Changing Neolithic Landscapes at Brzesc Kujawski, Poland

Peter Bogucki
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Princeton University
Princeton NJ 08544-5263

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 1991.

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Studying Neolithic Landscapes

The physical elements of existing and past spatial systems represent the manifestations of past and present decision-making behavior by individuals, groups, and institutions in society (Gollege and Stimson 1987: 5-6). The results of this behavior are the landscapes and built environments that are observable today and which can be reconstructed from the past using direct and proxy data from the archaeological and environmental record. The study of the landscape, then, is an important way to arrive at testable propositions about the behavior of past and present societies.

The study of ancient landscapes in Europe has generally involved the reconstruction of the prehistoric vegetation of a particular region (e.g. Birks et al. 1988), leading to a general equation of landscape with vegetation. As a result, pollen analysis has been considered to be the basis of landscape reconstruction. In Europe, this approach has a long and distinguished history in the reconstruction of vegetation history and human influences on it.

The problem is that often the human influences on the vegetation and pattern of land use are inferred as part of the interpretation of environmental data rather than proposed as hypotheses which can be tested within an overall research design. In other words, the interpretation of environmental data is often done in an inductive fashion when it comes to assessing the human factor rather than in a deductive manner. The focus is on landscape "reconstruction" rather than the testing of general principles. The problem is how to generate testable propositions about human use of the landscape and its effects that can be investigated using archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data.

Landscape Ecology - Theory and Principles

The field of landscape ecology considers the development and dynamics of spatial heterogeneity, spatial and temporal exchanges across heterogeneous landscapes, influences of spatial heterogeneity on biotic and abiotic processes, and management of spatial heterogeneity (Risser, Karr, and Forman 1984: 7). Traditional ecology generally assumes homogeneity and equilibrium. The discipline of landscape ecology, on the other hand, focuses specifically on landscape structure, heterogeneity, and disturbance. Landscape ecology has emerged as a freestanding field of study only since the early 1980s, and it appears to offer a set of concepts that should prove useful in the modeling of prehistoric landscapes and landscape change. In particular, landscape ecology offers a framework in which hypotheses about landscape development and change can be formulated which can then be tested with archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data.

Forman and Godron (1986) have defined some emerging general principles in landscape ecology. There are several that are relevant here:

With these basic principles in hand, let me discuss how they may be relevant to our investigation of early farming settlement in the lowlands of north-central Poland.

Neolithic Research in the Polish lowlands

Since the mid-1970s, Ryszard Grygiel, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography of Lódz, Poland, and I have been investigating Neolithic sites in the vicinity of Brzesc Kujawski, a small town in north-central Poland. Between 1976 and 1984, we excavated at the large Neolithic residential site of Brzesc Kujawski that had been first investigated in the 1930s. While working at Brzesc Kujawski, we also managed to investigate several smaller sites apparently contemporaneous with Brzesc Kujawski, as well as doing the usual late 70s site catchment studies and the like. From 1982 to 1988 we investigated a slightly later site at Nowy Mlyn. Then in 1989 we began excavations with the support of the National Geographic Society at the site of Oslonki.

All this work has provided tremendous samples of ceramic, lithic, and faunal evidence, a modest (but typical for central European open sites) sample of botanical remains, some of the earliest copper in northern Europe, over 30 Neolithic radiocarbon dates, and very important data on the internal structure of Neolithic settlements. Our research has been very site-focused, concentrating on things like household clusters, which remain a major emphasis of our research. The last time we thought in terms of a Neolithic landscape was about a decade ago, when Brzesc Kujawski was the only site in our consciousness.

Of course, the models that we developed then of Neolithic landscapes then seem naive when examined from the retrospective of ten or more years. It is interesting to deconstruct our thinking of that time and see how we regarded Brzesc Kujawski as the "Navel of the Neolithic Universe." In particular, the discovery of Oslonki about 8 kilometers to the west of Brzesc Kujawski jolted us into the reality that the Neolithic landscape in this area, especially in the second half of the fourth millennium b.c. (unrecalibrated), was a bit more complicated than we had thought.

Elements of the Neolithic Landscape

The terrain around Brzesc Kujawski and Oslonki is typical of the glaciated landscape of the North European Plain. Large tracts of ground moraine, covered by boulder clay and gravel, are broken by the remnants of sub-glacial runoff channels, formed under the Weichsel ice sheet to accommodate meltwater. While we were working at Brzesc Kujawski, we took scant note of these channels, which are actually quite common in this area, but once our research took on a more regional perspective with our work at Nowy Mlyn and Oslonki, it became clear that these were important elements in the landscape structure. In many cases, these channels carry streams or probably did during the Neolithic period.

