Zemnica: Early Medieval Slavic Habitats



The issue of the Middle Age habitat of the Slavs in Central and Eastern Europe has been a focus of research for more than a century.


By Peter Šalkovský

The issue of the Middle Age habitat of the Slavs in Central and Eastern Europe has been a focus of research for more than a century. Involvement and contribution of archaeology to this subject is directly linked with its development in the second half of the 20th century. Until then modest written sources contributed only little to the disclosure of the Slavic habitat. For example Prokopios and the legend of Saint Demeter tells of ‘dilapidated huts, scattered around’(1). Pseudo-Maurikios mentions Slavs ‘live in woods nearby water sources and their dwellings have many exits’, (2) Ibn Rusta (10th century) describes Slav house as a hollow in the ground, equipped with a stone stove and with a pointed wooden roof. Anonymous Persian geographer writes: ‘The Slavs spend winter in hollows and underground huts’ (3).

Records of habitat occur more frequently from the 11th century for example in the codes of Štefan I, Ladislav and Koloman, as well as in other documents. These materials, however, lack any details concerning appearance and construction of former houses. Helmond of Bosau in the 12th century notes Simple wicker dwellings with the Rans. Bishop Oto from Friesing, passing Hungary in the summer of 1147, provides probably a most concrete description of former houses. He writes that the inhabitants of Hungary (probably of the lowlands) live in very dilapidated dwellings built of wicker, rarely of wood, hardly ever of stone and they spend the whole summer in tents (5). Various written documents from the 11th – 13th century mention common presence of ground houses made of wood, occasionally of stone. Furthermore, names of some buildings in earl’s residences from 10th – 12th century are also known. We however lack mentions about zemnicas even though we know their development continued (6).

Even the linguistic sources are of a local character only. Different Slavic languages still use the original terms for zemnica – ziemianka, zemljanka, zemunica. Old, usually non-slavic languages, use also terms: koliba (shelter), hut, chalupa (cottage), burdej, the younger names include: kuca and salaš (shepherd’s cottage) (7). Again we lack any details describing formal appearance and the way individual types of houses were built.

What is then a vague picture of Slavic habitat drawn by archaeological research? First of all it must be stressed that when reconstructing construction work of Slavs living in the areas above the river Danube and around Nitra, ancestors of present Slovaks(8), we have to take into consideration geographically wide Slavic source base, make use of distant analogies where due to better soil conditions there are more sites suitable for reconstruction of construction techniques, interior as well as the function of buildings. Another reliable indicator of presence of the Slavs in the territory of Central Danube is the appearance of various techniques and forms in spite of the fact they might not have been archaeologically proven (9).

Dwellings – houses used for permanent living, could be characterized as buildings equipped with a heating device. They were also big enough to provide space for one person or a small family (usually more than 4m2). Basic characteristic features of a house are best reflected in its ground plan. Classification of traditional types of houses is based on technological construction criteria, on the basis of which Slavic dwellings can be divided into two main groups – underground and on ground level. Within this division houses are subdivided into subgroups according to the shape of a ground plan, more or less distinctive features of construction and material of walls as well as supportive devices of roofs. There is no space for a more detailed description of Slavic structural engineering therefore this paper presents only its brief characteristics complemented with ground plans and drawn reconstructions.

It is well known that zemnicas used to be the main type of Slavic dwellings. As one of universal forms of habitat they appeared in areas of Central and Eastern Europe ever since the Paleolithic era. In Central Europe they were generally known since the Halstat period (10). However, in Western and Central Europe in pre-Slavic late Roman cultures zemnicas were very rare. Nevertheless they did appear in various modifications East of the Carpathians in settlements of Zarubincy, later on of Kiev and Èeròachov cultures as well as in the culture of the Carpathian Kurgans along the river basins of the Prut, Dnester and central Dneper (11). Zemnicas thus appeared along with a typical Slavic culture (12) at the turn of the 4th and 5th century in the territories considered the Slavic country of origin. From there this form of habitat spread elsewhere surely due to the Slavic migration (13). In correlation with a wide variety of European comparative material zemnicas in the Slavic settlement can be divided into four basic types: quadratic zemnicas (type 1), long rectangular zemnicas (type 2), oval (type 3) and circular zemnicas (type 4).

Most common quadratic zemnicas form up to four fifth of the known sites. From the point of their construction, quadratic zemnicas have several variants. Zemnicas without piles (variant 1) were dominant. They were of varied mainly timber construction laid from inside or along the perimeter of the foundations, or they lacked walls. Zemnicas supported on two statues (variant 1Ba) were widespread too. Technologically, they were buildings of light or low log frame and sometimes without walls, with a statue supporting a roof. Zemnicas with corner and wall piles (variant 1Bb) were of a column or grooved construction which bore two or four pitched roof. Sometimes, however, ground plans only suggest a pile supporting wooden ground walls.

Some of zemnicas supported by many piles had light wicker ground level walls. Pictures 6 and 7 present illustrations of possible reconstructions of individual variants of zemnicas supported by no piles, two statues or by many piles. Stone stoves were a typical heating device of quadratic zemnicas (up to 60%). Only one tenth of houses in the Slavic West and Northwest were equipped with a fireplace.

