Deep beneath the surface of Poland’s Lake Lednica, a diver runs their fingers over an old sword, unaware at this stage of the true significance of their find. The archaeologist retrieves the ancient weapon, only to later learn that they are almost certainly the first person to touch it for many centuries. In fact, their discovery will prove vital as historians uncover the secrets of a medieval settlement.
In years gone by Poland’s Lake Lednica played an important role in the development of the nation. Historians have known for some time that the area has links to the country’s first ruling dynasty as well as the origins of Polish Christianity. But in summer 2020 the waters revealed their latest crop of ancient treasures.
The underwater team came from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in the city of Toruń in Poland. Ironically, the educational institution takes its name from an astronomer and mathematician who cemented his reputation during Europe’s Renaissance period. But rather than looking up towards the sky, for almost 40 years archaeologists at the university have been fascinated with the hidden world beneath the waters of Lake Lednica.
Over their decades-long archaeological excavation in the area, teams from Nicolaus Copernicus University have helped to uncover a range of fascinating artifacts from the lake. These include many medieval weapons and a scattering of old boats. But 2020 proved to be one of their most fruitful years to date.
Lake Lednica is situated just over 23 miles from Poznań in Poland. Tucked safely away from the country’s third-biggest city, the body of water sits within a beautiful protected landscape. But its tranquil appearance today belies the importance that the lake once held in the history of Poland.
Every June Lednica is known for its spiritual significance. Each June groups of young people descend on the shores of the lake to take part in annual devotional meetings. The religious celebrations occur over two days, culminating in a nighttime walk beneath a huge metal fish structure.
The piscine construction is a symbol of Christianity. And the reason it exists at Lednica is down to the role the lake is believed to have played in Poland adopting the religion as a nation in the 10th century. That’s because Duke Mieszko I is believed to have been baptized on an island on the lake.
Mieszko I lived from roughly 930 until 992. He was a member of the Piast dynasty, Poland’s first ruling family. In fact, the prince was the country’s first true monarch. His sovereignty set in motion the Piasts’ royal rule, which ultimately lasted until 1370, when King Casimir III the Great died.
Under Mieszko I’s leadership the state of Poland expanded. It gained the region of Galicia from the historical country of Bohemia to the south. Meanwhile, the Poles also advanced northwards to take Pomerania and gain a coastline on the Baltic Sea. As such, by the time Mieszko died, the outline of his state was not too dissimilar to that of post-World War II Poland.
But the expansion of Poland’s borders wasn’t the only legacy of Mieszko I. In 966 or 967 as a result of his wife’s persuasion, the ruler was baptized. And the location of the ceremony is believed to have been Ostrów Lednicki, an island on Lake Lednica, which would itself become an important site in the early history of the Piast dynasty.
It would seem that Mieszko I’s baptism wasn’t solely a religious development, but also a political one. He accepted a version of Christianity directly under the influence of Vatican City, rather than from the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. He was against the expansive tendencies of the latter, and so sought the support of Rome, subordinating Poland to the Papacy in either 990 or 991.
Mieszko I’s acceptance of Christianity marked the start of the evangelization of Poland. A bishop’s seat was established in Poznań, in turn sealing the fate of Ostrów Lednicki. That’s because the island on Lake Lednica now lay in a strategic position between Poznań and the first capital of the state, Gniezno.
So Ostrów Lednicki became an important military and economic center in medieval Poland. As well as being the site of a fortified Slavonic settlement, the island possessed a church, a chapel and a royal palace – where it’s believed members of the Piast dynasty lived. In any case, it’s widely accepted that Mieszko I and his son Bolesław I the Brave probably visited the site.
Given the role that Ostrów Lednicki and Lake Lednica have played in Polish history, the island has been a site of interest for archaeologists for many years. The first studies were conducted there in the 1950s. And about a decade later the Museum of the First Piast Dynasty was established nearby in order to preserve historical objects found in the location.
Today Ostrów Lednicki and the surrounding areas are counted among Poland’s official national Historic Monuments. It was one of the first sites to receive the honor in September 1994. And, as the home of the Museum of the First Piast Dynasty, it is also considered to be the country’s biggest open-air museum.
But even though Ostrów Lednicki today operates as a tourist attraction, the island and the lake it sits on remain places of important archaeological investigations. Hence the dives that were conducted by the team from Nicolaus Copernicus University and the museum, the finds from which were revealed in August 2020.
Archaeologists from both the Nicolaus Copernicus University and the Museum of the First Piast Dynasty have been conducting investigations around Lake Lednica since 1982. But the finds revealed in the summer of 2020 were said to be the most significant in over a decade. That’s because they dated all the way back to the 10th century, to the time of Mieszko I himself.
This particular round of studies centered on an area of Lake Lednica near two bridges linking the shore with Ostrów Lednicki and another island, known as Ledniczka. These structures were found in 2017 and one dates from the turn of the 14th century. The oldest bridge, meanwhile, was built in the early 10th century, with the wood to make it having been cut down in 913 and 914.
The age of this oldest bridge may make it one of the earliest Slavic bridge crossings in Poland. Its very existence indicated the importance of the Ostrów Lednicki settlement during the time of the first Piasts. So it seems likely that the island fort played an important role during Mieszko I’s reign.
