Living Monuments of the Second World War: Terrestrial Laser Scanning and Trees with Carvings

  • Dawid Kobiałka


This paper discusses the results of terrestrial laser scanning combined with close range photogrammetry of the common beeches (Fagus sylvatica) covered in carvings (arborglyphs) dated to 1944 around Chycina, Poland. First, the archaeological research concerning heritage in the woodlands is shortly outlined using Polish archaeology as a case study. Then, the limitations of such research are pointed out. The last two parts of this paper present the beeches as a unique example of living monuments of the recent past. It is argued that archaeologies of the recent past in the woodlands will be gaining an increasing relevance in Polish as well as European archaeology.


Archaeology of the recent past Monuments Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) Nature-culture 

Introduction: Archaeology in and of the Polish Forests

Almost 30% of the area of present-day Poland is covered by forests (Zapłata et al. 2014). Open access to basic LiDAR-derivatives in a form of simple hill-shading visualizations in many European countries caused an avalanche of new, astonishing archaeological discoveries. The case of Polish archeology is a significant example of that phenomenon. For instance, hundreds of barrows from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Early Middle Ages were found and documented thanks to LiDAR data available on state platforms like Polish ( Tens of unknown Neolithic megaliths were discovered. Similarly, unknown Early Medieval strongholds were registered by archaeologists thanks to that technology. The same is true for the more recent remains. Forgotten seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, up to and including twentieth-century military relicts are now studied (see more in Wroniecki et al. 2015). In short, LiDAR-derivatives made a palimpsestial nature of cultural remains hidden in the woodland visible. Indeed, it can be even said that woodlands which were conceived for long decades by archaeologists as a terra incognita are now transforming into terra repromissionis.

The same trend is visible in other European countries where there is an open access to basic LiDAR-derivatives (see more in Irlinger and Suhr 2017). Unknown barrows, megaliths, and field fortifications are documented (e.g., Hesse 2013; Holden et al. 2002). However, the crucial observation to make at this point is that from an archaeological point of view, forests may be considered as if they were shelters for cultural heritage that has been protected from the development of cities, towns, and villages, modern techniques of agriculture, etc. This is precisely why the material remains of the First and Second World Wars are now studied by archaeologists (Capps Tunwell et al. 2015; Herva 2014; Karczewski and Karczewska 2014). A relatively good state of preservation of military heritage in the woodlands gives opportunities to document, analyze, and sketch more complex – as some would have put it (González-Ruibal 2012) – microhistories of the First and Second World Wars. For example, David Passmore with his colleagues (2014:1276) claim the following in the context of their research on the Second World War heritage in the woodlands of northwest Europe:

Concrete and brick constitute only part of the conflict landscape of north-west Europe, however. The nature of ground combat operations in the western theatre of WW2 militated against the development of semi-permanent and extensive networks of trench and bunker systems that typify the western European WW1 battlefield; earthwork field fortifications for shelter and combat were, however, routinely dug by front-line and support troops. In combination with shell- and bomb-craters, these will have formed a substantial part, if not the majority, of the immediate battlefield legacy. However, the detailed topography of such landscapes has rarely survived post-war reconstruction, landscaping and agricultural activity. Consequently, there are very few examples of field fortifications and cratered terrain in the published archaeological record, and they are seldom featured in academic or popular battlefield guides.

The above quote is from a paper published in 2014 and describes the fate of non-wooded landscapes – best used earlier in order to draw the contrast with good preservation in forests. The situation has changed recently. In short, it can be said that archaeologists are interested in forested landscapes due to their cultural aspects. Once again, Polish archaeology sets an example. It is the quantity and diversity of cultural heritage dated from prehistory to twentieth century that has caused an increasing interest in such landscapes. Accordingly, the development and application of non-invasive techniques, especially LiDAR, has given results that surpass archaeological expectations. What had been discernible as a blunt spot, it is now slowly being approached in its full cultural diversity and complexity. In other words, archaeologists study now nature (woodlands) in order to document, analyze, and contextualize culture (barrows, megaliths, trenches, bomb craters, abandoned villages, etc.) (Wroniecki et al. 2015). This approach can be called culture in nature. It has unquestionably positive outcomes: the perspective opens up a new field of archaeological research. In Poland, tens of thousands of new archaeological sites have been registered just since 2012 – the date giving open access to LiDAR-derivatives (e.g., Zapłata et al. 2014).

