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Climatic changes: new archaeological evidence from the Bohemian Karst and other areas.

A review of the scattered evidence for climate change in Bohemia and its region shows the importance as well as the difficulty of plotting a better history. Newly identified phases, both dry and wet hint at other fluctuations as yet only guessed at.

The purpose of this contribution, the first version of which was presented to a colloquium organized by Halle University in 1988 (the planned publication in STRIAE (Uppsala) has never appeared), is to give some information about developments in the study of climatic development in Central Europe, as they relate to archaeology, within the framework of a more general programme conducted over the past 20 years with my friends K.-D. Jaeger and Vojen Lozek. Our first joint contribution to the UISPP congress at Nice in 1976 has never been published, but the next report (Bouzek 1982) appeared in Harding (1982). Unlike most other inspiring studies in this volume (for Central Europe cf. especially Beug 1982), which used 14C dating of deposits, we attempted a direct confrontation of the scientific evidence with prehistoric pottery from identical layers (Jaeger & Lozek 1978; Bouzek 1982). Another contribution dealing with reciprocal interrelations between climatic fluctuations and prehistoric agriculture was presented to another conference (Bouzek 1983), and a more recent paper in Czech suggested further research approaches in this field (Bouzek 1990).

Occupation of caves and settlements

Developing the first outlines of the main changes in the interaction between prehistoric man and the climate, our aim was to understand minor changes in climatic evolution and to date them more precisely.

One of the projects concerned the precise archaeological dates of individual layers at Tetin and Svaty Jan pod Skalou (Bohemian Karst), studied earlier by K.-D. Jaeger and V. Lozek (cf. especially Lozek 1960). In both cases, the sequence consists of alternating layers formed under terrestrial and subaquatic conditions. Examples of pottery from test excavations are shown in Bouzek 1990: figure 1.

The finds illustrated there and other fragments allow us to date the lower dry-period layers in both sites to HaB2 (and, probably, to the end of HaB1). The Middle Eneolithic fragments of the Rivnac culture were collected from Tetin, not from the damaged deposit itself, but in all probability from one of the former layers formed during a terrestrial episode on the site.

This picture has parallels among the traces of cave settlements from other parts of the Bohemian Karst (Sklenar & Matous ek 1992, cf. here FIGURES 1-4). The Late Bronze Age pottery from the caves mainly dates from HaA1 and HaB2, while there are some traces of Middle Eneolithic occupation and much of the Early and Middle Neolithic cultures. TABLE 1 gives the quantities of known caves with pottery finds in this area.

A survey of the prehistoric occupation of the Thuringian caves was published by Walter (1985). Neolithic finds of Linearbandkeramik are fairly common, those of Stichbandkeramik less so, and there are only modest traces of occupation during the Late Neolithic period. A parallel evolution can be traced in the Moravian and Slovakian Karst areas, as far as can be seen from the material published and from the test samples from the profile test diggings by V. Lozek, which he enabled me to study. In Slovakia, following rich Neolithic settlements (notably of the Buekk culture) there are traces of many caves being used in the Lausitz and Puchov cultures (cf. Bouzek 1990).

Of the Eneolithic cultures, the Middle Eneolithic is best represented (Rivnac in TABULAR DATA OMITTED Bohemia, later Baden in the east) and some Early Eneolithic has also been recorded; traces of Late Eneolithic occupation are fairly rare. Finds of the Early Bronze Age seem to be also missing except for the Late Unetice, Veterov and contemporary cultures (BrA2 late -- B 1). Even so, many of the caves with Late Unetice pottery seem more probably to have served for cult than settlement purposes. The former seems also to be true of the scarce Middle Bronze Age finds of pottery from the caves in Moravia and Bohemia, except for the last stage BrC2, which seems to be slightly more common.

The Urnfield period is characterized (if the last Tumulus culture finds of BrC2/D 1 are discounted) by the two horizons mentioned above. HaC is missing, but HaD2/LtA is represented in some caves; this was the last case of more intensive use of caves during Central European prehistory.

In general, caves can only be inhabited under terrestrial conditions, but occupation in the post-Neolithic times also depended on the political situation (caves served as places of refuge until modern times) and on the particular economy of individual cultures (the temporary shelters of shepherds leave slighter traces than, for example, the seasonal overnight stays of agricultural groups during the harvest). Even if in post-Neolithic times caves were no longer 'normal' dwellings and cult (ritual) use of caves did not need dry floors, the study of their human occupation contributes to the study of climatic fluctuations, if the levels with sherds are characterized both geologically and malacologically as warm and dry.

