Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Toward the Wisła River

Negotiating the Krakow bus and train station

The main railroad station at Krakow, Poland. Photo by Axe via Wikimedia Commons.

The bus pulled in with the morning light, coming to a stop on wet pavement at the old PKS station in Krakow. However, none of it looked like what I remember Krakow looking like. I had heard that the station had undergone a large-scale renovation, and indeed it had.

Of course, the bus trip ending meant that I could no longer sleep, and that I was again saddled with a very big bag, and though the elevators made navigation a bit easier, the pain in my palms made the trek anywhere miserable. But then finding the sign saying that the shopping mall connected to the station was a huge wifi area excited me into checking it out.

Finding a spot within the deserted but still open area of the mall, I negotiated the login and immediately found my wife on Skype. I sent her a few words that I had made it to Poland, along with confirmation of my plans ahead. She was awake and got on shortly after, but then the wifi cut off. At 4:30 in the morning, apparently the wifi wasn’t fully kicked in.

So I went to find the train ticketing office, hoping I could negotiate the use of Euros rather than Zloty. Predictably, I couldn’t. And the station exchange wouldn’t open for a couple hours yet – well after the departure time of the first trains for Warszawa. But I was advised that there was a 24-hour exchange outside the station.

Putting the large bag on my back, I was again trekking around my top-heavy way to some unknown place out on the square “to the left”. I found a hotel there. I went inside, and was directed in a whole other direction – the right direction, this time.

With about 100 Zloty in hand, after exchanging 25 Euros, I returned to the ticket counter. The first trains had left a half hour earlier, so now I was dealing with higher priced morning expresses. As it turned out, these were trains out of my price range by 25 Zloty. Dragging big bag again, I went off to the bus station.

I did find a bus that was heading to Warsaw, and the price range was right at about 90 Zloty, but I had to purchase my ticket online in advance. Living a couple years off the financial grid without a bank account, that was an impossible demand. The driver empathized, but could do nothing.

Angered, I went back through the “Magda” tunnel , and desperate for any option that would get me to Warszawa before 2:40 p.m., I found a timetable on the wall. At first, this appeared to be a bus that would bring me to the capital city at around 12:50, but when I went back to the bus station, I was told this was a train. I dragged the big bag back to the train station, my palms screaming in pain.

This time, my luck changed for the better. Not only was the train a real train, but it was also still fairly cheap, at 54 Zloty. About 90 minutes before it departed, I had my ticket. I found a spot in the internet hot spot in the station to get online and inform everyone of my fortune, and quickly before the battery would give out.

Then came the final lug to the platform, again all the way through the Magda tunnel, the last platform before the bus station. The world was definitely trying to kill me.

The Buri people and the Suebi confederation

The Suebian knot on the Osterby Man. Photo by Bullenwächter via Wikimedia Commons.

Much as a graveyard contains many stories, the peat bogs of northern Europe contained many mysteries. Two similar mysteries were discovered in Schleswig-Holstein in post-war West Germany: that of Datgen Man and Osterby Man. Both had been decapitated out of fear that the bodies would become Wiederganger, or zombies that wreak havoc on the living as revenge for their unnatural deaths. Indeed, forensic evidence indicates that Osterby Man died of a blow to the temples.

What makes the two remains, both estimated to be from around the year 200 BC (give or take a few hundred years), interesting is that both were found with some of their hair tied in a Suebian Knot.

The Suebi were a confederation of Germanic tribes that formed around the time that these two bodies died along the Elbe River in present Germany. Early Roman explorers of northern Europe encountered them around this time on the Baltic Sea, which they named the Mare Suebicum.

To the northwest of them lived the tribes that would eventually form the Anglo-Saxons, the Germanic invaders of Britain in the 400s and 500s. They and their descendants would displace the Insular Celts and create an empire that transformed the world, for better or worse, in a more modern age. At this point, though, they were a minor barbarian people still learning the ways of the sea.

To the east of the Suebi lived the Germanic tribes on the Vistula (the Roman name for the modern Wisła), dominated at the time by the Gutones, or Goths. These tribes provided the amber that traveled down the Morava River to the market at Carnuntum, and then onward to markets across the Roman Empire. However, traders had to cross the lands controlled by the Suebic confederation before they even reached the Marcomanni lands on the Roman frontier.

Along the Amber Road, the Suebic tribe that had to be contended with was the Buri. A mix of Celtic and Germanic people, they emerged as the easternmost of the Suebic tribes during the first century after Christ’s birth. They migrated eastward before the midway point of the second century, establishing themselves along the Amber Road between the Morava River valley and the headwaters of the Vistula. They were hemmed in from further eastward migration by the Lugii confederation, apparent followers of the Celtic deity Lugus, a sort of Pagan trinity devised long before the advent of the Catholic church.