On one hand, it can be said that the unexpected multitude of new discoveries has limited the research perspectives. It is as if it was presupposed that just the development of non-invasive techniques will change our understanding of past processes. New methods and new fields of archaeological study will not necessarily change the way material remains of the more distant or recent pasts are conceptualized. My point is simple: new methods have to go hand in hand with the development and application of new theories and perspectives. This is the weakest aspect of – what one could call – woodland archaeology in Poland, and more generally, other European countries. There is clearly a discernible asymmetry between the application of new methods and lack of alternative theoretical frameworks concerning the role and meaning of heritage in the woodlands. It has to be stated that archaeological studies in woodlands run the risk of overlooking the agency of nature in making and remaking heritage.

On the other hand, recent theories in archaeology call for a more symmetrical understanding of relations between – as Bruno Latour (2005) puts it – human and non-human agents (Olsen 2010; Shanks 2007). That said, the cultural and natural should be seen as actants that make and remake the world that we as humans share with other beings (e.g., animals, plants, things, etc.). The claim has obvious implications in regard to heritage and its conceptualization. From this point of view, archaeology in the forests cannot be simply brought down to the analysis of cultural resources in the woodlands (Karczewski and Karczewska 2014; Kobiałka et al. 2017a; Kostyrko et al. 2016a). A more integrated approach is required that would symmetrically take into account the cultural and natural in the woodlands. This perspective can be named a culture and nature approach. Or to adopt the concept elaborated by Donna Haraway (2003), naturecultures is the keyword to redefine the role and meaning of heritage in the woodlands. Such calls have been heard in the humanities and social sciences for at least two decades (e.g., Bennett 2010; Latour 2005; Pearson 2015). I follow and develop this perspective in this article (see also Kostyrko et al. 2016b).

In what follows, recent attempts of overcoming the limitations of nature-culture dualism are signaled. The next two parts shortly discuss the genealogy of tree carvings (arborglyphs) and terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) combined with close range photogrammetry as one of the methods of documenting them. The next section deals with the results of application of TLS of the beeches with carvings near Chycina and contextualize the carved trees as a peculiar kind of naturecultural monuments of the recent past (Małczyński 2010). The last part is a discussion concerning the value of 3D documentation of the beeches, as well as epistemological and ontological implications of the research. This paper concludes with the thesis that archaeologies of the recent past in the woodlands will be gaining an increasing relevance in Polish as well as European archaeology. This paper aims to build on this new branch of archaeological research by presenting the nature of the Chycina common beeches as a unique category of heritage of the Second World War. Additionally, it should also be made clear that the paper does not seek to offer a “full” interpretation of the carvings – except notably for some selected examples relating to trench excavation in 1944 – but to highlight a non-invasive and complete (non-selective) approach to digital recording and outreach.

Beyond Culture and Nature in Archaeology

Attempts to separate nature from culture have been one of the pillars that made archaeology possible as academic discipline in the first place (Trigger 2006). Archaeology – according to this logic – is the study of the human past. That said, the archaeological record consists of – to simplify – artifacts (e.g., weapon, jewelry, vessels) and ecofacts (e.g., remains of plants, animal bones).

Nonetheless, since the late 1980s, this reductionist logic has been called into question. In 1987, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1987) succinctly argued for the abolition of that division. Relying on the Frankfurt School, among others, the British archaeologists tried to point out the historicity and social construction of archaeological knowledge and thinking in general. This line of reasoning was later developed, theorized, and applied to a number of case studies (see a summary in Shanks 2008). The historization and contextualization of scientific knowledge was part of a larger discourse within the humanistic and social sciences of the 1980s and 1990s (Derrida 1978; Latour 1993).

After three decades since the publication of Shanks and Tilley’s Re-constructing Archaeology, it is almost commonplace now to claim that the cultural and the natural usually commonly contribute to making the objects and landscapes studied by archaeologists (Edgeworth 2011). In other words, attempts are undertaken to offer a more symmetrical understanding of mutual constitution of human and non-human beings, both in the past and present (Witmore 2017). Accordingly, instead of dividing the landscapes into what belongs to culture and what belongs to nature, the complexity of these relations should be examined more thoroughly. Something similar has recently been claimed by the Australian archaeologist Rodney Harrison (2015:27) apropos of heritage in general:

Over the past few decades, many of the things we have previously taken as ‘given’ in relation to heritage have shifted and fundamentally changed. Where once we were able to imagine that the idea of heritage and the most appropriate ways of managing it might be universal phenomena embodied in various ‘Western’ charters and conventions, various challenges have demolished the idea of heritage as singular and unanimous. Similarly, the idea of natural and cultural heritage as separate domains, representing different forms of value and embodying a broader Cartesian dualism through an insistence on the separation of nature and culture, body and mind, practice and thought, tangible and intangible, has also emerged as untenable.

