A Methodological Exploration of Houfková et al.: Using Scientific Technologies to Date Vernacular Landscape Features

A review of the literature by: Elizabeth Gunther, University of Massachusetts 

Original article: Houfková, Petra, et al. 2015. Origins and development of long-strip field patterns: A case study of an abandoned medieval village in the Czech Republic. Catena 135: 83 – 91.

This presentation highlights and contextualizes the novel research methodology that Houfková et al. (2015) used to date the long-strip field patterns at the abandoned village of Malonín in the Bohemian Forest Mountains of the Czech Republic. In their study, cultural and natural artefacts are analysed in concert with one another providing a more accurate assessment of land use over time. Not just of importance for archaeologists and landscape historians, this innovative methodology is also of note to ecologists looking to understand how historic patterns of land usage affect local and regional biodiversity. Prior to Houfková et al., pluzina systems in the Czech Republic were assumed to originate in the medieval period based on what historic and stratigraphic data was available, yet conclusive evidence of their medieval origin remained elusive. Researchers studying vernacular landscapes in particular face incomplete, obsolete or non-existent historic record keeping. Major landscape upheavals and mass migrations also contribute to these gaps in the historic record. Likewise, compromised soil stratigraphy resulting from agricultural practices can further interfere with the accurate dating of vernacular landscape features. Houfková et al. combines these archaeo-historic dating methods with radiocarbon dating of macro-botanical remains and radionuclide testing to accurately determine the age of the field patterns and hedgerows in Malonín for the first time. By combining traditional methods with modern scientific technologies, Houfková et al. determined that the pluzina system at Malonín was indeed of High Medieval origin and not some more recent creation. This multi-proxic, interdisciplinary approach to dating landscape features has the potential for broad application in the study of vernacular landscapes.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Google Earth, 2015.
Image 2: Brabec, E., 2015.
Image 3: Houfkova, P., et al. 2015.
Image 4: Houfkova, P., et al. 2015.
Image 5: Houfkova, P., et al. 2015.

New Knowledge

For the first time, Houfková et al. (2015) were able to precisely date the long strip field patterns of the village of Malonín, Czech Republic as high medieval in origin. This was done by employing an innovative multidisciplinary methodology which combined the traditional dating techniques of historic documentation and archaeological stratigraphy with radiocarbon dating of macrobotanicals and radionuclide soil testing. This new approach has dated the long strip pluzina system at Malonín to the 14th century and confirmed its long assumed medieval origin.

