Bodzia: a new Viking Age cemetery with chamber graves

Andrzej Buko & Iwona Sobkowiak-Tabaka


Figure 1
Figure 1. Map showing the location of Bodzia, central Poland.
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Introduction

Bodzia is a small village located in the Kuiavia region of central Poland, a few kilometres away from the river Vistula, near Wloclawek (Figure 1). During archaeological fieldwork related to a development project, an unusual discovery was made: a cemetery composed of several dozen chamber graves, dated to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries AD. The entire area has been investigated between 2007 and 2009 by a research team from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The first phase of the cemetery comprises four rows of chamber graves, all oriented on a N–S axis (Figure 2). A peculiarity of the site consists of rectangular wooden constructions (perhaps fences or houses of the dead) preserved in the excavated area (Figure 3). The dead themselves were buried in wooden rectangular boxes reinforced by iron fittings. The inner parts of these boxes were decorated with fabric. In the course of the excavations the remains of 14 men, 21 women and 14 children were documented. Apart from graves, richly equipped cenotaphs were also found. The average age of the women buried in the cemetery was 22–35 years, and for men the age was 35–55 years.


Figure 2
Figure 2. General plan of the Bodzia cemetery with graves from c;. AD 980/990–1030 (according to I. Sobkowiak-Tabaka & M. Kara; digital processing: P. Szejnoga).
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Figure 3
Figure 3. The Bodzia cemetery showing the outlines of the chamber graves and the rectangular fences preserved under a layer of arable soil (photograph: A. Buko).
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The abundant and rich grave goods, consisting of weapons, high-quality jewellery, ornaments, coins, amulets and many other finds, should be emphasised. The quantity and quality of the grave goods is astonishing: among the most common are knives and coins of western European origin, dated to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. Necklaces were found in the women's graves: these are made of glass beads, others were beads covered in gold foil, or made of precious stones and silver, decorated with in a fine granulation technique (Figure 4); there were also silver rings, earrings and many other objects. The most impressive are two unique examples of kaptorga (amulet containers) made of silver, showing a highly decorated bird, possibly an eagle (Figure 5). The remains of silk fabric, probably originating from the Far East (China?), are also worthy of note.


Figure 4
Figure 4. Fragment of a necklace from chamber grave E61composed of beads of silver, combined with rock crystal and carnelian (photograph: M. Jórdeczka).
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Figure 5
Figure 5. Kaptorga (amulet container) made of silver with the image of an eagle (?) from chamber grave E72 (photograph: M. Jórdeczka).
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Figure 6
Figure 6. Chamber grave E864 with the richly equipped burial of a young warrior (photograph: S. Gronek).
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Weapons were found in the men's graves, i.e. swords of Viking type, langsax (one-edged sword), pickaxe, as well as finds associated with trade. The quality of the grave equipment and features of the funeral rites indicate that the individuals buried in the cemetery were members of the elite — warriors and their family members settled in the Polish territory. Many aspects of the grave goods show close parallels with eastern territories (Kiev Rus) as well as a Scandinavian provenance. The quality of the weapons indicates the high social status of the individuals buried at Bodzia and a wide circle of commercial contacts. The highest social rank should be attributed to the grave of a young man buried in the company of a woman, both distinguished by extremely rich equipment (Figure 6). This is shown by the high quality of his ceremonial sword, with silver incrustation and belt fittings which was covered at one end with braid ornaments, while the other end bears a tamga (kinship sign) representing a dvuzub (bident) with a cross — presumably indicating affiliation with the Rurikovitch dynasty. The man died from injuries evidenced by traces of cuts on his skull and a broken jaw.

The warrior cemetery of Bodzia, composed exclusively of chamber graves, is unique in early medieval Europe. It is located near the trading route of the rivers Vistula and Bug, connecting the Baltic Sea areas with the Byzantine world, and from Bodzia it is not far to the borders of Prussia. In the Kuyavia region, where Bodzia is sited, there are rich saline resources.

The discovery of Bodzia's cemetery is the most recent and most spectacular example of a growing number of funerary sites found in Polish lands, dated to the period between the end of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh century and connected to the presence of migrants, mostly from Scandinavia. There is a certain regularity in the evidence. While in the pre-state period grave goods indicate a 'domestic' status for the deceased, many graves from the early Piast period, dated to the late tenth to mid-eleventh century, are distinguished by the frequent occurrence of weapons. Penetration of Scandinavians on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea was associated at that time with both the merchants' commercial objectives and their military purposes. In many cases we can regard them as allies of the Piast dynasty. In the case of Bodzia, the quality of the equipment and the features of the burial rites suggest that they were individuals belonging to the early Piast state elites. Contrary to some other discoveries, at Bodzia there is material evidence supporting the thesis that incomers from the Kiev Rus (?) were present. But at the same time a large body of evidence shows that the people buried at Bodzia had ideological links with the Scandinavian culture of the Viking Age, as well with southern and western European worlds.

Who were the warriors of Bodzia, and what was their role in the territory of the early Piast state? These and many other questions are now the subject of detailed studies at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Authors

*Author for correspondence

  • Andrzej Buko*
    Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology Polish Academy of Sciences, Al. Solidarnosci 105 00-140, Warsaw, Poland (Email: abuko@uw.edu.pl)
  • Iwona Sobkowiak-Tabaka
    Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology Polish Academy of Sciences, ul. Rubiez 46, Poznan, Poland (Email: Iwona.Sobkowiak@iaepan.poznan.pl)