Tag Archives: archaeology

The fortresses of Semigallia

The Castle of Tervete

The techniques of stone foundation buildings were unknown to Latvian ancestors. So all buildings before the coming of crusaders were made of wood. Latvian tribes established their strongholds on foothills- some of them natural, some of them man- built. None of them is persists until this day- they had been burned down by crusaders or simply abandoned.  But thanks to archaeological excavations today we can restore the vision how the Latvian fortresses may look like. Pictured above is the Semigallian fortress of Tervete- the legendary Semigallian fortress besieged many times by crusaders and recalled in many Latvian adventure stories.

The Semigallians built the mightiest wooden fortresses in Ancient Latvia. Let’s just recall some of them.

The fortress of Mezhotne (Mežotne) was built at 9 Century and lasted to 13th Century when it was destroyed by crusaders. At first it’s wall  was 3,5 meters tall, then at the end it was 8 meters tall. In the 12th century the wall was supported by a large clay plating. The archaeologists claim that 15 000 cubic meters of clay were needed to for  this. The outer edge of from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the wall was 11 meters long. At the top of the wall there was defense building where the defenders of the fortress gathered to support defenses of the fortress. The archaeological digs show a dramatic episode dating 9th Century when at time of siege, the large part of wall felled down on the attackers, killing two of them.  It could be that at this same moment some Semigallian women buried at rush her deposit of bronze brooches and bracelets near the wall. There was also a Caroling two-blade sword found with writing “ULFBERHT” on it. It probably belonged to the attacking Viking. There is written record of Mezhotne fortress in the chronicle of Indriķis which tells the story of crusader attacks on Mezhotne fortress.

According to archaeologist findings, the fortress was dwelled by craftsman- jewelers and blacksmiths.  There were also mincing in the fortress to support food needs. All around the fortress there were town sized at 13 ha. 100 meters from Mezhotne was another foothill fortress- Vinakalns (Vine Hill) surrounded by 1 meter high wall. Near the fortresses there were two cemetery fields. There is no doubt that Mezhotne got its own ship port for merchants.

Present day site of Mezhotne fortress.

The fortress of Tervete were established on the right bank of river Tervete on a land isthmus about 17-19 meters tall.  The wall covered 1000 square meters of land. The first settlers came there at the Late Bronze Age, but at 10th Century there were new fortifications established.  At this time an 8 meter wide terrace was made, which was 1-2 lower than foothills top. To support the terrace in its foundations and wooden camera constructions were established filled with dense clay and soil. There were two defense lines, one built on the top of the terrace. Inside the fortress there were craftsman workshops and grange.  Archaeologists found an large stocks of grain and rye and also peas.

On foothills east a 2900 square meters large head castle was constructed. It was a site for farm buildings. At the foothill and the head castle an 9, 5 hectares large town was located. At the left bank of the river Tervete an another foothill castle was located- Klosterkalns (Monastery Hill) it was inhabited long before Tervete but was abandoned before the building of Tervete.

The Tervete at present time in summer and winter.

Selected sources

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga:  Zvaigzne ABC

Urtāns, Juris. (2008) Ancient cult sites of Semigallia. Riga: Nordik.

Urtāns, Juris, Šņē, Andris and Asars, Jānis. Latvijas pilskalni : Eiropas kultūras mantojuma dienas 1998.g. 12.-13. septembrī. Riga: Valsts Kultūras pieminekļu aizsardzības inspekcija.

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The Beginning. The Prehistoric Latvia

The Prehistoric times have always shaded in the mysteries and the twilight of uncertainly. That’s mainly because the lack of written sources.  If you want to research Prehistoric times you must base your historical conception on archaeological findings.  This is  why the Prehistory is full of unproved theories and many speculations. However that is not preventing archaeologists from searching the facts of Prehistory. The Archaeology has always been popular among Latvian historians.

