Skip to main content

Great Moravians were probably slave hunters

Interview with archaeologist Jiří Macháček.

Archaeologist Jiří Macháček.

The period of the Great Moravian Empire is one of the greatest moments in Central European history. In recent decades scientists have learned a lot about this period, much of it from archaeological finds. Professor Jiří Macháček of the Faculty of Arts, who leads archaeological research at the Pohansko settlement near Břeclav, has been involved in the revelation of some of its secrets. Here he talks to us about the work of an archaeologist and what we have yet to discover about Great Moravia.

They say that compared with other subjects taught at the Faculty of Arts, archaeology is studied by a high proportion of men. Why is this?
Romantic ideas about archaeology are personified in the manly figure of Indiana Jones. Such stereotypes can influence the decision-making of young people. At the same time the discipline of archaeology is quite demanding physically. Our students must prove their knowledge and abilities on archaeological digs that take place every summer. But this isn't to say that women aren't capable of doing this work; sometimes, in fact, they achieve much more than the men. On the whole, though, it is a more attractive proposition for men, which is not the case at the rest of the faculty.

As research leader, do you get to do any physical work yourself?
I like to do it whenever I can, although I don't do as much of it as I used to, of course. By its very nature archaeology is an interesting combination of physical and mental work. An archaeologist is more than just an office-based researcher. When I get the chance, I love to pick up a shovel and work in the field with my students. It's quite an adventure when you start removing from the earth treasures left behind by our ancestors.

I was expecting you to refute my romantic notions of an archaeologist's work . . .
The Indiana Jones stuff is of course the icing on the cake that comes after a lot of research endeavour. Modern archaeology encompasses a huge range of different disciplines, not least of engineering and the natural sciences. The grand uncovering of an extraordinary find is often preceded by an aerial survey, the acquisition of geophysical data and the application of a number of other methods of prospecting.

In this regard, then, what you do is very close to the natural sciences.
In the Anglo-Saxon world archaeology tends to be considered a branch of anthropology; in this country it is traditionally a branch of history, hence its fixed place in a faculty of arts. Different university departments have different interests. Brno's is known throughout Europe for its own research station, which we have run for many years. In organizational terms this is a demanding project: we have to ensure that the complexes of buildings, laboratories and repositories we have at various places in Moravia and abroad are properly maintained and operational. For obvious reasons, we no longer have our base in Syria, unfortunately.

What is the difference between an academic archaeologist, like yourself, and an archaeologist at a department of heritage conservation?
This was once explained very well by Professor Neústupný of the university in Plzeň. Archaeology for heritage conservation and academic archaeology differ from one another quite a lot in their aims and methods. The former type of archaeologist focuses on preservation. He spends a great deal of time in the field, often on building sites where highways or supermarkets are under construction, trying for very little money and on behalf of society to salvage the national heritage, which would otherwise be destroyed. He digs in frost and snow, often surrounded by mechanical diggers, and he has to communicate with builders who have a completely idea of what should go on at a building site. For me, such a person is a true hero, an idealist driven by enthusiasm.

So what do academic archaeologists do?
Our research addresses longer-term theoretical issues arising from the research purposes of our department. As for me, my main interest is Great Moravia and the 9th century; our department has been exploring the locality of the Pohansko settlement near Břeclav for 55 years now.

What is it exactly that makes that period so interesting?
There lie the foundations of our nation and our cultural identity, which at that time were aligned with the western sphere of civilization. Although the Byzantine Greeks Constantine and Methodius came from the east, in expelling their disciples the Moravians turned deliberately to the Latin world. This influenced developments in this part of Europe for the next thousand years. Great Moravia is important, and not only for those of us who live in this part of the world. Here the literature of the East Slavs was founded; here religious texts were first translated into a Slavonic language, allowing Christianity to spread throughout the region. What's interesting for me personally is that this period is not as anonymous as prehistoric times. We can imagine particular people, deeds and events. And the role of archaeology is indispensable: there are so few written sources from this time that without digging in the earth we would not be able to build a vivid picture of its societies.

The quest for the grave of St Methodius is often mentioned in connection with Great Moravia and archaeological exploration. Do you have any ambitions in this regard?
It's something like pop for archaeologists. It's very attractive to the general public but a highly complex matter for the professional. There are no live archaeological leads. Only rarely are we able to connect our finds with a particular historical figure. Mostly when we find a grave we can determine the social and cultural environment and when its inhabitant lived. But usually that's all we can do. So I have no ambitions in that regard, nor do I consider such a quest to be a reasonable one. There are many more interesting matters to address. Recently we have made some really exceptional discoveries.

