HILLFORTS OF ZEMGALE: RESEARCH HISTORY
Archeologists mark those ancient abodes which were built on slightly elevated land with the name ‘pils- (castle) kalns (mountain)’ (geographically speaking Latvia does not have mountains, mostly hills and knolls). A hillfort consisted of a capped plateau and ditches purposely built for defense, ramparts and other fortifications.These fortresses are widespread in Latvia (around 470), and so they are also the most widely studied of Latvia’s ancient dwelling places. However, many require much more thorough research. Although each of the sites could be studied independently, regionally there are some common features of these hillforts.
Zemgale’s hillforts appear to have unique features which are not found elsewhere. The history of Zemgale’s hillfort exploration is closely linked to other Semigallian research questions.Given that the question of the origins of Semigallians is quite problematic, so are questions about areas inhabited by early Semigallians. It is believed that they are connected to the Western Balts, and that from the beginning of the 1st century AD to the 4th century they separated from this archaeological cultural area, which is characterized by collective barrow with stone circle cemeteries.This archaeological feature covered the southern part of the Latvia, northern Lithuania and Žemaitija. Based on the fact that significant changes in the composition of the population in the Lielupe basin in the 4th and 5th centuries have not been detected, this archaeological culture of the Western branch(found in the plains of Zemgale and Southwestern Vidzeme) is considered to be the direct antecedent of the Semigallians. Typical of the inventory of this type of grave is the sleeved axe. Frequently such items as scythes, sleeved chisels, and hoes are also found. Characteristic of Semigallians was the tradition of burying affiliated tools with the departed. In women's graves this was often expressed by an accompanying awl. The burial mounds of both sexes contained hand scythes. And a typical discovery in a Semigallian cemetery is a hoe (this tradition was observed to belong to the 1st through 4th centuries BC).
Although it is an outdated perception, it should be mentioned that Francis Balodis (1882- 1947, archeologist and egyptologist), believed that Semigallians were already definable in the 2nd century AD as a separate Latvian tribe, and around 500 AD, as a result of Goth attacks, had already established their own nation. Referring to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, Balodis claimed that in the 13th century this nationwas protected by a strong row of hillforts. Recent studies have shown that we can speak with confidence about the existence of Semigallians as a separate nation starting from the 5th century AD. This chronology is based on the characteristic appearance of their flat burial grounds (from the 5th century one can observe the transition from mound graves to flat burial grounds, where women and men are oriented in opposite directions). The flat grave tradition strengthens in the 5th and 6th centuries, and its continuity is still present in the 13th century. Semigallian graves are distinguishable by characteristic burial practices and accompanying artifacts. The Venta and Ezere’s Andziņi flat burial field suggests that this might have been the Semigallian western border.These borders though are only approximate, as for the time being there is no clear evidence of the exact Semigallian habitat, and only further research could shed light on this. Separate toponomical clues allow us now to quite clearly associate concrete places with Semigallian centres and determine approximate boundaries.Typical Semigallian finds in the archeological layer show that in the 5th and 6th centuries Semigallians inhabited both the Daugmale and Ogre Ķentes hillforts in today’s Vidzeme.
One has to take into account the fact that Semigallians were not only ethnic inhabitants of today's Latvia but of Lithuanian territory too.Today we have confirmation of a total of 14 ancient Semigallian territories, of which 8 (Dobele, Dobene, Mežotne, Putelene, Silene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Upmale) are part of contemporary Latvia, but 6 (Gostagalis, Nogaliena, Plāne, Sidarbe, Šurpe, Žagare (with the town of Rakte)) are in Lithuania. By the end of the first millennium Semigallian culture was detectable across the Lielupe basin, which covers around 17,633 km2.
