Postcard from Rachel Podd, Digging Up Medieval Bones in Poland

The History Department received this great postcard from PhD student Rachel Podd, who spent part of the summer at archaeology field school. Here’s what she had to say:

Note: For ethical and legal reasons, I cannot post photographs of the human remains excavated during this summer. Accordingly, the photographs within this blog post are from the Giecz website.

Skull with a coin between its teeth.

Over the course of three weeks in July, due in part to generous grants from Fordham, I was able to take part in an archaeological dig and field school run by Ohio State University in Giecz (pronounced “Getch”), Poland. Though modern Giecz is quite small, with a population of around 150 people and an hour walk to the nearest train station, it was once a center of profound political importance to the Piast dynasty, the first historical dynasty of Poland. In 966, Prince Mieszko I was baptized as a Christian, possibly at Ostrów Lednicki, and accordingly, the Piast stronghold at Giecz, which was likely constructed during the eighth century was expanded to include a chapel, though construction was never completed.

Ostrow Lednicki, the chapel where Prince Mieszko I was baptized

Excavations of the stronghold at Giecz began over ten years ago, uncovering over 300 human inhumations. The burials also included a variety of grave goods, namely silver beads, swords, bone combs, and coins. Beginning in 2014, however, the excavation of a second cemetery about a five minute walk from the stronghold, in what is today a corn field, began – the burials are likely that of a small village which supported the Piast stronghold, dating from roughly the year 1000 CE. Over the course of two years, 29 adults and 26 juveniles, 22 of which were under six years old, were uncovered. Over three weeks this July, we uncovered seven more burials, four of which were juveniles.

The site of Rachel’s dig.

 

The school where Rachel and the other archaeologists stayed.

Field school was both incredibly rewarding and tough – luxury was hard to come by, as we slept on air mattresses in the unused middle school in Giecz. Each day began at 6:00 AM with breakfast. Afterwards, a small group would remain behind to wash artifacts and bones, while the rest would head out to the field. Excavation continued until 4:00, when the main meal of the day would be served, and then lecture until 7:00, with quizzes twice a week. Topics included identifying bone fragments and determining side, as well as sexing and aging skeletons and paleopathology (that is, determining disease from skeletal remains).

Ultimately, the bones of medieval people offer us one of the most comprehensive methods for understanding the lives of the so-called medieval 99%. In a world where literacy was restricted to the elite, and the survival of written records spotty, particularly in a country like Poland which was heavily and repeatedly damaged by foreign incursions, the bodily remains of medieval men, women and children offer us a method of ingress into life cycle, burial practice, occupation and health.

Some pottery recovered from a midden near the site.

Thanks so much Rachel!

If you are interested in further information on medieval osteology in general, and the excavations in Giecz in particular, please see the works and links below:

http://www.slavia.org/giecz.php [this is the main website for the Giecz field school, and has more pictures and information]

Mays, Simon. The Archaeology of Human Bones, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Kowaleski, Maryanne. “Medieval People in Town and Country: New Perspectives from Demography and Bioarchaeology.” Speculum 89, no. 3 (2014): 573-600.

Fleming, Robin. Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise 400-1070. New York: Penguin Global, 2010.

 

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