In the territory of the country of origin zemnica was already partially differentiated and influenced by neighbourhood cultures (for example clay stoves, fireplaces in the middle, central statues) (14). Noticeable differences can be seen among the three main areas of the early Slavic culture – Prague – Korèak, Peòkovka and Koloèin. In the process of ethno genesis natural conditions along with practical needs and resources of a community must have played a main role in choosing a type of habitat and heating device. Later on, however, when a particular type of a building and heating device became a part of social traditions and a mean of expressing one’s relations to one’s own cultural environment, natural conditions were only of minor importance.

Reconstructed zemnica

Innovations in Slavic construction engineering occurred at the end of the 5th and at the beginning of the 6th century during the migration to the North beyond the Carpathians and to the Southeast along the river Danube. The northern wave of migration was characterized by new types of long rectangular and oval zemnicas with bowl foundations, adopted by some other Carpathian regions, mainly Eastern Slovakia. The last type of zemnicas with a circular ground plan was known in both waves of migration. Long rectangular zemnicas formed a relatively small group of Slavic habitation with less than 5% houses concentrated in territories of the western Slavs. They included zemnicas with no supportive piles and with timber walls fixed from outside, in some cases they had a roof leaning against the ground, often they were equipped with open types of heating device, mostly with a fireplace tiled with stones (up to 56%) and relatively most often with clay interior stoves (up to 16%).

Northwest long zemnicas are, judging by their shape, construction, interior equipment and genetics, related to a bit more widespread oval zemnicas and they can be considered to be an expression of peripheral Slavic engineering construction. The Western zemnicas along the river Danube – a elongated and cranked rectangular zemnicas with clay interior stoves may be of Eastern origin, possibly of Saltov – Majack, Avars origin or may have some other steppe roots. Zemnicas with an oval ground plan formed some 8% of houses. They were relatively most common among Western and Northwest Slavs (50%/30%). They represent a different phenomenon since they are equipped with fireplaces decorated and faced with stones and they lack stone arched stoves. Extent of these houses in the Southeast and East (partially in the West too) is connected with proto-Bulgarian and Avars spheres which penetrated into mixed Slavic regions as an example of temporary simple habitat. Circular zemnicas and underground gers (type 4 – Picture 9: 8 – 12) were little used for dwelling. They formed less than 1% of houses. Yet, they occurred in a greater number in the lowlands of the Carpathian Hollow and in the lower parts of the river Danube region. Relatively often they were provided with an open fireplace. Circular zemnicas can be defined as dwelling with a cylindrical, conical or spherical grating fixed on a folding frame of walls and roof inside or outside the construction hollow. Picture 10 contains illustrations of reconstructions of long, oval and circular ger – like zemnicas.

In the Southern wave of extension new features of Slavic habitat (clay cupolaed stoves, clay (kubus) stoves, simpler variants of statues and a tendency towards trapezoidal shape of a ground plan) may be viewed as influences of steppe nations from the area of the Black See and their integration to the culture of Prague type and to type of Peòkovka as well as a product of their synthesis with Roman Byzantine or proto-Romanian base in the Lower Danube region (16 – 17).

Engineering constructions of the ethnic of Avars cagoulard were present in the central river Danube region since 7th century. These features were not however that common in the North and West off the Danube. The Slavic building culture was more enriched with impulses from the West and the North. By these means a North-South basis with inner structures was made for a further differentiation of Slavic engineering construction in the 8th and 9th century. At that time ground level timber houses and houses with a pile support were becoming more common. Rise and technology of the construction of ground level dwellings were along with traditions and socio-economical development influenced by primary wet soils as well as lack of wood and relatively favourable climate in the Northwest. Moist soaked soil and high level of underground water led in some regions to the need to build ground level dwellings, sometimes even on soil embankment or wooden sleeper platform (18). Ground level cabins make some 6% of the sites of Slavic habitat , in spite of the fact that originally there may have been many more of them.

There are two kinds of ground level cabins: original classic ones without any piles supporting the roof (variant 5A) as well as cabins equipped with gable statues signalizing certain variables in roof truss construction as well as in types of walls. Dwellings fit into a frame (variant 5B) were impossible to distinguish from original cabins. Progressive trends can be seen in one or two room cabins on a stone base or dry foundation wall alongside the whole perimeter (variant 5C). They served as a model for similar three room buildings with different modifications of floor made of mortar or wood. Development of early Middle Aged Slavic habitat culminated in wooden palace like buildings with either no foundations or they were built on dry, possibly mortar stone foundations (variant 5D). Some of them had or could have stone walls too . Typical heating devices in cabins were open fireplaces usually tiled with stones (up to 80%). The influence of German shallow long fireplaces the so called ”Langfeuer” was noticeable.

