Buko, Andrzej, ed. Bodzia. A Late Viking-Age Elite Cemetery in Central Poland. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Pp. xxxi, 624. $293.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-27829-5.
Reviewed by Neil Price, University of Uppsala
The Bodzia cemetery is located in the Kuyavia region in what is now northern central Poland, not far from Włocławek and around 50km east of Poznań. Found during development work, the grave-field was excavated in its entirety from 2007-2009 by a team from the Polish Academy of Sciences, and represents one of the country’s most important post-war discoveries from the early medieval period. The results were briefly summarized in a 2011 entry for Antiquity, but now (in what surely must be record time) site director Andrzej Buko has assembled an impressive team of twenty-four scholars, almost all from Poland, for a major publication. Buko and his collaborators have produced a collection that is intentionally not an excavation report (which will appear later, in Polish) but instead a synthetic and wide-ranging presentation of a critical site, written in a manner specifically intended for the international audiences that language issues tend to exclude from Polish archaeological results. The volume is richly illustrated with hundreds of figures in both monochrome and color.
The cemetery was in use for two distinct periods: a primary phase of inhumations from around 980-1035 CE, and a second, much smaller and differently aligned group of burials from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The cemetery occupied a prominent position in the landscape, on an elevated site close to ponds and marshes that may have held a ritual significance. No settlement contemporary with the first phase has been discovered, though it probably lay to the south. A large village matching the second period of burials has been partially excavated.
The excavators found forty-eight graves with a total of fifty-two human skeletons, and another ten pits that contained no body, but were nonetheless fully appointed with artifacts. Bone preservation was generally poor, so it is possible that all the pits originally held interments, but the researchers are fairly confident that the ten “empty” graves are genuine cenotaphs.
The individual burials are here presented one by one over seventy pages, with excellent plans and inventories, a full record. The central section of the book includes many technical analyses, in an exemplary manner: problems of taphonomy, stratigraphy and dating (an entire section is devoted to chronology); studies of wood and plant remains; a very full set of papers on the human osteology and pathology, and the isotopic and genetic analyses of the dead. Among the numerous insights into material culture are detailed reconstructions of the complex coffins and burial furniture; ceramics; wooden objects; finds of leatherwork, including clothing; antler-working; stone artifacts; iron objects; a particularly detailed chapter on the weapons; possible magic items; merchants’ scales (a unique find in a Polish context); and some remarkable gold-covered beads with no real European parallel.
Bodzia is unique in many ways, not least in the layout and form of the cemetery. In the first phase, burials were laid out in four parallel east-west rows, with the graves themselves oriented north-south. Many of the burials were bounded by ditches in square or rectangular shapes with rounded corners, which are believed to have contained fences. Some of these “plots” contain a single grave, others several; at least nine had clear entrances.
The graves were of three main types, of which the most numerous (twenty-nine examples) were pits of rectangular form. Some of them seemed to have wooden elements, including shelves or ledges halfway up the sides of the grave cut, but (despite earlier press releases) it is clear that they were not actually chambers on a Scandinavian model, even though the resemblance is close. Rather the rectangular enclosures seem to take the spatial place of the chamber walls, while the central, coffined burials in large pits complete the picture of a curious and unique hybrid form.
A second group, with eighteen examples, comprised oval burial pits which appear to most closely resemble the graves found in the territory of the Khazar Quganate. A third group was made up of a small number of irregular burial pits.
Some of the graves had traces of standing wooden posts, while a couple seemed to have had wooden structures erected over them. Remains were also found of what might have been a place for the temporary storage of the dead, while other graves seemed to have built for the eventuality of being re-opened later–one of several Bodzia discoveries that resonate with Ibn Fadlan’s well-known account.
This was clearly a living community of families, as the cemetery includes graves of both sexes (fourteen men, twenty-one women) with a strong presence of the young (fourteen children); several other bodies were too poorly preserved for close analysis. There is a marked difference between the sexes in that the average age of the men falls in a range of 35-55, while the women were mostly in their twenties and early thirties when they died. The women were 152cm tall on average, compared with 168cm for the men, which is an unusually large discrepancy. The spatial layout of the cemetery also clearly indicated patterning by both age and sex.