At any rate, the bridges were an impressive discovery on their own. Not only did they emphasize the importance of Ostrów Lednicki but they were also several hundred feet in length, meaning they would have been a feat of engineering in the time that they were built. But searching the area around the structures proved to be just as fruitful in terms of archaeological finds.
Professor Andrzej Pydyn is the Head of the Center for Underwater Archaeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University. In August 2020 he spoke to the English-language Polish website The First News about the significance of his team’s recent finds in Lake Lednica. And it seemed he couldn’t overstate their importance.
In his interview with First News, Pydyn revealed, “This is probably the richest season in a dozen years. Not only because of the number of objects, but also their value and the context in which they were found.” So what exactly did divers uncover that got historians like Pydyn so excited?
Well, perhaps the most significant of all the finds was a sword dating from around the 10th century which was pulled from the bottom of the lake. The intact medieval weapon isn’t thought to have belonged to an ordinary warrior. In fact, experts believe it may have been owned by a person of importance who was traveling to Ostrów Lednicki.
Despite its impressive age, the sword was found in remarkably pristine condition. It still possessed the remains of a leather sheath and had been decorated with a cross. This motif was significant, as such a decoration would still have been quite rare for the time from which the weapon dated.
While speaking to The First News Pydyn revealed the results of his team’s recent underwater explorations. He said, “The most spectacular finding of this research season is the eighth sword found in Lednica Lake, the first in 20 years. But also the spearhead, axes, including the encrusted axe, probably one of the more spectacular ones found here.”
In total, archaeologists found 21 objects. As well as the sword, these included two axes, one of which appeared to be Scandinavian in style and was embellished with silver. The team also covered crossbow bolts and arrowheads from the 13th and 14th centuries, alongside a sickle from the same period.
The vast amount of weapons archaeologists uncovered in the lake seemed to suggest that Ostrów Lednicki had been a key military location during the First Piast Dynasty. The finds point to a number of clashes taking place on the bridge which connected the island to the mainland. So once again the location proved itself to be an important one in Polish history.
During their study, archaeologists used photogrammetry to map the bottom of Lake Lednica. The process involves scanning and measuring the lake bed to create a 3D model. Not only did this provide experts with a detailed picture of the area, but it also mapped the topography almost five feet beneath the bottom.
The team’s photogrammetry work led them to another significant study, which provided fresh information on the role and size of the settlement at Ostrów Lednicki. Among the discoveries was the remains of some shoreline fortifications. These were likely to have been constructed from beams of solid oak.
The age of the beams was determined with the help of dendrochronological analysis. This field of study involves looking at tree-ring growth to work out the age of wooden artifacts. And in the case of the fortifications at Lake Lednica, it was discovered that the tree used in their construction had been felled in 980.
This dates the fortifications back to the time of Mieszko I – Poland’s first documented ruler. As such, Pydyn told The First News, “They shed completely new light on what took place in this area. Actually, we are becoming certain that the entire area of settlements around Ostrów Lednicki was important not only in the times of Mieszko I but also for his father or grandfather.”
The fact that Ostrów Lednicki may predate the reign of Mieszko I is a significant development. Little is known about the origins of the Piast Dynasty. According to legend, it emerged in the latter half of the 9th century. So Mieszko I is likely to have been the fourth prince to come from the Piast line.
According to the story, the Piast Dynasty first emerged following the death of Prince Popiel of Gnesen, a city now known as Gniezno. He was apparently replaced by his plowman Piast’s son, Siemowit. And from these seemingly humble beginnings, emerged a powerful family that ruled over Poland for about 500 years.
Given that so little is known about the origins of the Piast Dynasty, the subject has remained a topic of interest for some historians. In fact, in January 2020 it emerged that geneticists had taken DNA samples from more than 30 known members of the family in a bid to uncover their ancestry.
While the Piast Dynasty is credited with creating the Polish state, it has long been speculated that they could have descended from Scandinavians or Normans. It has also been suggested that the family originated in Greater Moravia. The historical state is believed to have once covered parts of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
By collecting the DNA from members of the Piast Dynasty, scientists hoped to discover the family’s origins, how they were related to one another and their migration history. The tests may also even offer up clues to the group’s appearance and even their health. But just collecting the 30 samples took a number of years.
Professor Marek Figlerowicz is a biochemist from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry. He kicked off the project in 2013. And he later told the Polish Press Agency, “At the beginning of our research, we had in our hand a list with about five hundred Piast burials, located all over Poland and even beyond.”
But obtaining samples from the 500 Piast burials originally identified proved to be impossible. As Figlerowicz explained, “In most cases it turned out that the tombs were destroyed or the remains were completely mixed up with later ones. It was a big surprise for us.” Even so, the team was not deterred.
To determine the genealogy of the Piast Dynasty it’s key that researchers identify a common Y chromosome among the DNA samples. The chromosome determines the male sex and is shared by all the men with a familial line. So, such a discovery would help to confirm that the Piast burials were blood-related.
As of January 2020 the results compiled from the 30 current samples from the study suggested that they contained differing Y chromosomes. But Figlerowicz and his team are continuing with their research. So with its links to the early years of the Piast Dynasty, it seems likely that Lake Lednica will remain a site of great archaeological interest for years to come.