Indeed, the changes in the archaeological perception of the natural and the cultural aspects of forests can already by seen in several Polish case studies. One example is an integrated research project where Polish archaeologists and foresters document both cultural and natural heritage of Białowieża Forest (see more in Zapłata and Stefańczy 2016) as inherent parts of the forest. Rare and engendered plants, mosses, lichens, animals (e.g., bison, black stork) are considered part of Białowieża Forest’s heritage as much as the remains of human settlements and graveyards from the past. Another example is a project entitled Mieszkańcy, Kultura i Środowisko Przyrodnicze Górnych Łużyc na Przykładzie Mikroregionu Osadniczego Tomersdorf-Toporów (People, Culture and Natural Environment of Upper Lusatia Based on the Example of Research of the Settlement Micro-region Tormersdorf-Toporów) (e.g., Konczewski et al. 2016a, 2016b). Zgorzelecka Forest is a case study where archaeologists, physical anthropologists, foresters, botanists, and zoologists pay attention to and research both the cultural and the natural components (actants) of the landscape and try to track links and correlations between them in deep time.

In the same vein, yet another project concerning archaeological research on a naturecultural heritage in the Polish woodlands is the topic of this paper. One of the sites researched as part of the project entitled Między Pamięcią a Zapomnieniem: Archeologia a XX-wieczne Dziedzictwo Militarne na Terenach Zalesionych (Between Memory and Oblivion: Archaeology and Twentieth Century Military Heritage in the Woodlands; see also was a forest around Chycina, western Poland. Part of the local woodlands are old common beeches with carvings. Local landscape was analyzed using LiDAR-derivatives and field walking combined with photographic documentation. The common beeches, on the other hand, were documented using TLS combined with close range photogrammetry and traditional photographic documentation (Figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4). The preliminary results and a broader reflection born out of that research are discussed in detail below.
Fig. 1

Location of Chycina

Fig. 2

Landscapes consists of the natural and the cultural. Top: air photography taken on August 26 1944 shows the forests and field fortifications around Chycina (National Archives and Records Administration, USA). Bottom: a contemporary satellite imaginary of Chycina and its landscape (source:

Fig. 3

Field fortifications dated to the Second World War in the woodlands around Chycina visible on LiDAR-derivatives (prepared by Mikołaj Kostyrko and Dawid Kobiałka)

Fig. 4

Culture and nature: carved dates ‘1944’ and ‘1990’ on beech no. 1. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Indeed, even such a banal at first sight practice as tree carving can shed light on complexity of the natural and the cultural. As claimed by the British archaeologist Chantel Summerfield (2010:162): “The carving of arborglyphs transforms the tree into an irreplaceable cultural artifact which should be treated and record as any other kind of monument.”

The History of Tree Carvings and TLS

The practice of carving on trees has a long genealogy (Lovata 2015). According to the art historian Rensselaer Wright Lee (1977), it can be dated at least to pastoral practices in ancient Greece and Rome. During the breaks in grazing sheep, shepherds marked different signs on trees. Lee tries to back up the thesis by discussing examples of ancient Greek and Roman literature where the practice is described or mentioned. The motif of carving on trees also appears in such outstanding literary work as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (2009) where a pair of lovers, in one scene, carve their initials on the tree (Lee 1977).

However, it has to be pointed out that only recently tree carvings have become the subject of closer scientific, including archaeological, and artistic interest. One way of looking at and understanding the diversity and complexities of human motifs that stand behind tree carvings is a reference to a broader cultural practice of graffiti making (Burton and Farrell 2013; Casella 2009; Giles and Giles 2010; Lovata and Olton 2015). From this point of view, graffiti (including carving on trees) is a mode of human expression and communication. Moreover, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have studied such diverse carvings as the ones related to Basque shepherds in California (Mallea-Olaetxe 2000) or migrant workers in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in New Mexico (Lovata 2015). In Europe, on the other hand, much of archaeological research on tree carvings is related to the First and Second World Wars when soldiers marked the trees during their field training or actions (Oliver and Neal 2010; Summerfield 2010; Wijnen 2011). Very recent carvings were also documented by Mats Burström and Bernhard Gelderblom (2009:277–278) while discussing Bückeberg, a site of the Third Reich harvest festival. Additionally, Leah Knight’s work Reading Green in Early Modern England (2014) offers a broader historical context of tree carving as a form of writing with knives.

