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Kernavė Archaeological Site (Cultural Reserve of Kernavė)

Kernavė Archaeological Site (Cultural Reserve of Kernavė)

To some Kernavė is the beginning of the statehood of the Lithuanian people, the cradle of the Baltic tribe. To others it is a Lithuanian Troy, the site of the most beautiful of all Lithuanian landscapes, radiating a special aura.

DSC04247_1Nowadays the township of Kernavė, with barely 200 residents, rests peacefully on the bank of the Neris River 35 kilometres from Vilnius. Together with its surroundings and all its visible and invisible natural and cultural treasures it is a State Cultural Reserve and a UNESCO protected archaeological site, a property attesting to the evolution of settlements in the Baltic Sea region between the ninth millennium BC and the Middle Ages and one of the crucial periods in the history of Europe - the arrival of Christianity among the last pagan communities in Europe.

A life that never stopped

Kernavė is comparable to other archaeological sites in Europe: Birka and Hovgården in Sweden, or Biskupin in Poland, where ancient peoples or tribes lived during well defined periods. Viewed against this background, Kernavė is an exception in that it has been inhabited for an especially long period and encompasses an unusually broad range of cultures. People were already living on this site 11,000 years ago and have never stopped doing so to this day. Additionally, the archaeological remains of the site have been particularly well preserved.DSC04290_1

The most important element on the Reserve's territory is an impressive defence system, exceptional in northern Europe. It comprises a chain of five hill-forts with wooden fortifications which formed an integrated defence complex in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

At the foot of the hill-forts, in the 25-hectare Pajauta Valley, one of the most valuable territories in Lithuania from the archaeological point of view, a layer of deposits from the Neris River reveals ancient settlements of different periods (from a Stone Age settlement to a medieval craftsmen's town), several burial sites (from the eighth to first centuries BC and the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries AD) and a multitude of other archaeological vestiges. Upon exploration, the burial sites on the Kriveikiškio hill-fort also yielded valuable evidence: the funeral traditions and the discovery of waxed wrappings for the dead reveal not only the practice of the last pagan state of Europe, but also the influence of the neighbouring Christian lands.

From the hunters of the Palaeolithic era to the last pagans of Europe

DSC04242_1Shrouded in myths and legends, Kernavė was first mentioned in reliable historical sources in 1279, in the account of a failed campaign of the Livonian Order in Lithuania. But people had lived in this area for many thousands of years before this event. The first inhabitants - the people of the Swiderian Culture, the hunters of the Late Palaeolithic period - arrived at Kernavė in the ninth to eighth millennia BC and set up a settlement in the Pajauta Valley, by the Neris River. Their activities are attested by flint arrowheads, broad blades used as knives, and scrapers of different shapes and sizes discovered during archaeological excavations. A warmer climate, vast hunting grounds in the vicinity and an abundance of fish in the river ensured that in the Mezolithic and Neolithic periods, people remained in the valley and established numerous settlements.

A Brushed Pottery Culture was evolving in the Neris River basin during the Bronze Age (from the second to first millennia BC). This was the work of the first eastern Balts who, in the long run, became the nucleus of all Balts.

During their heyday these people settled in hill-forts, and built pole-structure buildings with internal fireplaces. The inhabitants of the period left behind an exceptional monument in the Pajauta Valley - a necropolis, with burials of three types, in which cremated bodies were found in small pits, in clay urns or under piles of stacked-up stones.

The Iron Age or the Roman period - the first centuries AD - are known as the Golden Age of Baltic Culture. With the beginning of the smelting of iron from bog ore and the use of iron in making agricultural implements and weapons, the material culture developed rapidly. Agriculture and animal breeding became the main activity of the people and population increased in the fertile Pajauta Valley.

Fortifications were built on the hills and were connected with the settlement by a secret road leading across the marsh - the oldest hard surface road found in Lithuania. The trade relations with the Roman Empire and its provinces at the time is proven by a silver denarius of Marcus Aurelius dating from 161-162 and a fragment of imported glass. In the fifth to eighth centuries, during the Great Migration, the inhabitants of the Pajauta Valley found themselves under frequent attack and were forced to move to hill-forts which became increasingly important for their defence value. In a complex ethnocultural process the Baits split into separate tribes, and the new East Lithuanian burial-mound culture, which emerged through this process, was a direct ancestor of present-day Lithuanians. At that time Kernavė became a significant Lithuanian centre, whose population would later, together with those of Vilnius and Trakai, form the nucleus of the Lithuanian peoples in the Neris River basin.

DSC04265_1The Middle Ages were of special importance in the history of all of Lithuania and Kernavė, which, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was acquiring urban features. Under the Grand Duke Traidenis (1269-82), it became one of the vital economic and political centres of the Lithuanian state. The main ducal residence was established on the Aukuro hill-fort, whose steep slopes rose to a height of 13 to 14 metres. A defence castle which once stood on the Mindaugo Sostas hill-fort is attested by numerous archaeological findings including remains of a wattle and daub defence wall, fragments of burnt down wooden buildings, weapons, jewellery, splinters of pottery and fragments of various household items. On the Pilies Hill, craftsmen occupied the largest residential quarters called the Upper Town of Kernavė.

Artisans employed by the Grand Duke's castle also lived there.

