Paleomeander Behavior in the Early Copper Age of the Great Hungarian Plain: Veszt"o,Hungary

Author:  Erin Sauer

Institution:  The Ohio State University
Date:  April 2007


This research asks what the relationship is between meanders of the Feher and Sebes-Körös Rivers and Early Copper Age Settlements located in Southeast Hungary. Done in conjunction with a National Science Foundation funded archaeological excavation of two Early Copper Age settlements, the purpose is to determine why almost all Early Copper Age settlements in the Great Hungarian Plain, where these excavations are located, are situated along river meanders. Associated with this, we look at how these meanders behaved during the Early Copper Age to further explain the reasons for locating settlements along them. In order to study the meander behavior, in 2005, thirty one soil cores were taken by Oakfield auger in and around meanders near the cities of Vészt"o, Mez"oberény, Körösladany and Zsadány in the Great Hungarian Plain. These meanders were chosen because they are near known Early Copper Age sites. The cores were analyzed using Munsell color typology according to the Munsell Book of Color, soil type, moisture, phosphate content, texture and profile. It was hypothesized that other channels in the area would be similar to a channel studied in 2004 which was determined to have dried up prior to the Early Copper Age. Analysis of the 2005 cores in comparison with cores from 2004 show a striking similarity in soil profile and meander cross-section, suggesting that all meanders were dry at the time of Early Copper Age settlements. Therefore, the location of settlements along these meanders is likely due to the relative high created by the meanders and the protection that this afforded the settlements from both flooding and enemies, rather than access to water.


Research centered on a set of Early Copper Age sites located in the Great Hungarian Plain, near the southeastern end of the Körös River and the town of Vészt"o, Hungary being excavated by the Körös Regional Archaeological Project. The excavations, led by Dr. William Parkinson, Dr. Richard Yerkes and Attila Gyucha, focus on questions about the transition from Late Neolithic settlement site types (tell sites) to Early Copper Age settlements( single occupation sites) . The first site, Vészt"o-20, Bikeri, has been established as an Early Copper Age Tiszapolgar settlement with houses, pottery centers, burials, and a series of three ditches surrounding the area, dating to 4500-4000BC (Parkinson et al. 2002).

Vészt"o-20 is located east of the Dio-Eri canal and north of a defunct meander of the Holt-Sebes- Körös River (Parkinson 1999). The fact that the site is located next to a dried channel, suspected to be a paleomeander, makes it a high point on the relatively flat topography of the Great Hungarian Plain.

The second site, Körösladany -14, Bikeri, is also located on a relative high and may be associated with Vészt"o-20. The two sites are separated by the man-made Dio-Eri canal, where it makes a turn to the northeast and both lie near the old meander of the Holt-Sebes- Körös River. Körösladany -14 is also a settlement dating back to the Early Copper Age and the Tiszapolgar culture.

Many of the known Early Copper Age settlements in the Great Hungarian Plain are located near paleomeanders, including Vészt"o-20, Körösladany -14, Okany-6 and Korosujfalu-4(Parkinson 1999). On the map of northwestern Békés county (Figure 1), red dots correspond to Early Copper Age settlements, which sit along topographical highs, or meanders, in almost every circumstance.

Figure 1- Early Copper Age sites in Bekes County, Hungary ( Ecsedy, 1982)

Figure 1- Early Copper Age sites in Bekes County, Hungary ( Ecsedy, 1982)

Pal Sümegi claims in fact that settlement sites were purely restricted to the areas near rivers and channels and that what he terms "Pleistocene lag islands", which refer to the highs created by paleomeanders, prevented flooding near abandoned channels (Sümegi 2004). However, dating of all of the paleomeanders has yet to be done, so it is unsure if all of the meanders with corresponding settlements are of a Pleistocene origin. Placement of settlements along these defunct channels may only be due to cultural changes stemming from the transition from few, widely spaced Late Neolithic tell sites to more numerous, smaller sites and the needs that this evolution created rather than protection from flooding This is one of the major questions being addressed by this work.

The Great Hungarian Plain, where these Early Copper Age settlements are located, contains the Körös River system made up of three branches. The Körös River Basin lies 5-10 meters below the low gradient alluvial fans of the Tisza and Moros Rivers (Frolking 2004). It consists of extensive floodplains that are regularly inundated during the wet seasons and experience fair amounts of flooding (Cooke et al. 1979). Flood rains are not drained by the river system but lie on the surface until soaked up by the porous soil or evaporated. The flatness of the land and the low energy of the rivers do not supply enough to run off the rainfall of the region (Frolking, 2004). The majority of the region is alluvial in nature and is made up of aeolian soils with little humic formation found in the flooded areas (Parkinson 1999). Steppic soils can be found in the higher areas that do not experience regular flooding while the lower elevations are made up of clays, peats and silts (Parkinson 1999). "Wet loess" is a term often used by Hungarians to describe the soils, suggestive of a low energy eolian deposition in the Late Pleistocene, creating a seasonally wet environment (Frolking 2004). This low energy of the rivers is attributed to the flatness of the plain.

