09.07.17, Buko, Archaeology of Early Medieval Poland

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Cherie Woodworth

The Medieval Review 09.07.17

Buko, Andrzej. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Poland: Discoveries, Hypotheses, Interpretations. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, v. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xxix, 475. ISBN: 978-90-04-16230-3.

Reviewed by:
Cherie Woodworth
Center for Comparative Research, Yale University

Poland: cradle of the egalitarian Slavic agricultural villages. If you are a Polonophile, this romantic version of the past may appeal to you. If you prefer princes, you could try this: Poland: birthplace of the earliest unified Slavic state. But given the archeological evidence, you may have to try as well other formulations: Poland: land of roaming herders. Poland: land of the first Jewish towns in Europe. Poland: outpost of Viking civilization. These slogans do not fit as well, but given the immense amount of material produced, the subtitle (and program) of Buko's textbook survey might have been more interestingly and honestly framed as "Myths, Misconceptions, and Controversies." But that would have been a different book.

Instead, the book reflects the central questions of Polish historiography: establishment of the Polish state and ethnic Polish identity, particularly in contrast to the German states and Germanic peoples.

There is no doubt that Polish archeology has been diligently pursued. It is seen as the crucial tool, since texts are lacking, to resolve questions about the identity and "homeland" of the first Slavs, questions that have been heatedly argued, without a definitive resolution, for two centuries. The problems of Polish archeology reflect these broader difficulties of defining the early Slavs: the linguistic, archeological, and literary sources are not congruent, and are often contradictory, and one can infer from the evidence that the land of Poland was a multi-cultural mix for centuries. This is the unstated back story to Buko's attention, for example, to animal bones. The excavation of sheep and goat bones at a site among a comparatively small proportion of cattle and pig remains (an infrequent, but significant find) points to the culture of nomadic steppe peoples rather than settled agriculturalists (173). (This discussion would have benefited from reference to Peter Bogucki, Forest Farmers and Stockherders. Early Agriculture and its Consequences in North-Central Europe [Cambridge, 1988], which is not cited in the bibliography.)

Unlike other regions of Europe that have been more thoroughly combed-over, Poland still has many early medieval sites to discover despite its dense and long settlement. For example, a group of barrows dating from the ninth century was found in the 1990s; they had passed the centuries undiscovered not only by archeologists, but also by the local townspeople, who knew of the "little mounds" in the woods but had no idea they were of historical or archeological significance (134). But the excitement of discovery is not the only emotion to arise in connection with digs in Poland.

The excavation and, more importantly, interpretation of early fortifications (e.g., 84 ff. and 408 ff.) also give rise to conflicts tinged with emotions, as pro-Polish nationalists seek early evidence for state-building, while other pro-Polish nationalists seek reinforcement of the idea that the Slavs' society was more egalitarian than their neighbors.

Such evidence is all the more vexing when it is found in the same site where fragments of the earliest writing were also found (the letters are too few and indistinct to say what language or script they were belonged to). But none of these artifacts are adequate to reveal what language the people were speaking (Slavic, Germanic, Baltic, or steppe Turkic) or what "ethnos" they belonged to; reification of "cultures," let alone ethnic groups or proto-nations, though it may seem intuitively natural, is not supported by material culture.

In providing this translation in English, the series editors were, presumably, aiming the book at an audience of early medieval specialists, and there is certainly material there that should be of interest. (The translator, Paul Barford, deserves greater credit for ably undertaking this prodigious labor. He is not listed on the title page, and one has to turn to the "notes on the translation" in the back to find him. Barford authored The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001] A second book by Barford, closer to home for most medievalists, is due out in July 2009: Britain's Portable Antiquity Heritage: Artefact Collecting and the Archaeological Record [Boydell Press], co-written with Nigel Swift.)

But questions which might be of general European interest are addressed obliquely, if at all: When and how did Christianization come? What were the regional and trans-regional ties? What evidence is there of trade and movement of peoples? And some of the most interesting discussions--of the Żmigrody (126-131), for example--are opaque without context. The explanation at the end of the section belatedly informs the Anglophone reader that żmij means dragon, a figure who appears in several Polish folktales (and Żmigrod therefore means "Dragon-town").

The extensive bibliography showcases both the book's strengths and its limitations: hundreds of Polish articles and books are listed, indicating a deep foundation of monographic studies supported by the Academy of Sciences, but few western European studies are cited (cf. Bogucki above). Those that would set early medieval Poland in context of Europe generally, and Germanic lands especially, are lacking. While the book is without doubt a valuable reference tool and summation of the findings in medieval archeology in the territory of Poland, it also shows how difficult it has been for the last two decades for east European historians to break down the hard boundaries of national history, and for outsiders to penetrate in.

However, historians interested in the interplay between artifacts and texts, and the disciplinary dialogue with medieval archeology, will find Buko's book an interesting comparison to Christopher Gerrard's study of England, Medieval Archaeology. Understanding Traditions and Contemporary Approaches (London: Routledge, 2003) and Günter P. Fehring's The Archaeology of Medieval Germany (London: Routledge, 1991).

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Cherie Woodworth

Center for Comparative Research, Yale University