Unknown revolution: Archaeology and the beginnings of the polish state
Andrzej BUKO. Director del Instituto de Arqueología y Etnología de la Academia de las Ciencias polacas.
Archaeological research of the last decade produced, however, a significant body of evidence pertaining to the rise of the Polish medieval state. The use of such dating techniques as dendrochronology allowed much refinement of previous textbook conclusions. This has in turn raised new questions about the history of the early Piast state. In this paper, I intend to summarize the rolex replica daytonadiscussion opened by this body of archaeological evidence and to suggest some possible solutions.
ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE BEGINNINGS OF THE POLISH STATE
According to the legend of the Piast dynasty recorded in the first Polish Chronicle, that of the twelfth-century monk known as Gallus Anonymus, the origins of the Polish state could be traced back to the ancestors of Mieszko, the first Polish ruler known from historical sources. Many historians regard as particularly important "those matters which were recorded by faithful memory," as the chronicler himself put it.
As a consequence, despite the lack of any written sources concerning Poland prior to the conversion to Christianity in 966, the period between the late eighth and the early tenth century was traditionally viewed as the last formative stage leading to the rise of the Polish medieval state. According to such views, the development of early urban centers and the rise of the state followed the same evolutionary scheme. The state was the end bornova escort result of internal social, economic, and cultural changes, as well as of a process of political consolidation of regional tribal communities between the seventh and the ninth centuries. Similarly, urban centers grew from tribal centers into strongholds and administrative centers of the early Piast state.
There was, however, little support for the idea that the rise of both the Piast state and the early urban centers coincided with the earliest Piast rulers known from historical sources. Such coincidences recalled the event history condemned by Braudel's longue durée, in itself an outgrowth of the structuralist approach to history.
Archaeological research of the last decade produced, however, a significant body of evidence pertaining to the rise of the Polish medieval state. The use of such dating techniques as dendrochronology allowed much refinement of previous textbook conclusions. This has in turn raised new questions about the history of the early Piast state. In this paper, I intend to summarize the discussion opened by this body of archaeological evidence and to suggest some possible solutions.
The tribal period: consolidation or decline?
Despite unquestionable progress made in the last few years, the study of the Early Slav and tribal period (sixth to early tenth centuries) has left many unanswered questions. One of the key problems requiring resolution is that of when and how did strongholds emerge in medieval Poland. Are such fortified settlements to be associated with different regions at different times, as it was often thought, or did they appear only at the end of the "tribal period," i.e. during the ninth century? The latter suggestion is now substantiated by an increasing number of dates obtained by the analysis of tree-rings. This in turn raises new questions regarding the interpretation of the historical record. For example, it is not clear why the Polanians, the tribe which was to give rise to the Polish state under the Piast dynasty, do not appear in the list of a ninth-century source known as the Bavarian Geographer. The list does, however, mention the tribe of the Glopeans with no less than 400 civitates, but the name of this tribe does not appear in any other source. Are the Glopeans and the Polanians one and the same tribe, and if so, under what circumstances did the change of name take place? What happened to the ninth-century Glopeans, one of the largest groups listed by the Bavarian Geographer, if we are to judge by the listed number of civitates? How did the name Polanians emerge, from which the name of the Polish state derives (Fig. 1)? Do the civitates of the Bavarian Geographer represent strongholds, or was this a general term for settlement clusters?
Fig. 1. Map of location of principal regional tribes on Polish territory in the late 9th and 10th centuries (drought: M. Trzeciecki)
Little is known about the sudden growth of religious centers in ninth-century Poland and no satisfactory explanation has so far been advanced for their dramatic decline. Should their construction be interpreted as an attempt to organize pan-tribal centers, the precursors of statehood? What caused their collapse and under what circumstances were they abandoned? Sometime on their place the oldest monasteries were sited (Fig. 2). Further questions concern the likelihood of a migration into southern Poland (or Poland, in general) from Christian communities south of the Carpathian Mountains. Indeed, it remains debatable whether or not Christian communities existed on Polish territory before the conversion to Christianity of the Polanian elite.