The first archaeologists in Latvia were Baltic Germans who made first archaeological excavations. They were searching for proofs of ancient German cultural existence in Baltic States.  The main purpose of this was to prove that Baltic States culturally belong to the German world. The same thing was done by Russian archaeologists who were searching for the remains of ancient Slavs to approve the Baltic States were belonging to Russia. When Latvia gained independence  the new generation of Latvian archaeologists begun to look for ancient Baltic cultural remains to find the sources of the Latvian nation. At this time many new discoveries were made and the first publications about Latvian Prehistory were done. When the era of Soviet occupation had begun the main settings for prehistorical research changed. It was now important to prove that the Prehistoric people lived more equal than now and lived according to the main principles of Socialism.  Despite that the archaeology in the Soviet era was at its best. Almost all important findings were made at this time.  Important projects like the restoration of the Araišu lake castle was done and many other secrets were uncovered.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence the archaeologists continued to explore Prehistoric secrets. This time there was no room for serious ideological aspects; the archaeologists are now trying to make Prehistory free from ideological statements.  The top Prehistorical historians for now are Prof. Andrejs Vasks, Asoc. Prof. Armands Vijups and Doc. Habil. Juris Urtāns. The next generation of young archaeologists is rising because the number of students who prefer archaeological studies is rising.

In comparison to other nations Prehistoric findings Latvia got no special world famous Prehistoric wonders. We do not have no large megalithic foundation like in the United Kingdom or beautiful cave paintings like in France or Spain. This is because the territory of Latvia was covered by ice shield for a long time. At the end of the last Ice age Latvia was an Arctic desert and was not suitable for human habitat.  Approximately before 14-13 thousand years Latvia was free from ice.  The first findings of human habitat traces back to 9000 BC. They were hunters who came from the south-west hunting the reindeer’s who were retreating to more woody places because of climate change.

It is proposed that before Latvia was inhabited by Baltic tribes it was entered by Finno-Ugrians. Today their descendants are Estonians and Livonians.  Finno-Ugrians are not from Indo-European language group therefore are completely different to Baltic languages. That’s why the Estonians speak completely different to Latvians.

The first signs of Baltic presence in Latvia dates back to late Neolithic times. The Balts pushed back Finno-Ugrians to North Courland and North Latvia.  The first written sources about ancient Balts comes from ancient Greece but more preferably from the Roman authors. Romans were making trade contacts with Baltic tribes. Romans liked the Baltic Sea amber in return they give various Roman goods like golden money and weapons.  The most famous Roman source about Baltic tribes was Tacitus Germania.

In the Iron Age the Baltic Tribes formed in the factions we know today. The Curonians lived in Western Latvia which is known today as Courland. The center of Latvia was inhabited by Semigallians (they are not in any way connected with the Celtic Gallian tribes). The south coast of Daugava was inhabited by Selonians and the Eastern Latvia was inhabited by Latgalians. The shores of Curland and Vidzeme was inhabited by Livonians. The borders of the four tribes now represent the regions of Latvia: Curland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale), Selonia (Sēlija) and Latgalia (Latgale). The fifth region Vidzeme simply means Midland.


Latvian regions- yellow- Curland and Semigallia, Brown- Vidzeme, green- Latgallia

During the 8-10 century Latvian tribes lived in small wooden villages and wooden strongholds on foothills.  The Curonians were known to the outside world as brutal sailors and often they waged wars  with Scandinavian Vikings.  The Vikings created colonies on Curland and often made incursions in Curland. The Curonians answered with piracy. Latgalians often were forced to pay aliments to Russian Duchies. At this time the tribes were unable to form a united kingdom. The land of Latvia was divided into numerous small micro states. The largest were Jersika and Talava. Those states were too weak to fight foreign invaders. The end of 12. century when first German crusaders came is considered as the end of Prehistory in Latvia and beginning of Middle Ages.

Selected sources:

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Apals, Jānis and others. (2011) Latvijas senākā vēsture : 9.g.t. pr.Kr. – 1200.g. Editor: Mugurēvičs Ēvalds. Riga : Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Radiņš, Arnis. (2012) Arheoloģisks ceļvedis latviešu un Latvijas vēsturē. Riga: Neputns.


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