The Medieval Review 11.03.17

Máchaček, Jiří. The Rise of Medieval Towns and States in East Central Europe: Early Medieval Centres as Social and Economic Systems. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. 562. $247 ISBN 978-90-04-18208-0. .

Reviewed by:

Kiril Petkov
University of Wisconson, River Falls

This book is not for the faint of heart (or those without a solid background in the methods and procedures of modern archaeology). Máchaček dissects his subject on over 500 densely packed pages, supporting his findings and analyses with 139 figures, which include objects renderings as well as series of quite sophisticated graphs, diagrams, and computer generated maps. Product of several years of excavating, reading, and analyzing a mass of archaeological data, the book illustrates well what the most advanced methods and theories or archaeology can contribute to the reconstruction of the early medieval urban past through material evidence of all kinds.

The author's task is deceptively simple though quite extensive in its scope: to explore the comparative value of central European material evidence for the understanding of the complex processes that transformed the medieval societies during the second part of the first millennium. Narrowed down, he aims to understand the purpose of the central places in the early medieval society in east central Europe and their role in the genesis of the medieval town and state. How typical and how specific was the central (perhaps more correctly: east-central) European region compared to what is now relatively well known for Western Europe and Byzantium? Máchaček sets out to provide his contribution to this question by focusing, in abundant detail, on one "central place," the settlement at Pohansko near Břeclav, a site now in the southeastern Czech Republic, close to the confluence of the Morava and Dyje rivers. In the latter part of the first millennium it was one of the central settlements of what written sources identify as the principality of Great Moravia, a central European Slavic polity that flourished in the 800s and disappeared shortly after the year 900 under the impact of the Magyar invasion and other factors. Gathering, processing, and analyzing Pohansko material from over 50 years of digs, Máchaček then posits his findings against the background of a roster of other central and east-central European "central places" identified in specialized literature as munitio (fort), palatium (manor complex), and emporium (trading center) to establish the specifics of (east-) central Europe's urbanization during the period. The scope of the study thus defined, it falls short of the promise of the title of the book, which offers loftier expectations for a broad synthesis. On the positive side, the volume makes up by providing a very sophisticated in-depth analysis of Pohansko.

After a brief outline of his goals and scope in the Chapter One, Introduction, Máchaček embarks on a highly technical exploration of his subject matter in five chapters, and wraps it up with a review of his analyses and conclusions. The last chapter may be of special interest to the non-archaeologist who would like to get a quick idea of what Máchaček considers the main value of his study. For readers with specialized background and interest in the nitty-gritty technicalities of modern archaeology, the five content chapters offer a treasure trove of information that will certainly whet their appetite for more.

Chapter Two is dedicated to method. Máchačeks methodology is steeped in mathematical and statistical approaches centered on spatial models developed in geographic space with the help of GIS (Geographic Information System). The data produced is then integrated for extraction of meaning within the framework of systems theory, as it has been extensively elaborated by Colin Renfrew and others, to allow for a dynamic dimension of the investigated phenomena.

Chapter Three offers a preliminary model of Pohansko near Břeclav. The author details the history of the research of the site, going back to 1958, when systematic excavations began, to 2004, when the Czech version of this study was compiled, indicating that the site has yielded over 200,000 single items. Máchaček outlines the site's topography, with ramparts, central area, two suburbs, burial sites, and traceable edifices (church, large "magnate" court) along with residential structures. All this signals a vast and apparently significant early medieval agglomeration. Surveying previous explanations of the typology of the site, Máchaček reaches the conclusion that it fits the profile of an important economic, administrative, military, and cult place, i.e., fulfilling the criteria of an early medieval "complex centre." In the next two content chapters, Máchaček examines the feasibility of that model, first through analysis of his own material (Chapter Four), and then by situating his findings on a comparative plane with other early medieval "central places," predominantly from central and northern Europe (Chapter Five).

