- The Archaeology of Prague and the Medieval Czech Lands, 1100–1600 by Jan Klápště
This groundbreaking study will attract those interested in the history, material culture, religion and archaeology of the Czech lands. The book avoids technical discourse with a specialist audience. For example, the author does not describe archaeological method. Instead, Klápště seeks to introduce the subject to a broad audience, and it should be noted that a synoptic survey does not exist for the subject or the period even in Czech. This makes this study particularly valuable. For the neophyte, the book defines the historic Czech lands as Bohemia, Moravia, and the southern part of historical Silesia. Today this is mainly in the Czech Republic.
Especially important for the general reader is an introductory essay delineating the context of the study, the history of the region, and the history of archaeology in Czech lands (p. 1–14). Klápště elaborates the archaeological dimensions by developing concise treatments of the rural milieu, secular power, the religious landscape (churches, monasteries, cemeteries), urban settlements, domestic issues related to heat and light, technology, crafts and industry, artefacts, communication and symbols. The book concludes with an overview of medieval archaeology present and future.
The reader may be interested to know that there are several thousand deserted medieval villages (DMVs) in the Czech lands forming essential context for understanding the rural milieu. Whereas these DMVs used to be thought of as 'time capsules of medieval rural occupation' (p. 20), Klápště adds considerable nuance pointing out that DMVs were not static but were products of long term development (p. 33). While archaeological work has revealed much of a vanished past, there are important areas of the Czech lands which have been irretrievably lost. Klápště underscores the negative impact of the protracted Hussite wars in the fifteenth century and the destruction of the medieval town of Most in the twentieth century as a result of opencast brown-coal mining. Parts of medieval Prague disappeared with the establishment of housing estates and new infrastructure.
Up until the end of the twentieth century, Czech archaeology was dominated by investigations into settlement sites with a fortification (i.e. stronghold). This approach has broadened in the past two decades. We learn that Prague castle was reconstructed in stone and that dendrochronology is important for dating the foundations of castles and towns. Archaeological discoveries indicate a weak ecclesiastical structure (p. 75), definite connections between the 'worlds of the living and the dead' (p. 79) and the certainty of Prague's uniqueness (p. 143). Klápště reveals the details of the discovery of [End Page 224] a fortified suburbia below Prague castle unknown prior to 1994 spanning 25 hectares (p. 100).
Excavation finds at Most and contamination in wells and cesspits bring remnants of the murky past into the light of day. These include ceramic and wooden toys, decorated stove tiles, pilgrim shells from Santiago de Compostela, pottery, glassware, animal skeletons, and general household goods. Excavations of medieval wells provide evidence to explain disease. With the discovery of contamination associated with the eggs of intestinal parasites, causal connections between disease, epidemics and water supplies is underscored (p. 136). At Tábor, 3959 silver coins were found in two ceramic vessels under a floor (p. 141), while a cesspit in the same town yielded a wooden book cover, wooden seal boxes and a leather spectacles rim. At the important mining town of Kutná Hora, 51,000 fragments of fourteenth-century lamps, essential in the lucrative silver mines, have been unearthed. Conditions preventing the chemical destruction of glass were provided by the cesspits and filled-up wells (p. 179–84). Klápště argues for an unparalleled density of evidence for urban archaeology anywhere in Europe (p. 145).
The book draws attention to stove tiles as important items of Czech material culture. One can...