On the southern bank of the Vistula River in Krakow lies one of the city’s most ancient mysteries. Anyone could mistake it for a large hill, but it’s not—at least not a naturally-made one.
Known as Krakus Mound, or Krak Mound, this 52-foot pile of earth has overlooked the city for centuries. It’s Krakow’s much-smaller answer to the pyramids of Egypt, although historians have a far greater understanding of the pyramids.
Who built Krakus Mound? When was it built? Why was it built? Archaeological digs in and around the mound have uncovered conflicting answers to these questions.
Theories range from the mound being the burial place of Krakow’s legendary founder, to an ancient Celtic monument.
The oldest legends behind Krakus Mound state that it is the burial place of King Krak, Krakow’s legendary founder. According to accounts by Poland’s earliest historians, Krak was crowned king by his people after fighting the ancient Gauls in central Europe sometime after the fall of Rome.
Most famously, King Krak is tied to the legendary slaying of Krakow’s infamous Wawel Dragon, who terrorized the people. Some versions of the story give Krak’s sons credit for killing the beast, while others claim Krak did it himself (There are still other versions of this story that claim Krak was a mere boy when he slew the dragon and then became king).
When King Krak died, the legends say Krakow’s inhabitants constructed a mound overlooking the city and buried him in it. Tradition holds this became Krakus Mound.
Digging up the Mound
For centuries, Poles wondered if King Krak was truly buried in Krakus Mound. In the 1930s, an archeological expedition decided to find out.
Excavators from the Polish Academy of Learning dug into the mound in 1934 hoping to find evidence of King Krak’s grave and figure out when it was constructed.
At the base of the mound, excavators uncovered pottery from the Lusatian people, who inhabited modern-day Poland from roughly 1500 BC to 500 BC. This pottery, and other flintstone tools found at the site, would mean the mound was more than 2,000 years old.
However, historians haven’t accepted this date, citing the possibility that the ancient pottery was already inside the earth when it was used to build the mound. Of course, there’s no way to prove or disapprove that.
Near the top of the mound, a child’s skeleton was discovered, along with traces of a large hearth. The hearth has led historians to believe that the mound could have been used as a cremation burial, which was a common practice by pagans in that part of Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries. This fact challenges the idea of the mound being a tomb.
Further down in the mound, root fragments of a giant oak tree were found. Experts estimated the tree was 300 years old when it was cut down. They theorized it could have been a “sacred” oak used in worship by Poland’s pagans and was chopped when Poland converted to Christianity during the second half of the 10th century. However, the roots were never officially dated, so this is speculation.
At the lowest levels of the mound, traces of wooden fences were found, as well as evidence of a large post. The purpose of the fences and posts is unknown, although experts have proposed they were included to stabilize the mound. A large amount of stones was also found deep inside.
Although excavators uncovered no evidence of a grave holding King Krak, an Avarian belt-fixture was found dating to the 8th century, as were coins depicting Czech prince Boleslaus II from the 10th century. The Avars were a tribe of Central-Asian, Turkic-speaking nomads who moved through Poland in the 7th and 8th centuries in their campaigns against the Franks. These items have led many historians to date the mound to between the 8th and 10th centuries.
At the end of the day, the excavations failed to yield any certain answers. Historians generally believe the mound was used as a Slavic cremation burial or ceremonial lookout during the early middle ages, but the variety of conflicting archeological finds casts its origins into doubt.
The Celtic Connection
Popular culture tends to associate the ancient Celts with Britain and Ireland, but they are also known to have settled in southern Poland beginning as early as the fifth century BC.
Historians believe the Celts were drawn to the fertile farmland in southern Poland. They brought many technological advances with them, including the potter’s wheel and iron tools, that would set the stage for future civilizations on the Polish lands.
Some experts theorize that Krakus Mound, as well as Wanda’s mound, which is another ancient mound in the city, served an astronomical purpose for the Celts.
If you stand atop Krakus Mound on May 2 or September 10, you can see the sun rise directly over Wanda’s Mound. If you stand atop Wanda’s Mound on February 6 or November 4, you can see the sun set directly over Krakus Mound. These dates all closely correspond to important Celtic religious observances.
Some historians have also noted an ancient festival involving Krakus Mound called Rękawka. For centuries, the well-off people of Krakow would gather atop Krakus Mound on the Tuesday after Easter and throw bread, eggs, apples and other types of food at peasants gathered at the base of the hill as a form of charity.
Experts have connected this festival to ancient Slavic and even Celtic practices. It’s possible that when Poland was Christianized, the Church replaced the pagan version of the festival with a Christian one.
Although the evidence linking Krakus Mound with the ancient Celts is circumstantial, it provides a strange coincidence at least, and at most a connection to an ancient culture.
An Enduring Mystery
Clearly, no one knows for sure the age or purpose of Krakus Mound, despite a detailed excavation and numerous archeological finds.
The various items discovered, from the Avarian belt-fixture, to the Lusatian pottery, point to conflicting periods of time when the mound could have been constructed.
No grave was found, although Professor Leszek Paweł Słupecki argues that Krakus Mound is the remnant of a much larger system of mounds, based on Krakow city plans he has studied from the 18th century.
This opens the possibility that it was part of a “mound cemetery” that has not survived to this day. Furthermore, the mound was not excavated in its entirety, although most historians believe enough of it was explored to rule out there being a grave.
There is also the matter of the remains of the large hearth atop the mound, which implies the mound was a cremation burial from the early middle ages. Most scholars seem to favor this theory, or the one that argues the mound was ceremonial.
Short of further research, Krakus Mound will remain an intriguing mystery, as it continues watching over Krakow into the next millennium.