Dedicated to a detailed discussion of a series of complex statistical analyses of the over 200,000 items dug out at Pohansko and placed in a variety of spatial and informational relationships, Chapter Four is the core of the study. At 365 pages, it could have been a book in itself. It evaluates the excavations carried out in 1961-1990 in an area of the settlement called "Forest Nursery." The analysis is broken down according to type of artifact: settlement structures, such as sunken-floored and above ground edifices, pottery, artifacts other than pottery (tools, raw materials, and workshop products of metal, bone, jewelry, and stone), and grave goods, and according to spatial positioning. The author analyses a total of 328 structures, a statistically representative sample. Statistical analysis of the pottery fragments of the site and dendrochronology are then used to provide a dynamic chronology for the structures, as well as information about their function. To achieve that, Máchaček scrutinizes 108 pottery assemblages according to 40 separate criteria and a relative-chronological system; the results allow him to detect five distinct phases in the evolution of the site and its structures. Principal component analysis of the data then leads him to identify four major factors of interdependence linking structures to material artifacts. The first indicates that in terms of metal working Pohansko was primarily the site of the production of military weapons and equipment, several samples of which are reproduced in the illustrative figures. The second factor points out that the dwellers of the sunken-floored structures, who used higher standard pottery, were most likely military personnel. Written sources help identify this segment of the locale's population with the extended retinue of the Great Moravian ruler. The third interdependence factor suggests that the large sunken-floored structures were most likely textile workshops, presumably staffed by women, like in the Pfalz in Tilleda. The last structures' factor, with material artifacts such as bucket mounts, quernstones, and re-used Roman bricks is somewhat puzzling, but likely refers to pagan structures with associations to the sacred, which have been filled as the area Christianized in the ninth century. The structures and artifacts data is then linked to information from Pohanskos burial grounds, which in general present a picture of relatively poor populace, and indicate, through the presence of grave goods, spatial orientation, and overlapping with the residential and production area, a gradual shift from paganism to Christianity in the course of the ninth century. Complementing the analysis of structures associated with residence, production, and pre-Christian practices is the scrutiny of the large-scale spatial structures created later in that century, comprising several rectangular structures, fortification rampart, and an empty strip with no construction. Máchaček argues all these were connected to the defensive function of the site.

Chapter Five discusses the site of Pohansko as a system, from the point of view of archaeological systems analysis. Máchaček identifies the dynamic of the settlement using the criteria of evolving subsystems of population, subsistence, crafts development, social organization as inferred from the material data, trade and communication, as well as the systemic inputs and outputs, especially those during the Great Moravian period (830s to 890s), when population influx and agricultural expansion affected the system's functioning. Chapter Six summarizes the author's observations against the background of selected central European sites variously identified as munitio, palatio, and emporium, to reach the conclusion that in Pohansko all three functional types were integrated, spatially and chronologically, in one settlement.

Chapter Seven, Conclusion, offers a lucid summary of the preceding chapters and provides an authorial interpretation of the function and evolution of the site within the information known from written sources. Máchaček asserts that an early Slavic settlement of an un-stratified agricultural population was purposefully reorganized in the early ninth century, and then systematically rebuilt in the late Moravian period to integrate all structures into an agglomeration of a higher order. A unified urban planning concept took over the early agricultural settlement. That identifies Pohansko as a residence of the Great Moravian prince, the author concludes, combining all the characteristics of the above-mentioned three models. As such, it fits the profile of what anthropology identifies as cyclical chiefdom: an unstable, dynamic polity positioned between traditional chiefdom and the full-fledged early state. Such identification allows Máchaček to rank the settlement on the same structural level as other early medieval centers in the Frankish kingdom, and in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Viking world. All of these were on their way to developed "secondary states." Many achieved it, and lived to evolve into full-fledged towns and capitals of early medieval states. Great Moravia, located within the striking range of the Magyar intrusion in east central Europe, was denied that chance. Under the impact of the Magyars, its highly dynamic and unstable social system collapsed, taking with it the proto-urban complex at Pohansko. Fortunately, and for the joy of the archaeologist and edification of the historian, its material remains, as masterfully analyzed and interpreted by Máchaček, have a complex tale to tell, definitely worth following.