by Wailana Kalama, KERNAVĖ
“Let every Lithuanian mother teaching her small child to pray, leading him by the hand, tell him proudly where the nature worshiper’s place of eternal hearth is, where the Sventaragis Valley was, and where the remains of the Gediminas brick castle are.” – Konstanty Tyszkiewicz
I watched, transfixed, as the baker kneaded her dough in a large wooden bucket. Her medieval dress was simple and woolspun, with embroidery at the sleeves and neckline, and a skullcap over her fine blonde hair. An amber necklace hung around her neck, and danced as she plunged her hands back and forth into the rye. She seemed to ignore the passers-by, except when one of them posed a question about her work. Then she lifted up her eyes, and explained her process with a patience I hadn’t expected.
Kernavė State Cultural Reserve is usually a quiet place. But each July, during the International Festival of Experimental Archaeology, it erupts into active demonstrations of historical crafts, with reconstructed medieval houses, live pagan music, and spear-throwing.
I didn’t know what to expect when I visited Kernavė for the first time, but when the event promised that I could try my hand at “archery, minting coins, riding horses” I was sold. The reconstructed village was a mishmash of straw huts, yurts and log houses, some of which were encapsulated behind walls of sticks. Each hut housed a demonstration of an archaic craft of a different era, from the Stone Age to the medieval period. In one, two women were pressing holes into sun-baked clay; in another, two men carved jewelry from bone and horn. Beeswax candles were tied on a hoop and left to dry in the sun. There were painted wooden war shields, wool dyed every color, a soap-maker and a bookbinder. In one area, two men operated a crude wooden machine used for shaping curved wooden boxes. Lithuanians from five-year-olds to seniors ran around in dyed tunics and leather belts.
It’s no mistake that the festival occurs at this very spot. Thirty-five kilometers from Vilnius, Kernavė State Culture Reserve sits on the edge of the town that is its namesake. Though Kernavė is little more than an undulating maze of meadows, knolls and trees stretched across 194 hectares you can still feel the weight of age-old human history. It has been inhabited continuously for millennia, and for Lithuanians today, the land is synonymous with history and heritage. In 2004, it was granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of just four in the entire country. At the entrance to the reserve stands the Kernavė Archaeological Site Museum, which houses around 25,000 artifacts collected from the Kernavė site. In the 13th-14th century, Kernavė was one of the most powerful centers for trade and commerce in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Though its importance may have diminished over the years, it remains an incontestable cradle of Lithuanian culture.
Traces of habitation exist from the 9th millennium BCE, the beginning of the Final Palaeolithic when glaciers began to retreat from northern Eurasia. To put it in a global perspective, this period saw the construction of Göbekli Tepe and Jericho. All that remains from this early period are stone tools and weapons: flint arrowheads, scrapers, and knives. As time progressed, people began to settle in the valley of the River Neris, and the population swelled. As early as the last centuries BCE, settlers built the beginnings of the first hill-fort atop Aukuras Hill.
The first “Stone Age hut” re-enactment that I came across during the festival was manned by two young women, potters dressed in a single piece of fabric. One was pressing holes into clay. Around them were dozens of scattered sun-baked pots and crude stone tools. In the next hut, a man wove baskets out of strips of bark. As I wandered past the eras, a cluster of children caught my eye. One was blowing his hardest through a conch shell, while another examined a horn flute with suspicion. The demonstrator, an elderly man in white tunic and yellow headband, clattered a stick across a jawbone. In front of the group lay a leather skin adorned with all types of makeshift instruments and seashells.
With the Baltic Golden Age (1st-4th century CE) came the widespread use of iron from local bog ore in Kernavė. Iron was fashioned into weapons and tools, and archaeological findings of glass vessels and silver denarii betray trade contacts with provinces of the Roman Empire. As population increased, the settlement spread into the fertile Pajauta Valley, the stretch of grassland between Neris River and the five hills.
It wasn’t until the Middle Iron Age (5th-8th century CE), or the Migration Period, that fortifications were set up on the other hills: Pilies Hill, Mindaugas’s Throne and Lizdeika Hill. Migrations began to sweep through Lithuania, forming the East Lithuanian Barrow Culture, the ancestors of modern-day Lithuanians. The various settlements in the valley were connected by a wooden underwater trackway, known in Lithuanian as medgrinda, which has been reconstructed and is visible to visitors of the Cultural Reserve.
