Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
17.07.09, Klápště, The Archaeology of Prague and the Medieval Czech Lands, 1100-1600

17.07.09, Klápště, The Archaeology of Prague and the Medieval Czech Lands, 1100-1600

This is an important work for medieval archaeologists as it is the first comprehensive account in English on medieval archaeology in the present-day Czech Republic. It is a book with plenty of material, and not one that can be read in a hurry.

The book contains nine thematic chapters: 1) Introduction, pp. 1-14. 2) The Rural Milieu, pp. 15-39. 3) Secular Power, pp. 41-74. 4) Churches, Monasteries and Cemeteries, pp. 75-96. 5) Urban Settlement, pp. 97-145. 6) Domestic Features: Heat and Light, pp. 147-157. 7) Technology, Craft and Industry, pp. 159-185. 8) Artefacts, Communication and Symbols, pp. 187-203. 9) Medieval Archaeology: Present and Future, pp. 205-214.

The introduction gives a short overview and history of the Czech lands, consisting of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. The story of the emergence of Czech medieval archaeology is likewise laid bare. That the work covers late medieval archaeology, the period covering 1100-1500, is important because the earlier period of early medieval or Slavic archaeology supposedly takes a different approach to archaeological work.

The second chapter, on rural archaeology, reviews many important projects with both surface surveys and excavations. Rural archaeology also seems to be a keystone in developing so-called late medieval archaeology in the Czech Republic. There have been large-scale excavations in deserted medieval villages with great results. The archaeology shows the transformations in the countryside in the thirteenth century.

A great deal of Czech medieval archaeology has dealt with the manifestations of secular power. We can see a development from strongholds built with lime and clay up to the mid-thirteenth century to the later stone castles. Regarding the latter, special attention is given to the mighty castle in Prague. The early strongholds are often associated with tribune churches. The chapter shows that an aristocratic castle usually became a centre of power and administration and thus economic life was often concentrated in a town founded nearby.

The fourth chapter gives a few examples of excavations of churches, monasteries, and cemeteries. It seems quite clear from the chapter that medieval archaeology in the Czech lands mostly concentrates on excavation and structures (and finds) found in the earth. Medieval buildings still standing are left for art historians or architectural historians. The division of labor in the Czech Republic might explain this, but it is a bit problematic for presenting this topic. For instance, studies of church archaeology by foreign colleagues may not cite the findings of scholars of church architecture in the Czech Republic. There are also a number of opportunities for medieval archaeologists in the study of masonry in extant structures. A trained archaeologist might perhaps better equipped to discover the many changes in an old building, which had many uses, than an art historian.

The chapter on urban settlements is among the most important in the work. Urban archaeology began with deserted towns but today most of the work is done in existing towns, almost as preventive or rescue archaeology. The most work has been done in Prague, as is clear from the title of the book. Thanks to these archaeological investigations, the author is able to present the complicated development of this great medieval city. Romanesque buildings in the old town of Prague have been especially studied. These houses of ashlar stone have been studied carefully since they were discovered in the 1890s. Unlike in the previous chapter, it seems that when focused on domestic architecture, archaeologists are examining buildings as well as ground sites, perhaps in cooperation with architectural historians.

Artefacts, communication, and symbols make a mixed Chapter eight in which single objects in a few groups are highlighted. Probably the author could have chosen different subjects with as much relevance.

Of course important excavations have taken place in many other towns in the Czech lands. A very important excavation on a grand scale took place in the town of Sezimovo Ústí. The town, dating from ca. 1250, was deserted in the Hussite war (30 March 1420). The investigations have concentrated especially on a suburb on the other side of the river Luznice, in comparison to the town itself.

Chapter six on heat and light is concerned with the development of a smoke-free living room: that is, with the transition from heating with an oven to the use of a tiled stove serviced from a neighbouring room. The use of beaker tiles is attested sporadically from the late thirteenth century. Later panel tiles were used, but the excavations mentioned earlier in Sezimovo Ústi (from before 1420) has shown that two potters living across the street from one another were producing very different types of tiles. One made panels with very delicate tracery while the other produced vessel tiles with rectangular openings. Rooms lined with wood for thermal insulation demonstrate the growing comfort of the well-to-do living in castles and the brilliant houses in Prague in the later Middle Ages.

Chapter seven, on technology, crafts, and industry, includes well-known crafts pertaining to agriculture, the preparation of foodstuffs, ironworking, and pottery (although there are distinctive types of Czech vessels in the pottery and among the tiles). The chapter also gives attention to more particular crafts such as glassmaking, silver and gold production, and the production of wood tar and pitch. Glassmaking demanded energy sources on a vast scale and the industry was situated in the higher-elevation areas with great forests along the borders of the Czech lands. The glass-melting process demanded a large amount of timber, so the furnaces were moved according to the deforestation of the landscape. A composite furnace has been excavated and the process been reconstructed. Silver and gold exploitation was very important for the Czech lands in the Middle Ages. At first collected from secondary deposits, as alluvial layers in rivers, extensive silver-mining activities were undertaken later in the thirteenth century. The process involved water mills for crushing the gold ore. Several mining areas have been examined with surveys and excavations. Tar and pitch production took place in the forests as well. Kilns for these processes have been found and they are very characteristic. Technology and industry in the Czech lands is an important field and with luck it will grow in the future.

Present and future trends in Czech medieval archaeology are surveyed in the final chapter. Since the political changes of 1989, the field has been dominated by preventive archaeology thanks to urban reconstruction, the building of highways, and so on. This has surely provided a lot of information but the problem is: to what extent has the full potential of the information been used?

In the conclusion the author provides five synchronic views: around 1100, around 1200, around 1300, around 1400, and around 1500. The views are quite short and, as a foreigner, one could have wished that a larger part of the book had had this character. It would be difficult for a reader without any previous knowledge of Czech history to assemble the different excavations discussed in the various chapters into a overall chronological impression. As a foreigner, one could also have wished for a better map with more place names.

The text is followed by a large number of endnotes, a comprehensive bibliography, and an index. The book is well illustrated with plans and reconstructions, of which many have been produced specially for this publication. It is an important work for anyone interested in the medieval archaeology of Central Europe.