Discovering a Lost Medieval Town in Poland

Discovering a Lost Medieval Town in Poland

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By Marcin Jaworski and Piotr Wroniecki

The 15th century city of Nieszawa, known by two names Nowa Nieszawa (New Nieszawa) or Dybów was a prosperous urban centre on the border of the Polish Kingdom and the Teutonic Order. In nearly 40 years of its existence the city became the main rival of the Order’s city of Torun (Thorn), a member of the Hanseatic League. The circumstances of the town’s founding as well as destruction and translocation to the place where it is located today were inseparably connected with the history of Polish-Teutonic struggle for domination in the region and profit from trade in the middle and upper course of the Vistula river – an important trade route connecting the Poland with the Baltic Sea. Nieszawa was deliberately located opposite to Teutonic Torun in order to become an economic and political weapon in this conflict. Nowa Nieszawa’s dynamic development could not be stopped neither by Teutonic Order’s political demands, neither by its armed assaults, yet the city’s successful competition was in the end awarded by destruction and translocation. Due to very fortunate coincidences the relicts of the city remained largely undisturbed for five and half centuries until modern archaeological techniques enabled to conduct non-invasive archaeological surveys which brought it back on the maps of medieval history.

The history of the first location of Medieval Nieszawa

It is believed that in 1423 AD by the will of Polish King and Lithuanian Grand Duke Wladysław Jagiełło a village called Nieszawa was located on the western bank of the Vistula river, opposite to Teutonic Torun. Not later than in the beginning of the year 1424 the King granted town rights to the settlement. Nowa Nieszawa developed very rapidly, benefitting from its profitable location on the Vistula, near the border crossing through the from the rich Kuyavia region of Poland, through the Teutonic lands to the shore of the Baltic Sea. Its buildings were mainly raised in timber or wattle and daub construction, but the municipal and religious structures (like the town hall or churches) were built in brick. In the vicinity of the city to the east the Polish king built a brick castle called the Dybów Castle in between the years 1427-1430.

The development of the city was stopped when a successful raid in 1431 by Teutonic knights and the townspeople of Torun destroyed it and put the area under Order’s jurisdiction for the next years. The overtaken Dybów castle became the temporary seat of the Teutonic state’s administrative unit (called a commandry) formed on the occupied lands on the western bank of Vistula. The area opposite to Torun, together with the lands in Kuyavia and the Dybowski castle returned to Poland after the treaty signed in 1436. It marked the reconstruction of Nieszawa and a new period of rapid development. Its basis consisted again of the far-reaching trade of goods such as grain, fish, oil and beer. Economic rivalry on the Vistula resulted in numerous conflicts with merchants from Teutonic Prussia. In the same period, the citizenship in Nieszawa was granted to refugees from the oppressive state, and what is most interesting their social status was irrelevant as they originated from various layers of social stratum (knighthood, townsfolk or peasantry), which is testified by historical documents. Nieszawa was also a home for a multicultural society consisting of Poles, Germans, English, Czech, Dutch and a Jewish community.

With the rebellion of Prussian townspeople against the Teutonic rule in 1454 came a political shift. After handing the authority over the city to the Polish king, the rebellious citizens of Torun, who consequently demanded the destruction of Nieszawa received a promise of fulfilment from Władysław Jagiełło’s son, Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk (Casimir IV) who ruled Poland at that time. The king postponed his decision, but the pressure in this period of economic crisis forced him to subdue to the demands. He ordered the city to be destroyed and relocated up the Vistula’s course. By the fall of 1464 the destruction of Nowa Nieszawa was complete, leaving only the Dybow castle on the grounds opposite to Torun. Nieszawa re-emerged in the new area where it exists until present in the distance of over 30 kilometres east of the place where it originally prospered.

Fifteen years of research

The memory of the thriving city faded. Its original area was partially destroyed and transformed in time through regulation of Vistula’s course, construction of anti-flood embankments and development of modern urban infrastructure. The interest in the past urban organism was raised during archaeological fieldwork at the Dybow castle commissioned to Lidia Grzeszkiewicz-Kotlewska by Torun’s Heritage Office. Fieldwork in the surroundings of the castle started in 1990 through application of a GPR, followed in consequent seasons by test trenching. By 2002 a number of 32 trenches have been documented, revealing a cultural layer dated to 15th c, including relicts of building in wooden and brick construction. Aerial survey of the fields west to the castle started in 2001 as documentation of the excavations, but turned into a consequent annual observation and documentation of the vast area. In 2006, through the application of aerial archaeology, it was possible to register visible crop marks, forming regular patterns of rectangular shapes. Their recurrence in following years allowed to assume that there might be a system of archaeological structures present in the subsoil.