Fig. 2. Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery sited in early 12th century on Lysiec mount (Holy Cross Mountains, southern Poland), over old paganic cult center (photo: A. Buko).
Recent research on early medieval strongholds in Mazovia, many of which have been re-dated by means of dendrochronology, provides answers to some of these questions. Many strongholds seem to have been built in the late 800s or early 900s, just before the Piast "revolution" in Great Poland. In addition, they were in use for a brief period, perhaps no more than a generation. Why did they appear so late and were destroyed so quickly? The possibility exists that such strongholds were built as means of defense against the threat of the neighboring Polanians. If so, the archaeological evidence suggests that the threat could not be contained, which may explain the short duration of the habitation phase on such sites.
The issue of when did inhumation begin to replace other burial rites in Poland is still a controversial one. The traditional explanation has been that it must have taken place during the second half of the tenth century, in connection with the conversion to Christianity, but some archaeologists recently argued for a much earlier date. Equally controversial is the question of the mission from Moravia and the use of Slavic liturgy in Poland before the conversion of Mieszko. The question was raised by a number of post-war excavations in southern Poland, as well as by recent finds from Podebłocie, which some interpreted as "tablets" with inscriptions (Fig. 3). According to the Life of St. Methodius, the Vistulans in southern Poland were ruled by a mighty pagan prince "who did much harm to the Christians". It has been suggested that the polity of the Vistulans may have been in an advanced process of power centralization. If so, what was the function of strongholds found in the region, which, unlike any other similar sites in Poland, have earthen ramparts of considerable size, but only few remains of internal structures?
Fig. 3. Ceramic "tablet" from Podebłocie (ninth-century settlement in eastern Poland) with hypothetical inscriptions of Jesus Christ monogram (photo M. Gmur)
Despite extensive work in the last few decades, it has not been possible to locate the main center of the Vistulan polity. Many believe that that center must have been in Cracow, the capital of the Polish state from the eleventh century onwards. However, detailed excavations on the Wawel Hill produced no traces of what might have been the oldest fortifications of the alleged central place, while the earliest fortifications are clearly from the early eleventh century.
A number of large burial mounds in southern Poland constitute a separate problem. Many share the same features and may have been inspired by the same set of symbols and beliefs or associated with the similar attributes of power. Are barrows in southern Poland to be seen as princely burials, perhaps similar to many such monuments in contemporary Europe, especially in Scandinavia (Fig. 4)? If so, and if such barrows are to be associated with the evidence of strongholds, those for whom they were both erected were not state founders. According to the recent dendrochronological analysis, with few exceptions, all strongholds were built at the same time and ended in destruction by fire at about the same time as the Polanian state is known to have emerged.
Fig. 4. Great barrows from southern Poland, presumed symbols of chief power from pagan times: example of Krak barrow in Cracow (late 8th century) (photo: A. Buko)
The archaeological evidence thus points to a very complex picture of political developments in Poland prior to the rise of the Piast state. It also indicates that the Piast state had no traditions in the "tribal period" that may have been reflected in the material culture. The archaeological record suggests, therefore, that the account of Gallus Anonymous about the dukes Siemowit, Lestek, and Siemomysł, all predecessors of Mieszko, should be treated as nothing more than a dynastic legend. Such stories were often associated with powerful rulers, eager to present themselves and their family as capable of providing good fortune to their subjects and country. According to Georges Dumézil, such legends appeared independently in different regions of Europe, but had a narrative structure very similar to the Piast legend of Poland.
