There’s no better place to put bodies and bronze treasures than in the bed of a small, shallow lake. At least, that’s what the Bronze Age people of Poland believed, according to a new article in Antiquity.
Published in the journal in January, the article reports that researchers recently found a stash of Bronze Age remains and relics that trace as far back as 1000 B.C.E. Recovered from an ancient, long-lost lake in an archaeological area near Papowo Biskupie in Poland, the stash challenges common conceptions about Poland’s past and suggests that the site possessed some sort of ancient, sacrificial significance.
Around 3,200 years ago, the Chełmno community of the Lusatian culture, a complex archaeological culture from the Central European Bronze and Iron Ages, appeared on the scene. Occupying an archaeological area in north-central Poland, near the village of Papawo Biskupie, the Chełmno community flourished for approximately 750 years, from 1200 B.C.E. to 450 B.C.E.
As opposed to the other communities of the Lusatian culture, the Chełmno produced a patchy record of their social and sacrificial application of metal. Though there are ample archaeological clues that the other, southernmost communities of the culture left large stashes of metals and metal artifacts in lakes and wetlands throughout Central Europe, the same sort of clues are scarce for the Chełmno, who were concentrated further to the north.
“Metal does not appear to have featured prominently in the social and ritual activities of the Chełmno community,” the Antiquity authors assert in their article. A bit more accurately, metal didn’t, until the recent research at Papowo Biskupie.
In 2023, the article’s authors discovered several bunches of bronze in an ancient, long-dried lake at the site. Soon, subsequent excavations exposed over 550 bronze artifacts, as well as the bones of over 33 individuals, some of which were deposited as many as 3,000 years ago, back when the small, shallow lakebed was brimming with water.
Of the over 550 bronze artifacts discovered at the once-saturated site, the majority were adornments for the arms and the neck, typical of the trinkets worn by Chełmno women. According to the authors, some of the most stunning artifacts were a stacked necklace — made of ovular and tubular beads and strewn with swinging, swallow-tail pendants — and four spiral-shaped pins.
Beyond the bronze artifacts were the bones of over 33 individuals, “including infants, children, adolescents, and adults,” according to the article. Though the bones were “disarticulated” — disconnected and dispersed at the joints — and separated from the bronze treasures, the authors believe that they were deposited in the then-bog-like lake as a “sacrifice,” making the site “one of the most eloquent testimonies of ritual activity from the Lusatian period.”
The sacrifice of both bodies and bronze were somewhat widespread during the Bronze Age in Europe, though the former seemed to diminish in Papowo Biskupie following the transition to the Iron Age. “The stratigraphic and geohistorical context of the site and comparison to mortuary treatment from the wider region provide evidence for linking the human remains with sacrificial practices,” the authors add in their article.
According to their analysis, the metal deposits date back to sometime between 600 B.C.E. and 500 B.C.E., while the bones — bundled in “bog patina” and absent of any signs of trauma from blunt or sharp objects — date back to sometime between 1000 B.C.E. and 800 B.C.E. Determined with radiocarbon dating, the age of the bones may indicate a “temporal distinction” between the disposal of the bronze and the bodies.
“Papowo Biskupie opens a new window for exploring the social and ritual practices of the Lusatian era in Poland, the authors conclude in their analysis. “Papowo Biskupie may thus reflect a shift from human sacrifice to metal offerings in the local wetland landscape.”
Additional digs in the area could clarify the connection between the bodies and the bronze, but in the meantime, it’s probable that the Chełmno people were more interested in metal than previously thought.
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