Interestingly, the areas populated by ancient Semigallians do not coincide with modern Zemgale’s more populated centers (nor with those of the Middle Ages and modern, more densely populated, territories). A striking example of this is the city of Jelgava, known now as the heart and capital of Zemgale, but as far as can be judged by sources, the Semigallians’ head cities were Tērvete in Western Zemgale, and Mežotne in Eastern Zemgale. Reliable evidence about Jelgava’s beginnings is lacking. The first information we have about a denser population in this place is linked with trade. The essential fact is that the establishment of both hillfort and settlement were closely linked to the surrounding terrain, soil, natural conditions and other environmental constraints. From this perspective, the city of Jelgava is not in a very congenial location. It is in a low, wet area, but at the same time in a place beneficial for trade, and our first information about this site is connected directly to trade. One also has to take into account the fact that during the Iron Age, Zemgale was dominated by cattle breeding and farming, for which this area is not very suitable, but the development of metalworking fostered changes and trade. The evolution of professional traders took place in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is possible that until then, this was a so-called inter-tribal territory. But this is conjecture, definitely requiring deeper analysis.
Even today, Semigallian ethnic history has not been fully explored or resolved. Different interpretations of history and political ideologies are additional burdens on research into this problem, and have prevented objective scientific progress at various periods of Latvian history. For example, in the 1930’s, under the influence of the romanticization of history, articles appeared which extolled the splendid character traits of the Semigallians. They were depicted as brave, heroic, fearless warriors, strong in spirit, persevering in the fight for their freedom, hardworking and industrious farmers. According to written sources, they were the first to revolt against the invaders, and the longest to stay in opposition, and historian Vilnis Biļķins (1887–1974) stressed that the Semigallians must have had high self-discipline if they were able to mobilize such prolonged armed resistance. An important factor, according to him, was their greater social differentiation and a wealthy class that allowed them to afford weapons and even war horses. The nobles were able to assemble warriors and organize the rebellion against the Livonian Order and its bishops.
Although such descriptions are biased and ideological in nature, there is also some truth to them. The fact that the hillforts were used as fortified residences is considered to be an indicator of social differentiation, which confirms the claims made about Semigallians.
The first scant and not very reliable information about Zemgale is found in about 870 AD in the Annales Ryenses - the Danish chronicles and one of the most important Danish medieval history sources. Other literature casts some doubt on this, and so it is necessary to look for other sources. Information about Semigallians is found in some early medieval sources - Scandinavian rune stones and other objects such as the Nederval rune stone, which is attributed to the year 1040. According to Professor Birger Nerman, around 1035-1041 the Swedes tried to conquer Zemgale (there is a legend about the Vikings and Anund Ingavar who traveled here on behalf of the Swedish royal army in 3 vessels), but were not successful. In 1106 Prince David Vseslavičs of Polotsk organized a crusade to Zemgale, but also suffered a severe setback. At the Battle of Daugmale, around 9000 Russian warriors died (though this sounds a little exaggerated).
From time to time, fragmented and sparse information about Zemgale and its inhabitants is found in the annals of history. Around 1113 Semigallians are mentioned in the Ancient Russian Chronicle "Tale of Past Years", where the chronicler also noted that Semigallians had their own language. Arab geographer Abu Abdallah ibn Idrisi (1100-1165) might also have mentioned Mežotne on his map.
Undeniably, the most important Zemgale research reference points are the 13th century’s written sources. Descriptions of events in the late 12th and early 13th centuries are found in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry (Heinrici Cronicon Lyvoniae), compiled between 1224 and 1227, and first published under the influence of the Enlightment by Hannover librarian Johann Daniel Gruber in 1740. Details about the second half of the 13th century are found in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Älteste Livländische Reimchronik), written between 1290 and 1296, first published by Danish historian P.F. Suhm in 1787. In 1817, Liborius von Bergmann published a version with more extensive text. Much information about the Semigallians describes the division of lands, loans, gifts and exchange documents, including Papal bulls. For example, the 1254 contract, in which the division of Upmale into 3 parts is stipulated.
