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.


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