This initial archaeological and aerial survey motivated a large scale, complex non-invasive survey with the application of geophysical methods. The fieldwork in 2012-2014 consisted of magnetic, earth resistance and magnetic susceptibility measurements that covered the overall area of almost 50 hectares. The survey registered geophysical anomalies that testified to the existence of remains of a vast urban organism with a clearly organised spatial pattern. Integration and juxtaposition of the obtained data, together with the results of previous studies resulted in recreation of the spatial layout of the city and creation of digital 3D models reconstructing the hypothetical shape of the city.

On the basis of the current state of research on the site of Medieval Nieszawa, we can picture a city located by the Vistula river, occupying an area of nearly 22 hectares on the span of 700 metres. The central place of the city was its town square in a shape of a rectangle with sides measuring up to 120 metres. Inside this space administrative buildings such as the town square with the weight building as well as commercial structures were located. Pairs of broad streets led away from the square, forming Nieszawa’s arteries and blocks of urban plots. Plots consisted of a frontal building and few or no structures in its back. The west side of the city is where a secondary open area was located, probably serving as a market place. On the opposite east side a church was located, that survived until 18th century, dedicated to St. Nicolaus. Its remains were studied by Lidia Grzeszkiewicz-Kotlewska.

Nowa Nieszawa was a vibrant merchant city, inhabited by a few thousand people from all around the Polish Kingdom and contemporary European states. It possessed a dense architectural structure, an enormous town square, carefully plotted blocks of urban plots with space for religious and municipal buildings, commercial areas and storage buildings for trade goods (i.e. the granaries for grain). Past years of archaeological research resulted in the conclusion that the effort put in location and development of Nowa Nieszawa was an extensive economical and political strategy aimed against the Teutonic Order and its plans for domination in the river trade and region.

Past fifteen years of experience

A summary of past fifteen years of experience has been published in a form of a monograph publication called “In search for the lost city: 15 years of research of Medieval location of Nieszawa”. The book is published by the Lodz city branch of Scientific Association of Polish Archaeologists (SNAP Lodz) and The Institute of Archaeology of Lodz University as a collective work consisting of theme papers prepared by the circle of scholars involved in the research on the course of past one and half decade. The book consists of an elaboration of historic sources concerning the city, followed by reports on various stages of field exploration. A geomorphological report studies the natural conditions present at the site. Aerial survey conducted in the years 2001-2014 is summarised and illustrated by numerous pictures of the site in annually changing conditions. A summary of all seasons of excavations is accompanied by archive photographic documentation and drawings of artefacts. Results of geophysical survey with application of magnetic, Earth resistance and magnetic susceptibility measurements are aided by illustrations of the results and their interpretation. The text is filled with digital three-dimensional artistic reconstructions of the city. The current state of knowledge is summarised in an urban analysis based on historic, archaeological and non-invasive data. Although published and intended for the Polish scientific community the publication contains also a summary in English.

The publication provides a complex scientific description of individual stages of research, first aimed at location of the city’s site, afterwards at recognition of its spatial layout. The research effort consisting of historical documents’ query, test trenching, aerial prospection, environmental analysis, magnetic prospection, Earth resistance and soil susceptibility surveys, digital modelling and spatial analysis resulted in creation of a complex work summarising the state of knowledge about the forgotten 15th century Nowa Nieszawa. What’s most important is that the reconstruction in its main part is based on non-invasive prospection, that allowed for recreation of the urban structure and its confrontation with previous documentation and historical sources. The results of non-destructive prospection showed clearly that the investment in the location of the city was a deliberate effort undertaken in order to provide benefit in the centuries old conflict of the Polish Kingdom with the State of the Teutonic Order.

The publication of the monograph was co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The book is soon to be published online on the project’s site: staranieszawa.pl.

You can also watch a digital reconstruction of the city in a movie called “Nieszawa: a forgotten medieval city in Poland discovered with the use of remote sensing techniques” posted on YouTube:

Watch the video: Abandoned Medieval Village (July 2022).


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