For obvious reasons, finding written information about the Semigallians after the 13th century is difficult. After the Semigallians’ 100 year struggle for freedom, by 1290 a large number of them had left their settlements.Sporadic evidence of Semigallians is found in separate Lithuanian historical sources, such as letters by Ģediminias, King of Lithuania (also the Lord and Grand Duke) in the 1320’s, where he calls himself the Semigallian overlord. Also interesting is the fact that Flemmish diplomat and knight Guillebert de Lannoy in his travel notes through Livonia (1423 - 1424) mentions towns in Zemgale (near Grobiņa, Aizpute and Cēsis).
Later, influenced by Enlightenment and Romanticism, also Zemgale were put in spotlight. The main research directions were both history and historical geography. Important factors in the popularization of history at that time were archaeological finds and their coverage in the press.
In 1778, Pastor J.L. Borger of Ērģeme wrote a study on Līvzeme’s antiquity, where the bulk of Zemgale’s population was centered – around Tērvete, Mežotne, and Žagarė.
In Riga in 1809, poet and lawyer Baron Ulrich Heinrich Gustav Freiherr von Schlippenbach (1774—1826) published a description of his travels through Kurzeme (also Zemgale).
In 1816 the Kurzeme Literature and Art Society was founded in Mitau (Jelgava), of which Pastor Carl Friedrich Watson (1777-1826) was a member. Watson was the head of the Lestene church, was the editor of the first Latvian language newspaper “Latviešu Avīzes” (trans: Latvian Newspaper) (1822-1826), and was the lead researcher into Semigallian historical geography using the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle as a base resource.
Adhering to traditional Latvian archaeological research procedures, the Zemgale hillfort explorations can be theoretically divided into three stages: the time of the Russian Empire, the time of the Latvian Republic, and research in the period after World War II.
In the time of the Russian Empire, the leading researchers were Baltic Germans scientists. And although archeology both in Latvia and elsewhere in the world at this time was still difficult to designate as a scientific discipline, in the second half of the 19th century there were several significant Semigallian excavations. Rich burial grounds were found at Vecsaule’s Čapāni (9th-12th century), and the Kokmiuža 1 deposit at Zvārdes Parish (5th century). However, these artifacts were attributed to the Goths or Normans, influenced by the ruling “Norman theory” of the time.
One of the first to express scientific interest in Zemgale and the Semigallians was a Baltic German, August Johann Gottfried Bielenstein (1826-1907), who was a Lutheran pastor, a linguist, and a Latvian folklore research initiator, as well as a member of the Academy of St. Petersburg. He was also one of the first researchers of hillforts. Bielenstein tried to define the territory occupied by the Semigallians. Gathering data from the Livonian Chronicle of Henry, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, and the dates in the land division contract of 1254, Bielenstein determined that there had been 7 areas in Zemgale: Silene, Žagare (with the town of Rakte), Dobe, Spārnene, Tērvete (with the town of the same name), Dobele (with the town of the same name), and Upmale (with the capital Mežotne and the “port of Zemgale”).
In the 1860’s Bielenstein toured several hillforts, documenting descriptions. He counted 35 hillforts in Kurzeme (and Zemgale).In 1866 Bielenstein also led archaeological excavations on Tērvete hillfort.
In 1892 Bielenstein published “Die Grenzen des lettischen Volkstammes lettischen und der Sprache in der Gegenwart and dim 13. Jahrhundert” (trans: “The boundaries of Latvian folk tribe and language in the present and in the 13th century”). In this work Bielenstein also developed a map which, based on Chronicle data, shows areas populated by the Semigallians around the mid 13th century.
With regard to ethnic Semigallian historical research, although it does not quite apply to the hillforts, it should be noted that in 1881 antique artifacts were found in the Jaunsvirlauka Ciemalde burial grounds (dated 9th-13th centuries). In 1895, Karl Boy conducted excavations which led him to conclude that Ciemalde has been a part of the Upmale lands which were inhabited by the Latvians, while noting the more developed Scandinavian, Germanic and Lithuanian cultural impact in the early and mid-Iron Age. At this point in time Semigallian and all Latvian ethnicity issues were still rather vague.