The Lower Kernavė, which spread across the Pajauta Valley, was a medieval town of artisans and traders with a population several times more numerous than that of the present-day Kernavė. It had a network of streets and every fenced-in homestead had two or three outbuildings in addition to the main dwelling. The medieval Kernavė was known for its crafts and was also a noted trade hub with links to Kiev in Russia and even to western Europe and the Near East. The rich numismatic collection of the museum boasts not only coins of different lands and treasures of the Lithuanian bars of silver, but also all the earliest Lithuanian coins known to this day.DSC04331_1

Kernavė was plundered on many occasions. After the attack by the Teutonic Knights in 1390, when the town was totally destroyed and the retreating residents burnt down the castles, life which had thrived in the Pajauta Valley for thousands of years came to a stand-still. Nevertheless, the area has remained populated to this day - the inhabitants moved to the upper terrace, leaving the traces of their centuries-long culture underground for safe-keeping.

UNESCO World Heritage: a protected site

DSC04341_1Although life in this valley has continued, the cultural strata in Kernavė remained unscathed and have preserved invaluable information about the Lithuanian past together with vivid traces of the lives of the townspeople. The ancient capital of Lithuania never recovered the economic and political might of its past, nor had any effort ever been made to restore the medieval town of artisans. No activities were pursued in the area that could damage it, with the exception of agriculture which only impacted on the surface layer of the ground. It was almost six hundred years later when archaeologists rediscovered the town of Kernavė. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the site attracted researchers interested in Lithuania's past, yet the impressive historical panorama of the site was only discovered thanks to methodical archaeological excavations initiated by Vilnius University in 1979. In 1989, the Kernavė State Museum-Reserve of Archaeology and History was established together with protection zones on territory covering 194 hectares with a reserve of 122 hectares, and a protected natural landscape of 2,345 hectares. The protection zone includes the entire town of Kernavė and its surroundings.

The archaeologists who have been working in Kernavė for over twenty years say that enough work remains for another hundred years. The Museum of Archaeology and History of the Kernavė Cultural Reserve already contains over 16,000 items representing all the historical periods of the site. And although only 2 per cent of the cultural reserve territory has been researched, it suffices to confirm beyond any doubt that Kernavė is a unique archaeological and historical property, not only in respect to Lithuania but also to Europe as a whole. This was decisive in determining the World Heritage Committee to inscribe this Cultural Reserve on the World Heritage List.DSC04272_1

World Heritage listing has already given a positive impetus - for drafting legislation on the protection of the Reserve, managing its territory (with EU funds in cooperation with the Government of Lithuania), and developing a tourist infrastructure. After reconstruction, the museum's exhibition space will expand from 200 square metres to 800 square metres, while the number of items displayed will increase twofold. The entire territory will be geared to the ever growing influx of visitors. A long-term archaeological scientific research programme is also of vital importance, focusing not only on excavations, but also on other types of research (photography, biological analysis and geodetical survey) by which intrusion into the cultural stratum is reduced to a minimum. The steep slopes of the hill-forts had suffered from erosion and required special attention. In order to stabilize their condition, while physical measures are applied, efforts are also being made to speed the restoration of natural conditions at the bottom of the valley, particularly in the marshes. This natural regeneration process which improves the survival rate of the organic matter and other historical remains lying in the subterranean strata, began when the amelioration systems used in the Soviet times were discontinued.

Kernavė: a living archaeological site

Picture 015Since 1999, the Days of Living Archaeology have been held annually in Kernavė - a festival which introduces prehistoric crafts such as archaic rough pottery, flint and amber processing, production of Neolithic amulets, archaic spinning and weaving as well as crafts of the Early Middle Ages: jewellery making, coin minting, weapon making, cooking, etc. The festival presents all the crafts whose tools or artefacts have been discovered in Kernavė during excavations and deposited in the Reserve's Museum of Archaeology and History. All participants must satisfy one precondition: to use only natural materials and authentic, reconstructed tools. During the festival the production process is reconstituted and demonstrated to visitors - it is not the result, but the process itself that is important.

Each year new elements are added to the festival - the material is provided by the continuous archaeological excavations in Kernavė. In recent years the festival's organizers have been trying to assemble different crafts in one courtyard - with all the elements of daily routine at a particular period, thus giving a better idea of the culture of that time.DSC04277_1

The original Kernavė craftsmen used to provide one another with everything that was needed. The present-day artisans of experimental archaeology recreate the same community exchange model on a small scale - women wear copies of decorations made by jewellers; smiths reconstruct working tools using ancient methods; weavers make the fabric for clothing using thread spun out of nettle and hemp fibres in the prehistoric manner; while curriers make footwear of archaic design which shows that Lithuania was in no way an isolated state - footwear of similar design was found throughout Europe.

Another festival which has been held in Kernave' for nearly half a century is celebrated during the shortest night of the summer, which Lithuanians call the Rasos. At sunset and throughout the night people in the Pajauta Valley light bonfires, dance around them and sing, float wildflower wreaths down the Neris River, search for the fern flower and worship the rising sun. These pagan rites of the solstice, revived by university students during the Soviet era, not only awakened a sense of national affinity, but also expressed resistance to the authoritarian regime of the time. Now it is one of the most popular pagan festivities which, together with the Feast of St John, are celebrated throughout Lithuania.DSC04280_1

The archaeological site of Kernavė reflects all the cultures that ever existed on this site and this broad chronology of artefacts helps one to understand the prehistory of the entire region. Rich medieval heritage offers a unique example of the characteristic urban culture of the last pagan state in Europe. Kernavė was one of the main political and economic centres of the Lithuanian State, whose ancient pagan culture was influenced by European Christian traditions. The artefacts of the medieval heritage of the site present themselves as a harmonious whole of elements drawn from Orthodox, Catholic and pagan cultures.

Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture

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Vilnius is a great place for pleasant strolls. It is green, full of cultural diversity and cozily compact. So compact, that in just a few dozen steps from the gallery, you find yourself in a park, followed by a baroque church, and off to the castle after a cup at the local cafe. Thus, in a short time you get to not just see, but also hear, touch, taste and tune into the soul of the city.

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