Biskupin is the site of a fortified stockade lying in west-central Poland in the lake area (Pałuki) near the town of Z˙nin. It belongs to a late phase of the Lausitz culture (the main cultural group that covers eastern Germany and western Poland from the Middle Bronze Age onward) and dates to the beginning of the Iron Age.
The site was discovered in 1933 by Walenty Szwajcer (Schweitzer), the local schoolmaster, who saw timbers protruding from the water. Excavation. which began in 1934 and continued until the outbreak of World War II, resumed in 1946 under Józef Kostrzewski and Zdzisław Rajewski of Poznań University; environmental and other small-scale work continued at the site into the 1990s. Because of its waterlogged state, the wood was well-preserved; this led to the recovery of an exceptional quantity and quality of information but also led to many problems of preservation, primarily of the structural timbers. Most of the excavation was subsequently filled in to protect the remains, and a set of reconstructions (houses, gateway, palisaded rampart) was erected at the site. Biskupin has become a major visitor attraction, and it is also a center for experimental reconstructions in ancient technology.
The site lies on a peninsula in Biskupin Lake. The peninsula was probably originally an island about 200 by 160 meters in extent. This area was enclosed by a palisade of rows of stakes driven into the ground at an angle, which served also as a breakwater. Within the palisade was a box-framed rampart of wood filled with earth and sand. A single entrance lay in the southwestern sector and was protected by a gate tower with twin gates. A wooden road ran around the inside of the rampart, enclosing a street system of eleven streets, made of logs laid side by side corduroy style. Along the streets lay houses, more than one hundred altogether; they were typically 9 by 8 meters in extent, built of walls of horizontal logs keyed into uprights, which were then reinforced by pegs. The floor was made of bundles of small branches. Each house had an anteroom and a main room with hearth; a loft ran over part of the main room and was reached by ladder. Smaller animals were probably housed underneath the loft, and a couple of cattle could have been accommodated in the anteroom.
This densely packed village plan has suggested to several scholars that Biskupin represented the beginnings of urbanism on the north European plain. Certainly the settlement must have had a population of many hundreds (possibly even more than one thousand), and the site offers some evidence of craft specialization. Archaeologists have found no indications of buildings for administration, at least in the excavated area, which amounts to about twothirds of the whole. Nonetheless, the proximity of houses and streets, packed together on a small island in a lake, would have necessitated some form of communal organization, though such proximity would also have brought about many stresses in the village dynamic.
According to the published reports, Biskupin appears to have had two main phases of occupation. In the first phase almost all the structural timber was oak, but in the second phase mainly pine was used, presumably because of a shortage of oak near the site. Since there were more than 35,000 stakes in the palisade alone, and 8,000 cubic meters of timber in each phase of the site, clearly the construction represented a major drain on local woodland and a major effort in terms of labor input and organization.
The material from the site represents a standard domestic assemblage of the late Lausitz culture. In addition to large quantities of pottery, numerous bone and stone tools, clay weights, wooden tools (including a wheel, hoes, plowshares, and paddles), and other organic materials, such as bundles of flax, were found. Metal objects were not so numerous, but both bronze and iron are represented, and bronze was worked on site. Particular houses and areas were designated for particular tasks; thus metalworking debris, weaving equipment, and other craft tools appear in some houses or open spaces but not others.
In terms of artifact affinities, Biskupin has been variously dated to Hallstatt C, Hallstatt D, or a combination of the two. Increasingly, however, opinion favors Ha D. Róza Mikłaszewska-Balcer's (1991) discussion of the pottery from the site, in particular the so-called pseudo-corded ornament, makes the case that the site perhaps began life in Ha C and came to an end at the start of Ha D: this ornament, supposedly typical of Ha D, is relatively rare as a Biskupin artifact, as are examples of encrusted ware that also belong to that phase. Attempts at absolute dating by independent scientific methods have been only partially successful. Radiocarbon dates obtained on samples from a small excavation in 1981 give an apparently clear picture for the early phase (between 850 and 800 b.c. at the 2σ level and 95 percent of the probability distribution), but the dates fall in a wide spread for the later horizon, where the calibration curve is flat (780–470 b.c. at 2σ and 95 percent of probability distribution). Dendrochronological work in the early 1990s on a set of 71 oaks (that is, first phase), comprising 166 rings including bark, spanned the period 747–722 b.c. but with a concentration of timbers felled in 738–737 b.c. The picture presented by published plans and accounts indicates that the separation into an early oak and a later pine phase is not clear-cut, and especially for the second phase it is uncertain how much construction work actually took place. A main construction date in the later eighth century b.c. fits well with the artifactual evidence.
The site's destruction, which seems to have been through abandonment rather than other causes such as fire, may reflect environmental change (rising lake levels), but economic and social pressures arising from the cramped conditions and overexploitation of critical resources may also have played an important part.
Kostrzewski, Józef, ed. III Sprawozdanie z prac wykopaliskowych w grodzie kultury łuz˙yckiej w Biskupinie w powiecie z˙nińskim za lata 1938–1939 i 1946–1948 [Third report of excavations at the stronghold of the Lusatian culture at Biskupin in Znin district for the years 1938–1939 and 1946–1948]. Poznań, Poland: Nakład Polskiego Towarzystwa Prehistorycznego, 1950.
Mikłaszewska-Balcer, Róza. "Datowanie osiedla obronnego kultury łuz˙yckiej w Biskupinie" [Dating the fortified settlement of the Lusatian culture in Biskupin]. InPrahistoryczny gród w Biskupinie: Problematyka osiedli obronnych na pocza˛tku epoki z˙elaza [Prehistoric stronghold at Biskupin: Problems of fortified settlements at the beginning of the Iron Age]. Edited by Jan Jaskanis et al., pp. 107–113. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1991.
Piotrowski, Wojciech. "50 lat badań w Biskupinie" [50 years of research at Biskupin]. In Prahistoryczny gród w Biskupinie: Problematyka osiedli obronnych na pocza˛tku epoki z˙elaza [Prehistoric stronghold at Biskupin: Problems of fortified settlements at the beginning of the Iron Age]. Edited by Jan Jaskanis et al., pp. 81–105.Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1991.
Rajewski, Zdzisław. Biskupin: A Fortified Settlement Dating from 500b.c.: A Guide. Rev. ed. Poznań, Poland: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1980.
Waz˙ny, Tomasz. "Dendrochronology of Biskupin: Absolute Dating of the Early Iron Age Settlement." Bulletin of the Polish Academy of Sciences: Biological Science 42, no. 3 (1994): 283–289.
A. F. Harding