The Ecology of Crusading project: new research on medieval Baltic landscapes

Aleksander Pluskowski, Alexander Brown, Lisa-Marie Shillito, Krish Seetah, Daniel Makowiecki, Marc Jarzebowski, Kaspars Kļaviņš & Juhan Kreem

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of modern and medieval regions in the eastern Baltic showing case study sites.
Click to enlarge.

The Ecology of Crusading project is a new programme of research investigating the environmental impact of the Baltic Crusades. In the thirteenth century, crusading armies unleashed a relentless holy war against the last indigenous pagan societies of Europe in the eastern Baltic region. Tribal territories were replaced with new Christian states, run by the Teutonic Order and individual bishops. They constructed castles, encouraged colonists, developed towns and introduced Christianity. Recent pilot studies have suggested that the period of crusading and colonisation coincides with a marked intensification in the exploitation of plant and animal resources, and associated landscape changes in the eastern Baltic. Since many aspects of the natural world were sacred to the Baltic tribes, this impact would be synonymous with the cultural changes that created a new, European world at this frontier of Christendom.

Research targets

This research focuses on how castles and associated settlements constructed by the Teutonic Order re-organised and transformed local environments in north-eastern Poland, western Lithuania, northern Latvia and southern Estonia (medieval Prussia and Livonia; Figure 1). The research team is examining a diverse range of archaeological and palaeo-environmental material, alongside written and cartographic sources. The research strategy is sub-divided into on- and off-site sampling within the commanderies and administrative hinterlands of each castle. Initial fieldwork in Poland has concentrated particularly on Malbork castle (Figure 2): cores were extracted from the high castle courtyard, moats and fish pond and an assemblage of animal bones recovered from excavations in the outer bailey (Site 1) was analysed. This has provided a solid foundation for modelling the ecological profile of the castle community (Maltby et al. 2009; Brown & Pluskowski forthcoming). Future targeted excavations of castle and related settlement sites will be informed by geophysical surveys designed to identify undisturbed cultural layers, as already conducted at Biała Góra (see below) and Karksi in Estonia (Valk et al. 2009), whilst evaluation of on-site palaeoenvironmental material has been carried out at two sites in the Kulmerland (Pień and Grudziądz).

Figure 2
Figure 2. The castle at Malbork (Marienburg) overlooking the Nogat tributary of the Vistula, constructed by the Teutonic Order from the latter decades of the thirteenth century into the fifteenth century.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Excavating pine posts from the north-western corner of the moat of the middle castle at Malbork.
Click to enlarge.

Impact and regional variation
Figure 4
Figure 4. Coring the moat at Cēsis castle, Latvia.
Click to enlarge.

The construction of detailed, local vegetation histories from cores taken in the commanderies or administrative hinterlands of these castles, supported by a robust 14C chronology, has already highlighted regional variation in the intensification of environmental exploitation. An off-site core from a peat deposit 3km south of Malbork indicates that human activity intensified in the landscape around the castle during the thirteenth–fourteenth century. Deciduous woodland, dominated by hornbeam, oak, hazel and birch, was cleared and replaced with arable, pasture and heathland. Pine woodland expanded, reflecting its ability to colonise areas disturbed by human activity. Along with oak, pine trees were exploited, as shown by posts sunk into the waterlogged soil to serve as foundations for parts of Malbork castle (Figure 3). In other parts of the Malbork landscape, written and cartographic sources indicate that remnant managed oak woodland survived clearance, such as the still largely intact Forest of Sztum. Such areas were maintained as an important resource, exploited for timber and exported across north-west Europe from the thirteenth century onwards (Haneca et al. 2005).