Stream Channels and "Zones of Weakness"

Landscape ecologists have noticed several important characteristics of stream channels, particularly in otherwise relatively undifferentiated and forested terrain. The first is that they act as conduits to passage of many different species. While streams have been clearly noted as arteries of human communication, we often lose sight of the fact that other species of wildlife move along them as well

Moreover, in a heavily forested, relatively pristine landscape, as was probably the case in this area during the Neolithic except for the possibility of small-scale vegetation dusturbance by local Mesolithic populations, stream channels form what some have called "'lines' or 'zones' of weakness" (Verboom 1977). These are belts, often at the margins of stream channels, between the dense vegetation of the channel bottom and the climax forest of the adjacent watershed. These zones are especially attractive to pioneer agriculturalists in that they are the places where the forest can be broken first to initiate the process of clearance in adjoining areas.

Patches and Corridors

The subsequent development of the agricultural landscape could be expected to show the formation of linear and polygonal features, which could be considered under the categories of "corridors" and "patches". In the literature of landscape ecology, there is an elaborate typology of such landscape features, usucally based on the mechanism of their formation.

Corridors - generally conspicuous and prominent

The most obvious corridors in the Neolithic landscape would have been along the stream channels mentioned above, but the paths and tracks which would have developed over time also would have constituted corridors. Corridor networks are generally very conspicuous and would have been the main travel conduits across this region. As a result, these would have been important in the development of the knowledge of the whereabouts of important environmental resources in this area.

Golledge and Stimson (1987: 73-4) propose an "anchorpoint theory" of environmental cognition, in which "primary nodes are linked by primary paths in a hierarchical linking of places as the primary node structure emerges. Essentially, information about an area is obtained as repetitive travel on paths between nodes increases and new locations are added. The corridors identified here would have been the paths along which information about the region between Brzesc Kujawski and Oslonki would have accumulated first, and where we might expect to find additional traces of Neolithic land use.


In a developing agricultural landscape, Forman and Godron propose that patch density increases and variability in patch size decreases over time (Forman and Godron 1986: 296). Fewer disturbance patches (from treefalls, for instance) more cultivated patches, and more remnant patches occur as natural vegetation is cut into increasingly fine residual parcels.

Agricultural fields, as a special type of landscape patch, are artificially maintained for a span of time, until fertility drops and they are abandoned. The persistence of such introduced patches is directly proportional to the length of their maintenance. Now that the belief that early European agriculture was based on a short-fallow slash-and-burn style of cultivation has been fairly effectively demolished (Rowley-Conwy 1981), we can assume that most of the Neolithic cultivated patches were maintained for fairly long periods of time, perhaps on the order of decades, which would have suppressed the succession by removing weeds and other non-cultivated plants from the seed bank of the patch. It seems likely that such maintenance of Neolithic fields could result in the persistence of traces of cultivated patches for decades, even centuries, after abandonment, forming elements of the landscape even after the communities responsible for them had disappeared.

Species Diversity in the Cultivated Landscape

In the cultivated landscape, the diversity of animal species generally drops, although certain species, such as herbivores may find their conditions greatly enhanced, particularly at the start of the disturbance. As the area of land clearance progresses, scattered remnant natural ecosystems become species-poor as a result of repeated disturbances and their isolation, which inhibits recolonization of species following local extinctions. The question to be investigated is whether the Neolithic disturbance of the natural vegetation was ever so severe as to cause such changes.

We also need to consider the role of Neolithic livestock in this landscape, in that they would have constituted a "patch" of sorts within the local animal population. As such, they would have disturbed the original matrix of mammal ecology in this region, perhaps to a greater degree that the establishment of cultivated fields due to their mobility and reproductive potential. Some species, such as pigs, would have fit right in with the local conspecific population. Others, such as sheep and goat, would have been wholly alien to this area and thus would have greatly increased the heterogeneity of the landscape, although by displacing wild herbivores they may ultimately have been the sort of severe disturbance that suppresses heterogeneity in the long run.

Changes in the Neolithic Landscape

Based on these theoretical constructs, we can begin to model the changes in the landscape during the first half of the Neolithic period (actually, we could probably continue this throughout the Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, but there's a limit to what one can do here). Within this period, we speak of three archaeological cultures in this area, which generally correspond to the North American use of the term "phase". These are the Linear Pottery culture (ca. 4400-4000 b.c)., the Lengyel culture (ca. 3500-3200 b.c.), and the Funnel Beaker culture (ca. 3200-2600 b.c.). You are correct in noticing a gap between Linear Pottery and Lengyel, for which we have very limited data in this area so far.