In the rise of the Marcomanni confederation that resulted in Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ final war, the Buri joined forces with the tribes around them, including the Quadi, Iazyges, Sarmatians, and several Suebic confederate tribes. Certainly, they must have seemed a formidable force before their adventure into the Roman Empire, and they managed to reach as far south as the gateway to Italy at Aquilea, the Balkans, and even Greece, before the Emperor could contain the invaders and push them back to the frontier. The surrender left large numbers of settlers to organize, which would have been done in two new Roman provinces north of the Danube: Marcomannia and Sarmatia. However, an urgent response was needed in a rebellion elsewhere in the empre, and these planned provinces never came into being. Had they, the Buri would have either lived among the Marcomanni as a subdued people, or they would have been at the frontier of an expanded and well-organized southern neighbor.

After the death of Marcus Aurelius, following the defeat of the Marcomanni, the Buri, along with their Marcomanni neighbors, petitioned for peace and begged for Roman financial aid from Emperor Commodus. Since they were regarded as a potential raid threat, the Roman Emperor gave them the help they asked for. They mostly merged into the background after this, just another tribe along the Amber Road, emerging again with any significance only after the Suebi tribes invaded Hispania prior to the arrival of Attila. Their fief in the Suebic Kingdom of Spanish Galicia was called the Terras de Bouro.

After the Buri merged with other tribes in modern Bavaria (possibly even with the Bavarii themselves), the headwaters of the Vistula eventually fall to the Slavs, who moved westward into modern Poland after the Suebic tribes migrated westward, and the Goths southeasterly into modern Ukraine. Their hold on the region would last through the present day.

Riding second class, Polish-style: Krakow-Warszawa

Second class train cars at Swinoujscie, Poland, in 2002. A decade later, they are still in use. Photo by Janne Petersson via Railfannetwork.

The train was a familiar site, one I had seen some 20 years earlier in my first train travels in Poland. That the old second class cars still were in use was a tribute to their endurance, but not much of one to Poland’s investment in rolling stock. But whatever, it would get me to Warszawa, so for me they were made of gold.

I found a relatively empty cabin with only half the seats filled and sat down. Traveling with me was a couple, and a female student. After her bag was placed up topside on the luggage rack, I placed mine up topside as well. I was so glad of having taken weight training at some point in my life, because I needed the technique here to get my big bag to the luggage rack. At the last minute, though, the young woman offered a token hand of assistance. I expressed my gratitude briefly in my broken Polish.

I will say this, even with my wife prominently on my mind, the woman was not bad-looking. She had a classic Polish face, the kind that would attract the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte some two centuries earlier. There was no way I was going to distract myself here, though. I was returning, very gratefully, to my wife, the woman who belonged to me, and I to her. Still, the writer in me wanted to get a better understanding of why this sort of face was attractive.

In intervals that I hoped didn’t seem impolite or out of place, and with wedding ring out in the open, I made my observations. First, her eyes: they were almost dead center of her face, a greenish-blue (unlike my wife’s completely blue eyes), and something of a thin and almost Asian shape. Her brow was set on a small ridge. Her lashes were not particularly attention-grabbing (unlike my daughter’s lashes were when I last saw her).

Her cheeks were not particularly attention-grabbing, either. The shape of her face was more circular than oval. Her forehead was noticeably smaller than a lot I had seen, and that seemed to have some sort of positive effect. Her chin was well-rounded, as was the skin over her straight jaw.

She had a thin figure, nothing particularly curved. She definitely was a tall girl. Her fingers were long, to match her narrow arms, and her feet seemed appropriately sized for her shoes (a common type worn by young women in Europe, with a stiletto heel). I failed to observe the fingernails, but the toenails were cut to almost look circular. Perhaps this was some sort of style.

They say it is dangerous to compare your wife to other women. If so, I tread on dangerous ground here. But though I found this woman on the train attractive for a reason I can’t yet comprehend, I still consider myself immensely lucky to have married my wife. Beyond the fact that I really have this feeling that I do belong with her (which means a lot), when I returned to her again, I still found her more attractive than even this last beautiful ghost.

In between observations on the girl, I also took note of the passing terrain. It is very easy to think of the Wisła valley in terms of it being all farmland, but it was at one time primeval, and I really wanted to get a sense of that. There never were really any rough hills, even where the tunnel burrows into highlands not long after leaving Krakow, and rolling hills marked the ridges between watersheds feeding into the main river. The forests contained notable red fir trees, the kind you would see in the Schwarzwald, and birch. There were of course many other types, along with ground vegetation that you would see just about anywhere else in this part of Europe.