Coring at Vészt"o Mágor, a Late Neolithic site, to determine the size of the associated paleochannel came up with a 3m deep and 25-30m wide channel with a flow of approximately 0.5m/s at bankfull, a very slow and low energy stream (Frolking 2004). This coring, conducted between 2001 and 2002, also provided a time frame of stream movements through the Hungarian Plain. Dating of ceramics and charcoal found within two of the cores allowed for calculation of the movement for the Vészt"o Mágor meander to be about 1m every 20-40 years in the middle to late Holocene, beginning around 5600BC (Frolking 2004). It is likely from this information that the meander was dry by the time of the Tiszapolgar occupation of the area, c.a. 4500BC. An oxbow lake in Kengyel has been shown by other researchers to have occurred in the Pleistocene (Shiel 1997), thus supporting the hypothesis that Early Copper Age sites were located along dried up meanders rather than active channels.

There is no evidence of a significant environmental change that may have correlated with the cultural transitions of the late Neolithic to the Early Copper Age. In fact, the landscape since the mid-late Holocene has remained fairly stable. Coring of paleochannel soils indicates that Holocene sediments tend to be the coarsest material within the sample, with a very fine to fine grained sand texture. Other sediments associated with the Sebes Körös River tend to be silty to fine sand in the channel deposits and fine silt to clay in low portions of the landscape, possibly overbank deposits (Frolking 2004). Mixing of the bottom layer of soil is common, possibly due to the high depth of mud cracks (recorded up to 70cm deep) or other factors such as bioturbation. The top portion of the soil profile is dominated by a dark brown silty-loamy soil known as meadow clay which is high in organics and usually very dense. Meadow clay tends to extend deeper in channel and paleochannel sediments due to sedimentation of organics by the channels. Regarding the colors of the soil, typical soil ranges from dark brown to gray to yellow with shade variations within each. Mottling is common, usually at depth below 10cm, suggesting that the soil has experienced periods of wetness and dryness. Robert Shiel posits that this is proof of short seasonal floods, longer floods occurring with extended gaps in between, or a combination of both scenarios (Shiel 1997). These conditions prevent the formation of peat.

Mention must be made of the extensive canalization of the Great Hungarian Plain which has taken place over the last 150 years. These man-made canals, like the Dio-Eri which splits Vészt"o-20 and Körösladany -14, have lowered the water table in the area and reduced flooding. Therefore, observations of flooding done today may not accurately reflect the nature of flooding prior to the construction of these canals which have a density over the plain of 0.65km/km²(Pesci and Sarfalvi 1977).

Materials and Methods

Figure 2- 2005 Coring sites in Bekes County, Hungary

Figure 2- 2005 Coring sites in Bekes County, Hungary

Research conducted during 2004 focused on describing the nature and behaviors of channels similar to the one found near Vészt"o-20 and Körösladany -14. Topographical maps of Békés County, Hungary were examined for evidence of relief relating to dried meanders and oxbow lake formation. Paleomeanders near paved roads were examined individually in a series of visits. Those that could be identified and had access points were cored in a methodical way to recreate the positions of the meanders. Sites cored this season are marked on the map of Békés County (Figure 2). These cores are described as soil profiles (Figure 3), obtained using an Oakfield auger. The Oakfield auger was pounded into the ground at the location of a suspected meander with use of a rubber mallet to a prescribed depth of 19in before the soil core was removed. Extensions on the auger were used if necessary, which were marked at intervals of 19in with tape.

Figure 3- Selected core profiles from 2005

Figure 3- Selected core profiles from 2005

Block 5 and Körösladany -14

Initial coring took place at Körösladany -14 in and around excavation Block 5(a block containing the 3 outer perimeter trenches of the settlement as diagnosed by magnetometry survey in 2004) to determine the basic soil stratigraphy and also gauge the depth of the trenches. Coring near the site also provided the opportunity to find artifacts within the samples which can be used for dating the different stratigraphic levels. Three cores were taken. On July 8, 2005, coring continued around the site in an attempt to locate the meander. Four more cores were taken from flat ground, a gentle swale, a rise, and a flat after the rise.


