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The Olsztyn Castle uncovers its secrets

Under the Olsztyn Castle, scientists have found an unknown cave and remains of animals from the Ice Age, the Holocene, and from the castle’s functioning period. Professor Krzysztof Stefaniak from the Department of Paleozoology at the University of Wrocław was leading the research work.

The Olsztyn Castle is one of the biggest defensive artefacts in the Cracow-Częstochowa Upland in terms of surface area. Its picturesque ruins tower over the region. The archaeological, paleontological and reconstruction work that has been conducted for three years aims at reconstructing the well tower and expanding parts of the castle that are open for tourists.

Castle on a rock and in a cave

“Scientists endeavoured to explore the secrets of the castle at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. Medieval constructors built the well in a cave that is now known as the Lower Castle Cavern.  Above us, there is also the Upper Castle Cavern, which has not been examined yet,“ Professor Stefaniak explains. He also adds that the archaeologists and palaeontologists were surprised by the fact that, apart from medieval artefacts, they found bones of mammals from the Neogene and the Quaternary eras. The oldest ones mainly belonged to the mammals and other vertebrates from the Lower Pliocene (four million years ago), Middle Pliocene (three million years ago), and the Lower and Middle Pleistocene. All this was covered by sediment from the Upper Pleistocene, containing remains of large mammals, such as cave lion, bear, hyena, wolf, reindeer, as well as Neanderthal.

All these layers were covered by the Holocene sediment containing remains of fauna connected with the castle life – both domestic and wild animals.

The research work that started three years ago would only verify the results of the discoveries made earlier and it was supposed to last for one semester only. It turned out, however, that the team encountered new, unknown so far sediment with a very interesting fauna and they decided to further-examine it.

Wykopaliska na Zamku w Olsztynie prowadzone przez naukowców z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
Photo Aleksandra Draus/UWr/CC BY 2.0

Climate change encoded in bones

How did all these remnants end up in the cave sediment?

“There are remains of cave animals like bats and cave bears. Some predatory mammals (cave lion, Mustelidae, Canidae), used the cave as shelter. Next category are preys of humans or other predators.  We have found a phalanx bone with a hole made presumably by a fang of a predator and with signs of gastric juice’s impact. Furthermore, there is a group of small mammals or small vertebrates: fish, amphibians, reptiles, and the great number of birds that were preys of mammals or raptors. We have observed kestrels flying above the castle. Possibly, in the Pleistocene and Holocene period diurnal predators or nocturnal owls were living here and their casts ended up in the sediment,” Professor Stefaniak says.

This year’s excavation work has led to incredible discoveries. “We are lucky enough to have found Pleistocene horse teeth, antlers, reindeer teeth, claw, cave and brown bear bones and teeth, as well as some silicon artefacts from the Palaeolithic,” says Dr Urszula Ratajczak from the Department of Paleozoology at the University of Wrocław.

Wykopaliska na Zamku w Olsztynie prowadzone przez naukowców z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
Photo Aleksandra Draus/UWr/CC BY 2.0

The castle is also being researched in order to find out more about the Middle Ages and the Modern era. As Professor Stefaniak says, “Based on the bones from these periods, we will be able to determine what people ate in the Middle Ages and later periods. We have excavated a lot of remains of horses, cattle, sheep, goats, birds and fish, which lets us assume the diet in the castle was diverse. Interestingly enough, we also have a lot of dog bones. We are currently examining the material.”

All the remains will help researchers learn about climate change. “As we know, the climate on the Earth has changed. There were both warmer and colder periods – some big Pleistocene mammals lived here, that is why we are in the possession of steppe bison remains. The fauna we have collected is quite impressive. Biologists call most of these mammals ‘eurytopic animals’ as they can live in different conditions. For us, the most important type of animals are small vertebrates, particularly rodents that live in a specific  sort of environment. Obviously, there exist eurytopic rodents but there are also such groups like lemmings that live in cooler periods, and there are groups like dormouse that prove the existence of thermophilic forests. We are hoping that such a variety of bird and mammal remains will help us answer the question how the climate was changing before in comparison with today’s changes,” Professor Stefaniak summarises.

Traces of Neanderthal and another cave

During a few years of exploring the Lower Castle Cavern, scientists have found findings from the Middle Palaeolithic – the period of time when Neanderthals lived in this region. Members of the Magdalenian culture come together with animals. Reindeer antlers,  hoofed animals and flints that were found here are also from this period. Unfortunately, the original layer of humus from times before the castle has not survived.

