Polish Archaeology in My Lifetime

By Tabaczynski, Stanislaw | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Polish Archaeology in My Lifetime


Tabaczynski, Stanislaw, Antiquity


As a young man I was witness to rapid political and social changes, and began to appreciate the importance of the social and historical sciences. I was particularly attracted to sociology, because of its rich and prestigious tradition going back to the Institute of Sociology founded by Florian W. Znaniecki. So, after finishing high school in 1950, I put in an application to study the subject at Poznan University. But I then quickly discovered the true character of the recent political changes in my country: from 1950 Poznan University would no longer offer a degree in sociology: the topic was to be replaced by 'Dialectical and Historical Materialism'. A second surprise followed the first, this time bringing me to the verge of despair. In spite of a positive result in my university entrance exams, I was excluded altogether from the list of candidates admitted for studies at Poznan University, thanks to my 'improper social origin'. I was neither from a working class nor peasant background. My mother was from a landowning family, and my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the pre-1939 Polish army who had been taken prisoner and murdered in 1940 at Katyn.

Only the insistent efforts of the friends of my family led finally to my chance to go to university. And fortunately, at that moment, the universities of Warsaw, Cracow and Poznan were able to adopt a degree course originally created in 1939 by a professor of economic history, Jan Rutkowski. Termed 'Studies in the History of Material Culture' (HKM), it required an interdisciplinary collaboration in which archaeological, documentary, and broadly conceived anthropological sources were combined. The HKM programme comprised three years of joint courses in prehistory, classical archaeology, ethnography and anthropology, as well as the study of medieval and post-medieval material culture. The second degree lasted a further two years and was dedicated to specialisation in one of these subjects.

Obligatory for all students of HKM were the monthly training camps, an archaeological camp after the first year of study, and an ethnographical one after the second year. Our training camp was at the early Iron Age site of Biskupin, one of the most spectacular and best preserved archaeological sites in Central Europe. It was also an emblem of conflicting ethnocentric interpretation. For Jozef Kostrzewski and his pupils, Biskupin was evidence for the early presence of Slavs or Proto-Slavs in the territory between the rivers Vistula and Oder. For the Germans, it was an Illyrian or simply a Germanic settlement. Before the Second World War, Biskupin had been visited by the Polish political and ecclesiastic establishment. During the Nazi occupation, systematic excavations were undertaken there, organised by the SS. After the War, the new dignitaries of the Communist Party and members of the diplomatic corps observed the continuing excavations at first hand. I was involved in the Biskupin experience at several levels--as student, participant, instructor, and finally as lecturer and critic. At this site I was always aware of a specific, inimitable genius loci--a feeling that many Polish archaeologists certainly share.

In 1953 while still a student of the second degree of HKM, I became a junior assistant to the Chair of Archaeology at the University of Poznan, researching coinage and hoards. In 1955 I gained my MA with a monograph on Greater Poland's early medieval hoard finds, and five years later I obtained a PhD with a dissertation on 'The economic functions of early medieval Polish hoards'. This was a study of all kinds of metal monetary finds from hoards, graves and sites of the early medieval period, and my work focused on the rules governing monetary circulation. Primarily using theories of economic history, it studied the question of when objects became treasure, and when they ceased to be so (Tabaczynski 1962).

Shortly afterwards I became involved with the anniversary that was to drive much archaeological research in Poland for the next few decades: the origins of the Christian Polish state. …

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