On July 10, 2005, cores from meanders of the Sebes Körös NE of the city of Zsadány and to the east of Kis Sarret were obtained. Zsadány is located to the northeast of the Vészt"o and Körösladany excavation sites. The coring site is located approximately 1.5km east of the first east/west running canal, just south of the Kis Sarret canal. Cores were done along the west edge of the canal along the floodplain.


Körösladany, a city to the northwest of Vészt"o, was the next area cored. A berm a berm of the Sebes Körös Canal was followed just to the south of the town until reaching the 6.9km marker on the south side, moving southwest along the path of the berm. An abandoned meander can be seen looking down from the track at this point, which is located on a grassy unplanted portion of a wheat and barley field.

The initial core, KLZ-1-1, is from just east of what was visually identified from the berm as the channel, on a flat surface of the field. The second core, KLZ-1-2, is from a location just to the north of KLZ-1-1, in the area suspected to be the center of the abandoned channel. The third core is from the inside of the meander on the zug, or rise surface.


On the 13th of July, meanders near the city of Doboz were investigated. Doboz is a town located to the south of Vészt"o. We drove to the Szanazus Park area, where the meanders are located on the map, and parked near the Feher Körös Canal which runs parallel to the meanders. We found no access points to the meanders and coring of the surrounding woods told us nothing of importance.

Körösladany 2

We revisited the area around the city of Körösladany to continue coring to the north of the original site. A cross-section taken from the area east of the previously identified channel, described the vegetation and topography of the site. At that point we cored at 35m east of the channel edge near the base of the gentle channel edge slope. The next core, KLZ1-3, is from the approximate center of the abandoned channel. Core KLZ1-4 is from 61m inside the channel on a flat area close to the slope. The next core was taken at 69.5m into the channel in a barley field near the top of the slope. Coring then moved to the zug center at a relative high point on the topography. The last core originated in the approximate center of the meander.


Coring took place near the Harmas Körös Canal between Körös Tarsod and Gyoma Endrod next. First, we cross-sectioned the meander to describe the topography and then cored at the edge of a cornfield at 77.2m on the zug. The second stop, GEZ1-2, is located at 92m on the zug interior.

GEZ1-4 is from the center of the channel. One more core was taken from inside the channel at 12in. Next, coring from inside the field was done.

There was a return trip to Gyoma Endrod to core Zug 7. The first core is located near the zug center about 10m north of a ditch that bisects the zug. The last core was from the approximate middle of another channel, located south, southeast of the first.


On the date of July 18, another site was visited upon returning from Gyoma. This site is located off of the east/west running highway 47 from Sarvos toward Mez"oberény. Two cores were taken here.

Zsadány 2

Cores came from near the city of Zsadány once again on the date of July 21, 2005. These were from a field positioned 850m from the road. The last core is located 100m south of the first, Zs2-1.


Block 5 and Körösladany -14

Cores from the excavation area revealed a typical soil profile. Normal stratigraphy begins with a meadow clay layer extending to about 25" with mottling beginning deeper than 25". Textures range from silty clay to silty loam and remain fairly uniform throughout the core. The soil lightens at a depth of around 30" and remains uniform to at least 99". No evidence of the meander associated with the excavations was found.

Zsadány 1 and 2

Coring of the flat area revealed a normal soil profile with mottling beginning at 23". Texture ranged from silty clay to very fine silty loam in the 42" core. The core taken 860m from the road revealed a slightly earlier mottling depth of 20" which extended to 72" where the water table was reached. A sandy texture was seen at 81" which became finer with depth. The last core, from 100m south of the second, had a meadow clay layer of only 9" with the water table at 63" and a sandy texture at 60" which extended in a uniform manner to 162" where the core ended.

Körösladany 1 and 2

The first two cores resulted in normal meadow clay depths of 23" and 24" respectively with the profiles following the normal pattern. The third, KL-Z-2, had a dark gray meadow clay layer of silty clay extending to 30" where lightening began and the soil became less dense. No mottling was seen in the core, which extended to 42".Subsequent cores further in on the zug had meadow clay depths of 9"and 16" with a small lense of sand seen at 80" from KL-Z1-1 near the edge of the slope. In KL-Z1-3, mottles began at 30" with lightening beginning around 90" following a rusty zone. The water table was located at a depth of 114" which was followed by a sandy zone extending to 120" where the core ended. Textures ranged from silty clay to very fine sand with silty loam in the middle zones.