It is not surprising that the wood was among the first materials used to make art (Bronner 1985). As a consequence, no wonder that it is the material of artistic interventions even today. An interesting example worth closer attention in the context of tree carvings is a series of installations of the Polish artist Kazimierz Raba entitled Znaki Natury, Znaki Kultury (Signs of Nature, Signs of Culture) (Kujawka 2016; see also Raba uses fragments of fallen trees with carvings to make his own installations. One way of reading and interpreting his works is, as the title might suggest, to be aware of symmetry in the process of art creation: nature and culture contribute to art making (Fig. 5). What it means is that one cannot simply make a distinction between what belongs to culture and what is part of nature. Things are much more messy, complex, and interwoven. It is precisely the point highlighted by such scholars as Haraway (2003) or Latour (2005). The same is valid apropos of the Signs of Nature, Signs of Culture. The carvings documented and used by the Polish artist were predictive, ordinary signs – signs which are part of our day-to-day life. Later, through the process of healing, the trees changed the carvings as well. Simple signs of culture becomes at the same time signs of nature. Or to refer to Haraway’s concept, the signs become naturecultures. In other words, signs of culture are always already, in one way or another, signs of nature.
Fig. 5

Examples of Signs of Nature, Signs of Culture: Kazimierz Raba’s artistic installations. a A trophy. b A trophy 2. Photo by Kazimierz Raba (used with permission)

There are a number of examples of tree carvings in Polish forests (Kajda and Frąckowiak 2017). They have not been closely analyzed though. However, one site with carvings is located near Chycina and it has been the subject of the author and his colleagues’ interest for a few years (Fig. 6). The history, results of previous research, and its broader historical context have already been published, both in English (Kobiałka et al. 2015) and Polish (Kobiałka et al. 2017b). In March 2017, a new field research program was carried out. Its goal was terrestrial laser scanning combined with close range photogrammetry of the beeches which were covered with arborglyphs from the recent past.
Fig. 6

Tree no. 1. a a general view of carvings; b-e zooming in on carvings. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Although TLS is already a popular method of 3D documentation of archaeological artifacts and structures (Forte et al. 2012; Lerma et al. 2010; Lo Brutto and Meli 2012), this paper presents the first application of this methodology to arborglyphs in Polish and probably European archaeology. All in all, the bark of 11 common beeches was scanned with a Riegl VZ-400 (Fig. 7). In order to increase the quality and naturalistic color of documented trees, it was decided to combine the method with close range photogrammetry (see also Lerma et al. 2010). Point clouds were created using data from 45 sites (TLS) and 2309 photogrammetry images located to give full coverage of the 11 trees. The final outcomes of the research were 11 3D models of beeches covered by carvings from different periods. They were later uploaded to two websites (, Additionally, different visualizations that present panels with carvings from each beech were prepared.
Fig. 7

During terrestrial laser scanning of the trees (monuments) with carvings. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

The crucial advantage of a 3D model generated out of a TLS or close range photogrammetry is a possibility of documenting a micromorphology of scanned artifact or structure (see more in Spring and Peters 2014). Information concerning a precise geometry allows a number of visualization analyses (sky-view factor, local relief model, principal component analysis, etc.). In short, the methods make visible what is usually unseen by the naked eye.

The use of Riegl VZ-400 determined the software applied to elaborate point clouds. It was a RiScan Pro, software delivered by the producer of the scanner. To generate point clouds out of photogrammetry, one can use a number of commercial software (e.g., APS, ARC3D, PhotoScan). Finally, non-commercial software like MeshLab or CloudCompare can be used to combine point clouds with images generated out of TLS and close range photogrammetry.

Living Monuments of the Second World War

Arborglyphs can be conceived as a kind of graffiti, a mode of human expression and communication. Understanding each assemblage of tree carvings requires taking into account a historical and cultural context (Lovata 2015; Summerfield 2010). In other words, trees with carvings are living memories of a wider landscape within the landscape that must be situated and understood.