The rise of the medieval state in Poland in the light of archaeological research: revolutionary origins and rapid growth
Recent archaeological research produced a radically different picture of how the medieval state emerged in Poland. An important aspect in this respect is the evidence of wholesale destruction (often by fire) and abandonment on many tribal centers in various regions, but most markedly in Great Poland, Little Poland and Mazovia. In Great Poland, where the state formation process seems to have been most advanced, fortified settlements appeared at different locations in the northeast, away from the old, now abandoned, centers in the southwest. The northwest was indeed the region with the two main centers of the early Piast state, Gniezno and Poznań. The destruction of the earlier tribal centers and their final abandonment coincided in time with a sustained settlement of the central areas under Piast control (Fig. 5). Since this sudden growth of settlement in some areas was accompanied by depopulation in others, it is possible that the process involved massive and, perhaps, forced movements of population. A similar process seems to have been at work in other regions, such as Mazovia, Little Poland and Silesia. In all such cases, new strongholds came into being in the late 900s, which would become important regional centers in subsequent centuries. They were built anew, and characteristically in locations different and away from earlier tribal centers. In some cases, such as Lublin, earlier centers were abandoned for a long time following their destruction by fire, before new towns were erected on their ruins. In other cases, such as Złota near Sandomierz, the change was most dramatic, because the existence of such centers came to an abrupt end after a long period of relative prosperity. So far, a new phase of fortification and habitation on the same site of an earlier tribal town has been evidenced only in Cracow, Kalisz, Szczecin, and Kołobrzeg.
Fig. 5. Distribution map of strongholds in Great Poland: 1 - tribal strongholds; 2 - tribal strongholds restored and reused under the first Piast rulers; 3 - Piast strongholds (accorging to: Kurnatowska, "Początki państwa", drought by M. Trzeciecki).
The new dendrochronological data show that the ramparts of Gniezno, the first capital of the Polish state, were built not in the 700s, as previously thought, but between 940 and 1026, namely under the first Piast rulers. The beginnings of many Polish towns are equally to be placed within the second half of the tenth century. Some of the dates obtained by dendrochronological analysis surprisingly match the written evidence. Kołobrzeg was rebuilt in 980, while the rampart of the Castrum minus in Wrocław was erected in ca. 985. The former must be a consequence of Mieszko I's conquest of Pomerania, while the latter may be associated with the incorporation of Silesia within the Piast state. These strongholds thus appear as the direct result of political decisions that turned them into political and administrative centers for the new power.
In Little Poland, Sandomierz, one of the sedes regni principales, offers the best example of association between political decisions and regional centers. No settlement preceded the stronghold erected in the 970s or shortly thereafter, as Sandomierz became a provincial capital (Fig. 6). Recent archaeological research indicates that the erection of this stronghold was accompanied by the re-settlement of a substantial group of population from Great Poland.
Fig. 6. Sandomierz (Little Poland) - one of sedes regni principales. Schematic layout of topography in early 11th century: 1 - Castle Hill (stronghold), 2 - Cathedral Hill (fortified suburb), 3 - Gotomianum Hill (fortified suburb), 4 - St. James Hill (non fortified suburb), (source: Buko, "From Great Poland").
But this interpretation does not apply to all known strongholds. So far, three centers on the coast (Wolin, Szczecin and Kołobrzeg) and two centers in the interior (Kalisz and Cracow) produced evidence of a substantially different history. The coastal centers emerged as ports-of-trade in connection with the Baltic trade as indicated by numerous finds of silver hoards. As paradoxical as it may seem and despite the current debate surrounding its Viking origins, Wolin in the ninth century was economically more closely associated with Scandinavia and northwest Europe than with its hinterland in Great Poland. This may explain both the relatively early beginnings of this center and its rapid decline following the rise of the Polish state. By the late tenth century, the Piast strongholds of Szczecin and Kołobrzeg were successfully competing with Wolin for the control of the Baltic trade. The same is true for eastern Pomerania, particularly for Gdańsk, a center built in the late 970s which rapidly eliminated Truso, a previously important emporium in neighboring Prussia.