Full Report

The research by Houfkova et al. (2015) presented here is of great potential interest to cultural landscape managers and researchers because of its innovative methodology which provides confirmed dates for vernacular landscape features. The methodology described by Houfková et al. was used to accurately assess the medieval origin of the long-strip field and hedgerow system, also known as a pluzina system, of the abandoned village of Malonín in the Czech Republic. The village was known through historic documentation to date from at least the fourteenth century, yet prior to their work it was unclear if the field system was actually from the medieval period. Vernacular landscapes in general remain problematic to date using traditional methods. Malonín lies within an area that was forcibly depopulated of its ethnically German inhabitants in the aftermath of the Second World War further impeding the accurate dating of its pluzina. While the particular historic conditions of this site make it especially difficult to assign dates to its agricultural landscape features, the research presented in this essay offers successful and replicable methods for doing so.
The important innovation important innovation of Houfková et al.’s methodology is in their incorporation of traditional methods of dating vernacular features with scientific testing. These researchers use radiocarbon dating and radionuclide testing to compliment the findings of soil stratigraphy and historic documents. Through this they are able to document the progression of agricultural features at Malonín from the first medieval settlement until the village was depopulated in the mid 20th century. The methodology employed by Houfková et al. has the potential for broad application in the dating of vernacular landscape features.
Vernacular landscapes are described by UNESCO organically evolved landscapes ( (Mitchell 2009)). The US National Park Service Preservation Brief #36 lists “historic vernacular landscapes as a type of cultural landscape. In this publication, vernacular landscapes are defined as:
A landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape. Through social or cultural attitudes of an individual, family or a community, the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of those everyday lives.
This definition focuses heavily on the functional aspects of the landscape and is set in opposition by the National Park Service to “historic designed landscapes which are created through the conscious design of an architect, planner or horticulturalist. While historic designed landscapes often have plans, drawings or other documents associated with their creation, researchers studying vernacular landscapes often face incomplete, obsolete or non-existent historic records. There is no overarching plan or design schematic to refer back to nor any cohesive, comprehensive aesthetic trend to frame our understanding of the landscape. Since these types of landscapes tend to develop over long periods of time and often represent the work of many generations working at lower, subsistence levels of the socio-economic strata, the development of these landscapes can be overlooked by contemporary chroniclers. Vernacular landscapes can also be living landscapes where agricultural and societal practices develop and change along with the lives of past and current inhabitants (Birnbaum 1994). These factors make vernacular landscapes highly dynamic while often being sparsely documented. For these reasons, exact chronologies can remain elusive for researchers.
The traditional method for the dating of agricultural systems such as those commonly found in vernacular landscapes is to analyze the available historic documentation and the stratigraphy of archaeological artefacts such as potsherds. This method only allows for broad chronological assumptions and is severely limited by the availability of corroborating historical documentation and intact soil layers in areas where deep tillage agricultural practices have been in use (Frederick and Krahtopoulous, 2000). Malonín is located in the southwestern corner of the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. The first written record of Malonín dates to 1349 yet it is now believed that the village was already inhabited by the early thirteenth century. It was during the high middle ages that long strip field agriculture was established on the Bohemian landscape. These vernacular systems are characterized by long strips of open, arable land, often following an undulating “S” shape with the contours of the surrounding terrain. These fields run parallel to each other and there is minimal transverse separation between each long strip. The fields are separated by a hedgerow, which can be a border of trees, brush, or a stone wall. These strips radiate outward from the center of the village and each individual family’s homestead. The Czech term for these systems is pluzina, whereas the equivalent system in an English context is called bocage (Malnorova, Hedgerow, 2008). Data from the mid-seventeenth century notes about a dozen farms of medium or small size with some livestock present. The village would remain at this size at least until the Stable Cadastre of 1826, one of the earliest surviving maps of the Bohemian region.
During the twentieth century, major social upheavals in the region marginalized Malonín, leading to its abandonment in the late 1950s. This village lies within the Sudetenland region of the Czech Republic, where Nazi occupation and the subsequent mass expulsion of the ethnic German inhabitants following WWII left much of the countryside depopulated. In 1946, over three million Sudeten Germans were driven out of their homeland in the Western regions of Czechoslovakia. Upon the conclusion of the Potsdam agreement and amidst a general attitude of horror and resentment for Nazi war crimes, the Czech government expelled any ethnic Germans who could not prove they had actively resisted the Nazis. While most of these people were able to resettle in Germany, Western Europe and America, many thousands were beaten, raped or murdered during forced marches out of the country. During the Soviet era, border restrictions and social stigma impeded attempts by these Germans to return to their homeland and suppressed public discourse of the atrocities. The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s has led to a resurgence of interest in these events and the places that the Sudeten Germans left behind (Svasek 2002).
The inhabitants of Malonín, ethnic Germans, were among those forcibly resettled during this time. The site was largely abandoned and most of the fourteen buildings were razed. A small contingent of Slovak farmers were invited in but by the mid-1950s, most had abandoned the effort. During this time the formerly arable land was increasingly used as cattle pasture by neighboring farmers. By 1960, there were no more inhabitants of Malonín and the remaining buildings were demolished. As a site where wartime occupation and ethnic cleansing took place, the historic memory of the region was largely disrupted and is only now being explored again by researchers.
By combining the use of archaeological artefacts with the radiocarbon dating of macrobotanical remains and radionuclide soil testing, Houfková et al. were able to get a more exact chronology for the landscape features at Malonín and to overcome the limitations of artefactual dating alone. The researchers took soil samples from seven test plots throughout the site and subjected the macrobotanical specimens found in the samples to radiocarbon dating to assess their age. Through the dating of charred European Silver Fir needles found at lower soil levels, the researchers were able to determine that the site first transitioned from forested land to partially cleared agricultural land in the late twelfth century, over a hundred years prior to the first historical evidence for the village. European silver fir is a ubiquitous conifer found through the forested areas of Central Europe. The sudden presence of charred needles at the site suggests that the first villagers of Malonín employed slash and burn techniques to clear the land of trees for the purposes of agriculture. Changes in the alluvial output of the surrounding Chrobolsky stream further evidence increased soil erosion from deforestation and agriculture. It was at this time that large deposits of charcoal also began to appear in the alluvium. Similarly, the researchers found barley grains dated from the fifty year period after the forests were cleared. The presence of these grain samples indicate that human agriculture was well underway by the time the first written documentation of the village occurred in 1349.
Hedgerows were not merely vegetal fences or barriers, but could also be additional spaces for the cultivation of food crops and the collection of firewood. Vining species such as peas and beans and other more marginal crops such as herbs and berries were often cultivated in these spaces by using tall brush or stone walls as a support. Houfková et al. found botanical remnants of legumes within the hedgerows at Malonín which date to the fifteenth century. This suggests that these liminal spaces were present, maintained and utilized throughout the life of the village. While these remnants date from after the first appearance of cereal crops, further testing at the site may unearth earlier remnants which emerge concurrently with the commencement of agriculture at the site. At the very least, these legume remains found within the hedgerows show that they were in place during the medieval era and were possibly created with the village itself.
Houfková et al. used radionuclide testing to serve as a form of negative control meant to rule out contamination from upper soil levels on stratigraphic integrity. Radionuclides such as lead, cesium and radium have been deposited from the atmosphere onto the surface levels of soil as a result of modern usages of radioactivity, such as the atomic bomb tests of the mid-twentieth
century and the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. Any contamination from these elements at lower levels can indicate soil upheaval and a loss of stratigraphic integrity. The absence of these radionuclides in their soil samples confirmed that their samples had not been disturbed by the landscape upheavals that took place in the last hundred years.
The novelty and importance of this research is the success of Houfková et al.’s multi-proxic approach. By combining traditional dating methods like artefactual stratigraphy and historical documentation with scientific testing, the researchers were able to understand the full history of the site with some certainty. Each segment of this mixed methodology verifies and substantiates the findings of the each other approach. Researchers had long suspected that pluzina systems at many central European sites were medieval in origin, yet they were unable to conclusively date them. Artefactual stratigraphy bases its chronological estimates on the progression of soil layers. Results obtained in this way may be highly suggestive but require corroborating evidence to be credible. In the case of Malonín, the earliest maps of the region were from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Stable Cadastre map of 1826 showed the long strip field patterns as present yet it was impossible to tell if these maps preserved the outline of agricultural features from the mid-fourteenth century when the first written reference to Malonín appeared. Prior to the work of Houfková et al. the gap between the assumed origin of this agricultural system and the first historic confirmation was over 400 years. (Molnarova, Long-term dynamics, 2008) These researchers was able to triangulate the origin of the village itself and of the agricultural features of the site using their four pronged approach: historic documents, archaeology of artefacts, radiocarbon dating of macrobotanicals and radionuclide soil testing. They confirmed that the pluzina system at Malonín was indeed of High Medieval origin and that it had been present at the site from that time period.
This methodology is not regionally specific and could be applied to other sites in order to more accurately date agricultural systems. If other vernacular landscapes were analyzed using this methodology, the increased pool of corroborating data for the chronology of vernacular landscape features would facilitate more research into the progression of historic agriculture and human land use. The inherent interdisciplinarity of pluzina studies has often impeded research into their history. While many individual aspects of these vernacular systems have been studied, cross disciplinary collaboration was needed to make progress in accurately dating these features. Presevation of these systems in the Czech Republic has been especially lacking. Houfková et al. is revolutionary both in its subject matter, that of specifically Czech pluzina systems, and in its indisciplinary nature. Accurately dating these systems is one of the first steps toward gaining increased protections for these historic landscape systems (Molnarova, Hedgerow, 2008).
Not only does this methodology have the potential to impact landscape historians and archaeologists, it is also of note for ecologists and scientists as well. Landscape features such as hedgerows create “shelter belts” which can provide cover and habitats for animal and plant species (Forman and Gordon, 1986; Le Coeur et al., 2002). These strips act as conduits that connect forested areas and can be key factors in local and regional biodiversity. Understanding the historic progression of these landscape features is essential to deciphering their long term effects on the surrounding ecosystem.

