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

Friday, August 24, 2012

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.


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