KL-Z1-4 became coarser at 33" with mottling beginning at 36" with varied textures. Quite a number of texture changes were also seen in the next core, which began mottling at 12" with texture changes at 12", 15", 18", 36", and 54" ranging from silty loam to very fine sand. Color changes were also associated with the texture changes.

KL-Z!-6, taken from the slope, shows the characteristic slightly shallower meadow clay horizon of 15" while the core from the zug interior shows mottling at 16". A uniform texture begins at 65" which extends to 125" where very fine sand is seen. The water table is at 90". The last core from Korosladany, KL-Z1-8, begins mottling at 27" with rusty mottles seen at 95". Sandy soil begins at 94".


The first core taken from Gyoma came from the zug and began mottling at 9". Coarsening of the soil began at 45" and extended until very fine sand was reached at 81". The next core, from the zug interior, began mottling at 12" and had a consistent texture of silty loam up to 36" where the core stopped. At the inner edge of the water, mottling was seen at 9" depth with a dense silty loam soil texture. The next two cores, taken from within the channel, showed silty loam to silty clay textures and only went to 9" depth.

Back in the field, mottling began at 34" with the water table at 54" and no evidence of sand down to 99". The zug center provided a similar profile with mottling around 30" and water at 45". A fine silt lens was seen at 138" and a grey silt lens at 158". Sand was seen after 140".

GE 2-7-7, the last core taken from Gyoma, was unique in that it is the only core with greeninsh colored soil. Mottling began at 27" and extended to around 117" where the soil became wetter. At 126", the texture turned to a clay extending to 154" where it changed back to a silty clay texture. The gray-green soil was seen at 158" and at 170", pebbles were seen in the core.


The first core taken began mottling at a depth of 16". A silty loam texture ran throughout the core down to 72" with a piece of daub(a cultural artifact) being found at 34". The second core, taken near the road, extended to 18" with a fine silty loam texture and no mottling.

Discussion and Conclusions

Due to weather factors and time constraints, we were unable to complete cross-section coring at any of the sites visited during this research. The observations and comparisons that can be made, therefore, are rather few. Also, analysis of the soil cores must continue in a proper laboratory which we did not have access to in Hungary. Study of the soil cores will continue, but a preliminary sketch of the meander behaviors can be made at this point.

From coring in previous years, Tod Frolking was able to create a core profile for the entire Vészt"o Mágor paleochannel. This paleochannel and its components can be compared with the meanders cored this year. These similarities can then be analyzed to describe a general pattern of meander behavior and profiles for zugs, flats, slopes and channels associated with the meanders to determine whether they were active when the Early Copper Age settlements were located along them.

Looking at the actual tested channels, there are similarities. The meadow clay in channels and paleomenaders extends to higher depths, often with more organics. Laminations are also common from channel cores. Core KL-Z1-1, from the east paleochannel edge, near the rising slope, is very similar to the channel core from Vészt"o Mágor. The profile, colors, textures and depths are close enough to each other that it can be assumed that the area cored was a paleomeander that behaved much like the one at Mágor. Core KLZ-2 also shows the characteristics of a meander similar to Mágor, although coring ended at low depth once it was apparent that the meadow clay layer extends. KLZ1-8, from the center of a channel follows meander profile as expected. Lastly, core GE-Z1-6, taken from a field, suggests that the channel meander was at this location, although it is not evident from the topography that this is the meander scar.

KL-Z1-6 and KL-Z1-1, both from slopes, are quite similar cores. The Vészt"o Mágor core from a rise is also similar to these two cores. Cores from flats also show the tendency to be quite similar, with KL-Z1-4, ZS-1 and Waypoint #29 all sharing many characteristics with the Vészt"o Mágor core from the flat. Zug cores KL-Z1-7, GEZ7-1, GE-Z1-2, and GEZ7-6 are all similar.

These similarities, although not definitive, can help to describe the general behaviors of meanders and their ages according to horizon depths and soil types included in the profiles. When coring unknown areas that might contain meanders, it would be useful to know these behaviors so that meander location can be extrapolated from core data. Further analysis of the cores taken this year will help to substantiate this and describe the movement of meanders related to the Early Copper Age settlements in the Great Hungarian Plain. Locating meander scars may also in the future help to locate yet unknown ECA sites based on their tendency to be located on abandoned meanders.


I would like to thank Dr. William Parkinson, Dr. Richard Yerkes, and Attila Gyucha for making the KRAP project possible as well as the National Science Foundation for providing the funding necessary for the work. I would also like to thank Tod Frolking for his mentoring in the field.


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