Works Cited

Birnbaum, C. A., 1994. Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes. Preservation Brief 36. National Park Service.
Forman, R. T. T., Godron, M., 1986. Landscape Ecology. John Wiley & Sons: New York, USA.
Frederick, C.D., Krahtopoulou, A., 2000. Deconstructing agricultural terraces, examining the influence of construction method on stratigraphy, dating and archaeological visibility. In: Halstead, P., Frederick, C.D. (Eds), Landscape and Land Use in Post Glacial Greece. Sheffield Academic Press,79-94
Le Coeur, D., Baudry, J., Burel, F., Thenail, C., 2002. Why and how we should study field boundary biodiversity in an agrarian context. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 89, 23-40.
Svasek, Maruska. 2002. Narratives of “Home” and “Homeland”: The Symbolic Construction and Appropriation of the Sudeten German Heimat. Identities, 9:4, 495-518.
Mitchell, N., ssler, M., Tricaud, P.M. 2009. World Heritage Cultural Landscapes: A Handbook for Conservation and Management. World Heritage Centre UNESCO: Paris, 20.
Molnarova, K. 2008. Long-term dynamics of the structural attributes of hedgerow networks in the Czech Republic – three case studies in area with preserved medieval field patterns. J. Landsc. Stud.1, 113-127.
Molnarova, K. 2008. Hedgerow defined medieval field patterns in the Czech Republic and their conservation – a literature review. J. Landsc. Stud. 1, 27-47
Image Credits

1. Aerial photograph of typical pluzina system at unknown location in Czech Republic. Credit Unknown
2. Satellite image of the pluzina systems at Dlouda Voda and the surrounding villages in Northeastern CZ. Credit: Mapy.cz
3. The progression of land use at Malonin, CZ between 1826 and 2010. Credit: Houfkova et al (2015)
4. Aerial photograph of the village of Malonin, CZ showing the seven test plots. Credit: Houfkova et al. (2015)
5. Photograph of long strip field at Frantoly, CZ. Shows the narrow, curving shape of these features as it follows the ground topography. Credit: E. Brabec
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