"You're an archaeologist? That's fascinating! Where do you dig -- Egypt? Mexico? . . . POLAND?!? I had no idea there was anything there!" Thus begins a typical conversation about my scholarly interests, studying the earliest European farmers. Each summer I do field research in Poland; or simply put, I dig.
Why Poland? Why not Italy or Greece or Mexico? Most people associate archaeology with ancient civilizations like Romans, Greeks, and the Maya. Yet, there is more to it. Take, for example, the 1991 find in the Alps of the frozen body of a man who lived about 5,300 years ago. In England, Stonehenge was built by a Bronze Age society about 4,000 years ago. Throughout North America, sites reach back 15,000 years or more. Archaeologists worldwide, even in Australia and New Guinea, study peoples much older than the ancient Greeks and Romans.
I study farmers of early central Europe. 7,000 years ago, they settled the area between the Alps and the North Sea and between the Danube and the Baltic Sea. These farmers grew wheat and barley and kept cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. What were their settlements like? What kinds of pottery did they make? How did they bury their dead? These are just some of the questions I try to answer.
To study these peoples, I spent nearly twenty years digging in Poland. Why Poland? First of all, I have roots there and I speak the language. Also, Polish archaeologists are keen to work with colleagues from abroad. Moreover, the archaeological finds there, while not the pyramids of Egypt or the Yucatan or the palaces of Crete, are superb . . . well, superb for those of us who get worked up about early European farmers. Broken pottery, dark stains in the soil, and animal bones might not sound very exciting, but they allow me to reconstruct the prehistoric life.
It All Started At Brzesc
In 1976, I was invited to dig a site called Brzesc Kujawski, about 150 kilometers northwest of Warsaw. Partially excavated in the 1930s, the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Lodz re-opened the excavations. At the site, we found a series of carbon-14 dates as well as animal bones which told us about farmers' diet and livestock management. Tools of flint, bone and antler shed some light on their activities while copper artifacts also told us about their trade. We had a productive dig.
Nearly a decade later, my Polish collegue Ryszard Grygiel found shards of early pottery littering a ploughed field about 10 km from Brzesc Kujawski. He stumbled upon these remains by accident - a very common archaeological "beginning" since most sites are discovered after ploughing or with new construction.
Grygiel found the pottery at Oslonki (pronounced Ohswonki), and in the summer of 1987, he dug a small trench which revealed the end of a house. Well-preserved animal bones also found convinced us this was our site. We persuaded the National Geographic Society to fund us and began excavating in 1989.
With adequate funding and amidst the slowed Polish economy, we hired able-bodied workers instead of the high-school youths employed on earlier digs. Between 1989 and 1994, up to 20 workmen removed the topsoil from an area of over 12,000 square meters. Usually, such work was done by bulldozer, but these remains lie so shallow that we did not have that luxury. The back- breaking work involved shoveling away the topsoil disturbed by plowing and carting it to one side with wheelbarrows. We saved finds in this layer, but because they were previously disturbed by the plow, they told us little.
After several weeks of such work, we cleared a surface down to the golden-brown clay subsoil 50 centimeters below. Into this subsoil, the prehistoric inhabitants of Oslonki dug pits, foundation trenches for houses, graves, and a fortification ditch which showed up as black stains on the golden-brown background. These stains -- their arrangement and the rubbish they contained -- were what we have been seeking. Prehistoric rubbish is a gold mine for archaeologists but before we could explore it, we had to photograph and map the stains. That step alone proved laborious since accurate mapping requires dampening the surface for stains to stand out against the topsoil.
To do this, we first contacted the local fire department. Until 1994, this involved bringing a big tanker with 10,000 liters of water along with a pumper to the site, but recently a pipeline with hydrants was laid for the farmers nearby, so in 1994 the firemen just needed to bring a long hose. By the next morning, the absorbed water darkened the stains and softened the clay. We then gathered our crew, handed out Marshalltown trowels (made in Marshalltown, Iowa), and began to clear the site surface. When we finished, the pits and trenches contrasted sharply with the surrounding natural soil. We were ready to photograph.
Taking a picture of such a large area was not easy since it had to be done from a high angle. In the past we used a snorkel truck or an airplane to take such pictures (in 1992, we tried a hot-air balloon.) The snorkel truck worked all right, but the airplane allowed little time for pictures. Neither was the hot-air balloon a success, for it had to be launched late in the day and by then the shadows were long. Finally, we used a helicopter which proved most effective. It allowed us to use many different cameras, a video recorder, and to map the sites' features.
Finally, we excavated the stains. We used trowels and screens, or dental picks and paint brushes if one of the stains turned out to be a grave. The skeletons were typically in a fetal position, with males lying on their right side and females on their left. Heads were usually oriented to the south or southeast. Around the arms, necks, and chests of the skeletons we often found artifacts such as copper beads and plaques for which the nearest source is several hundred kilometers distant in the Carpathian mountains. Axes made from antler are often found with male burials, while female burials often contain thousands of beads made from freshwater mussel shells.
We found over 20 houses built by digging a trench into the clay around the perimeter of each. Posts, often made from split timbers, were set into the trench and spaces between the posts were sealed with clay. Some of the houses burned, firing the clay plaster hard, so we found impressions of the timbers and of straw and chaff mixed in as filler. The houses were narrow at the northern end, wide at the southern. Though often asked why this was done, we really do not know. This design might have reduced stress from northerly winds, but unfortunately we do not know the direction of the prevailing winds during this period.
We also found a fortification ditch, the first such feature of that period found in Poland. As it turned out, the ditch was built in two stages. The first ditch was relatively narrow and shallow. At a certain point, the inhabitants of the site decided to deepen it and to enlarge the enclosed area. The later ditch followed the route of the first one up to a point, then swung to the west to enclose more of the settled area. Did population grow? Why was the ditch needed in the first place? Who were the enemies? These questions are addressed as we interpret the finds.
While the Oslonki excavations ended two years ago, we will continue to visit this area to investigate other sites. We are also reconstructing the prehistoric environment around the site. Currently, we puzzle over our finds. We have 26 carbon-14 dates, making Oslonki one of the best-dated sites of this period in central Europe. They indicate that the settlement flourished between 4300 and 4000 BC, predating the man found in the glacier in the Alps by 700 years. The animal bones show that the inhabitants not only kept domestic livestock but they also hunted waterfowl and caught fish in the nearby lakes. The flint used for tools came from several sources, some local and others in southern Poland. We will analyze the trace elements of the copper in order to zero in on its source, since each vein of copper ore has its own signature of impurities. This is all part of the detective work of archaeology, fitting together the pieces of the puzzle until it begins to make sense. Our understanding of the past is never perfect, because only a fraction of what people left behind survives. It has been compared to trying to figure out the contents of a room by looking through the keyhole. But the richness of the material found at Oslonki means that we can get a little closer to knowing what life was like 6,000 years ago when farming came to northern Europe.