As the train passed northward, the clouds built and turned to rain around Włoszczowa. This miserable weather remained on and off through the buildup into Zachodnia Station in Warszawa. However, by the time we reached the station, the weather broke and sun came out, leaving wet ground outside.

Tribal pre-history of Europe and the Vistula

The ancient Vistula (Wisla) near present Torun. Photo by Pko via Wikimedia Commons.

Poland has been the marching ground of so many tribes, and so many armies, it is amazing that it has any meaningful identity at all. Like most modern nations, that it does is a tribute to its national character. But when you look back over the entire course of human history, the significance of modern changes pales in comparison to the changes that have occurred since the first humans crossed from one end to the other of the “Gate of Grief” between present Djibouti and Yemen. It’s always good to get a sense of perspective when pondering history, which is what hopefully this little review will partially provide.

Modern humans arrived in Europe around 50,000 years ago, some 20,000 years after leaving Africa. They crossed the Bosporus and passed into the Balkans, meeting up with the earlier hominid arrivals in the region, the Neanderthals. Still dark skinned, these humans eventually developed lighter skin as they moved further away from the sun-laden lands to which they came from. Of course, the history of the interaction of humans and Neanderthals has long since been lost, but eventually, the Neanderthals became extinct.

In the last millennia before their extinction, the Neanderthal people developed a division of labor based on the sexes, the possible result of conflict with the invading humans. This was emulated by the humans, creating the warrior and laborer male role model, and the home caretaker female role model, that dominated humanity for centuries up to recent years.

Some 10,000 years after the first humans crossed the Bosporus, the Neanderthals that remained in the Middle East had become extinct. Slowly, their tribes were driven northward into the ice-laden north of Europe. By 32,000 years before present, human tribes reached the Iron Gates of the Danube, and invaded into Neanderthal territory. The Neanderthal Vindija culture in present Croatia died out shortly after their invasion as humans discovered a new weapon, the bow and arrow.

By 28,000 years ago, the last great Neanderthal culture, the Aurignacians, dispersed, leaving only fragments of Neanderthal tribes to survive at the edges of habitable Europe. Before the Dimlington Cold Snap some 22,000 years before present, the start of the last great European ice age, the last of the Neanderthals died out at Gibraltar, leaving a rapidly freezing Europe in the hands of the conquering humans.

At 20,000 years before present, the ice age reached its maximum in the northern hemisphere. As humans crossed the Bering land bridge and invaded North America for the first time, the Solutrean culture of Europe got its start with the invention of the arrowhead. Suddenly, bows and arrows became much more effective hunting tools, and deadlier weapons.

Shortly after the Solutrean culture started, the reindeer-herding Magdalenian culture rose at the base of what is today the Jutland peninsula. Well before the glaciers began to withdraw from their southernmost lobe in today’s Wisla River basin some 15,400 years ago, European human skin pigmentation had become the modern white that we know it to be today. By 15,000 years before present, the hunter Solutrean culture was supplanted by the herding Magdalenian.

About three centuries after the lengthy dominion of the Magdalenian culture began west of the retreating Vistula glacial lobe, a pulse of fresh water from Antarctica caused the oceans to rise some 20 meters in a very short period, and dropping global temperatures temporarily by 3 degrees. This would have had profound changes along coastal Europe. Four centuries after that, the glacial retreat in the Vistula basin began again as the Eemian Sea had started to form at the base of the glacial lobe there, marking the birth of what we know today as the Baltic Sea around 14,300 years before present.

Only six centuries after the emergence of this glacial lake, amber from the emerging body of water had begun to be traded as far away as Britain, still connected to the continent by a land bridge near present Calais.  The Creswellian Stone Age culture in present Derbyshire was noted to have used Baltic amber to decorate tools as early as 13,700 years before present.

By 13,400 years before present, the glacial retreat reached the present Swedish shore of the Baltic, leaving behind the current crescent of water, albeit some 55 meters higher than present sea level. The cold and dry period that the Magdalenian culture experienced comes to an end for about a half-century, allowing the ancient stone-age culture to flourish.

Then, around 12,900 years before present, a comet apparently crashed in the still retreating Laurentian Ice Shield in North America. The collision kicked up clouds from the ice that spread across the northern hemisphere, sending Europe and other northern continents into a mini-ice age. A couple hundred years later, the warming began again as the glaciers continued to retreat across Sweden.

