major Roman public buildings still standing in the former empire, so that it is possible to reconstruct the theatre at Canterbury or forum at London with some degree of confidence. Similarly, later medieval timber-framed and stone-built houses, albeit principally of the upper classes, survive in some numbers, allowing valid reconstructions of excavated examples. At the other end of the scale, however, are the dwellings of the mass of population of all the periods covered in this book, which are the most commonly excavated, but of which few if any examples survive. Interpreting their remains inevitably brings the archaeological imagination more strongly into play, but, whether there are analogues to help or not, the archaeologist who would attempt the reconstruction of buildings must also become something of an architect and civil engineer, and acquire some understanding of the load-bearing capacities of timbers of particular sizes, methods of supporting roofs and so on.

When we move from reconstruction of overall structure and external appearance of buildings to that of their internal appearance, similar approaches apply. Archaeological evidence relates, of course, primarily to features at ground level, and one of the most common discoveries is the hearth, which may simply be an area of burnt clay or a more solid brick or stone-built structure. The detailed examination of internal surfaces by modern archaeological techniques can, however, allow the plotting of both formal divisions of space by walls and other partitions, and less formal divisions revealed by the distribution of distinctive artefacts and wear patterns on the floors.

Archaeological remains of furniture and fittings are more elusive than walls and floors. Not only were they made of perishable material, primarily wood or textile, but they were usually removed before buildings were abandoned or demolished. We must hope, therefore, for the remains of disasters, fires or sudden collapse, which took the inhabitants by surprise such that they left their possessions behind, as in the case of a bed burnt in Boudicca’s attack on Colchester. The use of analogy with standing buildings to reconstruct interiors in the past is difficult since the latter are more sensitive to changing social needs. The use of rooms and fashions in decor may change frequently while the basic structure remains the same.

While reconstructing the physical appearance of early towns—their buildings, streets, defences and so forth—absorbs much of the urban archaeologist’s time, we must also remember that, in the well-known words of Mortimer Wheeler, ‘the archaeological excavator is not digging up things, he is digging up people’. From the remains of buildings, their surroundings and associated artefacts and organic finds, urban archaeologists try to create as vivid a picture as possible of townsmen and townswomen in the past as they went about their daily lives sheltering and feeding themselves, caring for their children, making a living and, of course, dumping their refuse. We may also glimpse leisure hours spent carving bone, playing musical instruments, gambling on board games and enjoying the company of pets. Finally we can gain some insight into religious beliefs, from-day-to-day superstition, which might involve the burial of a pot under the floor of a Roman building, to sophisticated theology manifested in the organisation of an Anglo- Saxon cathedral.

Although the scope of archaeology to reveal the past is great and increasing, this chapter should not be concluded without reminding the reader that the nature of the evidence constrains archaeology to be primarily concerned with men and women as communal and social beings. It is rare that it can tell us about a particular named historical personality in any detail. Of course it is exciting when an inscription or artefact allows this, but by and large archaeology is about the people who do not figure in the history books, in short it is about the lives of people like you (probably) and me.

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