The written evidence indicates that, after its incorporation into the Přemyslid state, Cracow remained under Bohemian control until the late 900s. However, the architecture of the early medieval monuments excavated on the Wawel Hill (Fig. 7) suggests a significant Piast presence. Finally, the case of Kalisz is particularly interesting. We will examine this case in the broader context of the origins of the first Polish dynasty.
Fig. 7. Tenth to eleventh-century architectural remains on the Wawel Hill in Cracow: 1- the so-called "rectangular building" (early eleventh century); 2 - chapel (early eleventh century); 3 - the rotunda of Sts. Feliks and Adaukt (ca. 1000); 4 - remains of an apse (early eleventh century); 5 - single-apsed rotunda with baptismal font (early eleventh century); 6 - the so-called "Pre-Romanesque rotunda B" (early eleventh century); 7 - fragment of a Pre-Romanesque wall inside the St. Michael Church; 8 - corner of Pre-Romanesque building (early eleventh century); 9 - the so-called "room with twenty-four posts," the Romanesque palace (mid-eleventh century?); 10 - Romanesque basilica of St. Gereon (late eleventh century); 11 - annex on the eastern side of the palace (twelfth or early thirteenth century); 12 - tower (twelfth century?); 13 - the Cathedral of Prince Herman (ca. 1090-1142); 14 - Romanesque chapel (thirteenth century?); 15 - Romanesque rotunda (eleventh or twelfth century); 16 - Romanesque single-apsed chapel (eleventh or twelfth century); 17 - remains of the Romanesque church of St. Michael (according to: Pianowski, "Sedes regni principales", drought by M. Trzeciecki).
The Piasts: a dynasty of Polanians or foreign origin?
The sudden expansion of the early medieval state by means of military annexation of neighboring regions raises the question of the identity of its founders. The dynastic legend to be found in the chronicle of Gallus Anonymus makes it quite clear that the Piasts were of local, i.e., Great Polish, origin. However, some have claimed a foreign origin for this dynasty on the basis of the famous document known as Dagome iudex, whereby the papacy received Poland as a fief. A Scandinavian origin has been ascribed to the name Dago that appears in this document and early medieval Poland was consequently compared with Kievan Rus', with the Piasts mirroring the Varangian Riurikids as founders of the state.
Despite a considerable number of studies dedicated to this problem, no evidence exists to substantiate this interpretation. It is indeed likely that Mieszko I's retinue of bodyguards included at least some warriors recruited from abroad, as indicated by the tenth-century Andalusian Jewish traveler Ibrahim ibn‑Yakub. Finds of weapons of Scandinavian origin around the royal residence at Ostrów Lednicki and burials of Scandinavian warriors in cemeteries excavated in Great Poland and Pomerania confirm the literary evidence. It was a retinue of professional warriors (druzhina) that secured Mieszko's successful policies of conquest and integration into the new state.
The revolution that led to the creation of the medieval Polish state originated in Great Poland. It is in this region of Poland that we have the best evidence of dramatic change at the end of the tribal period and of shift of fortified settlement locations. The earliest princely residences were also found in Great Poland, on the island Ostrów Lednicki, in Poznań, the seat of Jordan, the missionary bishop, as well as in Gniezno, the first capital of the Polish state. There is, however, an apparent contradiction: if the Piast state began in Great Poland, why were tribal strongholds in this area equally destroyed? And over what area in Great Poland did the Piasts rule before becoming rulers of Poland? In Great Poland, there is just one old tribal stronghold that escaped destruction: Kalisz. Unlike several other cases in Poland, in Kalisz the Piast stronghold was built on top of the earlier tribal center (Fig. 8). Whether this was just a restoration and rebuilding phase, due to the rising water level of the nearby Prosna River, or perhaps the archaeological evidence should be interpreted in some other terms, the issue is beyond the scope of this paper. The most important point, however, is that Kalisz played a crucial role under the first Piasts. The site produced the unique remains of the earliest wooden church excavated in Poland, which has been dated to the early eleventh century. The presence of this building suggests that this was the site of an important mission and ecclesiastical center. Indeed, during the late twelfth century, Kalisz became the residence of Mieszko III the Old (1177-1179, 1190-1191, and 1198-1201), who was also buried there. In the late 900s, the region witnessed an impressive building program, as a great number of strongholds were erected anew all around Kalisz. Were these strongholds erected in preparation for the annexation of Silesia in 990‑991, or some sort of long‑term investment in the area initially ruled by the Piasts? In other words, is it possible that the southeastern region of Great Poland was the home duchy of the Piasts, the area from which they began building the medieval state of Poland? If so, moving the capital from Kalisz to Gniezno may have been an attempt to reach a compromise between conqueror and conquered. At any rate, recent excavations have shown that prior to the Piast take-over, Gniezno was the site of a pagan sanctuary, the function of which was later transferred to the archbishopric established there after the conversion to Christianity.
