Academic journal article Antiquity

The Archaeology of Early Medieval Violence: The Mass Grave at Budec, Czech Republic

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Archaeology of Early Medieval Violence: The Mass Grave at Budec, Czech Republic

Article excerpt

Introduction

Military actions and violent events are among the leitmotifs of early medieval chronicles and annals in Europe, but unambiguous archaeological evidence remains surprisingly scant when compared to that from later periods. This is true even of long-lasting, large-scale military campaigns, and forces us to ask whether we would be able to identify these important events at all if we were restricted to material evidence alone. In 1982 a grave containing the remains of between 33 and 60 individuals was investigated close to the stronghold of Budec, near Zakolany in central Bohemia. It represents one of the most extensive archaeological examples of large-scale violence dated to the Early Middle Ages in Europe, resembling, in many respects, the recently excavated mass grave at Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth in southern England (cf. Loe et al. 2014). In both cases, limitations in the available dating methods render attempts at linking the archaeology to specific historical events problematic. Multidisciplinary analyses of mass graves can, however, offer unique insights into the nature of early medieval violence that are not provided by written sources. Moreover, this bloody event probably changed the internal organisation of the Budec stronghold and influenced the funerary rites of the survivors.

Historical and archaeological background

Early medieval Bohemia receives no mention in written sources before the ninth century. In AD 872, the Annals of Fulda refer to, among other regional Bohemian dukes, the first-known member of the Premyslid dynasty, Borivoj I, who accepted baptism and built the first churches in Bohemia. Initially, the Premyslids controlled only a small region around Prague. In AD 935, the ruling Premyslid, Wenceslas, was murdered by his brother Boleslav and his retainers. This event is usually regarded as an important turning point in early Bohemian history. Shortly after his accession, Boleslav I (ruled AD 935-972) renounced the Franks and began to centralise power in Bohemia and expand into other regions. The basic structures and ideology of the Christian Premyslid monarchy were thus created over the course of the tenth century (Charvat 2010; Kalhous 2012; Berend et al. 2013).

An early stage in this process is marked in the second half of the ninth century and the first half of the tenth century by the emergence of a great concentration of fortified settlements in central Bohemia. Following the consolidation of power by the first Premyslids, Prague, with its central location, had become the family's main residence, but at least 10 additional extensive and massively fortified strongholds came into existence. Tenth-century legends name some of them as the residences of non-ruling members of the Premyslid dynasty and their retinues (Slama 1988; Varadzin 2011).

The hillfort of Budec, about 16km north-west of Prague, was one of the most important of these centres, as is evidenced by the tenth-century hagiographical literature (especially by so-called Legenda Christiani) from the 990s, which mentions the founding of the local church of St Peter by Duke Spytihnev I (ruled AD 895-915). Budec is most often mentioned in connection with Duke Wenceslas, who later became a saint, who reportedly received his basic education from a local priest there in his youth sometime before AD 925. The site is not mentioned in later written sources, and a thirteenth-century report on the church did not mention Budec as a stronghold, which suggests that it was already abandoned by that time (Slama 1988: 12-13; Bartoskova 2010: 87-90).

Systematic research by the Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences in Prague was carried out at several sites in and around Budec between 1972 and 1990. Detailed analysis of the results allows us to reconstruct the basic stages of development for both the site and the surrounding area (for a summary, see Bartoskova 2010).

Budec was built on an extensive elevated spur (Figure 1). …

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