In the late 13th century, Kernavė reached another economic and military peak under the reign of Grand Duke Traidenis (1269-1282). It was a major center of power for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Kernavė became known for its crafts, artisans, and merchants. Here the earliest Lithuanian coins were minted. The previous settlements turned into the medieval town: the Lower Town of Kernavė spread across Pajauta Valley and covered approximately 15 hectares.
“It had natural boundaries,” said Justina Poškienė, Professor of Archaeology at Vilnius University. “Marshes on the eastern and western sides and the river Neris in the south. The Upper Town, which was situated north from the hill-forts, was as big as the town in the valley. Medieval Kernavė was a prospering community of craftsmen and traders, and the number of its residents – over 1000 – exceeded the community of contemporary Kernavė several times.” Archaeological finds reveal highly specialised crafts. The medieval town continued to have powerful trade links with Western Europe, Kiev, Ruthenia and the Near East. Archaeologists have unearthed glass from Aleppo and Damascus, and cowry shells from the Maldives. In burial sites, people were often interred with precious items like jewelry, bracelets, necklaces, and diadems. It was during this period that Kernavė first appears in literature, in the Chronicon Livoniae by Hermanni de Wartberge (d. 1380). The chronicle describes an unsuccessful march in 1279 of the Livonian Order to the land of Grand Duke Traidenis. At this time Kernavė was already an important point of defense.
Kernavė’s hill-forts loom above the Pajauta Valley like watchtowers, with excellent views of the Neris River. In Lithuania, it was a common practice to take naturally advantageous hills, and adapt and strengthen them with fortifications – wooden castles. However, this is the only place in the country where there are five together in one area. This way, they could identify approaching raiders and defend against any oncoming attacks. There are around 1,000 such hill-forts around the country, but the famous are in Kernavė. The five stand like a cluster of sentries: Pilies Hill, Mindaugas’s Throne, Aukuras Hill, Lizdeika Hill, and a little closer to the river, Kriveikiškis.
Wooden steps make for an easy climb to the hills’ summit. I dashed up one of them to the very top, looking out over the Neris River. The view was stunning. I could tell why ancient Lithuanians had chosen these hills as their watchpoint–the height provides a far-reaching panorama of the terrain below.
For a time, the central hill-fort, Aukuras Hill, served as the Grand Duke’s residence, strategically positioned under the watchful eye of Mindaugas’s Throne and Lizdeika Hill. Some yards away is a fifth hill, the Kriveikiškis Hill. Justina tells me that its purpose is still unknown, but that it might have been sacred.
Christianity also flooded the region and people began to bury their dead – rather than cremating them, as had been the pagan fashion. It was a time of blending ideas and traditions. One of the Kernavė cemeteries of the period of the 13th–14th centuries was found on the higher terrace of the Neris valley. There, 292 graves of Kernavė townspeople from the 13th–14th centuries were uncovered. One unearthed headdress from this period bears both a swastika in a square, the local pagan symbol of the Earth, and lilies, motifs of Christianity. Another 14th-century burial ground unique in terms of burial rites was also discovered. The burial ground was located on the right bank of the Kernavėlė, in the valley of the Neris river. Once a riverbed, archaeological digs of the burial ground revealed cremated human and animal bones, wheel-turned potsherds, and metal artefacts, evidence of old pagan burial traditions.
As the 16th-century Lithuanian Chronicle states, Kernavė suffered its first strategic blow when Grand Duke Gediminas decided to move the capital of power to Old Trakai, and then to Vilnius (first mentioned as the capital of the Grand Duchy in 1323). After the Teutonic Order swept through the settlement in 1365, setting the town ablaze, Kernavė never fully recovered its former glory. In 1390, after another blaze reduced the town and its fortifications to ruin, Kernavė was, for the most part, abandoned. The remnant residents of Pajauta Valley retreated to the upper terrace, creating an ordinary small town that is modern-day Kernavė. The ancient capital of Lithuania sank into oblivion, becoming the stuff of legends.
