At a time when, according to Livy, Romulus was being founded in Rome, an impressive castle was also being built far in the north, testifying to the high level of development of the people living in the area. The discovery of a settlement in Biskupin turned out to be one of the most important events in the history of Polish and European archeology.
polishhistory: Let us get back to 1933. To a town whose name wasn’t spoken about much then, a discovery that shocked European archeology…
Łukasz Gackowski: That’s true – at that time, apart from the inhabitants of Pałuki (a historical and ethnographic region that is part of the Wielkopolska region), almost nobody had heard of Biskupin. People in the village were living peacefully with their daily problems.
School children in the village found it difficult to find a place where the goats could graze. However, the activity was not particularly demanding or exciting, so there was still a lot of time left for fun and discovering new things often hidden behind the fence. One day, a bunch of rascals ventured into a peninsula in a nearby lake. The peninsula was a bit of a mystery. Running around, it was easy to trip over protruding pieces of wood, and also find broken pots or other mysterious objects.
Excited by the stories of his students, a teacher from the school in Biskupin – Walenty Szwajcer – wished to start archaeological research on the peninsula. After several unsuccessful attempts, he decided to inform one of the most eminent historians studying prehistory in Poland at the time, Professor Józef Kostrzewski, about the discoveries. In 1934, Biskupin became the arena where one of the most interesting archaeological performances of the 20th century took place.
It is known that Biskupin was founded at the same time as Rome.
Albin Sokół: According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 BCE, while the settlement in today’s Biskupin was founded in the second half of the 8th century BCE. Thus, in fact, the development of both places began at a similar time. In the past, Biskupin was eagerly compared to Rome or Pompeii (in this case, it was about the well-preserved relics of old buildings) to emphasize the importance of the discovery, but it should be remembered that these objects are culturally very distant from each other.
Archaeological excavations started in 1934 were carried out in Biskupin for several consecutive seasons until the outbreak of the Second World War. The work was led by Professor Józef Kostrzewski and Dr Zdzisław Rajewski. It was then decided to conduct interdisciplinary research – which was rare in the archeology of that time. How can the work carried out at that time be assessed from a methodological perspective?
Łukasz Gackowski: Professor Józef Kostrzewski faced a complicated challenge. The relics of the vast, complex housing estate were preserved in excellent condition. The professor decided that the use of archaeological methods alone could turn out to be insufficient. In order to recreate an image of people’s lives at the end of the Bronze, and the beginning of the Iron Age as accurately as possible, he established cooperation with representatives of several scientific disciplines, including specialists in the reconstruction of the former environment, ethnographers and architects. It was an innovative procedure at the time. Today, this type of research does not make much of an impression, but it should be remembered that the estate in Biskupin was discovered during the very beginnings of academic archeology – it was a time when merely collecting and gathering was transforming into the academic discipline we know today.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Germans became interested in Biskupin and tried to prove the Germanic origin of the settlement.
Łukasz Gackowski: German archeology got interested in the site in Biskupin earlier. Actually, from the very establishment of the borders of the reborn Polish state in 1918, a dispute over the historical affiliation of Wielkopolska, especially the Poznań Province, flared up. It was believed that it was possible to prove the ethnic continuity of people living in this settlement since ancient times. Of course, one side tried to show the continuity of the Proto-German settlement, the other – the Proto-Slavic one. Professor Kostrzewski himself was also involved in this dispute, engaged in a strong polemic with the German archaeologist Bolko von Richthofen.
Thus, Biskupin became the site of an ideological and territorial dispute that contributed to the outbreak of world war. After its outbreak and the conquest of Polish lands, the Germans entered Biskupin with the intention of taking over the research and proving their version of prehistoric events. Their sureness is best evidenced by the fact that the research was undertaken by the notorious Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft das Ahnenerbe e.V. (Research Society on the Prehistory of the Spiritual Heritage, German Heritage of Ancestors founded, among others, by Himmler), and the village of Biskupin was renamed Urstätt, or ”Precity”.
From the perspective of several dozen years, can we say now that it was possible to resolve this dispute? Is it even possible to determine who inhabited this settlement?
Albin Sokół: Behind the willingness to know ”who lived in the settlement?” was an ideological issue. To this day, however, it has not been settled. You can see the connections of the population associated with the settlement in today’s Biskupin with the so-called archaeological Lusatian culture. However, it should be borne in mind that we do not know the language or ethnicity of the inhabitants of that time. They could not write nor did they have direct contact with the communities who could, which makes it extremely difficult to answer this question. Perhaps further research and modern methods, such as genetic analysis, will allow to shed some more light on this issue in the future.
What did the town’s inhabitants do and how did they live? Did they contact neighboring communities?
Albin Sokół: The basis of the economy was agriculture supplemented by animal husbandry. We know from the research [that they found] numerous tools for growing plants, such as deer antler hoes, metal sickles, and even a fragment of a wooden plow. Studies of plant remnants indicate that the array of crops was really wide, including grains (including several types of wheat), legumes, turnips and oilseeds. Thanks to the efforts of archaeo-zoologists, we know that the main source of meat was farmed cattle and pigs. Goats and sheep were a source of milk and skins, and the latter also of wool. During the research, the remains of a horse that could be used as a pack animal or for riding, were found. Their diet was supplemented with wild plants and meat obtained from hunting.
Łukasz Gackowski: With the methods of breeding and cultivation of that time, the mentioned activities probably took a significant part of the available time. However, speaking of the daily activities of the inhabitants of the settlement, it is impossible not to mention the high level of various fields of production, such as pottery, weaving, horn-making, as well as smelting and processing bronze.
