Iron Age Poland

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As in many other areas of Europe, in Poland there are no archaeological indications for a radical transformation of Late Bronze Age societies entering the new epoch, or Iron Age. Thus, the traditional name "Iron Age," inherited from nineteenth-century archaeology, stresses a symbolical threshold—the introduction of a new raw material that had no immediate impact on cultural development. In fact, in Iron Age Poland, one observes a continuation of the mainstream Late Bronze Age traditions represented by the Lusatian culture, a culture that survived for several more centuries. It blossomed during the Hallstatt period, stimulated by new influences, but did not show evidence of substantial economic or social changes. A more immediate impact on local societies during the Iron Age was exerted by the climatic changes that marked the time, when cooling and higher humidity shortened the growing season, diminished crop yields, and eventually led to the growing role of rye and barley in the diet, at the expense of wheat. One also might stress the part played by the incursions of aggressive Scythians, who started a long sequence of nomadic invasions that penetrated areas north of the Carpathian mountain belt. Still, in the traditional chronological scheme, the introduction of iron defines the major change from the Bronze to the Iron Ages in Poland.


The oldest iron objects (decorative pins, axes, swords, and elements of horse harness) arrived in Polish lands during the Hallstatt C period (750–600 b.c.). The presence of these items was the result of lively contacts with the south, which developed through a growing interest in Baltic amber, sought after in the Hallstatt civilization zone. Discoveries of amber "stores" indicate effective organization of trade connections. Apart from scarce iron items that formed the most luxurious group of imports, many bronzes appeared north of the Sudetic and Carpathian Mountains together with new cultural patterns. Contacts with the sub-Alpine region, however, were not equally important for all parts of contemporary Poland during the Early Iron Age. The Lusatian culture that almost completely dominated the area had interesting subdivisions that previewed future regional developments.

In the western part of the country (Silesia, Great Poland, and Kujavia), some dead bodies were placed in richly equipped wooden-chamber graves. In western Silesia skeleton burials reappeared after a 250-year absence. Following new trends, exploitation of salt (in Kujavia) and zinc-lead ores (in Upper Silesia) began. Hallstatt handicraft models were eagerly copied, which is most evident in new forms of jewelry and elegant painted pottery. This was not the case in the areas east of the Vistula River, where imports, however numerous, did not stimulate local producers. Still different was the situation in the north (Pomerania), where contacts with southern Scandinavia and northern Germany prevailed and where the tradition of raised grave mounds survived. There is no evidence that iron-smelting technology was known in Poland during that period.

One interesting aspect of the Early Iron Age was the tendency to build fortified settlements, observed in traces dating to as early as the ninth century b.c. These constructions spread over the western regions of the Lusatian culture and, less densely, in Pomerania. They were of various sizes (0.5–20 hectares) and typically located in positions with natural defenses, such as hills, islands, and peninsulas. Some had a rather irregular inner layout, whereas others were built according to very rigid plans. The famous Lusatian lake stronghold in Biskupin, built during the winter of 738/737 b.c. and discovered in 1933, best represents the latter type. Its defensive function now has been questioned, but the partially reconstructed settlement offers insight into the sophisticated organizational abilities of Early Iron Age societies. More than a hundred large houses (each comprising 72–86 square meters) once stood along eleven broad (wider than 2.5 meters) wood-laid streets. Some 1,000–1,200 inhabitants lived in an area of about 1.3 hectares surrounded by a circular wood-and-earth wall cut by the gate, which opened to a bridge leading to the mainland. Despite attempts to view these settlements as the earliest Polish "proto-urban" structures, the strict egalitarianism evident in the equal quality of all the houses suggests instead that the inhabitants were agriculturalists seeking refuge during uncertain times.

The real threat came with the nomadic Scythians, who, in the late sixth and early fifth centuries b.c., directed their looting raids at southern and central Poland. Burned Lusatian strongholds mark several waves of their deadly raids; characteristic triangular arrowheads are typical finds. The same arrowheads sometimes are found in graves containing the probable victims of Scythian warriors. An outstanding piece of evidence of their presence is the golden treasure from Witaszkowo in southwestern Poland. Such a clear ethnic identification of these finds is supported by parallels from the steppe zone and by Greek written sources.