“We have also found Wendish pottery, Mesolithic flint, and a lot of traces of medieval people’s activities such as pottery, things made of metal, and even dice that one could use today. They were found in a hearth and we joked that someone wanted to break with gambling and threw the dice into the fire,” says Dr Mikołaj Urbanowski. He adds that they also found something extraordinary – a medieval ornamental tile with an illustration of a night on a horse – a falconer during hunting with dogs.

The excavation work led the team to another great discovery. Below the main cave, they found a chasm that turned out to be an even bigger cave. At this stage, it is impossible to assess its size or the time period of the sediment.

Can there be more caves? It is possible. The results of the electroresistance tests done by Professor Marek Kasprzak from the Institute of Geography and Regional Development at the University of Wrocław might prove the existence of other caves.

Wykopaliska na Zamku w Olsztynie prowadzone przez naukowców z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
Photo Aleksandra Draus/UWr/CC BY 2.0

Can we raise dinosaurs?

The excavated material is being examined. The most intriguing is analysis of connate DNA, which is being examined by Professor Paweł Mackiewicz from the Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics.


“Traditional palaeontology is based on analysing remains. Today, there are modern genetic techniques that allow us to extract genetic material from bones, which may provide us with more information than morphological analysis. Genetics helps investigating the DNA of extinct species,” Professor Mackiewicz explains.

What does such an analysis look like? First, one needs to draw a sample, most preferably in the same place where the remains were found, as the risk of contaminating the bone is low. Then, it needs to be analysed in a laboratory with proper filters and UV lamps. Samples might be contaminated with bacteria, mould or the researcher’s DNA.

“DNA is extracted from the sample material, then the polymerase chain reaction is multiplied, then the DNA sequence is separated and examined. Because there is low quantity of the connate DNA and because it is fragmented, it rather does not multiply. If we want to multiply it but the sample is contaminated with newer and better preserved genetic material, it will not multiply.

When analysing animal DNA, we are focusing a specific gene. We are able to separate and multiply this single part of the DNA. Animal and human DNA are different so there is little chance that the examiner’s DNA will multiply.

Another problem is DNA degradation. The older the sample, the lower the quantity of DNA. Genetic material is best preserved in low temperature, without access to water, and in a highly salt-laden environment. That is why caves are such good sources of material for studying,” Professor Mackiewicz says.

Wykopaliska na Zamku w Olsztynie prowadzone przez naukowców z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
Photo Aleksandra Draus/UWr/CC BY 2.0

Is there any chance, then, to bring dinosaurs or other Pleistocene animals back to life?

Professor Mackiewicz: “If we could extract a complete genome from dinosaur bones, if we knew the DNA sequence of a dinosaur or any other extinct species that are not related to the existing ones, even then we would not be able to clone it. It is not enough to have a genetic material and put it into any egg cell that will become a zygote and will start multiplying. Even if we had such a zygote – a cell nucleus of an Indian elephant that is most related to mammoth, and if we replaced it with the DNA that we had created, there would still be a problem with activating the genetic information. Genes have to be activated in a specific order. It happens thanks to the proteins present in cell’s cytoplasm. These proteins must be the same as in mammoth because elephant’s protein will not recognise mammoth’s DNA sequence. Thus, it will not be possible to activate this gene and create the product that will activate other genes. Even if we had all these proteins, they need to appear in a specific concentration. Therefore, bringing back to life rhinoceros or any other prehistoric animal remains Science Fiction.

Investigating connate DNA opens a window to the past, thanks to which scientists are able to recapture the phylogenetic relations among different species, determine whom they are related to, learn about the variability of their population, diet of the extinct species, reconstruct the pristine protein molecules and find out what these animals looked like.

This year’s excavations in Olsztyn resulted in obtaining new materials for analysis. Professor Paweł Mackiewicz investigates the connate DNA of animals in cooperation with academies in Warsaw. He hopes that such specialist laboratories will be established at the University of Wrocław in the future, too.

Wykopaliska na Zamku w Olsztynie prowadzone przez naukowców z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
Fot. Aleksandra Draus/UWr/CC BY 2.0

The future of excavation

“Our work in the Olsztyn Castle is not done yet. From year to year, they become increasingly extensive. The building, what is under it and what surrounds it, reveals more and more secrets of this area. The current project will last until the end of the next year. However, we have already applied for Norway Grants,” as Marceli Ślusarczyk exaplains.

Scientists’ dream is to create a reconstruction of Pleistocene animals at the Olsztyn Castle. In order to realise these plans, approvals and funds are needed.

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Published by: Dariusz Tomaszczyk

21 Aug 2020

last modification: 26 Aug 2020