During the field research, 11 beeches with carvings, all of the known carved trees in the area, were scanned. Interestingly, all trees grow along a trench which, without any doubt, can be dated to the Second World War. The trees fringe along the trench for approximately 200 m (compare Figs. 3 and 8). They are part of the local forest in which common beech is the most numerous species. Alders (Almus) grow down the slope that runs down to a small lake called Staw (Pond). The trench and other field fortifications near Chycina were part of so-called Festungsfront Oder-Warthe-Bogen (Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen), one of the biggest systems of military fortifications built by the Germans in the 1930s and 1940s (Jurga and Kędryna 2000). The carved beeches are located to the north side of the trench on a slope. This might be not a pure coincidence. The beeches located further away from the trench were not carved. That is why it is presupposed that the trees and the trench have to be interpreted in relation to each other (see Fig. 8). They might be part of the same landscape and historical context. Such assumption has two relevant implications. On the one hand, the carvings may date the precise day of digging this part of the German field fortifications. On the other hand, building the trench may help to understand who where the people who carved their names, surnames, initials, and other kinds of engravings on the common beeches.
Fig. 8

The studied forest. a A satellite imaginary presenting the Chycina forest (source: The dots indicate the exact location of the scanned trees with their numbers. b-c two types of visualizations of LiDAR data. d a trench in situ along with the scanned common beeches with carvings grow (prepared by Mikołaj Kostyrko and Dawid Kobiałka). Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

In the summer and autumn of 1944, Germans started building additional field fortifications in the Old Reich which – as it was believed – would stop or at least slow down the advance of the Red Army from the East. The historical and oral records mention that local German civilians as well as prisoners of war and forced laborers (Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, among others) were ordered to dig trenches and other kinds of field fortifications on lands around Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen and its foreground and background (see more in Kobiałka et al. 2015). Among them was Alfred Behrens who recollected the works in the following way (Chmielewski 2013:17; my translation):

I lived with my family in Lagowitz (Łagowiec) almost till the end of war. As a 16 years old boy, I was appointed to a working group of teenagers. In the summer of 1944, I was working for eight weeks while reinforcing the foreground of Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen. Our work relied mainly on digging military trenches of various size.

A similar story was told by Bernard Józewczak (Chmielewski 2013:17; my translation):

In the autumn of 1944, I, together with some German civilians, was digging military trenches near Świebodzin. The local Germans were angry as they had to do the works. Similarly, they were reluctant to take part in training of the Volkssturm. I remember that, during a short break in the diggings, one, old German, lighting the cigarette told the other one: „Herr Hans, wenn schon ich als Sechzigjähriger Schützengräben im alten Reich graben muss, dann gewinnen wir den Krieg bestimmt micht mehr” (Mister Hans, if I, a 60 year old peasant, have to dig the trenches in the Old Reich, we will not win the war).

The documentation and analysis of the carved trees seem to suggest that it was precisely the forced laborers and prisoners of war who dug the trench and carved their own names, surnames, initials, and nationalities on the beeches. The carved year “1944” appears at least six times in tree no. 1 (compare Figs. 4, 6, and 12). Additionally, the dates “26 VIII 1944” and “24.08.1944” documented on beech no. 2 may be the precise dates when this part of the trench was dug and, as a consequence, the carvings were done (Fig. 9). An astonishing variety of carvings done in Polish (e.g., “P[…]OLACY,” “KOSTKA,” “WOLSKI”), Ukrainian/Russian (e.g., “ИBAНOB”), English (e.g., “SIMON’S,” “TOM”), and perhaps French (e.g., “OLIVIER”) seems to confirm that people of different nationalities took part in the workings (Figs. 9, 10, and 11). To back up such an interpretation of the carved trees, one has to refer once again to the broader historical context. The Red Army reached the Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen at the very end of January 1945. The line of fortifications was passed by the Red Army in the battles between January 29–31 (Miniewicz and Perzyk 2012). That is why the names, initials, surnames, dots, lines, images of heart on the Chycina common beeches done by the Poles, Ukrainians/Russians, Englishmen and French have to be associated with prisoners of wars and forced laborers. Additionally, a number of prisoner of war camps as well as forced labor camps were opened by the Germans elsewhere on the Fortified Front Oder-Warthe-Bogen (Pilichowski 1979).
Fig. 9

Tree no. 2. a a panel with carvings; b tree in situ; c a 3D model of tree. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Fig. 10

Tree no. 3. a a panel with carvings; b tree in situ; c a 3D model of tree. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Fig. 11

Tree no. 9. a-b two types of visualizations of a panel with carvings; c tree in situ; d a 3D model of tree. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

The carvings are then a certain type of heritage of the Second World War. It is a heritage of those who experienced the war first-hand, so to speak. It is plausible that the carvings were done while workers were taking short breaks during hard, long, and exhausting workdays filled with digging in the summer and autumn of 1944. All carved initials, every single rare name and surname, even every unreadable carved line on the beeches refers to particular human beings. Materialities of personal lives of the prisoners of war and forced laborers, their motives, beliefs, and declarations of love are remembered on the barks of trees (see also Summerfield 2010:159). The carved trees materialize and memorize their fears, hopes, emotions, and forced labor. For example, the first and most probable interpretation of carved hearts is that the images are declarations of love (compare Fig. 9). When one takes into account the fact that the forced laborers carved them during short breaks at hard digging of trenches, then the carvings gain their full affectivity. Even in such tough moments of life as being a prisoner during the Second World War, people did their best to express their innermost feelings, longings, and emotions. The carved trees memorize and materialize such, from one point of view, routine and ordinary moments of the last global apocalypse.