Linear Pottery culture

Linear Pottery settlements in this region are generally small affairs, normally located on the edges of the stream channels in this region, although they are not situated directly on the streams themselves. In a sense, they represent pioneer food-producing communities that carried out the initial forest-breaking and the identification of promising settlement locations. Their settlements appear to have been relatively short-lived (as are other Linear Pottery settlements in this region, including the 200 or so discovered in the last decade in the region north of Torun in northern Poland).

Faunal assemblages from Linear Pottery sites in this region are characterized by large quantities of domestic cattle bones, and their choice of settlement locations along these stream corridors may have been dictated by the availability of meadows for grazing (perhaps related to the work of beavers mentioned above) and the less-dense vegetation found in the "zones of weakness" which might have permitted easier movement with small herds of livestock.

Lengyel culture

The settlements of the Lengyel culture have been our greatest focus of attention over the last fifteen years, and it is here that we can infer more elaborate developments in the Neolithic landscape. First, we have numerous proxy indicators of increasing land clearance and diversified use of the landscape. Bones of open-habitat bird species appear in the faunal assemblage, and sheep and goat also increase. Now, sheep and goat shouldn't be taken as indicators of land clearance per se, but rather that the use of the landscape was becoming progressively more complicated as different species were accommodated in the subsistence system. There is also increased use of edge species and crop-robbing species of cervids, which then tails off towards the end of the Lengyel period, which suggests a response on the part of the animal populations to landscape disturbance.

Corridor and Node Elaboration

Our hypothesis is that the Lengyel period in this region was a period of elaboration of the corridor network and the nodes on it. This belief is based on the fact that on the basis of both radiocarbon dates and artifact typology the large settlements at Brzesc Kujawski and Oslonki are exactly contemporaneous, although the settlement at Brzesc Kujawski was apparently longer-lived. In addition, there are a number of smaller sites, which we have interpreted as special-purpose sites rather than residential sites, in the vicinity.

The landscapes around these sites were exploited quite heavily. First, in the immediate vicinity of the houses there was intense residential activity and disposal of rubbish, which resulted in heavily-modified nodes that would have taken a very long time to recover even after the abandonment of the sites. Further afield, the timber requirements of the longhouse construction would have resulted in substantial timber cutting, to which could be added the constant requirements for fuel, tool use, and house repair. The subsistence data from these sites indicates many different habitat zones were being exploited, including both terrestrial and aquatic resources. In all, there is a picture of very intensive local landscape use.

The two large settlements of Brzesc Kujawski and Oslonki, only eight kilometers apart, must have had fairly frequent contact. One can envision all sorts of alliances and kin connections between them, while another reason for contact must also have been the need to work out access rights to local resources, including timber and grazing. As a result, the corridor structure between them was probably fairly well-defined and in itself probably represented a set of elongated landscape disturbances that resulted in different vegetational communities and patterns of wildlife movement.

The intense local disturbance of the landscape that occured during the Lengyel period in this area probably imposed a heterogeneity on the landscape that persisted for decades if not centuries. Forman and Godron (1986: 28) have suggested that landscapes with high biomass (as in a forested environment), while resistant to initial disturbance, generally recover slowly from it. While it is unclear what sort of time scale is involved, it would seem probable that at least some of this disturbance persisted well beyond the end of the Lengyel occupation.

Funnel Beaker culture

After the end of the Lengyel settlements at Oslonki, then at Brzesc Kujawski, the settlements of the Funnel Beaker culture, such as at Nowy Mlyn, represent a shift in the old landscape pattern. The Funnel Beaker sites of this area are located in places that were not at all on the Lengyel network nor at the old Lengyel nodes. Instead, they are located in different soil types, often some distance back from the stream channels or on minor tributaries. The Funnel Beaker pattern in this region represents a completely different system of land use from that developed by the Lengyel culture.

At the same time, however, the intensity of disturbance at Brzesc Kujawski and Oslonki must have been such that these localities were still visible as "different", even if the traces of houses and rubbish pits had disappeared. The tracks and paths beaten down throughout this area when the two large settlements flourished were probably still visible and in use for some time after the occupation of these two sites ended. Old field sites of the Lengyel communities would have regenerated with second-growth forest and could be differentiated from remaining stands of primeval woods in the vicinity.


The literature of landscape ecology provides a font of propositions about land use that can be incorporated into archaeological research designs. It was especially stimulating to stumble upon this body of scholarship as we were engaged in the Oslonki excavations and thinking about the implications of a second large Lengyel site near Brzesc Kujawski (and who knows how many more are out there?) While the field of landscape ecology itself is still in its infancy, there seems to be no reason why archaeologists should not take advantage of the ideas that are emerging from it sooner rather than later.

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