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Drilling into Poland’s past

With the memory of volcanic ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano disrupting air travel in Europe still in our minds it was fortunate we had planned to drive to Poland because of the equipment we had to take and ironic that our scientific expedition was to look for evidence of previous eruptions which may have left traces of volcanic ash buried in a now dry lake bed in rural Poland. Such ash layers provide a useful reference point for Palaeolithic archaeologists as dating methods such as radiocarbon are less reliable for such old archaeological remains. Where the same volcanic ash layer is found and identified by chemical analysis in different sites, it can provide a marker horizon, allowing correlation between sites and relatively dating finds above and below it. This work also shows which areas have been affected by volcanic ash clouds in the past and so offers insights valuable to the aviation industry. This is one of the delights of science that the answer to a question about a volcano in Iceland can be found in rural Poland.

This is all possible because improbable as it sounds, mud offers us a time machine. As a lake bed accumulates layers of mud over time, evidence of the past is trapped in the layers of sediment in the form of fossils. Pollen grains, algae, beetles, seeds and animal bones preserved in each layer of sediment provide a record of the climate and environment at the time the sediment was laid down. Because the sediment layers have built up over time, we can assume the deepest layer is the oldest and the successive layers progressively younger until the surface which is the present. Thus the fossil material preserved in each layer offer a glimpse of the lakeside environment at times in the past. Our task was to take samples which might contain evidence from the end of the last ice age when people began to recolonise northern Europe. This is important to understand how quickly the climate has changed in the past and what impact this had on our ancestors. Studying this will help scientists investigate the question how did humans came to be the dominant animal on earth, occupying nearly every environment on the planet and help to predict the effects of future climate change driven by global warming. To access this potential information we had to use our muscles to push down through the layers of sediment with our drilling equipment.

At Dover our array of drilling equipment was amusingly mistaken for a tent. The ferry crossing was calm with seagulls gliding along on the breeze around the upper deck. Driving on the continent the main distinguishing feature of the different nations was the quality of the road, good in France, worse in Belgium, excellent in Holland and good in Germany but stalked by Silver Mercedes driving at frighteningly high speeds. Passing through Germany it was fun for archaeologists to listen to Radio Neanderthal as we passed close to the Neander Valley where the first fossil find of the now extinct human ancestor was recognised. Shorter and more stocky than modern humans Neanderthals have been perceived as the classic caveman, an image enhanced by evidence that their diet focused on meat and that they lived rough lives with some fossil bones showing injuries like modern rodeo riders. But this image fails to do these fascinating creatures justice as they had a brain the same size of ours and survived in Ice Age Europe while our direct ancestors were limited to warmer climates in Africa. Why the Neanderthal reign came to an end around 30,000 years ago with the latest survivors in Gibraltar is the subject of lively scientific debate, with opinions divided on whether climate change or competition with our ancestors could have been the most important factors.


Entering the old East Germany we stopped at the Marienborn border checkpoint, where stark grey buildings, a sinister watchtower and searchlights have been preserved as the memorial to the division of Germany. This reminded us that to cross the continent had until recently been much harder than waving a closed passport at an official in Dover as you drove onto the ferry. The Marienborn checkpoint had controlled travel between East and West Germany between 1945 and 1989, with the East German state employing about a thousand staff at the site. Standing alone in the car search bays was eerie as I imagined what it would have been like had we made the journey during the cold war, the fear of being trapped there beyond the view of the outside world as the bizarre contents of our vehicle were examined by stern officials.

Our first accommodation was in Forst a town in Germany on the border with Poland. The road signs said the town had a tourist office but I failed to understand why because it seemed such a rural backwater. Wandering out of the hotel to stretch my legs after the journey I stumbled on a show jumping event for which the entire town seemed to have turned up and to increase my enjoyment in the afternoon sunshine a British rider won. Apart from that the most exciting thing in town was the diversion caused by the roadworks in the town centre. As a result I spent the evening watching German division two football on TV, supporting the local team Energie Cottbus.

Crossing over the border in to Poland felt like the start of our adventure as the wide motorways of Western Europe gave way to the rutted tarmac of rural Poland. Our route was now dictated by diversions around the motorway construction works aimed at making Poland accessible for the 2012 European Football Championships, which will be jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine. The capitalist boom on the border zone was engulfing everyone roadside sellers offered everything from forest fruit jams to  garden ornaments, in particular gnomes of all shapes and sizes and even a Dinosaur as big as our car! The wild west feel was further enhanced by motels called Las Vegas and a new Pyramid hotel. However some aspects of the new accessibility of Poland were less pleasant with prostitutes hanging round in laybyes and adverts for “nightclubs” in every small village.

We were surrounded by dense pine forests as we drove to meet our Polish colleagues at the castle in the village of Brody. This turned out to be an empty shell of a manor house, to the side of a one street village. The empty shell of the manor house and the broken statues at the gate, made me wonder if the occupants had been forced out in the past. Certainly this part of Western Poland would have seen historical turmoil with control repeatedly passed between Germany and Poland. But looking at the standard of living of the locals it seemed any changes had not benefited them. Driving into the countryside, real hardship was in evidence with dilapidated houses suggesting people scratching a living from the land. Our colleagues led us at high speed through hamlets and along farm lanes, to park by a small woodland overlooking an open grassy plain. The lake of the past had been drained to make farmland.  As the car halted it was engulfed by a swarm of mosquitoes, despite our insect tormentors we had work to do and so got on with the task of taking geological samples whilst our blood was sampled. We managed to soldier on until a thunderstorm threatened, black clouds rolling across the sky and reminding me of the mid afternoon thunderstorms I had experienced in Krakow the year before.

Our journey took us on further through Greater Poland to Wagrowiec, a town of 25,000 people, 50km north east of Poznan, where the lights went out in the hotel as soon as we checked in sparking thoughts of Eastern Block shortages, but soon power was restored and the accommodation revealed to be very comfortable and spacious. Venturing on a walk into town the guard dog of every property soon investigated the passing stranger and so my walk was accompanied by a chorus of barking. On this afternoon wander I discovered Wagrowiec is a town being rebuilt, with individuals building new family homes all around the outskirts of town, and further evidence of new families is that I saw at least five wedding dress shops. The towns highlight is just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre, Lake Durowskie is a peaceful location for swimming and watersports, but the clouds meant there were few bathers so the lifeguards entertained themselves doing acrobatics on the beach. I enjoyed a stroll in the lakeside park, which is dotted with sculptures by local artists. The main curiosity in town lies beyond the town centre just by the main cemetery where in the park, the Rivers Welna and Niebla cross paths but apparently do not exchange waters. As I wandered back to the hotel along the town’s new bypass, the sunset painted the sky with a red and orange glow.

Our Journey south allowed a convenient lunch stop in the City of Poznan. Despite the rain the colours of the buildings of the main square stood out from the gloom and the intricate decorations of the facade of the town hall provided an interesting back drop to our lunch sheltering in a cafe. A break in the rain allowed a short wander into Chopin’s park with its statue of the man himself in front of the pink buildings of the Jesuit College formerly the residence of the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznan in the eighteenth century. More spectacular still was the Parish Church of Saint Stanislaus built between 1651 and 1732, the interior of which was breathtakingly beautiful, with red marble pillars, statues and paintings.

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