This favorable situation offered a new avenue of research for archaeologists, who eagerly started seeking indicators of ethnicity in the material culture left by other societies. Thus, many later archeological cultures were given univocal identity corroborated by historical sources. The Celts, Balts, Germans, and Slavs successively became front-stage actors in the processes described by archaeologists studying the following phases of the Iron Age. This tendency can go too far, as when even the traces of small and mysterious tribes are looked for among the archaeological materials. Another effect of this attitude is the frequent application of a very simplified model of culture processes to explain every change effected by migrations.

Pomerania (north Poland), free from the Scythian threat but subject to influences from the Nordic culture of the western Baltic region (southern Scandinavia and northeast Germany), was the first to observe the fall of the Lusatian culture, which was replaced by the Pomeranian culture during the seventh century b.c. This transformation was marked by the appearance of new burial rites. Grave mounds and extensive urnfield cemeteries were replaced by small family grave sites, where rectangular box cairns made of stone slabs housed up to thirty cremation urns. The early phase of this culture showed mysterious affinities with Etruscan traditions, visible in house-shaped and face urns. The latter have ornaments resembling jewelry (e.g., neck rings and pins) affixed to them, or even original personal items—mostly earrings. Expansion of this new culture toward the southeast during the Hallstatt D period (600–450 b.c.) is connected with the disappearance of collective graves and the introduction of another new burial type—the so-called cloche graves, where cinerary urns are covered with larger upside-down pots.

During the same period, northeastern Poland was "invaded" by a West Baltic Barrow culture, associated with the Proto-Balts, who kept this area for almost two thousand years while avoiding adoption of new ideas from their neighbors. These herders lived in small settlements or in little lake dwellings built on artificial islands made of several layers of wooden logs attached by stakes. Their metals were imported, and their dead were cremated and put in urns covered by small mounds.

The fifth century b.c. marked the visible decline of the mighty Lusatian culture. Large defensive agglomerations disappeared, as did specialized pottery making. There is also evidence of regression in metallurgy and impoverishment of grave goods. The aforementioned Scythian attacks and climatic changes are considered the main reasons for the demographic decline and the disintegration of large social structures. This crisis opened the way for the Pomeranian culture to expand over most of the lands between the Baltic Sea and the mountain belt. It promoted broad use of iron in eastern Poland, which had been somewhat underdeveloped earlier. Production of bronze items achieved a very high level of expertise. Pomeranian societies lived in small, nondefensive settlements, where sunken huts were typical dwellings.


In the south, "Pomeranians" met Celtic newcomers, who had settled in Silesia in the fourth century b.c. About a hundred years later the next wave of the La Tène culture bearers settled in Little Poland. Farther north a small Celtic colony existed in Kujavia. This dispersed northeastern avant-garde of the great European civilization introduced new technological and cultural achievements—very fine wheel-turned pottery, a double-chambered oven for firing pots, production of glass, fine smith techniques, large-scale iron smelting, new decoration motifs, coinage, new arms (long swords and helmets), and the organization of regional cult centers (e.g., the Śle˛z˙a Mountain in Silesia, known for numerous stone sculptures). Important progress in agriculture was made possible by improved plowing tools, manuring of fields, and rotational querns. These "Celtic" settlements were rather small, and their inhabitants lived in relative isolation from their autochthonous neighbors, who seemed to ignore the new technological offerings. Typical flat cemeteries with skeleton burials oriented north to south have been found to contain rich goods.