Albin Sokół: The people of the settlement were in constant contact with their neighbors. The local settlement network consisted of similar defensive settlements and numerous open settlements and long-standing cemeteries associated with them. Valuable objects that were found on the spot that were imported, such as an iron ax or glass beads from the far south, testify to long-distance contacts and dynamic routes of exchange. This vision is confirmed by studies on other sites of the Lusatian culture.
The phenomenon of Biskupin is based not only on its scale, but also on the way the building was constructed and designed. The layout of the streets, taking into account the angle of incidence of sunlight – it all looks as if the project was developed by a modern architect. Yet there is no indication that these people could use any script.
Albin Sokół: Indeed. They did not write, but as mentioned, the facility was carefully planned before the works began. Probably the idea for establishing such settlements and some technical solutions were taken even from the Mediterranean circle through the Hallstatt culture transmitting these patterns. It is worth mentioning that the construction of the estate required social development, a motivated large group of people willing to undertake a joint and coordinated effort.
Can we say how much time was needed by the inhabitants of Biskupin to build the entire complex?
Albin Sokół: Unfortunately, such information is not available archaeologically. Dendrochronological studies of construction timber revealed that it was obtained in 747-722 BCE, most of which in the winter of 737 BCE. However, we should remember that timber needs to be seasoned and processed. Perhaps it took place outside the area of today’s peninsula, and the prepared structural elements were transported to their destination.
What functions did the settlement perform?
Albin Sokół: Certainly defensive – especially taking into account the location of the settlement in difficult terrain and fortifications in the form of dikes made of wooden boxes filled with earth. However, it is difficult to say what functions it had for the settlement system. There is no evidence that it was economically or politically central, as it was in the Middle Ages.
Has archeology found an answer to the question of the cause of the fall of the settlement?
Albin Sokół: Although it is difficult to point out one undeniable cause, there are several hypotheses that are not mutually exclusive, and even reflect the problems that the last inhabitants of the settlement struggled with. First, one needs to take into account the climate change that causes the lake’s water level to rise. Archaeologically, it was possible to capture traces of temporary attempts to raise the level of crops – and flood them by rising waters. Palynological profiles, in turn, showed significant changes in the plant ecosystem caused by burning forests for arable land, felling trees for building material or fuel. The degradation of the local environment may have contributed to the decision to leave the settlement. It cannot be ruled out that the settlement model of such a large community was abandoned altogether; a number of other settlements shared the fate of Biskupin. In the Lusatian culture, the construction of complicated defensive settlements was stopped for some time.
Were there more similar fortifications of that kind in Poland? How does Biskupin stand out from them?
Albin Sokół: Yes, the first defensive settlements of the Lusatian culture appeared at the end of the Bronze Age, and at the beginning of the Iron Age, they could be found in the western zone (Silesia, Wielkopolska, Lubusz region, Kujawy). There were many similar settlements and even in academic writing the term ”settlements of Biskupin type” is used to describe defensive settlements of the Lusatian culture located in inaccessible places, which had fortifications. The settlement itself in today’s Biskupin was distinguished by a careful layout of buildings and communication networks. Wooden relics were also better preserved which enabled better research.
Currently, the Archaeological Museum operates here. Do researchers still study the past of the settlement here?
Łukasz Gackowski: Yes and no. The excavation work was stopped in 1974. At that time, Róża Mikłaszewska-Balcer, who was the head of the Museum in Biskupin – a branch of the State Archaeological Museum in Warsaw, set herself the main goal of organizing the artefacts and research documentation. In this way, the next stage of the study of the peninsula began – taking place in offices and consisting in the verification of the information received and the reinterpretation of a huge pool of documentation – more or less systematized – left by generations of researchers.
The maintenance department is also very active. keeping the wooden relics in good condition, which invariably rest under the surface of the peninsula on which the settlement originally existed.
Biskupin is visited annually by 200,000. people. What attractions await visitors to the Museum? I also mean children for whom contact with the ”living” archeology in Biskupin is probably the perfect combination of learning and fun.
Łukasz Gackowski: Currently, the Archaeological Museum in Biskupin presents one of the largest parks in Europe with reconstructed buildings. It is the only such park with the objects from all three archaeological eras – stone, bronze and iron, grouped in separate areas. There is also a zoo in our area, where you can see the original species of sheep, goats, oxen and horses. The museum also serves as an exhibition gallery. Every year, we present new temporary exhibitions, which, apart from the elements presenting artefacts and the history related to them, include educational paths aimed at young people or people with disabilities.
The Archaeological Museum in Biskupin is currently a huge area with many buildings, where a multitude of information about people’s lives over several thousand years is presented. In order to fully reflect on the passing of time, changing of successive generations, the ephemerality of monumental works within changeless nature, we recommend to onboard our ”Venetian Devil” cruise ship. During the cruise on Lake Biskupin, we can see the entire park and the adjacent areas from the water. This will be a memorable experience of visiting our Museum.
Albin Sokół – archaeologist, employee of the Archaeological Museum in Biskupin, and promoter of archeology. He reconstructs old metallurgical and pottery techniques, as well as stone processing. His works are the basis for many archeological experiments conducted in cooperation with various research centers, including the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.
Łukasz Gackowski – an archaeologist whose passion is to ”translate” the language of science into one that is understandable to people not directly related to it. At the Museum, he is responsible for contacts with the media, he is also the initiator of many projects addressed to recipients outside the Museum, including the #wirtualnemuzeum (#virtualmuseum) campaign.
Interviewer: Piotr Abryszeński
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin