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Project Outline

The crusades waged against pagans in the eastern Baltic region from the late-12th century AD were fundamental to the development and consolidation of a European society, united under Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages, this region was a cultural frontier which came to be dominated by crusading institutions into the 16th century. The most important force behind the conquest and colonisation of this north European frontier was the Teutonic Order, a group that has left a profound social, political, agrarian and ecological legacy. The Order secured its territories with castles, ranging in design from fortified monasteries to isolated towers. Today, many of these have vanished or lie ruined and abandoned within forests, whilst others have been restored and preserved as some of the most spectacular historical monuments in the world. These castles are presented today as individual structures, separated from their immediate landscape, but eight centuries ago they were centres for reorganising indigenous tribal territories and along with towns formed the backbone of the new Christian states.

Recent pilot studies leading up to this research project have suggested 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 the religious systems of pre-Christian societies in this region were closely tied to the natural environment, the ecological transformations prompted by the crusades and associated colonisation, religious conversion and settlement development are fundamentally tied to the cultural changes which brought the Baltic into European Christendom.

This project, integrating zooarchaeological, palaeobotanical, geoarchaeological and historical data, will build on these initial findings by investigating the detailed environmental impact of castle construction by the Teutonic Order (and its Livonian branch) in the medieval Baltic, through a comparative study of sites in Prussia (north Poland) and Livonia (Latvia and Estonia). These will be compared with results from continuing work on strongholds in Lithuania, which retained its independence as a pagan state throughout this period. The resulting interpretative framework will offer both a structure and comparative material for assessing ecological transformations in other ‘frontier’ regions, shedding new light on the cultural origins of the ecological transformations which have shaped the modern European environment.

Project Objectives

This project will integrate a range of state-of-the-art techniques in scientific archaeology and historical studies to address five innovative research questions:

1) How were local environments in the Baltic region transformed from the 13th–15th centuries with the establishment of castle sites by crusading institutions?

2) How were wild and domestic fauna used by crusading institutions in the Baltic, and to what extent did this reflect ideology and adaptation to local ecology?

3) To what extent did the crusading movement at the frontiers of medieval Christian Europe represent a force of ecological transformation?

4) How did the process of Christianisation, in part driven by the crusades of the Teutonic Order and other institutions in the Baltic, change the way indigenous pagan groups conceptualised the natural world?

5) What can the ecological impact of the crusades on the physical and conceptual landscapes of the medieval Baltic inform us about the process of colonisation, animal and plant exploitation and resulting cultural changes in other regions of Europe, indeed other regions of the world?