Fig. 8. Kalisz-Zawodzie: the stronghold (early eleventh century) and archeological remains of St. Paul cathedral (twelfth century) built above first wooden church from early eleventh century (source: Archive IAE PAN, Warsaw).
The "Polish acceleration" a thousand years ago
The process of state formation is still poorly understood in all its details, with many questions still unanswered. However, Poland around year 1000 is in sharp contrast with the image of the country in the mid-tenth century. By 950, Poland was still in the making, with a number of strongholds built anew, mainly in Great Poland. At the time of the Act of Gniezno (1000), Poland was a very different country. Instead of a single region, Gnezdum civitas, it now comprised all regions included in the present-day state, with the exception of the Prussian territory in the northeast. It had a number of developing urban centers, a new administrative structure, new churches, and an independent ecclesiastical organization in the form of the five bishoprics in Poznań, Gniezno, Cracow, Kołobrzeg, and Wrocław (Fig. 9). It was also a very different society, one in which more foreigners (clergy, warriors, merchants, and craftsmen) played an important role. In just two or three Piast generations, between 950 and 1000, Poland had moved from the periphery to the main scene of European developments. Poland had taken a major step on the road to Europe.
Fig. 9. Possible scenario of territorial evolution from Civitas Schinesghe into the Polish State during 10th century (completed by the Author, drought by M. Auch)
How Poland came into being: a possible scenario
The developments taking place in Poland in the early tenth century can be reconstructed on the basis of archaeological excavations carried out in different regions of the country. Their outcome was a sudden, sometimes catastrophic, collapse of most, although not all, tribal strongholds that were replaced by new centers arising at the behest of the Piast rulers.
The tribal entities had little chance to survive the political changes taking place at that time in the neighboring regions of Europe, particularly the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and of other Christian states. Their military weakness was the lack of a professional army or retinue of warriors. Such entities were often at odds, if not war, with each other, and perpetual rivalry invited military intervention from militarily powerful neighbors, such as the Franks, who usually took advantage of such conflicts. Tribal leaders relied almost exclusively on the old religious system and could not break with tradition without the risk of losing face and power. More important, tribal entities lacked an efficient economic system similar to the so-called "stronghold organization" of the early Piast period.
It is possible that the foundations of the medieval urban life in Poland were already laid within the first generation of Piast rulers. The building of such a great number of strongholds was not without consequences, particularly in terms of changes in the landscape, such as massive deforestation. Recent studies have shown that a large-scale building campaign was responsible in the 960s for the cutting of a great number of trees, mostly oaks, for the construction of stronghold ramparts and amenities. The impact of this campaign can only be measured if we take into consideration the fact that in the late 900s, many regions of Poland experienced the first crisis in wood supply. At that time, enlargement and repair of already existing strongholds were done not with hundred-year old oaks, but with young trees of various species that were no more than thirty years old. The available data indicate that in Great Poland, this crisis reached its apex between 960 and 1039.