You're thinking of the Great Moravian church, aren't you?
That's right. After several decades of failed attempts Czech archaeologists succeeded in uncovering a hitherto unknown church from the time of Great Moravia. Churches are really rare; so far we know of only twenty or so. Not only are these the oldest church buildings in the Czech Republic, they are the oldest walled buildings, too, if we discount a short episode during the Marcomannic Wars when Roman legions stayed here. They provide fantastic proof of the endeavours of Christianization and the deeds that joined us to the Christian world. And this year we made another amazing find: a 9th-century grave with a sword in it. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding this.

Has the image we have of Great Moravia changed recently? I remember from my history lessons at school that this period of our history had an almost sacred aura.
This is a much-discussed topic these days. You're right about the aura. Great Moravia was long considered to be the first state of the Western Slavs; the existence of Great Moravia is even referred to in a preamble of the current Slovak constitution. But all this leads to an uncritical understanding of the role played by Great Moravia in Central Europe. There was truly phenomenal proto-urban agglomeration; in terms of its extent and population, Pohansko is comparable with centres in Western Europe such as Regensburg, one of the seats of the Frankish kings. It had a rich material culture and produced gold and silver jewellery, but on the other hand its society was archaic. Resources were redistributed from the centre, it didn't mint its own coinage, and coins from elsewhere were not used in internal trade. We have to wonder how the economy of this country worked.

Is there the secret?
We don't have any conclusive evidence, but it seems that the Great Moravians were involved in slave-trading on a truly massive scale. This was directed mainly at Islamic countries, probably to the west and the Iberian Peninsula or through Venice to the Near East. Apparently the princes of Great Moravia took great profits from it and were actually slave hunters on territories to the north and east of ours. Written sources tell of the Moravians' central market well known to Bavarian and Jewish merchants, who came long distances by road, bringing gold and silver and taking away humans. Arabian sources refer to these slaves as Saqaliba, which basically means 'Slavs'. The German word Sklave, meaning 'slave', probably comes from the same period; it is almost the same as Slawe, the German word for 'slave'. The incoming tide of Slavic slaves was probably so strong that these words became synonyms.

Is this a new theory?
It was known in the past, but now it is a subject of intensive discussion, not least because the historian Dušan Třeštík theorized that after the fall of the Great Moravian Empire this great trade moved to Bohemia. The origins of Prague as a major European city are perhaps related to the fact that it had one of Europe's main slave markets, thus laying the foundations of the economic development of Bohemia in the Early Middle Ages.

The fall of Great Moravia is shrouded in mystery. What do we know about it?
This is a fascinating topic. We know for a fact that this empire didn't last even one hundred years. The Moravians made their first appearance in written sources in 822. Great Moravia leaves the stage of history in the first decade of the 10th century. So it was a matter of just a few generations; its rise must have been explosive. Its fall is traditionally associated with the invasions of the Magyars, erstwhile nomads from the steppes of Central Asia. This idea is not wrong in essence, but there were probably other factors involved. It seems that the loyalty of the social elite was heavily dependent on gifts from the ruler, acquired through long-distance trade. Should this trade have been disrupted, these people could easily have lost interest in keeping the Great Moravia project alive. I've been giving a lot of thought to another possible cause: changes in the natural environment.

Did conditions change?
Great Moravian centres such as Pohansko, Mikulčice and Staré Město were in the middle of river floodplains, an unusual state of affairs that may have turned out to be fatal for them, as we know that sometime in the tenth century local water conditions changed in some way. We also know that in many instances populations never returned to the places they had left. Pohansko and Mikulčice were abandoned. Where they once stood, today there are meadows and floodplain forest. It seems that changes in the environment dealt these centres another blow, possibly rendering them uninhabitable.

For you, though, such conditions must be ideal.
We have a site where once a town covered sixty hectares. The town was abandoned, the site became overgrown with grass, no one ever went there again . . . it's an archaeologist's paradise.

Which do you enjoy most: fieldwork or the laboratory work that follows it?
It's impossible to say. When you and the students have been toiling away on a dig for weeks and months, you're like one big family. Then you find something, and the joy and feeling of togetherness are enormous and intense. There's more joy when you're back in your university office, because not until you're sitting at your computer do you begin to appreciate what you've actually found. It's an amazing feeling to transform those shards into archaeological data, to set up a database that produces statistics that show what was typical for the site and how it evolved. Suddenly you see the culture you're exploring in sharp relief.

Are you working on something in particular at the moment?
My colleagues and I have just published a book called Civilization and History, a remarkable illustration of how to think about the history of humankind in a broader context. Half of the book is written by archaeologists, i.e. people who study the development of humankind in real depth – right back to when humans first made fire and took up stone tools. Only in this way can you get an idea of where we actually come from and where we're heading. If we look at these questions with reference only to periods between GDP estimates, we get a very distorted and false picture of the world.