In 1901 Anton Buchholtz (1848-1901) took a step forward in clarifying Semigallian ethnic history by examining the Katlakalna Pļavniekkalna burial grounds. Buchholtz attributed the artifacts found here to the 5th-7th centuries - belonging to the tribe from which the Latvian and Lithuanian cultures (Semigallians) later evolved.
Among researchers who have made significant scientific contributions to Zemgale’s and Semigallian research are Pastor A. Raison, artist J. Döring, and school inspector J. Schmidt, as well as others.
In 1922, which in fact belongs to the next stage of research, historian Karl Von Löwis of Menar (1855-1930) published his “Burgenlexicon für Alt-Livland” (trans: Castle Lexicon for Ancient Livonia), where he summarized the collected findings of Baltic German researchers. In his hillfort compilations Löwis also included hillforts of Zemgale and mainly relied on the results of A. Bielenstein's explorations.
In the 1930’s, the time of the Republic of Latvia, Latvia’s and especially Zemgale’s ancient history received a higher level of attention.There had been increasing interest already in the 1920’s, and from 1923 (which is considered the turning point at which archaeology and archaeological literature started to blossom) the Monuments Board, led by F. Ozoliņš, started systematically writing about regional finds of monuments and ancient artifacts. Also in 1923, famous hillfort researcher Ernests Brastiņš (1892-1941) enumerated and measured hillforts in Zemgale. That summer Brastiņš toured Zemgale, funded by the War museum and accompanied by two soldiers.He personally examined the hillforts mentioned by Bielenstein. Plans and materials realized during the expedition were deposited with the War museum, and used to produce hillfort models which were subsequently exhibited.Not counting those hillforts inhabited in later times, Brastiņš reported 15 actual hillforts in Zemgale, mentioned five smallish or unconfirmed ones, and with reference to Karl Von Löwis Of Menar’s Burgenlexicon, described eleven others registered as hillforts (at least 7 of these were later confirmed to be true hillforts). Brastiņš concluded that the Zemgale hillforts were distributed mostly in the west. He surmised that because of strong similarities of typological characteristics with the Curonian hillforts (high embankments), Zemgale could be seen as part of the Curonian culture. At the same time, he emphasized that there were some significant typological differences with respect to the Augšzeme hillforts. Brastiņš’ contribution to the systematic inventory and identification of Zemgale’s hillforts is undeniably essential to all further research, despite the historical and geographical inaccuracies.
By order of the Monument Board excavations were started in 1933 at the Daugmale hillfort under the direction of renowned researcher Francis Balodis (1882-1947) and Doctor of History Voldemārs Ģinters (1899-1979). Ģinters carried out excavations at Daugmale in 1933 and 1935 - 1937. These turned out to be the most extensive excavations undertaken in Latvian territory so far. Human presence in this hillfort started with the bronze age, and possibly as far back as the stone age, and continuous habitation from the 3rd through 12th centuries.
During this time studies expanded to the ancient centre of Eastern Zemgale - Mežotne hillfort. Ģinters led the explorations from 1938 - 1940 and also in 1942. A wall was cross-sectioned, revealing the remains of the burnt down castle. Excavations revealed a large number of ancient artifacts. Opposite the hill, Oskars Kalējs (1902-1992) unearthed a number of 10th and 11th century Semigallian graves. Seminal to ancient Semigallian cultural research is Emīlija Brīvkalne’s (1909-1984) master's thesis in 1939, during which she found a deposit of 9th century jewellery at the Mežotne hillfort.
Archaeologist and teacher Pēteris Stepiņš (1914-1999) was involved in Semigallian hillfort research in the territory of Lithuania (measuring and identifying 40 Zemgale hillforts).
Overall, this research stage took on a new quality. From a theoretical point of view, Brastiņš’ enumeration and identification of hillforts clearly stand out. Many important excavations were carried out in this location, and perhaps precisely because of the ideological dictates of that era, the 1930’s were rich years for ancient Semigallian ancient history research.
