How old are the towns and villages in Central Europe? Archaeological data reveal the size of bias in dating obtained from traditional historical sources

Publication date: January 2020

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 113

Author(s): Václav Fanta, Jan Zouhar, Jaromír Beneš, Jiří Bumerl, Petr Sklenicka


In various research fields, from archaeology to landscape history and ecology, it is important to know the date of the origin of historical settlements (i.e. towns, villages, hamlets, isolated farms) as precisely as possible. In Central Europe, there are two primary ways to obtain the date when a settlement was founded: “historical dating” (based on historical written sources) and “archaeological dating” (based on archaeological findings). Historical dating usually does not reflect the real time of origin, since the first reference to a settlement in written sources can be recorded many years after the real origin of the settlement. However, the time lag is unknown. Until now, no study has attempted to show exactly how the time lag differs in different centuries, or whether the time lag has been affected by any geographical factors.

This paper compares the dates of origin from archaeological data and from written sources of medieval and early modern settlements (n = 527, AD 850–1600) in the present-day Czech Republic. We also tested the influence of local environmental conditions on the time lag. Our comparison shows that the time lag has been decreasing with the passing of calendar years (from a time lag of 250 years for AD 1000 to approx. 80 years for AD 1400). Towns and places close to major towns also have a shorter time lag in their historical dating (the difference is almost 100 years).

These results make an interpretation of the historical dating of medieval towns and villages more complicated. The length of the time lag and its dispersion means that, for the purposes of settlement dating, historical dating needs to be combined with other dating methods (especially in the medieval period). Our results also identify a possible bias in the chronology of landscape transformation.