Two handmade clay toy pigs are helping rediscover the lives of people who lived in ancient Poland.
When archaeologists dig in the earth to find evidence of the past, they often look for the big-ticket items that make a grand statement, be it the rusty remnants of a warrior’s sword or finely wrought jewellery.
But sometimes the most significant artefacts aren’t those that belonged to kings or queens or even warriors. Sometimes, they belonged to children.
And that is the case for a pair of artefacts discovered just a few weeks ago in Poland, where archaeologists uncovered a two tiny children’s toys that date back more than 3,500 years to approximately the late Bronze Age.
Measuring no more than a few centimetres each, these figurines are a rare and valuable find. Children’s toys, being small and easily broken or crushed, often do not survive through millennia to the modern age.
Often, what remains are tiny fragments from which scientists must draw suppositions about form and function. But these figurines are intact and shine a light on what it was like to be a child in rural Poland at a time when across the world, the light of the great Mycenean culture of Greece was beginning to flicker and fade.
The figures represent two clay pigs. They were found just a few metres away from each other inside the ancient remains of a hut, that itself lay within a settlement that is surrounded by the remains of eastern Europe’s oldest monumental stone wall on Zyndram’s Hill in Maszkowice, the modern Polish name for the ancient region of Malopolska or Lesser Poland.
These are, in fact, the first objects of their kind discovered in the area, says Research leader Dr Marcin S. Przybyła from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, which was itself founded almost 700 years ago.
Research leader Dr Marcin S. Przybyła from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University said: “These are the first such find of zoomorphic figurines, that is, ones depicting animals.”
He added that the artefacts are small, only a few centimetres long, but very carefully made, with anatomical features, including nipples.
One is brighter, pale brown in colour, the other was fired to be quite dark. In the case of the latter, the animal’s nose is brighter. According to the archaeologist, this is probably accidental, but thanks to this the figurine becomes even more realistic.
He said: “There is no discussion as to what kind of animal it is. You have to remember that pigs back then looked more like wild boars than modern-day domesticated pigs.”
Each of the figurines was made in a slightly different style, in a different manner, as if they were made by two different people.
The discovery, which throws light on the lives of ordinary people in Bronze Age Poland, was made in a residential house from the early Bronze Age along with many other animal bones – of pigs, cattle and predators – in the building, many more than in other structures identified so far within the fortified settlement.
The arrangement of post-pits, whose task was to support the roof, was also surprising – three of them were right next to each other.
The house was probably rectangular or square (the size of a typical cottage in this place is 6m x 6 m or 8m x 6 m). Its walls were made of a lightweight braided structure covered with a thick layer of clay. The wall could be about 20 cm thick.
According to Przybyła, the figurines could have been used as children’s toys or cult objects.
Archaeologists are continuing restoration work within the walls of the settlement which was discovered a few years ago.
Dr Przybyła said: “The fortifications defending the settlement are more than two and a half thousand years older than the monuments of Romanesque architecture. Thus, it is the oldest example of a stone wall in the history of construction in Poland.”
This year’s research shows, among other things, that the walls were built on large, flat sandstone slabs (approximately 1.6 metres long), which formed a perfectly flat surface. According to the researchers, these foundation slabs look like screed and it is “clear that the fortifications were made in a very thoughtful way, and the builders had experience in similar projects”.
Equally old stone structures are unknown in this part of Europe. Researchers are convinced that the know-how associated with their construction came with settlers from the Mediterranean or the Adriatic zone. Further evidence of this is the discovered fragments of ceramic vessels. Their forms indicate contacts with the communities living in the middle Danube basin of modern Hungary and Croatia.
According to researchers’ estimates, the settlement was suddenly abandoned ca. 1550-1500 BC. However, there are no traces of an invasion or disaster. While there was a large fire in the middle of the settlement, many of the wooden houses were later rebuilt.
These rebuilt buildings were larger than the previous ones, but fewer of them were erected which may indicate a disease outbreak or a natural disaster.