Finally, it is highly probable that most, if not all, of those who carved their names, surnames, initials, etc. on the trees in 1944 are already dead. This is precisely the reason why such trees are so important. They are historical witnesses of the recent past, including the Second World War. The understanding of trees as witnesses is discussed by the Polish scholar Jacek Małczyński (2010), among others. Małczyński takes as a case study trees that grow at the Museum-Memorial site in Bełżec. Some of the most recently planted trees were cut down during renovating the camp and transforming it into a museum-memorial. However, it was decided that those trees which were growing at the site when the camp functioned will be left as living monuments. Younger trees, including the ones planted by Nazis to hide mass graves were cut down. As claimed by the Polish researcher:

As long as we retain the anthropomorphized figure of the tree as a witness, the cutting down of certain trees to make room for others shall be justified. If we consider the organic structure of trees however, it shall be made clear that both the trees planted by Nazis and the ones, which had originally been there, hold the remnants of victims. Thus, paraphrasing James E. Young, it could be said that the first monuments of the Holocaust were created neither in stone, glass, steel nor in narrative, but in nature as ‘living monuments’ (Małczyński 2010:41).

The above line of inquiry can be further developed. To put it most generally, trees were not only the first witnesses and monuments of the horror of the Second World War but they will be also the last living witnesses (monuments). As research suggests, common beeches can live up to 400–500 years. For example, one of the beeches described in a study of Gianluca Piovesan et al. (2010:571); see also Knapp and Fichtner 2011) was 503 years old. In Polish ecosystems, beeches usually live up to 300 years (Tomanek 1997:234–237). Assuming that the trees from Chycina are 130–150 years old, it is plausible that they can live for another 150 years. Through their materialities and agency, the trees continue to act as the monuments of what happened around Chycina in the summer and autumn of 1944 for the next two centuries. We will all have been already dead for many decades and the trees will be standing there and monumentalizing human fears, hopes, feelings and emotions, among others.

Discussion: From Epistemology (Tree Memories) Toward Ontology (Living Monuments) of the Chycina Common Beeches and Back

TLS and close range photogrammetry of living monuments did not change the previous interpretation of who and when carved the trees (see more in Kobiałka et al. 2015). Nonetheless, it did lead to the discovery of many examples of carvings which were unnoticed during previous field research. Tree no. 1 is an excellent example.

The trees were photographed and inspected a few times in the past. One of the outcomes was a catalogue where each tree had its number and noticeable carvings were written down. It is available online ( The beech no. 1 was documented in the following way:

Beech I
  1. 1.



  2. 2.



  3. 3.



  4. 4.

    Inside the square object:



  5. 5.


  6. 6.

    П. A[…]

  7. 7.


  8. 8.



  9. 9.

    Image of a person with a head turned left

  10. 10.

    Image of heart

  11. 11.



It was not a surprise that TLS combined with close range photograpmmetry allowed documentation of new carvings on the tree. Indeed, previously unnoticeable initials, names, surnames, and single carvings were discovered. Figure 12 makes visible the palimpsestial nature of such trees with carvings. The methods document even single dots and lines. Accordingly, the visualization makes visible spatial correlations between each carving. It could not be done during a traditional cataloguing and photographic documentation undertaken while previous field research was carried out (Fig. 12).
Fig. 12

Reading the carvings on tree no. 1. a a visualization of carvings; b-e – different angles on a 3D model of the tree. f an interpretation of the carvings. Prepared by Dawid Kobiałka

In 2010, Summerfield (2010) published a paper where the preliminary results of documentation and analysis of 250 trees with carvings dated to the First and Second World Wars were discussed. The cultural (and natural) value of these trees as living monuments or, as the title of her work clearly points outs, living museum is highlighted. The study area was the Salisbury Plain Training Area in southern England. The British archaeologist focused only on carvings related to the World Wars. Others, like the ones made in the 1950s or 1960s were omitted as if they were of lesser value. The methodology applied to 3D scanning did not select which carvings were worth documenting and which are not. To simplify, 3D scanning allowed recording of all carvings on 11 beeches, no matter their historical context and cultural value. The same value can be assigned to the beeches with carvings done by the prisoners of war in 1944 (see Figs. 9, 10, 11, and 12) as the ones done by Józef Hak in 1966/7 (Fig. 13), or by an anonymous person in the 1990s – as the carving “1990” on tree no 1 clearly suggests (compare Fig. 4). All kinds of carvings change and transform the trees: make them naturecultural monuments of the recent past (see also Lovata 2015:94–95).
Fig. 13