The detail and richness of the finds is extraordinary, and far too varied for proper summary here. Among the highlights are women and children clearly buried with Khazar rituals; double burials with different treatment of the men and women; seated burials; bodies deposited on large cushions or on pillows and “beds” of hay; traces of linen, leather and silk garments; curious depositions of pine charcoal, burnt offerings argued to have performed an aromatic role in the funerary rites; a wide variety of stones in and around the graves; and a fantastic array of grave goods that combine material from the Scandinavian, ‘Rus/Varangian and Khazar worlds, with ritual elements that have echoes as far away as the Anglo-Saxon and Frisian cultures, and with overtones of a faint Slavic presence. All the artifacts are also analyzed in terms of their position and sequence of deposition in each grave–a vital and unusual element of documentation that enables us to really get close to the rituals involved.
Who were these people? The excavators’ well-supported conclusion is that there are no direct parallels for the Bodzia cemetery, but that its multivariate cultural affiliations are nonetheless clear. The chamber-like graves clearly show Scandinavian affinities, and there seems little doubt that the Bodzia community included individuals who were actively embedded in the political sphere of the ‘Rus and their complex relationships with the early Polish state. The isotopes definitively indicate a non-local origin for the Bodzia dead, though one that is hard to pin down, but the values obtained are entirely consistent with the strong Kievan ‘Rus flavor of the grave-goods. Almost exclusively foreigners, they clearly formed an elite sector of what was presumably a larger community.
The phase-one cemetery is of special interest because it is one of relatively few known grave-fields from the period that saw the rise of the Polish state. The nature of the site is of particular interest in the context of its location very close to the Vistula, and thus one of the main riverine arteries of transport and trade connection between the Baltic and, ultimately, the Black Sea and thus the markets of Byzantium. This cultural environment is well represented in the volume, with several papers discussing the historical background of the early Polish state, a search for parallels and similarities among the varied funerary traditions (including colonial ones) of northern Europe, and a close study of Polish mortuary behavior.
The volume does an especially good job of locating Bodzia not only socio-politically and geographically, but also temporally against a background both broad and deep. Over the past two decades of work examining the region between the Oder and Vistula, it has become clear that from about 650 CE onwards we are looking at something approaching a “Slavic landnám” (to use Hauke Jöns’ phrase) along the north German and Polish coasts. More than fifteen trading sites have been excavated here, almost all with strong Scandinavian influences and presence, and it seems that centers such as Bodzia represent one of the major end-points of this process, extending the lasting development of these contacts far inland by the mid-tenth century. Importantly, the cemetery brings increased prominence to a river route that has been neglected in recent research in favor of those further east.
There are a few niggles–no scales on the maps, for example, and occasional clunkiness in the translation (especially regarding the use of the definite article). Sometimes the big picture gets lost in the detail–the breadth of information is at times overwhelming, though one can hardly criticize the excavators for the richness of their site. It is actually remarkably difficult to find a clear summary of the cemetery in overall terms, as opposed to the close data on individual burials described at exhaustive length. Curiously one has to wait until page 343 (of 624) and chapter 17 (of 25) before one finds Michał Kara’s overall description of the cemetery–neither an introduction nor conclusion, but oddly placed at the center of the book.
These are minor problems, and perhaps inevitable given that this volume sees print less than six years after the end of the excavations; they in no way detract from what is by any yardstick a triumph of archaeological analysis. However, given such an impressive catalogue of achievement, there sadly remains one truly glaring problem, which is not the fault of editor or contributors: as ever with Brill’s otherwise excellent early medieval volumes, this book is priced far beyond the pockets of students, academics or even libraries. If it really does cost nearly three hundred dollars to viably produce a volume like this, then one wonders if a pdf on Open Access might honestly be a better solution, or at least breaking it up into two or three more affordable paperbacks.
Any work needs readers, and this outstanding collection deserves more than most. If the prohibitive cost can somehow be worked around, this book merits a place of honor on the shelves of any serious student of early medieval Europe. Andrzej Buko and his colleagues are to be congratulated on a superb and multi-layered contribution to the study of (in their own parallel terminology) the late Viking Age, the early state period, the founding of the Piast monarchy, and the origins of the Polish state.