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Biskupin – Iron age Slavic settlement

Biskupin, Poland – The archaeological open air museum Biskupin is an archaeological site and a life-size model of an Iron Age fortified settlement in north-central (Wielkopolska) Poland (Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship). When first discovered it was thought to be early evidence of Slavic settlement but archaeologists later confirmed it belonged to the Biskupin group of the Lusatian culture. The excavation and the reconstruction of the prehistoric settlement has played an instrumental part in Polish historical consciousness.

The Museum is situated on a marshy peninsula in Lake Biskupin, ca. 90 km northeast of Poznań, 8 km south of the small town of Żnin. It is a division of the National Museum of Archaeology in Warsaw.

History of the excavations

Reconstructed Biskupin

In 1933 Polish archaeologists discovered remains of a Bronze Age fort/settlement in Wielkopolska (Greater Poland), the discovery became famous overnight. The site was excavated from 1934 onwards by the team from Poznań University, led by archaeologists Józef Kostrzewski (1885–1969) and Zdzisław Rajewski (1907–1974). The first report was published in 1936. By the beginning of 1939, ca. 2,500 m2 (26,909.78 sq ft) had been excavated. Biskupin soon became famous, attracting numerous distinguished guests, including officials of the Piłsudski government, members of the military, and high churchmen such as the primate of Poland. The site soon became part of Polish national consciousness, the symbol of achievements of the Slavonic forebears in prehistoric times. It was called the “Polish Pompeii” or “Polish Herculaneum”. The existence of a prehistoric fortress, 70 km from the German border, was used to show that the prehistoric “Poles” had held their own against foreign invaders and plunderers as early as the Iron Age. Biskupin came to feature in paintings and popular novels.

When the Germans occupied parts of Poland in the autumn of 1939, Biskupin became part of the Warthegau, an area that German Nationalists claimed to have been “Germanic” since at least the Iron Age (Gustaf Kossinna, Das Weichselland, ein uralter Heimatboden der Germanen, Leipzig, Kabitzsch 1919). Biskupin was renamed “Urstädt”. In 1940, excavations were resumed under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler by the SS-Ahnenerbe under the supervision of Hauptsturmführer Hans Schleiff, a classical archaeologist who was to excavate in Olympia, Greece as well. Schleiff published only two short popular accounts that describe how Germanic tribes overran the ‘small Lusatian settlement’. The excavations were continued till 1942. When the Germans retreated, the site was flooded, which ironically led to the good preservation of the ancient timbers. Excavations were resumed by Polish archaeologists after the war and continued until 1974.

The site

Reconstructed gate and wall

There are two settlement periods at Biskupin, which was located in the middle of a lake but is now situated on a peninsula, that follow each other without hiatus. Both settlements were laid out on a rectangular grid with eleven streets that are three meters wide. The older settlement from early Iron Age was established on a slightly wet island of over 2 hectares and consisted of ca. 100 oak and pine log-houses that are of similar layout and measure ca. 8 x 10 m each. They consisted of two chambers and an open entrance-area. These houses were designed to accommodate 10 to 12 persons. An open hearth was located in the centre of the biggest room. There are no larger houses that could indicate social stratification. Because of the damp, boggy ground the streets were covered with wooden planks.

The settlement was surrounded by a tall wooden wall, or palisade, set on a rampart made up of both wood and earth. The rampart was constructed of oak trunks that form boxes filled with earth. The rampart is more than 450 m long and accompanied by a wooden breakwater in the lake. 6000–8000 m³ of wood have been used in the construction of the rampart.

Dating

Widok osady z jeziora

The settlement at Biskupin belongs to the Hallstatt C and D periods (early Iron Age, 800-650 BC and 650-475 BC). There are four Radiocarbon dates from Biskupin (all B.C.):

  • first settlement: 720±150 (Gif 494)
  • later settlement: 560±150 (Gif 495)
  • rampart: 620 ±150 (Gif 492)
  • A2 4C, VII: 620±150 (Gif 493)

The model

Stanowisko archeologiczne w Biskupinie z epoki brązu. Jedna z wielu “jednostek mieszkalnych”, w chacie ognisko. Rekonstrukcja.

In 1936, the first life-size model (open air museum) was built on the peninsula, inspired by the Unteruhldingen-pile dwellings in Germany. After the war, the ramparts and one street with houses on both sides were added.

In the 2000s, a film prop “medieval” timber castle has been constructed on a part of the original site.

What do you think?

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