What, then, were the developments leading to the formation of the medieval state of Poland? On the basis of recent studies, we propose the following scenario:
1. By the late ninth or early tenth century, the first attempts were made to re-structure some of the old tribal confederacies, in response to the aggressive policies promoted by neighboring states. This may explain the erection of an important number of strongholds and the establishment of regional, inter-tribal centers of pagan cult. The political entity of the Vistulans was incorporated into Bohemia (after being part of Moravia as well), which coincided in time with the rise to political prominence of the Polanians of Great Poland.
2. Stage I (ca. 920‑ca. 965). Inter‑tribal confrontations in Great Poland pushed the Piasts to the fore of the political scene, as leaders of a powerful Polanian state. Mieszko I accepted baptism in 966 and began the process of radical transformation of the Polanian state. Probably around 950th he incorporated Mazovia - what could be confirmed by destruction of the most tribal strongholds in the region.
3. Stage II (970th ). Mieszko reached Little Poland as far as Przemyśl. The tribal territory of the Lendizi in southeastern Poland was also conquered and annexed. New provincial centers emerged: Sandomierz, in Little Poland, Przemyśl, Lublin, and the system of the Czerwień strongholds on the eastern frontier. During the same decade Mieszko attacked Pomerania. He seems to have encountered difficulties in western Pomerania, but succeeded in incorporating the eastern region near the mouth of the Vistula river, where Gdańsk was founded, followed by Kruszwica in Kuyavia that may have been viewed as a basis for the future conversion of Pomerania.
4. Stage III (980th). The center of military activity shifed to the western Pomerania and to Silesia. Wolin, Kolberg and Stettin - the main tribal centers on the Baltic coast are conquered and rebuilt by the Piast rulers. Following the war with Boleslav II of Bohemia, Silesia was brought under Polish control and the main Silesian towns were founded in Opole and Wrocław.
5. Stage IV (ca 989). Cracow and its hinterland were taken from the Bohemians. Contrary to other main centers of Little Poland discussed above, there are no archaeological evidence of the military action which could relate to the incorporation of Cracow to the Piast state. It is very probable that this action on the western Little Poland territory was relatively peaceful. According to the archaeological data, Cracow as well other tribal centers in the area were growing without interruption almost since 9th century.
This scenario (Fig. 10) is one of many possible reconstructions of tenth-century developments in Poland on the basis of the archaeological evidence. The scenario not only sheds a new light on the process of state formation, but also brings to the fore the personality of the first ruler of Poland, traditionally obscured by the towering figure of his son, Boleslav the Brave (Chrobry). A careful examination of Mieszko's reign shows however the European dimension of his political and organizational capabilities.
During the period of political consolidation in Eastern Francia under the successive rulers of the Ottonian dynasty, the policies promoted by the Polanian prince proved to be successful. The rise of the state centered in Gniezno and the conversion to Christianity in 966 brought the political acceptance of Christian Europe and legitimacy for the newly united state. This was possible primarily because no conflict separated Mieszko's state from Ottonian interests. The Ottonians were torn between long‑term political interests in Italy and the internal problems of the Empire. Under such circumstances, the Polanian ruler felt encouraged and protected, as he could rely on the support of the Empire. In his conflict with Boleslav II of Bohemia over Silesia, Mieszko received military support from Empress Theophano. He in turn provided military support for Otto III's efforts to convert the pagans.
The peculiar association between Church and state created a neutral curtain between Poland and the Roman-Catholic West, on one hand, and the Byzantine cultural influence zone in Kievan Rus', on the other. Despite temporary political and dynastic alliances, Poland and Rus' formed two distinct worlds, separated by different cultural and religious options. The Holy Roman Empire, on the other hand, was a political organism based on the idea of universal empire encompassing all territories under Roman obedience, regardless of linguistic affiliation. Mieszko came to play an important role in such plans. Through his policies of conquest and annexation, he created Poland, but also laid the foundations for a united Europe, an idea continued by Boleslav the Brave and Otto III and epitomized in by the Act of Gniezno of A.D. 1000.
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