Brześć Kujawski (pronounced "brzheshch koo-YAV-sky") is one of several large Neolithic settlements that flourished between about 4500 and 4000 b.c. on the lowlands of north-central Poland. The settlements are found primarily in the region known as Kujavia located to the west of the Vistula River, an area of low, rolling terrain with many streams, lakes, and marshes. Brześć Kujawski and similar sites are important because they represent the first large agricultural settlements on the lowlands of northern Europe and for their presence on the frontier between farming societies to the south and the foraging peoples to the north.
Agriculture had come to Kujavia a thousand years earlier, as indicated by the appearance of settlements of the Linear Pottery culture, but it developed very slowly as the farmers adjusted to the new terrain and soils. The Linear Pottery settlements existed as small frontier outposts among the indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. After several centuries, large Neolithic settlements sprang up at Brześć Kujawski, Osłonki, Krusza Zamkowa, and several other locations about 4500 b.c. They clearly descended from Linear Pottery antecedents, but they belonged to a later Neolithic group known as the Lengyel culture, named after a site in Hungary. Even within the Lengyel culture, however, Brześć Kujawski and its neighbors are distinctive and are known as the "Brześć Kujawski Group."
The Neolithic settlement at Brześć Kujawski was discovered in 1933 by farmers digging gravel from deposits beneath their fields on a low ridge of land bordering Lake Sme˛towo. While digging, they found artifacts and skeletons. Luckily, an archaeologist named Konrad Jaz˙dz˙ewski (1908–1985) was working nearby, and when he learned of these discoveries he came to investigate. He immediately recognized that this was potentially an important find and began excavations. Over the next six years, he cleared the topsoil from more than 10,000 square meters, exposing one of the largest Neolithic settlements discovered before World War II.
Jaz˙dz˙ewski noticed that one of the most apparent Lengyel features at Brześć Kujawski was the long narrow trenches dug into the clay and gravel subsoil, sometimes reaching a meter or more below the surface. These trenches formed trapezoidal outlines 20 to 30 meters long, 5 to 6 meters wide at one end and 2 to 3 meters at the other. Clearly, these were structures of some sort because there were indications that the trenches had held upright posts. Among these trapezoidal enclosures were large pits with very irregular bottoms dug into the clay subsoil.
At the time, the prevailing belief was that Neolithic people lived in the pits, which were thought to have been roofed over with flimsy shelters. But what were the trapezoidal post structures? Archaeologists who had recently excavated Linear Pottery post structures at Köln-Lindenthal in Germany had proposed that they might have been barns or granaries. They could not imagine people living in them. But one of Jaz˙dz˙ewski's workers remarked that if he had to live in one of the muddy clay pits, he would break his legs slipping around in it. Jaz˙dz˙ewski concluded that the Lengyel timber structures at Brześć Kujawski really were Neolithic houses and that the pits served some other purpose.
Eventually this view prevailed, and archaeologists now know that the big pits in fact were the places where clay was dug for plastering the walls of houses built with timber posts set into foundation trenches. At Brześć Kujawski, more than fifty such houses have been found, both during Jaz˙dz˙ewski's excavations in the 1930s and during further excavations by Ryszard Grygiel and Peter Bogucki in the 1970s and 1980s. They are oriented along an axis running northwest-southeast, with the wide end toward the southeast. The reason for this orientation of the houses or for their trapezoidal shape is not clear. Many of their outlines overlap, indicating that they were built and rebuilt at different times. Burned clay plaster in the filling of the foundation trenches indicates that a number of the houses were destroyed by fire. The nearby clay pits were filled up with debris, animal bones, charred seeds, and artifacts like broken pieces of pottery. Other pits were used for storage or as the locations of workshops (fig. 1).
Scattered among the houses at Brześć Kujawski are also nearly sixty graves. Most graves contain skeletons that are in a crouched position with their arms drawn up to the chest. Males always lie on their right side and the females on their left, with their heads pointing toward the south or southeast. Archaeologists do not know the reason for this practice, but clearly it reflected an important fundamental belief. Accompanying the skeletons are artifacts. Many of the male graves have flint blades or axes made from large deer antlers, whereas female graves often contain copper ornaments, shell beads, and bone arm-rings.