After World War II Zemgale hillfort exploration, as with other issues related to Latvian history, suffered from a change in ideology. But in spite of everything, research continues, providing more and more insights into Semigallian ethnic history.
Research continued on the Eastern Zemgale center - Mežotne hillfort and its settlement. In 1949 excavations were led by E. Brīvkalne. In 1969 and 1970, research continued under Māris Atgāzis. This time researchers turned to the Western Zemgale center - Tērvete hillfort. From 1951-1959 extensive excavations were led by E. Brīvkalne. The 1960 excavations were led by Francis Zagorskis (1929-1986), and in 1976 by Guntis Zemītis.
From 1958, Jolanta Daiga led archaeological studies of sites in the ancient Dobele complex. She continued studies in 1959 and 1977. In 1990 and 1991 excavations were led by archaeologist Mārtiņš Ruša.
The ancient Daugmale complex has been widely studied. From 1966 through 1970 excavations were led by Vladislav Urtāns (1921-1989). In 1997 by Juris Urtāns. From 1986 through 1991 by Arnis Radiņš and G. Zemītis. And from 1990 through 1996 by G. Zemītis.
Ādolfs Stubavs conducted extensive excavations at Ķente hillfort from 1954 through 1958. Plans to expand a gravel quarry had been announced, and Latvia hurried to apply a new practice – fully exploring a hillfort. Later, this monument was lost to the quarry. Stubavs marked 18 Semigallian hillfort (of 335 Latvian hillfort) and published his map in 1974.
During the restoration of the stone castle at Bauska, evidence of ancient habitation was found (bronze and iron age artifacts). In 1976, 1977, 1981 and 1982, explorations were carried out under A. Caune and V. Verigo.
Continuing E. Brastiņs’ work, in 1998 two archaeologists – J. Urtāns and Jānis Asaris – issued a summary of newly uncovered hillfort in Latvia’s western region, which also included some hillforts of Zemgale.
Starting with 1994, the Latvian Museum of History has presented an exhibition cycle, “Latvian Roots”, within a thematic framework, and at the end of 2003–early 2004, the exhibition was presented under the name “Zemgaļi”. This took place during an international conference where Latvian and Lithuanian researchers looked at various Semigallian research related problem and the latest scientific knowledge on the theoretical research of many topical issues (Semigallian cultural range, the economy and economic ties, ornamentation, paleodemography, etc.). The conference discussion papers were presented in proceedings issued in 2004.
The most significant element to come out of the summary nature of work about Semigallians and their context – the hillforts of Zemgale – was issued in 2003 in Riga as a collaborative publication about Zemgale’s antiquity by the Latvian History Museum and the National Museum of Lithuania. This publication and the exhibition of the same name are the result of cooperation between the two countries’ museums, and in a broader context explore current research issues reflected in the title.
The dynamic of Zemgale hillfort detection is closely linked to different periods in Latvian history. The largest number of hillforts was uncovered by A. Bielenstein at the end of the 19th century – he recorded approximately 15of currently known hillforts. The second most important hillfort discoverer and explorer was E. Brastiņš in the 20th century. He reported altogether 31 sites in Zemgale which appeared to be hillforts, but as genuine hillforts identified only 15 of them. There was a downturn in research during the Second World War. By contrast, after the war, there was renewed interest in hillforts in this area. Significant studies were launched at Tērvete, Mežotne, Daugmale, Ogre’s Ķente, and Dobele. Most of the hillforts were archaeologically surveyed.
Researchers' interests in Zemgale in recent years have not been particularly high. Although several theoretical scientific articles have been published, more extensive investigations have not materialized. A survey of all of Zemgale’s hillforts should be taken anew to give us fresh, accurate data. Also, a large number of hillforts have either not been dated or the date is approximate. The challenge for researchers now is to accurately re-locate hillforts in 13th century Zemgale’s territory.
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Zenta Broka-Lāce, Specialist of History department