At least one wet interphase during the otherwise dry Urnfield period has been demonstrated in several profiles by Jaeger (cf. Jaeger & Lozek 1987), and the existence of a dry phase during C2 is indicated both by the activity of lacustrine sites (palafitte) in the Swiss and North Italian areas, followed by their submergence in the Peschiera horizon, and by settlement traces of the same period in the recently inundated strips along rivers in Bohemia (Benes 1978: 389) and Hessen (Jockenhoevel 1991). Even the Tumulus culture cemeteries in inundated strips along the Danube, such as Pitten in Lower Austria (Benkovsky 1985) or Deggendorf-Fischerdorf in Bavaria (Schmotz 1985), may testify to a lower ground-water level during the Late Tumulus culture period.

Another important contribution is that by Guhne & Simon (1986) on the settlement site close to the Elbe in Dresden-Neustadt; the evidence is summarized on pp. 308-20 of their paper. The dry periods with occupation traces close to the river date from the end of the Early Bronze Age, from the earliest Urnfield period (c. 1300-1200 BC), from HaB1, HaB3 and HaD2/LtA. Of the two later settlement phases of the La Tene period, the first dates from La Tene B2/C1 and the latter from the 1st century BC. The last two dry phases to be considered here date from the 3rd and 6th centuries AD. The authors combine their results with many other curves gained by scientific methods in different parts of the world, including pollen analysis, sea-level fluctuations, snow, glacier and forest level changes in the Alps, and even corrections of the 14C curve, and they consider the development on this site to be characteristic for climatic fluctuations in Central Europe in general. The first attempts to study the occupation of the inundated strip along the Danube in Slovakia also seem to show an analogous situation (Cheben et al. 1981; Kuzma & Rajtar 1982; Baxa 1990).

Lake settlements (Pfahlbauten)

Another interesting source for the study of climatic changes in Central Europe is the development of lacustrine settlements (Pfahlbauten) in the Swiss lakes. FIGURE 6 shows the main building activities there according to their dendrochronological dating (Becker 1983; Becker-Schmidt 1982; Schmidt 1983), as based on the survey by Gross (1984, with his later improvements from 1985). Of interest is the slow start of building activities after the hiatus of BrD2 in HaA1, then its interruption in HaB1, followed by only a minor revival during the transition HaB2/3; after that phase, the Pfahlbauten disappear completely. Since the rising water level in the lakes (connected with a wetter climate) is generally considered to be the reason why building activity on lacustrine sites was interrupted (even the study of the development of Alpine glaciers seems to confirm this explanation, cf. Joos 1982; Gamper & Suter 1982), the main transition may be placed towards the end of HaA1, when a more dry climate started, and in later HaB3, when a much moister climate brought building activity to an end. There is a decrease of lacustrine settlements during HaB1, with short-time revivals in HaB2 and HaB3.

Settlement density

Further important sources for studying climatic development are the densities and size of prehistoric settlements in different regions. These reflect the possibilities of land-use in geographically different areas, most notably for agriculture, under changing climatic conditions. For the development in northwest Bohemia, a survey has been pursued elsewhere (Bouzek 1982), and there are several useful studies on the Bronze and Early Iron Age in Slovakia (Furmanek 1985; Veliacik & Romsauer 1987).

Neolithic settlement and that of the Urnfield period was especially dense, less so in the Middle Neolithic, in BrA2, HaD/LtA and LtD periods. In the Urnfield period, HaA1 is marked by a large increase of population in most parts of Bohemia, with continuous development until early HaB1, but the essential change of settlement patterns in Hungary and Slovakia in HaA1, connected with the disappearance of some cultures and the depositing of many hoards, may have been related with a spread of a dry climate there (cf. Romsauer & Veliacik 1985).

The end of HaB1 also means a moist interphase in Bohemia connected with changes in the settlement pattern (Bouzek et al. 1966: 107); the cultural changes connected with the former were of historical significance (Bouzek 1985a). The finds from Thuringia mentioned by Jaeger (Jaeger & Lozek 1987) seem to mark a similar transition, while no significant changes have been observed in the microregion of the Luzicky creek in northwest Bohemia (Smrz 1987). The valleys in the hill country were not, under normal conditions, influenced by smaller changes; the three or four altitude zones (meadows along rivers, fields above them and even more highly situated forest or pasture land) moved slightly upwards or downwards, but the whole pattern of agricultural activities was little affected by these shifts.