About two centuries later, the ice blocking what would become the Eemian Sea from the present North Sea breached, and over four centuries, the ice lake behind it drained about 55 meters to present sea level. Likewise, the ice lake that formed in the present Gulf of Finland also breached its glacial dam and fed water into the draining lake. By this time, the Magdalenian culture was joined by a new neighbor, the Fosna-Hensbacka people of the newly emerged Scandia Island, present southern Sweden.

Both reindeer herding cultures soon experienced the phenomenon of local cooling as the waters of the North Sea turned icy. This prompted a glacial advance around 12,200 years before present that again blocked the passage of the Eemian Sea, turning the body of water into an ice lake again.

Three centuries later, the last great Baltic ice dam broke north of the Billingen Mountains of Västra Götaland County in Sweden, after the ice lake that formed behind it rose 25 meters above present sea level. The subsequent drop in water elevation, much more sudden than during the first breach, apparently had a profound impact on the two cultures living on the shores of the Baltic ice lake. Still, both cultures survived what archeologists call the Billingen Catastrophe.

Some five centuries later, after the Bering land bridge disappeared for the last time under the icy arctic waters, the ice lake in the Baltic turned to the brackish Yoldia Sea. An isostatic rise of the Jutland peninsula, resulting from the local withdrawal of glaciers in the region, created a temporary land bridge that was soon eroded through by rising waters in what is called by geologists as Lake Ancylus. This new “Dana River” eventually transformed into what is today the Great Belt of Denmark. By 9,700 years before present, the lake had transformed into the Mastogloia Sea.

Meanwhile, as the Azilian culture emerged in the west, the Swiderian culture that emerged from the more northerly Kunda culture on the Gulf of Finland began encroaching from the east on the ancient Magdalenian culture that had survived millennia on the edge of Europe’s ice sheet. As birch and pine forests spread northward, the Swinderian people prosper as hunter-gatherers in their newly enriched lands, and overwhelm their northern neighbors.

In Denmark, meanwhile, the Maglemosian culture emerged along present Denmark’s Great Belt, and built into the dominant culture of the ancient Mastogloia Sea by 8,700 years before present. They became the first in Europe to domesticate the dog.

A half a millennium later, Lake Ojibway drained itself into oblivion in what is today called the 8.2 kiloyear event. This caused a temporary rise of 5 degrees Celsius in lands along the North Atlantic, and triggered a brief rise in global sea levels of 1.2 meters. The inflowing waters through the Great Belt turned the relatively fresh Mastogloia Sea into the brackish Littorina Sea as the Nøstvet and Lihult cultures emerged from the deposed Fosna-Hensbacka culture in present Sweden, and began to supplant the Maglemosian tribes south of the Great Belt. The end for this latter group came when these tribes chose to occupy the new lands that emerged during the 14-meter sea level drop resulting from the post Ojibway mini-ice age, and then faced the newly risen Kongemose culture when their new tribal lands were inundated shortly after 8,000 years before present. Some eight centuries later, the Kongemose would be supplanted by another hunter-gatherer culture, the Ertebølle, who would become northern Europe’s first farmers around 6,200 years before present.

In Pomerania on the shores of the Littorina Sea (then much larger than today’s Baltic Sea – it contained twice the volume of water and covered 26.5 percent more land), the Funnelbeaker Culture began to appear in the deciduous forests along its shoreline about 6,000 years before present. This culture is said to have been the first to probably drink milk in large amounts – according to a gene study in 2007, they were the first northern Europeans to be able to digest lactose. Another 800 years later, as the sea retreated into the modern shoreline of the Baltic, the Narva culture emerged within the present Baltic States, northeast of present Poland. This was perhaps about 400 years after the arrival of the Yamna at the modern Don River, a people that some consider the forebears of the Indo-Europeans (perhaps speakers of the world’s first “lingua Franca” or common language).

Along the Wisla River, meanwhile, the late Stone Age people continued to hunt in the boreal forests until about 4,500 years before present, or 2,500 BC, when corded ware pottery began to emerge in the region. According to archeologists, this marked the arrival of agriculture to Stone Age Poland. To the east of the Mazury Lakes in present Lithuania, the Nemunas culture had emerged from the Narva culture a half a millennium before that. For the next two millennia, if any significant events took place in modern Poland during its slowly evolving bronze age, they have been lost to historical records. It would take the arrival of the eastern Germanic tribes at the mouth of the Wisla River in the first century before Christ before there would be any noteworthy historical events in this area of Europe.

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One Response to Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Toward the Wisła River

  1. Pingback: Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Toward the Wisła River | Home Far Away From Home

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