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Will Discovery of Ancient Tombs in Poland Halt a Proposed Coal Mine?

Will Discovery of Ancient Tombs in Poland Halt a Proposed Coal Mine?

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Locals opposing a new coal mine in Wielkopolska, central Poland, got help from an unexpected source: their ancestors. Burial mounds more than five thousand years old belonging to the Funnelbeaker culture, which used to inhabit lands from the Scandinavian peninsula to the Vistula river, were discovered in the area of the mine.

Polish archaeologists had thought that the ancient tombs had been destroyed by agriculture, which has taken place intensively in Wielkopolska for generations. And, to the untrained eye, they are easy to miss: nothing but long, narrow earthen hills covered by vegetation. But the 15 burial mounds, 100-meters long, were saved by their location, a forested area.

Over the centuries, they only lost the stone weirs surrounding them – the stone was likely collected and used for construction. Otherwise intact, they tell the extraordinary story of the culture which buried its dead within them.

‟It was probably only by using oxes (rather, aurochs, the ancestor of the ox) that these people were able to transport the huge stones, weighing many tonnes and as high as 1-2 meters, used for building the megalithic tombs,” comments Jacek Wierzbicki, from the Institute of Archaeology UAM in Poznan. ‟This was an enormous effort, comparable only to constructing the pyramids.”

‟Of course this kind of tomb was built not for every deceased, but probably only for the most outstanding leaders, the tribal chiefs, the priests.”

The eastern people in the Funnelbeaker culture inhabiting contemporary Poland's territories, were  the first to use ox-driven hoes to dig into less friendly soils, explains Wierzbicki. Their successful farming techniques allowed an agriculture-based economic model to spread all the way north to Scandinavia as long ago as five millenia.

The earliest known image of what is thought to be a four-wheeled vehicle is incised on the Bronocice pot, a ceramic vase discovered in Poland and dated over 5,000 years ago, belonging to the eastern branch of the Funnelbeaker culture.

100-meter-long burial mound found in Poland.

100-meter-long burial mound found in in Wietrzchowice, Poland, from the Funnelbeaker culture. Credit: Leszek Pazderski

Mining threat

The ancient tombs were discovered last year during archaeological searches. They are located right where private company ZE PAK,  the second largest lingnite-based electricity producer in Poland, plans to build a new open-pit lignite mine, Ościsłowo.

But, while the importance of the discovery is exulted by archaeologists, Polish authorities are still considering going ahead with the mine in the planned location, which would have a devastating effect on the tombs.

The Poznan regional authority in charge of preserving monuments said it was considering giving protected status to the 15 tombs, but that it would decide only after field research ‟once weather conditions allow it”. The protected status would be a serious obstacle in the way of the new mine.

In the meanwhile, however, ZE PAK could get more of the permits it needs to mine. At the end of last year, the Ministry of Agriculture agreed to the building of the mine on lands currently used for farming.

The Poznan regional environmental protection agency is currently evaluating whether to grant the environmental permit for the mine. Locals and NGOs have insisted that the company needed to rewrite the Environmental Impact Assessment to include measures to safeguard the archaeological discovery, but the environmental agency retorted the rewriting was not necessary.

In the end, ZE PAK would have to obtain a construction permit from the Ministry of Environment. Last year, a ministry representative had declared that, even if all intermediary permits are obtained, he would not issue the permit if local authorities disagree.

A spokesperson for ZE PAK told national television TVN that ‟if in the future it turns out that archeological sites are located on mining territory, we will act in accordance with the law.”

Coal mine in Bełchatów.

Coal mine in Bełchatów. Credit: TVN24

Local opposition

Local resistance to the new mine has been growing over the past years, as plans have got closer to realization.

ZE PAK operates four power plants in Wielkopolska, feeding on lignite from local mines whose locations shift over time as resources are exhausted. The company says it needs a new pit at Ościsłowo to make up for dwindling resources elsewhere.

But many fear that Ościsłowo could deal a mortal blow to development in their region. Decades-long open-pit mining in the region already caused the draining of soils, with farmers reporting poorer yields and smaller incomes by the year. It has also caused the drying up of local lakes, nature reserves included in the European Union's Natura 2000 network, which bring tourists to Wielkopolska.

Local opposition against the mine.

Local opposition against the mine. Credit: TVN24

Two of the three mayors of localities on the planned perimeter of Ościsłowo have been convinced to support the mine, but a third one is holding out.

Grzegorz Skowroński, the mayor of Wilczyń, argues Ościsłowo ‟would kill off” Lake Wilczyńskie, one of the five local lakes that people depend on for fishing and tourism. Skowroński is so worried, he commissioned a film showing the gradual depletion of water in the five lakes: a sequence of time lapses comparing what the lakes looked like years ago as opposed to now offers a striking sense of the damage.  

The ancient tombs are located in the village of Góry, on the eastern edge of Wilczyń, which gives the mayor new leverage in his opposition to the company.

In January, dozens of locals from Wilczyń and other localities close to the planned location of the mine organized a protest in Poznan (the main town in Wielkopolska) asking authorities to halt the mine plans and protect the archaeological heritage instead.

‟This is the best preserved cemetery of this kind in Wielkopolska and likely the last one that will ever be discovered,” Kuba Gogolewski, from the Foundation ‟Development – YES, Mining – NO,” which represents Polish local communities opposed to lignite mining, told media during the protest. ‟Protecting these tombs and promoting them as a touristic destination could offer a real chance at development for localities here.”

‟The mines are like a cancer eating out into the lands and lakes of Wielkopolska,” said Jósef Drazgowski, an anti-coal activist and owner of a holiday house on the edges of another drying lake, Ostrowski.

Lake in the National Park of Wielkopolska.

Lake in the National Park of Wielkopolska. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland / Flickr

‟It's not possible that this place (the ancient tombs) are destroyed or forgotten, our descendants would never forgive us,” says Drazgowski. ‟The whole world should instead learn about this cemetery as soon as possible.”

The current Polish government, run by nationalist party Law and Justice, does not have a clear position about the future of Wielkopolska. On the one hand, Law and Justice is an enthusiastic supporter of coal, which its leaders see as part of the future of Poland over the next decades, despite EU climate policies and the Paris Agreement signed by Warsaw which call for the phase out of the use of this dirty fossil fuel.

On the other hand, the party's nationalistic line may make it difficult to defend the destruction of historical treasures that prove the European-wide importance of a culture inhabiting ancient Polish lands.

Huge mound tombs discovered in Poland.

Huge mound tombs discovered in Wietrzchowice, Poland, from the Funnelbeaker culture. Credit: Leszek Pazderski

The long-term resistance to new mining seems to have hit a chord even in the central government. Speaking during a conference about mining in Wielkopolska in February, undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Environment Mariusz Gajda told environmentalists, ‟I am completely on your side: open-pit mining is a catastrophe. We are even ready to change the law to protect local communities from the negative impact of open-pit mining.”

Kuba Gogolewski from ‟Development – YES, Mining – NO” envisages a long battle ahead over Ościsłowo: he says locals and allied NGOs like his will contest in court ZE PAK's Environmental Impact Assessment - which makes no mention of the archaeological discoveries. He also expects the discovery to get protected status for its historical value, which may bring the matter of the final permit in front of Polish courts.

Top image: Burial mound found in in Wietrzchowice, Poland, from the Funnelbeaker culture. Credit: Leszek Pazderski

By Claudia Ciobanu

Claudia Ciobanu's picture

Claudia Ciobanu

Claudia Ciobanu is a Warsaw-based freelance reporter covering Central and Eastern Europe. She is particularly interested in the environment, social movements and migration. 

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