Carvings, regardless of their broader cultural context, transform trees: carvings done by Józef Hak on "14" December ("XII") "1966/7." a a panel with carvings; b tree in situ; c a 3D model of tree. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

The previous research approached the carvings as a kind of material memories, as tree memories. The crucial concern was to find an answer to who, when, and why the signs were carved on the trees. In other words, the research was focused on discovering the history that hides behind the carvings. It was – as one could claim – the epistemology of tree carvings that mattered (Kobiałka et al. 2015). Initially, the idea behind the research in 2017 was similar. It was decided to use TLS combined with close range photogrammetry to discover new carvings and analyze the next examples of tree memories. To put it metaphorically, these methods were applied to dig up previously indiscernible signs. Within this framework, 3D models and panels were prepared to show and present the microhistories that stand behind the carvings.

However, when I was sitting in front of my computer analyzing, zooming in, and zooming out of each 3D model and its panel, I realized the limitations of such perspective. To put it bluntly, the trees with carvings cannot be simply brought down to carvings (epistemology). Without any doubt, the carved signs make the beeches a special category of the archaeological and historical record. Nonetheless, the trees themselves count here too. That is why this paper proposes a more – hopefully – symmetrical comprehension of the beeches. The memories that the trees hold are of greatest importance and relevance. Relevant is also what the trees are in their – so to speak – independent being. They are living beings, living monuments of the recent past. In short, the 2017 research started with epistemological concerns. It ended up with an ontological reflection of how trees with carvings can be conceived and understood (see also Pétursdóttir 2012). One could say that the research was an example of grounded theory (Charmaz 2006), where the field redefines our preliminary research questions and assumptions.

In accordance with that, after the 2017 field research I tried to adopt a more holistic view of the Chycina woodlands. I was not only documenting the next field fortifications, bunkers, shelters, dug-outs, and machine-gun nests dated to the Second World War. Almost all of a sudden, the forest changed into a host for many non-human beings which were unnoticed during the previous field research. Figure 14 is an example.
Fig. 14

The natural is part of the Chycina forest and has to be noticed and included in archaeological research and recording. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Insects like Prionus coriarius, Pentatoma rufipes, or Formica rufa are part of the local landscape. The beeches are even their natural habitat. Accordingly, a group of three Procyon lotor (common raccoon) used one beech as a burrow. All these beings and many others, like a hoard of wild boars which our presence frightened away, are actants that make and re-make the Chycina forest. To follow this line of reasoning, part of the beeches is even moss (Brachythecium salebrosum) documented on trees no. 2 and 3 (compare Figs. 9 and 10). Focus solely on the tree memories obliterates and sanitizes the presence and agency of other actants of the Chycina forest. One of the results of the research is a call for a more integrated approach to the heritage in the woodlands requiring care for both natural and cultural aspects of it (see also Olsen et al. 2012).

One could even claim that the trees are a living proof of the limitations of the Cartesian philosophy (see also Harrison 2013; Thomas 2004). My thesis is precisely that the beeches are beings (actants) where there is no – to paraphrase Harrison (2015:27) – separation of nature and culture, body and mind, practice and thought, tangible and intangible. The trees conceived as living monuments are all this. Nature and culture, body and mind, practice and thought, tangible and intangible symmetrically made, remade, and constituted the beeches as a unique category of living monuments of the recent past.

The last significant aspect of the research concerns the public outreach of the research. Nowadays, the open access to (archaeological) knowledge is increasingly common (e.g., Shackel and Chambers 2004). Indeed, the precise documentation of living monuments with carvings was the main goal of the research. Nonetheless, enabling an open access to the results in a form of 3D models with carved trees was another one. Free access to 3D models on the website gives everyone the possibility to analyze each tree with carvings. One can zoom in and out of each model and try to decipher the carvings. The palimpsestial nature of the carvings may cause some difficulties while interpreting them. It makes one aware of the complexity and ambivalence of archaeological research. In other words, open access to 3D models of the carved trees allows everyone to become for a moment – as Cornelius Holtorf (2015a) would have claimed – an archaeologist: a researcher of the material remains of the past in the present.


