28 December, 2008

16. Biskupin; A World of Wood Stolen by the Nazis

In 1933 Walenty Szwajcer, a local teacher on a trip to Lake Biskupin in Poland, noticed timbers in the lake. The following year Professor Józef Kostrzewski began a series of excavations that uncovered a large Iron Age settlement built of timber preserved in marshland at the edge of the lake. As more of the site was revealed, it became apparent that the scale of the find and its exceptional preservation made this one the greatest discoveries in the history of archaeology. The Poles were naturally pretty chuffed, and, sandwiched between Hitler and Stalin, they hadn’t got much else to be chuffed about in the late 1930s.
A plan of the settlement at Biskupin

The settlement took the form of a large artificial Island surrounded by 450m of timber ramparts enclosing about 100 identical houses, laid out on a strict grid pattern separated by timber streets. The whole structure was very regular and built from standardised components. It dated to the Hallstatt period, but belonged to a northerly contemporary, the Lusatian culture, which is evident in the area immediately south of the Baltic, particularly in Poland. Modern dendrochronology dates the felling of many of the oak trees used at Biskupin to the winter of 738/737 BC. (Radiocarbon dating in the 1980s had placed the site up to a century earlier, which, not for the first time, was the cause of some confusion.)

The floor and bottom of the walls of a timber house (left), with the street immediately to the right and the defenses visible top left. (Pre-war excavation)
The houses measured about 8 x 10m and were ‘log-built’ from pine, with oak used for important structural components. Each house had two main rooms, with a hearth in the largest. The rows of houses were separated by eleven 3m wide timber streets, which linked to an outer road running between the houses and the timber rampart. The Box Rampart at Biskupin. In the background is a dam built for the pre-war excavation

The defences were ‘box ramparts’, a type common in this period, constructed using parallel walls of logs, linked by cross pieces, with the space between them filled with earth. At Biskupin this timber and earth wall was 3.5 m thick, and beyond it was a timber breakwater of driven stakes. This would have prevented the approach of boats from the lake, and helped protect the artificial island from erosion. The breakwater was about half a kilometre long, and it required an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 stakes, representing about 4000 trees. The site as a whole required a huge amount of timber, and a large area of woodland and forest must have been harvested.

The lack of social distinction evident in the houses was surprising, and the regularity of plan and use of standardised components was more like something constructed by the Roman army, and confounded the popular view that Iron Age Europe was somehow wild, undisciplined, and individualistic.

A view of the pre-war excavation from a balloon. The breakwater is top left. Inside this is the box rampart. The perimeter road runs up the left side and across the top half, and inside it is the remains of houses and streets.
As the excavation progressed, this extraordinary site became a cause for national pride among Poles, a culture so often dominated by its neighbours. To the Poles the site was a symbolic of nationhood and identity, and was testament to the achievements of ancient Polish or Slavic culture.
However, as in all good archaeology plots, in 1939 the dastardly Germans turned up, and they had own very different ideas about culture, and just who had been responsible for any prehistoric achievements in northern Europe.
SS officer Ernst Schäfer, who excavated at Biskupin during the war, photographed on an infamous Nazi expedition to Tibet in search of Aryan origins.

The site was renamed "Urstädt", and excavations were resumed by an extraordinary branch of the SS called the ‘SS Ahnenerbe’. This was a unit of crack Nazi anthropologists and scholars, under the control Heinrich Himmler. They spent the war looting museums, art galleries and churches, as well as conducting excavations in pursuit of their Aryan ancestors, and later even turned their hand to a bit human experimentation. The Nazi perspective was that ancient Biskupin was a primitive Polish settlement overrun and rebuilt by superior Aryan culture.

In 1944 the Germans, retreating, made some attempt to destroy the site, including flooding it, which unintentionally helped preserve it. After the war excavation returned to Polish control, and over the next 30 years the site was full excavated, and it is now an archaeological park and centre for experimental archaeology.
The reconstructed gateway at the Biskupin Archaeological park
The excellent preservation of the built environment at Biskupin defies any ‘ritual’ interpretation, and while excavation has demonstrated that frogs' legs were eaten in considerable numbers, it's clear that the raison d’etre for building in a lake was defensive. While the society was clearly highly organised, the lack of an obvious elite contrasts with the clear social differentiation apparent in parts the Hallstatt material culture to the south. Whether archaeologists would have detected this important point if the houses had rotted away, as is normally the case, is debatable.
The involvement of the Nazis, and even the site's importance to Polish nationalism, highlights the problems of contemporary cultural bias in the interpretation of archaeology. This issue, probably more than any other, has concerned post-war archaeologists, and has given rise to much intellectual angst and navel gazing among the theoretically inclined.
Details of timber construction at Biskupin: the chamfered ends of pine logs from the walls jointed into an oak corner posts. (Pre-war excavation)

Theoretical structural archaeology is the study of lost built environments, in particular timber structures, so to actually find one is profoundly important. The insight into building technology and carpentry is invaluable, especially if we are not too concerned about whether Biskupin was ‘typical’ of structures built on lakes or of building in general.
The Biskupin archaeological park
Biskupin demonstrates that prehistoric architects were capable of conceiving and executing a complex built environment to fit particular local circumstances. If such a massively defensive living space was required, it is likely that it would have to be built quickly and efficiently, so as not undermine the equally important business of growing food. Biskupin is a ‘turnkey’ architectural solution to a social need, executed through competent civil engineering and logistics.
The box rampart at Biskupin, with the breakwater at the bottom of the photo. A reminder that the prehistoric world was mostly made of wood. (Pre-war excavation)
Biskupin is also important on a visual level, opening a window on prehistory through which we can glimpse a vanished world that was made largely of wood.