The copper artifacts found at Brześć Kujawski and similar sites in Kujavia represent the earliest known use of copper in this part of Europe, around 4400 b.c. Although the source of the copper has not yet been established, it was probably either in the Alps or in the Balkans, hundreds of kilometers away. It was smelted and then hammered into ribbon, not cast. From the copper ribbon, metalworkers made beads, pendants, and head ornaments. Some burials had lavish displays of copper, whereas others had none (fig. 2). After a short time, the copper supply was cut off, and the latest burials at Brześć Kujawski do not contain such ornaments.
The inhabitants of Brześć Kujawski and its neighboring settlements also acquired flint from sources more than 200 kilometers away in southern Poland. When they really needed a sharp edge they used "chocolate" flint (with a deep brown color) and Jurassic flint from these distant quarries. In addition, they made stone axes by grinding local stones into shape. Antler axes were made by breaking off the base of a thick beam of red deer antler, then grinding it to make an edge. Experiments done in Denmark indicate that such antler axes could have been used for cutting soft wood. It is also possible that they were used in the killing and butchering of livestock.
The rubbish deposits at Brześć Kujawski have yielded the bones of domestic cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, along with the remains of wild animals like red deer, roe deer, wild horses, and beavers. Most of the bones belong to domestic livestock, while the wild animals appear to have been hunted only occasionally. The beavers were caught for their pelts. In addition, archaeologists have recovered the bones from fish like perch and pike, several types of waterfowl, and the shells of turtles. Carbonized grain is mostly emmer wheat.
About 10 kilometers west of Brześć Kujawski is the settlement of Osłonki (pronounced os-WON-key), excavated by Ryszard Grygiel and Peter Bogucki in 1989–1994. Like Brześć Kujawski, Osłonki is located on a low crest of land surrounded on three sides by water. In addition to thirty long-houses and eighty rich graves like those at Brześć Kujawski, the excavators found traces of a substantial fortification ditch that protected the settlement on its side where there was not a natural water barrier. At the moment, no similar earthwork is known from a site of the Brześć Kujawski Group. Across a lake basin from Osłonki is another Neolithic settlement at Miechowice with additional graves and longhouses.
On the basis of the discoveries at the settlements of the Brześć Kujawski Group, researchers have been able to reconstruct the Neolithic society that flourished in this part of the North European Plain between 4500 and 4000 b.c. Each longhouse was occupied by a household whose members farmed, kept livestock, and hunted when the opportunity presented itself. The deceased inhabitants of each household were buried near the house, so it is clear that a sense of continuity across generations was important. Some households were able to acquire copper and flint from distant sources, thus demonstrating success in conducting their affairs, but such prestige was fleeting. The consistent orientation of the bodies in the graves reflects deeply held common values.
In the end, the intensive pattern of land use for farming, herding, and hunting that supported settlements like Brześć Kujawski and Osłonki was not sustainable, and these sites were abandoned. Instead of concentrations of houses occupied for a long period of time, subsequent inhabitants of this region spread themselves more widely across the landscape in shorter-lived settlements. Yet echoes of the Brześć Kujawski longhouses can be seen in the trapezoidal shape of the Kujavian long barrows of the Funnel Beaker culture built between 3900 and 3400 b.c.
See alsoFirst Farmers of Central Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Long Barrow Cemeteries in Neolithic Europe (vol. 1, part 3); Late Neolithic/Copper Age Central Europe (vol. 1, part 4); Consequences of Farming in Southern Scandinavia (vol. 1, part 4).
Bogucki, Peter. "A Neolithic Tribal Society in Northern Poland." In The Archaeology of Tribal Societies. Edited by William A. Parkinson, pp. 372–383. Ann Arbor, Mich.: International Monographs in Prehistory, 2003.
Bogucki, Peter, and Ryszard Grygiel. "Neolithic Sites in the Polish Lowlands: Research at Brześć Kujawski, 1933–1984." In Case Studies in European Prehistory. Edited by Peter Bogucki, pp. 147–180. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1993.
——. "Early Farmers of the North European Plain." Scientific American 248, no. 4 (1983): 96–104.