Centuries passed and old Kernavė fell into obscurity, becoming half-shrouded in legends. By the 16th century, the remains of the old settlements had almost disappeared. Legends cropped up: of Kernavė as a home of pagan rites, having a flame that burned eternally, being home to Archpriest Lizdeika and a holy order of virgins. One particularly striking legend, originating in the Renaissance, testifies to a Roman connection. The second edition of the Lithuanian Chronicle (Lietuvos metraščiai), dating from the 16th century, recounts the tale of Palemonas, a Roman relative of Emperor Nero, who settled with 500 families in Aukštaitija. His son Kunas encountered the settlement on the Neris riverbank and named it Kernavė after his own son, Kernius. As the legend goes, the people there were known to play pipes, and it was here that the word Lithuania was born in Latin: “litus”, meaning “shore, beach,” and “tuba“, meaning “pipe, trumpet” became the Latin “Lituānia“. However, this etymology, and its companion Latinate history, is just one of many debated among scholars today.
Kernavė only resurfaced in popular accounts in the 19th century, thanks chiefly to the Polish romantic writer Feliks Bernatowicz. In his pro-Christian novel Pojata, Daughter of Lezdejko (1826), he described the region of Kernavė and its chief pagan priest, Lizdeika. The book garnered the attention of many romantic scholars, who began amateur excavations of the site. Kernavė became a symbol of statehood, particularly of pagan Lithuania. The brothers Konstanty and Eustachy Tyszkiewicz, Count Adomas Pliateris and poet Władysław Syrokomla all were known to have explored the area. Syrokomla’s report describes the “old wooden tower of Kernavė and roofs of the capital of pre-Gediminas Lithuania covered with thatch.” In his book The Neris and its Banks (posthumously published in 1871), Konstanty Tyszkiewicz’s rhetoric is decidedly romantic: “How wonderful the ancient nature worship monuments in Kernavė are! It’s the first capital of dukes, the first domain of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The place where the first sacred fire used to burn.” Official archaeological work didn’t start until 1979, however, when archaeologists from Vilnius University set their sights on the area–even so, only about 2% of the entire region has been excavated.
Today, Kernavė State Culture Reserve is a massive archaeological project that includes the original ruins, the adjacent museum, and a reconstructed fragment of a medieval town–the open-air museum that houses the festival. This open-air museum is a cluster of wooden huts and fenced off pathways that recreate life in a medieval town. Visitors can collect free audio-video guides in Lithuanian and English at the museum’s reception. The complex is a popular site for schools and historical organizations to learn about Lithuanian heritage and archaeology.
The Festival of Experimental Archaeology (also known as the Days of Live Archaeology) is organized by the nonprofit State Cultural Reserve of Kernavė each year, with help from the Experimental Archaeology Club Pajauta. Dedicated to Lithuanian archaeology and heritage, it’s more than just an exhibition, it’s an immersive experience where visitors can try their hand at archaic arts: mold clay, sample ancient recipes, felt wool, spin yarn, smithery, and the manufacture of birch toys, bone tools, beeswax candles, silver and amber jewelry. All the demonstrations use authentic, historical tools and techniques.
I asked Daiva Luchtanienė, President of the Pajauta Club, and Aleksas Luchtanas, Associate Professor at Vilnius University, what made the festival so special for Lithuanians. “It displays a craft and lifestyle section from the Stone Age to the XIV century. This is a very large chronological palette,” they told me. “In addition to life and lifestyle, you can experience the excitement of warfare, various games and other entertainment; archaic music is also an integral part. This event is a huge ark of historical knowledge and entertainment.”
In June, on the shortest night of the summer, Rasos or Midsummer’s Eve, Lithuanians also honor the site. Considered the holiest night in pagan times, it’s a night of rebirth and rejuvenation. Starting at sunset, locals gather in the Pajauta Valley to light bonfires, dance, sing, weave wreaths out of wildflowers and float them down the Neris River, then worship the rising sun. This practice was revived by university students in 1967 at Kernavė to rekindle a sense of national pride – and it became an annual ritual that continues to this day.
Wailana Kalama is a freelance travel writer from Hawaii, now based in Vilnius. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and writes mainly about history, language and cross-cultural exchanges.
All images credit Wailana Kalama
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