The history of agricultural settlement in climatically less favourable parts of Bohemia, where the conditions for good crops were only achieved from time to time, shows peaks similar to the other phenomena studied: Middle Eneolithic (Cham culture), the end of the Early Bronze Age (Vrcovice etc.), late Tumulus culture and two peaks in the Urnfield period (Smejtek 1987), HaD2/LtA and LtD (the South Bohemian oppida). In these areas, however, groups engaged mainly in cattle-breeding were active during other periods, without the characteristic traces of agricultural activities such as the common use of grain pits (notably the Middle Bronze Age Tumulus culture and that of HaC).

A more complex climate history for Central Europe

It may be concluded that neither the old scheme of Boreal, Atlantic, Subboreal and Subatlantic climates nor our more refined system (Bouzek 1982: 182f., 189, figure 4; 1983: 266) gives a sufficiently exact curve for climatic development in the later Holocene. The two short newly identified phases reported here (the first dry towards the end of the Middle Bronze Age, and a second wet in HaB1) are certainly not the only two modifications of the old scheme to be expected: there also seems to have been another wet phase during the earlier Urnfield culture, and perhaps a dry one towards the transition of LtB/C, while other minor fluctuations can as yet only be guessed.

The recent studies also seem to show that no precise curve would be valid for the whole of Central Europe. The drier continental climate usually penetrated from east to west, and the moister Atlantic from west to east; the time difference between their beginnings in the individual parts of the area studied (i.e. from Thuringia to Slovakia) may often have been one or two generations. This also seems to be confirmed by studies in the Pontic area (Glacier Variations 1984).

The development, however, should also be studied also as part of a chain of interactions between man and nature: clearing of forests, exhaustion of soil and erosion of cultivated land accelerated or slowed down the rhythmic fluctuation of worldwide phenomena, of the 'breathing of our earth'.

The human economy, notably agriculture and cattle breeding, was influenced or forced to change in some areas, while other areas were less affected. It is generally true that extreme dryness brought a steppe-like climate to some Central European lowlands (most notably to the Hungarian plain, less so to more western areas) and benefited pastoralists living on sheep and cattle breeding, but the widening of the Atlantic climatic zone with less sharp differences between summers and winters towards the east had a similar effect. Cattle breeding became more significant than agriculture, which enjoyed its most favourable conditions during the warmest, but not yet too dry times, with a long vegetation period in the year's cycle. Thus the warmer and drier climate in the 6th century AD favoured the penetration of the Slavonic tribes into the west, while Germanic tribes, who preferred cattle breeding using small fields, were forced to move westwards by the same change. The earlier significant change in the opposite direction was one of the reasons for the end of Celtic civilization in Central Europe. As the most favourable warm climatic conditions in central and northern Europe were contemporary with droughts in the Mediterranean, this situation changed the balance of power between the Mediterranean civilizations and northern barbarians, the latter moving to the south (cf. Bouzek 1985b: 26f., 242f.).

Other smaller groups in prehistoric times also used the seasonal transhumance system: in their summer pasture lands they burried the dead under barrows, characteristic symbols of clan identity for cattle-breeding populations, while for agriculturalists the village was an adequate symbol of identity, cemeteries being less monumental.

Certain lowlands where even nowadays the precipitation rate is only just sufficient for agriculture (Central Thuringia, the Ohre lowland in northwest Bohemia, parts of South Moravia, South Slovakia and the Hungarian plain) were much more sensitive to precipitation changes, like the karst areas in Thuringia, Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, than most of the hill country in these regions, where small shifts in the vegetation pattern made little impact. The mountainous zone underwent hardly any important changes during these fluctuations. Pollen is poorly preserved in most lowlands with alkaline soils, but these are precisely the most significant territories for the study of climatic changes and of their impact on ancient populations.

More evidence, studied jointly by archaeologists, pedologists, malacologists, palynologists and other specialists in their particular fields is the only way in which the present rough sketch of climatic development during the Central European Holocene may be improved.

In addition to these long-term changes, the short-term fluctuations were also of importance for prehistoric populations: a few years of bad crops often caused migrations, wars and other forms of unrest. General tendencies of a similar character have also been traced in northern Europe (Kristiansen 1980).


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JAN BOUZEK, Institut d'Archeologie Classique de l'Universite de Charles, Celetna 20, Prague 1, Czech Republic.
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Author:Bouzek, Jan
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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