Dr Aleks Pluskowski
During the medieval period, church-sanctioned religious wars were fought on the frontiers of Europe for a variety of reasons, initially to secure Jerusalem for Latin Christendom, but later for religious conversion, as well as political and territorial advantage.
The University of Reading is one of the few places in the UK that offers dedicated teaching of the archaeology of crusading, and Dr Aleks Pluskowski uses case studies in his modules which draw directly on his experiences in the field. Students participate in his excavations, and have contributed as co-authors to publications from his projects with data generated from their dissertations. Responding to student needs, Aleks wrote the first English language book on The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade to enable his students to access the largely Polish, but also German, Russian and Lithuanian scholarly literature.
Aleks is fascinated by the influence of religion on human behaviour in the past, particularly the conversion to and acceptance of Christianity around Europe at different times. As an environmental archaeologist, he aims to provide a different perspective on the impact of religious change. How does our understanding of the imposition and influence of religion provide a window onto human behaviour and motivation? What does the way people interacted with their environment tell us about how they lived and believed?
"The environment - animals, plants, landscape - is an interesting way of looking at how religion drives people to think and behave, because a lot of religions put emphasis on the environment and how you relate to other species; which is ultimately about how we think about ourselves."
Aleks examines societies where religious change was imposed through force, and what we can learn about this cultural clash from how the people at the time used the landscape and environment they lived in. Examining the environmental evidence around medieval structures and cultural frontier spaces allows him to investigate how people lived in these multi-cultural crucibles through a new lens.
imposition and resistance
During his work in the Eastern Baltic he discovered that despite the fact that the whole region was conquered and exploited by military Christian institutions, there is evidence that paganism endured for centuries under this imposed theocracy. Indigenous people continued to maintain sacred sites in the landscape; trees remained the focus of devotion; there were still sacred woods, and ritual practices associated with animals and plants. Despite the crusades, pre-Christian religion persisted for many centuries.
It raises questions about the efficacy of militant religious authority at changing how people live and think, and shows the nuances and complexities of how people at the time reacted to that imposed transformation.
These questions continue to be explored in Aleks' ongoing work in Spain, where he is looking at the dynamics between Christians and Muslims societies at the frontier. Looking at factors such as diet, and how the people at the time were using the landscape, can indicate that practices may not change substantially despite new regimes coming in with new religious world views. Studying these boundaries between opposing societies - how they can be crossed, how people interact on both sides - helps us to understand the complexities of religious conversion and how that affects people's daily lives.
"Not only was the excavation set in an exciting and complex archaeological landscape, helping broaden my understanding of medieval territories in this region of Spain through Christian and Islamic occupations; it also gave me new perspectives into how landscapes can shape where people choose to settle - a perspective not really possible without visiting the location."