Tell of Bubeneč reveals oldest evidence of ploughing in the Czech lands

Photo: Institute of Archeology of Academy of Sciences

The Prague district of Bubeneč, in the bend of the Vltava river, is a quiet, mostly residential part of town, and a scene of continuous archaeological discoveries. People have been living in the area since at least the 5th millennium BC, when the phenomenon of agriculture began to spread through Central Europe. Only last year the district made the international news with the discovery of an atypical burial site from the ancient Corded Ware culture. Now archaeologists working on the site of the new Canadian embassy have found what appears to be the earliest use of agricultural ploughing in the Czech lands. In this episode of Czech History, Christian Falvey speaks with Petra Maříková Vlčková, one of the members of the archaeological team.

Photo: Institute of Archeology of Academy of Sciences
“As you probably know, this part of Prague is extremely interesting, not only for prehistoric but also for Early Medeaval archaeology. We have known about the archaeological finds there since the 19th century, when this part of Prague became more densely populated and the street structure was defined. But what was really unexpected was the amount of archaeological situations to be found there. We found almost two metres of intact archaeological deposits, which is not only for Prague but for Central Europe quite unexpected. So that’s why we are talking about a “tell” – a Tell of Bubeneč.”

A “tell”, which is usually associated with the Holy Land…

“Near Eastern archaeology, let’s put it that way. Actually the word “tell” is derived from Arabic and it means a hill. In archaeology it is used as a term for a settlement hill with deposits caused by human activities. In Near Eastern archaeology they are almost everywhere, spread all over the countryside, and they consist mainly of deposits of mud bricks – sun-dried mud bricks that decomposed, and when people returned to the place they built on top of the ruins and another layer was created above it. In Europe, it’s a little bit different, because we don’t have sun-dried bricks, because it’s muddy and it rains much more. So using sun-dried bricks is useless because they would melt…”

But people have been using stone here for thousands of years.

“Not stone, because stone was expensive material, because it took time to adjust the stone as construction material. So they used daub and wood, and those kinds of materials, and we have also found evidence of such constructions at Bubeneč. So that’s why we were thinking that the Tell of Bubeneč consists more or less of waste.”

What is it about the area of Bubeneč that has been so attractive to people over the last five thousand years? Or actually much more than five thousand years…

“Well the first inhabitants that we know of were the first Neolithic, the first farmers, so that puts us somewhere in the 6th millennium BC. Definitely it is because of the mild climate, the very arable land that is there, and the nearness of the river, the Vltava. So those are probably the most beneficent factors.”

So what you found there was several layers of human settlement, all the way from the Neolithic through the Celts and Germanic tribes onwards.

“Actually, the situation is a little bit different: What we found there is a lowermost level that belongs to the Neolithic, then we do have information that there was some inhabitation there in the Eneolithic– or Chalcolithic period as it is referred to in Mediterranean archaeology. Then we have the Bronze Age and the first half of the Iron Age, and then actually our information stops, because the topmost level is one of about 20 cm of really mixed up materials, including later materials from the Celtic or Roman period. But everything is mixed up, even with the most recent materials, so what we think is that when this part of Prague was resettled and new buildings were constructed there at the beginning of the 19th century, they cut down the uppermost level of the tell and used it as levelling material for their building activities. So, yes, the settlement had very likely been continuous from the Neolithic until the Early Medieval time. But what we found on our spot was only up to the Hallstatt (Early Iron Age) period, and then the intact material stopped and we have only these disturbed archaeological contexts.”

And at the lowest level you found some of the earliest evidence of ploughing in the Czech lands.

“Definitely some of the earliest. The excavations ended at the beginning of November, so we have only had about two months for pre-evaluation. We took, of course, samples for carbon-14 dating, but we don’t have the data yet. So, yes, we have found what is probably some of the earliest ploughing there and, as far as our archaeological knowledge is concerned, we can probably date those ploughing marks to the beginning of the Eneolithic period, so more or less 3500 BC, but this is really preliminary.”

Just how important a find would that be if you confirmed that the furrows were even just a few hundred years older previous findings?

“Well to be honest, for Czech archaeology it would double the age of the sites with ploughing marks from this particular period that have been found so far, so it is of extreme importance. What also is very important for this part of archaeological knowledge is that we don’t have these crosswise plough marks that are usual for this period. We have only linear, parallel marks, which usually are thought to be a kind of ritual behaviour carried out just below the burial mounds of this period. And what is interesting in Bubeneč is that we don’t have any traces of any burial mounds there. So we might suggest that there were actually two kinds of ploughing in this period: this crosswise, which was probably much more effective, and this, say, more ancient, linear ploughing found in Bubeneč.”

What kind of rituals might we be talking about in the case of the ritual furrows?

“Who knows? No one knows. It is called ritual ploughing because it is usually found beneath burial mounds. We might suggest that when you want to bury someone in the ground you want to give him the possibilities of eternal life, and for this you have to fulfil some conditions, like giving him a blessing or some means of subsistence. And this subsistence may be symbolised by ploughing, because crops were essential for these people. So that’s why we might tentatively say that these ploughing marks were ritualistic. On the other hand, we also have to say that when archaeologists don’t know what something means they call it ritualistic, and you have an answer for almost everything.”

Lastly, what do we know about the people who left these furrows?

“We don’t know much, to be honest. If we assume that the ploughing marks belong to the early Eneolithic period, then we might suggest that they belonged to people who were much more advanced than Neolithic peoples – they were able to grow much more crops much more efficiently, so the density of the population probably also greatly increased in those times. And what is much more interesting and important is that those people were already able to melt bronze or copper objects, so the hierarchy of society arose in those days and became much more complicated. And also the first long-trade contacts with the Mediterranean area were built up. So for me, it is quite an interesting period of time.”

Photo: Institute of Archeology of Academy of Sciences