Lack of wood in the Northwest of the Lab river region and the Baltic sea region was reflected not only in secondary use of timber but mostly in preferring constructions were less wood was needed, mainly shorter pieces, planks, rods or wicker. Slavic engineering construction was without any doubt influenced by German, Scandinavian and Norman cultures with houses made of wicker walls. Slavic ground level houses of pile construction (type 6) make only 3% of all sites and are almost absent in the territory of East and South Slavs. Pile houses are rarely placed in a frame with wicker walls and wooden inwall (variant 6A). Houses of hybrid construction of tiled piles (variant 6B) are difficult to distinguish from houses of plated pile construction (variant 6C). There were both one as well as two room houses of this construction. Very close to the North German ‘‘Wohnstahlhä user’’ were houses with wicker walls put into a frame of walls made of dozens densely situated thin piles.

Houses with palisade walls were very rare (variant 6E). Big houses of pile construction (variant 6G) and wicker walls and inner or outside supportive system of a roof were based on foreign, mainly German models. A special category of houses was represented by isolated long houses with halls – palace like buildings of above standard size (variant 6H). These buildings are divided into 2 – 4 naves, and a greater part of them might have been two storied. Houses with wicker walls were typical for the river Bodra territory. Pile houses had a similar heating device to ground level cabins, that is open fireplaces (circa 80%). Most of the Slavic territories, however, were dominated by cabins. The pictures 12 and 13 present a selection of archaeologically studied plans of cabins and pile houses.

The term two-part house appears in written documents since 10th century. Different names for a hall: pritvor – pitvor (from pritvoriti – prirobi, pribudova) as well as sìò – sieò prove along with other archaeological findings its origin in underground houses. A hall, originally a secondary small part of a house protecting the entry from a direct impact of a bad weather or overlapping neighboring smaller farm, was at first an entry place. Gradually it turned into a separate room, it grew bigger and overtook a role of a kind of representative place without a fireplace whereas the other room was called istba – jizba – izba (in Upper German stuba, in Nordic stofa – a room with a stove for bath, taken obviously from 3rd – 5th century during the coexistence of Slavic tribes with Germans in the territory east of the Carpathians) equipped with a stove or fireplace serving for dwelling. It was much later during the Middle Ages when, influenced by Franco-German model, a hall was transformed into a kitchen (coquina in Latin, chuchkina in German) with a sealed off stove connected to the hall via a hole in a wall from where it was heated (20). The last significant disposition change was the addition of the third room without a fireplace. it is believed that klet (klet, klijet in Serbian) originally independent building – barn, storeroom, pigsty was attached from the side of the hall later known as storeroom (from Latin camara, German kammer ).In North-East Slovakia this part of the house is also known as prikle, most likely derived from Slavic kle. The main function of the chamber was storage of agricultural products, preserved food, textiles and some other things. The described evolution of spatial and functional division of Slavic habitat occurred mostly in an agricultural environment, probably within lower and middle classes. The process took place slowly and culminated in the Middle Ages and the New Age.

Encounters with the Franc Empire, the Normans and the Mediterranean area inspired application of new construction patterns more intensively in the border lines and political centres of the first Slavic states. These stimuli, together with their own socio-economical progress, were the motive power of the development of Slavic civil engineering in the 9th century. It resulted into a higher quality of housing in the areas round castles, courts and trade centres, replacement of zemnicas by one or multiroom ground level houses. Specific features that need to be emphasized were large pile and timber constructions in Great Moravian centers of Bohemia, especially in South Moravia and partly in South-West Slovakia. These represent not only progressive economical development in times of the Great Moravia but also a significant degree of internationalization or globalization of local life and architecture. Wealthy families – secular and clerical elite and especially families of counts had lived here at least since the beginning of the 9th century in larger and multi-room houses. For these houses the term palace (from Latin) as a residential part of the castle could be used and also terms from the 10th century preserved in Kiev chronicle for example: gridnica (a feast hall of a count and his retime from the year 996 called dvornica, yard, count’s harem from the year 945 and 980) by West Slavs. Apart from this some roofless dwellings can be presented as lodgings – barracks for garrison, some guest houses for visitors of the court and dormitories for traders and wealthy travelers. Other peculiar ground plans indicate that it was possible even for members of other, sometimes exotic ethnics in service of the count or noble asylum seekers to build their own houses. None of these facts can be overlooked, not even when seeking answers to the questions concerning the establishment, development and territorial area of the great Moravia. In the last few years some very peculiar illogical even unscientific opinions occurred. Along with the above mentioned changes the most wildly spread features that remained were the conservative and traditional ones and constructing techniques of a village dwelling. In Middle East Europe zemnicas dominated as a simple, practical and cheap type of lodgings. These were at first the main and later on the alternative sort of a house, usually until the high Middle Ages (13th – 15th century) and in some peripheral agricultural functions they have survived till today. West Slavic housing culture was influenced at the beginning of the 10th century by habits of Hungarian tribes which were influenced by Saltov-Majack and East Slavic building culture of the 9th century (they helped to make clay stoves more common and extend of underground houses with light wicker walls). Thus formed folk architecture of a village habitat cherished its tradition till very late Middle Ages and along with regional specific features it served as a model for our traditional New Age folk architecture.


Originally published by Peter Šalkovský, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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