This paper discusses various aspects of the use of wood for crafts in the Middle Ages, based on xylological analyses of 4211 crafted items of everyday use discovered at 62 archaeological sites in Poland. Over 1500 items were identified in the authors’ own analyses, and the remaining taxonomic data were taken from the literature. The research showed that the main types of wood used at the time were Pinus sylvestris, Quercus sp., Fraxinus excelsior, Picea sp. vel Larix sp., Taxus baccata, Alnus sp., Abies alba and Euonymus sp. Nineteen other taxa were used to make a much smaller pool of objects.
At most of the analysed sites a similar set of materials was used to produce the items, regardless of their age and location. The choice of wood was selective and was based on the characteristics of particular tree and shrub species. Large coopered vessels were primarily made of wood from Quercus sp., Pinus sylvestris and Taxus baccata. The manufacture of turned utensils usually involved Fraxinus excelsior, while stave bowls were made using only Pinus sylvestris and Picea/Larix (mainly Picea abies).
To verify the local availability of the source taxa, we used pollen sequences from natural and anthropogenic sites in the vicinity of the places where the examined artefacts were found. The choice of wood was limited by the availability of the trees and shrubs. In north-western Poland the most important taxa used for woodworking in the Middle Ages were Pinus sylvestris, Quercus sp., Fraxinus excelsior and Fagus sylvatica; in the south, Picea/Larix and Abies alba were used most frequently. Some items made of Abies alba, Picea and Larix were imported from other parts of the country.
We inferred two stages of the use of wood by medieval Polish craftsmen. In the first stage, from the mid-10th century to the late 12th century, they largely used deciduous taxa; the second stage, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, saw the increased use of conifers.
We found that the medieval craftsmen chose high-quality wood without defects. Radial wood with the best technical parameters was preferred. Its share increased in the late Middle Ages; this can be attributed to the craftsmen’s increasing familiarity with carpentry techniques.
Radiocarbon dating of the plant material is important for chronology of archaeological sites. Therefore, a selection of suitable plant samples is an important task. The contribution emphasizes the necessity of taxonomical identification prior to radiocarbon dating as a crucial element of such selection. The benefits and weaknesses of dating of taxonomically undetermined and identified samples will be analysed based on several case studies referring to Neolithic sites from Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. These examples better illustrate the significance of the taxonomical identification since plant materials of the Neolithic age include only a limited number of cultivated species (e.g. hulled wheats) and typically do not contain remains of late arrived plants (e.g. Carpinus betulus and Fagus sylvatica). For more accurate dating results cereal grains, fruits and seeds, which reflect a single vegetative season, are preferred. Among charred wood, fragments of twigs, branches and external rings should mainly be taken into account, while those of trunks belonging to long-lived trees should be avoided. Besides the absolute chronology of archaeological features and artefacts, radiocarbon dating of identified plant remains might significantly contribute to the history of local vegetation and food production systems.
The paper presents δ13C and δ15N isotope content measurements in human bones from 16 graves, being part of the Yampil Barrow Complex. From the results, conclusions may be drawn about the diet of barrow builders and users. It was based on vegetable foodstuffs and characterised by a varied share of terrestrial animal meat, depending on the period. High δ13C values suggest a share of C4-type plants in the diet, possibly millet.