On- and off-site cores have also been obtained from Cēsis castle in Latvia (Figure 4) and from Radzyń Chełmiński castle and lake in Poland; an off-site core was also taken from peat deposits at Ärikulä, 5km south-west of Karksi castle in Estonia. While castles are the primary foci of analysis, excavations at Biała Góra, south of Malbork castle, and at the hillfort next to Cēsis castle have provided opportunities to integrate the ecological profiles of smaller, contemporary sites: samples were taken from their cultural layers for analysis at microscopic level (Figure 5). Analysis of the mammal, bird and fish bone assemblage from Biała Góra, points to diverse exploitation of the local woodland and aquatic resources (Figures 6 & 7), as well as the presence of species associated with colonisation and urbanisation (Figure 8). Further zooarchaeological research will seek to characterise a crucial element of the Teutonic Order's food culture by focusing on butchery technology, and isotopic studies will track the provenance of species featuring prominently in the culture of the Baltic crusader states, particularly horses and fish.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Part of a thin section of 'dark earth' from Biała Góra showing microscopic organic inclusions.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Butchered femur fragment of a juvenile beaver from Biała Góra.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Fragment of sturgeon bone from Biała Góra. Sturgeon was consumed at high-status and urban sites within the Teutonic Order's state and its cranial bones were used in the construction of crossbows.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 8
Figure 8. Cat mandible from Biała Góra showing fine cut marks from skinning. The representation of cats in the Baltic region noticeably increases from the thirteenth century, paralleling the intensification of human settlement.
Click to enlarge.

The findings reported here bode well for the project's overall research aims: by comparing long term trends in environmental transformation across the Eastern Baltic, it will be possible to assess both the impact of the crusades on the pre-Christian landscape and the relationship between environmental adaptation and the cultural uniformity of the developing crusader states.

Further details of the project are available at:


The authors would like to thank the European Research Council for funding the Ecology of Crusading research programme 2010–2014; and The British Academy, The Society for Medieval Archaeology and The Society of Antiquaries of London for funding pilot studies. We would also like to thank Zbigniew Sawicki, Waldemar Jaszczyński, Janusz Trupinda, Maria Dąbrowska, Dariusz Poliński, Marcin Wiewióra, Heiki Valk, Gundars Kalniņš, Zigrīda Apala, Oskars Uspelis, Mark Maltby, Mirosława Zabilska and Dave Thornley.


  • BROWN, A. & A.G. PLUSKOWSKI. In press. Detecting the environmental impact of the Crusades on a late-medieval (13th–15th century) frontier landscape: palynological analysis from Malbork Castle and hinterland, Northern Poland. Journal of Archaeological Science (2011) doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.04.010.
  • HANECA, A., T. WAZNY. J. VAN ACKER & H. BEEKMAN. 2005. Provenancing Baltic timber from art historical objects: success and limitations. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 261–71.
  • MALTBY, M., A.G. PLUSKOWSKI & K. SEETAH. 2009. Animal bones from an industrial quarter at Malbork, Poland: towards an ecology of a castle built in Prussia by the Teutonic Order. Crusades 8: 191–212.
  • VALK, H., A.G. PLUSKOWSKI, D. THORNLEY, A. BROWN & C. SUMMERFIELD. 2009. Fluxgate gradiometry survey in the ruins of Karksi Castle and palaeoenvironmental analysis in its hinterlands. Arheoloogilised välitööd Eestis/Archaeological Field Work in Estonia: 213–19.


* Author for correspondence

  • Aleksander Pluskowski*
    Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, UK (Email:
  • Alexander Brown
    Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, UK (Email:
  • Lisa-Marie Shillito
    Department of Archaeology, University of York, UK (Email:
  • Krish Seetah
    Department of Archaeology, University of Reading; Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, UK (Email:
  • Daniel Makowiecki
    Institute of Archaeology, University of Toruń, Poland; Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, UK (Email:
  • Marc Jarzebowski
    Friedrich Meinecke Institute of History, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany (Email:
  • Kaspars Kļaviņš
    Faculty of Humanities, Daugavpils University, Latvia (Email:
  • Juhan Kreem
    Tallinn Town Archives; Centre for Medieval Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia (Email: