Archaeological Research at Oslonki, Poland

by Peter Bogucki

From 1989 to 1994, six seasons of archaeological research took place at the site of Oslonki (pronounced ohs-won-key) in north-central Poland. Oslonki is located about 120 kilometers northwest of Warsaw and about 20 kilometers west of the city of Wloclawek (for map, click here). Archaeological research at Oslonki focuses on the study of the earliest farmers of the North European Plain, continuing work begun in 1976 at the nearby site of Brzesc Kujawski. Excavations by a team of Polish and American archaeologists have revealed a large village occupied just before 4000 B.C. with longhouses and graves. In order to understand more fully how these early farmers lived, it is important to study not only their settlement and graves but also how they used and changed the local environment.

Between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago, farming villages were established in Poland and other parts of central Europe. The understanding of the earliest European farmers is important since they represent the first instance of domesticated plants and animals being grown outside their native regions in the Near East. The first agricultural communities in Poland probably arrived from south of the Carpathians, but they quickly adapted to the new soils and landforms of the Polish uplands and plains.

Excavations at Oslonki have revealed a large settlement of these early farmers with well-preserved archaeological remains. Nearly 30 trapezoidal longhouses and over 80 graves make it one of the richest such settlements in archaeological finds from all of central Europe. Of particular note is a grave excavated in 1990 with an extraordinary amount of copper, among the earliest metal in central Europe, including a copper diadem. In 1992, a grave of an archer with five bone arrow points in a quiver worn at his back was found. A ditched enclosure and palisade, also discovered in 1992, fortified the settlement (photo above right). Oslonki is among a number of fortified Neolithic settlements in north-central Europe (for example, the newly-excavated Linear Pottery site, about a millennium older than Oslonki, at Vaihingen/Enz in Baden-Württemburg.)

During the 1994 field season, excavation of an area of 4,000 sq. m. revealed the continuation of the fortification ditch first found in 1992 (visible at lower left in photo at right), several new houses, and at least ten graves. As was the case in previous years, several of the graves had extraordinary numbers of copper ornaments.

The site of Oslonki is dated by 24 radiocarbon dates, which when calibrated to calendar years point to a dating of between 4300 and 4000 B.C. It is worth noting that this dating is 700- 1,000 years earlier than dates obtained for the well-publicized body of a prehistoric man found in the Italo-Austrian Alps in 1991.

The community that settled Oslonki made heavy demands on the local environment and probably changed it significantly by land clearance, timber cutting for construction and firewood, crop cultivation, and grazing of livestock. In addition to their agricultural activities, they also hunted wild animals and waterfowl and fished in the streams and lakes nearby. They also established satellite settlements and camps for specific purposes, such as tending crops and ambushing game. Since Oslonki was occupied at the same time as the nearby settlement at Brzesc Kujawski, paths and trails were undoubtedly cut through the forest. Thus, the early farmers transformed the primeval forest into a cultural landscape.

Since both Oslonki and Brzesc Kujawski were both abandoned about 4000 B.C., the question exists as to whether they outstripped the ability of the local ecosystem to support their inhabitants. The investigation of this issue is one of the key research question to be addressed in the next few years. Particularly promising is a bog adjacent to the settlement with over four meters of peat accumulation, which may provide pollen that can be used to trace changes in the local vegetation. A new program of research funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research will investigate changes in the prehistoric landscape around Oslonki during the period that the settlement was occupied. Extensive coring for pollen and geomorphological data was carried out in 1993 and 1994. In 1994, a trench was cut into the bog and a complete pollen profile covering about 8,000 years was recovered for analysis. The analysis of the profile will continue through 1996.

Excavations at Oslonki were funded in 1989 and 1990 by the National Geographic Society and in 1991 by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. From 1992 to 1994, this research has been supported by the Komitet Badan Naukowych (Committee for Scientific Research) of the Polish government. Additional support has come from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the American Philosophical Society, and the American Institute for Polish Culture.

For more information please contact:

Dr. Peter Bogucki
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-5263
tel: (609)258-4554
fax: (609)258-3996


Doc. dr hab. Ryszard Grygiel
Muzeum Archeologiczne i Etnograficzne
Plac Wolnosci 14
91-415 Lódz POLAND
tel. and fax: (48)(42)32-97-14

Background reading:

Bogucki, Peter, and Ryszard Grygiel
1993 "The first farmers of Central Europe: a review article,"
Journal of Field Archaeology 20(3): 399-426. [Abstract]

Bogucki, Peter, and Ryszard Grygiel
1983 "Early farmers of the North European Plain,"
Scientific American 248(4): 104-112.