The role and meaning of monuments – to put it most generally – among past societies have been discussed in archaeology for the last few decades. Pyramids, barrows, and megaliths are among the most obvious examples. Common beeches with carvings from the recent past can be considered as a much more ephemeral embodiment of monumentality. The trees carving phenomenon touches upon a few fundamental aspects of archaeological interest.

Destruction and construction, change and restoration are part of making heritage as such (Holtorf 2015b). One witnesses the process on the monuments. New carvings done in the period following the Second World War are related to prisoners of war and forced laborers. Tree no. 1 is the case. The large carved date “1990” appears on the same tree as the ones done in 1944. Tree no. 11 (see Fig. 13) memories the carvings of Józef Hak done between 1967/8, a Polish citizen who settled down near Chycina after the end of the war. All these post-war carvings add new layers of information to the older ones. The trees constantly grow as well. Both cultural and natural factors have been transforming the beeches for the last decades. As a result, the carvings become progressively less readable and one now needs new technologies like TLS and close range photogrammetry to document and analyze them in detail. The monuments become older and older. Some have already died. Others are slowly dying because of woodworms. An evocative example of it is tree no. 6 (see more at All in all, although it may appear that beeches are static entities, the truth is the opposite. The beeches with carvings are dynamic actants, part of the processes where the natural and the cultural symmetrically make and transform heritage (Fig. 15).
Fig. 15

Between tree memories and oblivion: one of the dead beeches near the trench which could have been also be covered by carvings. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka

Aspects regarding how to best manage and preserve such naturecultural heritage are other points worth highlighting. Change, growth, and final death is a natural life cycle for this kind of living monument. Although these processes are part of their natural being, of their becoming, 3D scanning offers high quality documentation that does not change, modify, or destroy the trees. Without any doubt, the monuments are part of the local landscape. The Chycina beeches, the monuments, the trench, and the local woodlands create one setting: a unique example of the cultural and the natural in the making and constant transformation of the landscape. On the one hand, TLS enables us to generate 3D models and panels of each tree with carvings. On the other hand, one has to highlight the danger of replacing real trees by their precise 3D models available on the Internet. One could say that the original beeches are no longer important if there are virtual copies. On the contrary, TLS of the beeches was the first step of the project. The next one is concerned with an archaeological cooperation with local forestry authorities. Attempts have been undertaken to preserve the Chycina beeches as a unique naturecultural resource of the recent past.

On the whole, research concerning heritage in the woodlands is a constantly developing field of archaeological inquiry. Indeed, it consists of diverse approaches. The research questions the very legitimacy of the natural versus cultural heritage distinction. The trees with carvings, the topic of this paper, which can be considered as living monuments are such a case. One cannot but agree that forests are ideal landscapes where the natural and the cultural can be tracked and the mutual, symmetrical interdependencies in regard to creating heritage observed.

Without any doubt, archaeologies of the recent past in the woodlands will be gaining an increasing relevance in Polish as well as European archaeology. And new technologies like airborne laser scanning and terrestrial laser scanning tools may hold the key to capturing the complexity and the naturecultural character of heritage in and of the woodlands. Archaeology needs both new field research on heritage in the woodlands as much as new theoretical frameworks to really grasp the complexity of such heritage.



Many people helped me during the research. I would like to thank Kornelia Kajda and Maksymilian Frąckowiak for joint research on the archaeology of tree carvings. Acknowledgements go also to the company “Gispro Sp. z o.o.” which scanned the trees with carvings near Chycina. Grzegosz Szalast from “ArchService” helped me with the visualizations of panels of the trees. Mikołaj Kostyrko gave me the permission to use the air photo (Fig. 2) in this article which was found during his research at the National Archives and Records Administration, USA. Sketchfab offered me a free account on its portal where the 3D models of trees can be viewed and approached by the public, for which I would like to thank. A big thank you to my wife Anna Kobiałka who graphically refined figures to this article. Last but not least, Kazimierz Raba kindly allowed me to use his installations created as part of the Signs of Nature, Signs of Culture (Fig. 5). Finally, I thank two anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of the manuscript and their many insightful comments and suggestions. However, I remain entirely responsible for any simplifications and errors.


This work is part of my research financed by the National Science Centre, Poland on the basis of decision no. DEC-2016/20/S/HS3/00001.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Interdisciplinary Archaeological ResearchInstitute of Archaeology and Ethnography Polish Academy of SciencesWarsawPoland

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