The Pre-Roman Age (earlier called "La Tène period," lasting from 400 b.c. to the turn of the millennium) saw important culture changes elsewhere in Polish lands. During the third century b.c. the last enclaves of the Lusatian culture and the mainstream Pomeranian culture disappeared, even though its regional survivors lasted until the mid-second century b.c. Those changes were caused by new cultural influences in the west. Along the Oder River, as early as the early third century b.c., Pomeranian societies were replaced by two groups of the Proto-Germanic Jastorf culture, expanding from its cradle in Jutland and northern Germany. It probably was this new influence that prompted further development, resulting in the formation of two new cultures.

Of these two, the Przeworsk culture was the more successful in its territorial expansion and the more durable (lasting more than six centuries). It originated somewhere in central Poland in the second half of the third century b.c. During its early phases it developed under the strong influence of Celtic traditions. In Tyniec, near Kraków, there lived a mixed Celto-Przeworsk society that introduced oats into Polish lands. During this early period cemeteries were flat, with simple pit graves that usually lacked urns. Even stronger was the Jastorfian impact in the north, where the Oksywie culture formed in the lower Vistula region. It is known only from its cemeteries, where women and men were buried according to distinctively different rites. Cremated female bones were put in simple pits, while the males were buried in urns. Stone covers or standing stelae are characteristic of these graves. This culture later gave birth to the Wielbark culture, identified with the Goths. Both Przeworsk and Oksywie cultures sometimes are listed under the common name "Pit Grave culture."


Around the turn of the millennium the great Celtic civilization faded away on continental Europe as a consequence of the strikes made by the aggressively expanding Roman Empire. This resulted in shifts of cultural influence that stimulated development in Polish lands. Thus, the Pre-Roman Age, dominated by the La Tène culture, ended, and Roman Age began, with its promotion of Hellenic-Roman traditions. A Celtic remnant legacy is evident in the technology used by the organizers of intensive iron production centers and in the sustaining of regular trade contacts along the route called the Amber Road. Earlier Etruscan demand for amber was replaced by the still larger demand for this "gold of the north," encouraged by Roman markets always greedy for exotic products. The scope of this import can be inferred from the sizes of amber "stores" discovered along the track, for example, 2,750 kilograms of amber found in Wrocław-Partynice. During the reign of the emperor Nero (a.d. 54–68), a special envoy was sent from Rome all the way to the Baltic coast to study the origin of amber. It was brought back to Rome in such vast amounts that the entire Colosseum was decorated with pieces of this precious material. Thanks to such contacts, in the second century the Greek geographer Ptolemy recorded the name "Calisia," which is believed to represent the predecessor of the contemporary town Kalisz in central Poland.

The decline of the continental Celts allowed for the vigorous expansion of Germanic peoples. Germanic ethnicity is ascribed to two archaeologically distinct cultures that dominated Polish lands during the early Roman Age (a.d. 1–150). The Przeworsk culture expanded east and south, where it replaced societies attached to the Celtic traditions. Its bearers lived in small, semipermanent settlements that consisted of sunken houses. Some of the cemeteries were in use for several centuries. Most burials were simple pit graves, but often richly equipped with pots, tools, weapons, and adornments. Differences in the amount of invested labor and the quality of deposited goods indicate substantial social stratification, with dominant elite members of society buried in "princely" graves equipped with imported status items, among them high-quality Roman glass, silver, and bronze products. These outstanding persons were buried uncremated and separated from the common cemeteries.

Intensive connections with Roman markets that were sending north large amounts of handicrafts and quickly changing local fashions made possible the construction of a very precise chronology for the Roman Age. It is based on detailed classification of metal and glass vessels, terra sigillata pottery, fibulae (a type of brooch), belt mountings, and various elements of arms. Similarly to objects discovered at well-dated sites (e.g., Pompeii or briefly occupied army camps), they can be dated precisely within a window of just twenty-five years. This makes the archaeology of the Roman Age an object of envy to those researchers engaged in the study of earlier and later periods and a research field with great explanation potential that has not yet been fully explored.

