Living on the Lake in the Iron Age: New Results from Aerial Photographs, Geophysical Survey and Dendrochronology on Sites of Biskupin Type

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The Early Iron Age stockade site of Biskupin in central Poland is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in Europe, well known to archaeologists since its discovery in 1933 and the early seasons of excavation from 1934 up until the Second World War. It is famous both for the detailed and virtually complete plan of a timber-built lakeside stockade of the period (Figure 1), and for the pioneering techniques which were used in its investigation, including balloon photography, the construction of a caisson to create suitably dry conditions for excavation, and for the reconstruction of the rampart, gateway and several internal buildings on the site. Although one part of the site interior remains unexcavated, the published plan shows 13 parallel rows of buildings that ran across the site, with an internal street running around the inside of the rampart, and breakwaters or defences of oblique pointed posts lying outside it (Kostrzewski 1938, 1950). Images of the reconstruction are found in many archaeological texts, and the site itself is a powerful symbol of Polish archaeology: the site is much visited, especially by school parties, and in the September festival season thousands of tourists from inside and outside Poland descend on Biskupin to take part in the huge range of activities that are on offer. The history of research on the site has been chronicled by several authors (e.g. Piotrowski 1991). 2009 marked the 75th anniversary of the start of excavations, and a celebratory conference was held in the site museum in June of that year.


From the early years of excavation it was evident that detailed information was available on craft activities, the functions of the different parts of the site, and chronology. Study of the pottery indicated that it should be contemporary with the periods known in Germany and Austria as Hallstatt C and D; traditionally the start of Ha C was placed at c. 700 BC and the start of Ha D at c. 630/620 BC, though it is now known that these dates need to be modified, as discussed below, with a start for Ha C as early as 800 BC.

The discovery of Biskupin was followed by a realisation that other sites in this part of Poland lay in similar situations, on small islands or peninsulae in or on the shores of lakes, and (where excavation took place) dating to the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. Such sites included Sobiejuchy, Smuszewo, Izdebno and others (Figure 2). Although published results were few, the notion of a Biskupin 'type' arose, similar in date and function to other Early Iron Age forts in Central Europe, including those on hilltops, but characterised (so the belief went) by the parallel rows of houses, the wooden stockades, gateways and breakwaters, and the lakeside situation that were apparent at Biskupin. The problems of the sites, in terms of their function and relatively short lifespan, were addressed on a number of occasions (e.g. Rajewski 1963; Ostoja-Zagorski 1976, 1983; for more references see Piotrowska 2008), but fundamental issues such as those relating to the internal structure of the sites, how long they lasted, whether they were contemporary or not, remained unanswered. It is in this context that the work described here took place.


The dating of these sites has remained problematic, partly because the artefacts recovered are sufficiently different from those in the core Hallstatt areas to inhibit a tight local chronology, and partly because methods from the natural sciences were either not available or not helpful. Radiocarbon dating suffers from the problem that the calibration curve for the central part of the first millennium BC is almost flat, meaning that any date obtained will have a wide margin of error. Dendrochronology is the obvious method to adopt, and for Biskupin some results are available and more are in preparation; but for other sites nothing has hitherto been done. …