This chronological clarity also pertains to studies of the northern neighbor of the Przeworsk culture, the Wielbark culture. This culture represents societies that gave birth to the famous tribes of Goths and Gepids, who migrated southeast in the second half of the second century a.d. Unresolved questions concerning these peoples include their origins (southern Scandinavia or northeastern Poland), the reasons for their departure (economic, climatic, or political), and further development of the region by the lower Vistula (demographic replacement or steady transformation). Expansion and migration of the Wielbark culture enlarged the territory occupied by the West Baltic Barrow culture that moved toward the lower Vistula.

During the younger phase of the early Roman Age (c. a.d. 80–150), the new Luboszyce culture emerged in the region of the middle Oder River. It showed strong affiliations with both the Przeworsk and the Wielbark cultures. Retreat of the latter group toward the southeast opened the way for a stronger influence emanating from the Elbian region in eastern Germany, which led to the formation in western and central Pomerania of the De˛bczyno group, known for its late Roman "princely" burials. The late material culture of this area shows Scandinavian connections. Farther east along the Baltic coast the West Baltic Barrow culture established subdivisions that sometimes are identified with the tribes distinguished in written sources as Aestii, Galindai, and Sudinoi.

In a.d. 178 victorious Roman legions of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, fighting the mighty Marcomanni, established bases in Slovakia, thus coming very close to southern Poland. This direct presence lasted only three years and did not interfere with development of the Przeworsk culture. Long and lively contacts with Roman civilization, however, had visible effects in the adoption (since the late second century) of some technical achievements, for example, log-frame construction of houses, advanced goldsmithing techniques, and rotational quern stones. The potter's wheel and effective chamber ovens permitted organization of large centers producing standardized vessels. Ards with iron coulters made possible the plowing of heavier and more fertile soils, and idling of fields resulted in stability and a departure from the slash-and-burn strategy of farming. The really outstanding aspect of the Przeworsk culture was its huge centers of iron smelting. An estimated 400,000–800,000 furnaces concentrated on the northeastern edge of the Holy Cross Mountains, in Mazovia and other smaller centers, must have furnished several million kilos of iron that surely was exported. This "industry" was based mostly on exploitation of surface bog ores, but there also were mines penetrating deeper sources, with shafts dug as far down as 20 meters.


The end of the glorious Roman Age and the beginning of the turbulent Migration period came with the sudden arrival of Asiatic Huns. In 375 they attacked the Ostrogoths, who had settled north of the Black Sea, and triggered massive movements of various peoples that led, in a.d. 406/407, to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and gave way to the establishment of a series of unstable Germanic "kingdoms." The nomads themselves established their center in the steppe zone of Hungarian Pannonia, from where they ruled a multiethnic "empire." Before they were defeated in 454, some of the Huns penetrated Polish lands, which is established by finds of their golden jewelry and characteristic large bronze vessels. Uncertain numbers of inhabitants of Poland took part in those turbulent events of the Migration period, which resulted in demographic declines and visible impoverishment of the area between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathians.

This crisis did not much affect northeastern Poland, settled by the West Baltic Barrow culture peoples, who were stubborn in their attachment to their own traditions. Especially interesting is the Olsztyn group that formed in the Mazurian lake district during the late fifth century a.d. and survived more than two hundred years. Characteristic urns with rectangular "windows"; horses buried under male graves; far-reaching contacts with both western Europe and Scandinavia, as well as with the Danube region and the Black Sea zone; and the interregional character of personal adornments make it one of the outstanding cultures of the Barbaricum around the mid-first millennium a.d.

The end of the Migration period traditionally is set at 568 a.d. with the arrival of the Avars, a new wave of Asiatic nomads who also chose Pannonia as their homeland. The establishment of their new "empire" halted the very promising sociocultural development of earlier times and marked the beginning of the flourishing over vast parts of central and eastern Europe of the Slavs and their culture.

See alsoLate Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Biskupin (vol. 2, part 6); Iron Age Ukraine and European Russia (vol. 2, part 6); Goths between the Baltic and Black Seas (vol. 2, part 7); Slavs and the Early Slav Culture (vol. 2, part 7); Poland (vol. 2, part 7).


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PrzemysŁaw UrbaŃczyk