Tag Archives: Prehistory

The forgotten tribe of Selonians

The colored part of map is Selonia

There is much to say about Curonians, Semigallians and Latgalians. But what about Selonians? Indeed history of Selonian tribe sheds in mystery, because there no popular stories to tell about them. They are discussions whether  the Selonians could be called an independent tribe or just assimilated subjects of Latgalians.  The knowledge about Selonians today is so weak that even region of Selonia is recognized as a Latvian region in rare cases.  Historically the region inhabited by Selonians is mostly aligned to Semigallia, because it was a long time part of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Even some present day Selonians denies the fact that they are living in Selonia rather than Semigallia. The other name for Selonian land is Augšzeme (The Upper Land) is sometimes used. Most recently thanks to the new regional reform two Selonian counties were now considered as a part of Latgalia.  Such action was against any historical-cultural basis because those two districts never were in any way connected with Latgalia. This was met with disappointment and protest by locals who insisted they were Selonians not Latgalians.

Despite the calls for Selonian national efforts there is much truth in arguments arguing that Selonians are very close to Latgalians.  The early Selonians were much lesser developed than other Latvian tribes and were anthropologically close to Latgalians. Their burying practices were in many ways same as Latgalian and there were little differences in the way of dress from Latgalians. Despite that the main written    historical source about early Latvians- the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia tells that despite the large Latgalian influence, Selonians still preserved their identity as the Selonians. The national identification is one the most important arguments to call some group of people and sovereign tribe or even nation.  We can say that Selonians while heavily influenced by Latgalians were different tribe and the region of Selonia can be named so.

The main centers of the Selonians were Koknese and Aizkraukle were wooden fortresses have been built with towns around them.  Another Selonian center was Sēļpils (The Selonian Castle) which is considered as capitol of Selonian statehood.

The Crusaders crushed the Selonian resistance with ease. Selonia was property of Livonian order. The main center was crusader built fortress of Koknese. After the fall of Livonia the Courland Dukes established new centers in Selonia. The Jekabpils or Jakobstatdwas named after Duke Jakob Kettler. The city grew rapidly during the centuries. At Soviet Era it was merged with much older city Krustpils (Kreutzburg) , (The cross city) which stood right across the river of the Daugava.  The other city established at that time was Jaunjelgava (The New Jelgava), Friedrichstadt, as it was named at that time derived from other Courlandian Duke Friedrich. Jaunjelgava did not manage to become a big center but rather a small town. In the Soviet Era when the new hydroelectric power station was built the new city named Stučka was founded. It was named after the famous Latvian communist leader Pēteris Štučka. After the fall of the Soviet Union the city was renamed to Aizkraukle (The Aftercrows) because it was an historical site of mentioned above Selonian center.  Aizkraukle is a large modern center located next to the Pļaviņu Hydroelectric power station which was named after an another smaller town Pļaviņas (The Grasslands).

Selonia is land of low plains and forests its main river is Daugava which stands as natural river. The Soviet practice of building hydroelectric plants has changed the width of the Daugava. Such natural wonder as a cliff of Staburags now lies under the sea level. There is also a large portion of Koknese flooded and other places near Daugava. It was luck that building of another hydroelectric plant near Daugavpils was cancelled, for it could destroy Daugava’s natural course completely (there are also two more hydroelectric plants before the Pļaviņu plant).

Today the most Latvian archaeologist’s recognise Selonians as integral tribe, there is still need to recognise Selonia as an sovereign region of Latvia, not as the part of Semigallia or Latgalia. If you drive thought Selonia and meet the locals you probably see that they differ from people of Senmigallia and Latgalia and the land of Selonia is not as Semigallia and Latgalia.


Selected Sources:

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

Strods, Heinrihs. (2011) Sēlija senāk un tagad. Riga: Jumava.

Demberga, Aija. (2008) Selonia. Riga:  Nacionālais Apgāds.


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The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Latgallian woman

Latgalians were the largest tribe of four Latvian tribes and still present day Latvian inhabitants of Latgalia differs from Latvians in other Latvian regions. The most notable distinction is the Latgalian dialect which cannot be understandable even to other Latvians. The mentality of Latgalians also differs from other Latvians as well as the cultural ways. This why the question of Latgalian distinction from other Latvians persists until this day. During the recent years of independence  the Latgalians have experienced a cultural rebirth, they are using their dialect more freely,  their dialect is popularized by the Latgalian singers.  In the ranks of nationally oriented Latgalians there are even some idle calls for separation from Latvia or at least calls for Latgalian cultural autonomy. Sadly in recent years the leading voices of the Latgalian autonomy have nothing to do with Latgalians and their heritage.

This situation is not severe as it sounds to be. Latgalia is not a Basque Autonomous region in Spain. There is no Latgalian ETA like in Spain.  In fact Latgalia is not only inhabited by ethnic Latgalian Latvians, there is a long history of Russian, Polish and Jewish presence at Latgalia. After the World War the Jewish presence which was in fact very large now is almost gone, but the Russian and Polish minority still makes an impact in Latgalia.

The question why Latgalia so differs from other parts from Latvia is answerable by checking the Latgalian history.  Now before we start there is one thing to note.  In Latvian language there is a difference between word Latgaļi and Latgalieši. The word Latgaļi is accorded to old Latvian tribe before the coming of crusaders. The word Latgalieši means the all present day Latvians who live in Latgalia.  So if you found yourself in Latvia- don’t mix both notions.

When Latgalians became subjects of the Livonian Confederation there was little difference from other early Latvians. The German rulers enforced Christianity to all natives. The borders of five Latvian regions were not completely settled. This changed in the 16th century. The Livonian War (1558-1561) destroyed the old Livonian order. Polish rulers divided Latvian Livonian territory in two parts- Courland, Semigallia and Selonia became a Duchy of Curland and Semigallia. The Vidzeme and Latgalia were joined in Duchy of Pārdaugava (means the other side of Daugava). The Pārdaugava Duchy however did not last long; it was changed as a simple province of Poland-Lithuania.  Before Polish rule as a result of the Reformation the Lutheranism as the leading church was established in all of Livonia. The Poles strived to change this- they tried to ban Lutherans and revert to complete Catholicism. It was not successful in Courland and Semigallia- the Dukes resisted the Polish efforts. In Riga it caused riots but in Latgalia it was the other case. Polish policy of counter-reformation was successful in Latgalia reverting all Latgalians completely to Catholicism.  Other confessions in Latgalia are a minority until this day. To show how much Catholicism is important in Latgalia there are two notable facts- the Basilica of Aglona is one of the sacred Catholic centers in Europe.  And the Cardinal of the Latvian Catholic Church as an bornhearted Latgalian Jānis Pujats.

Cathedral of Aglona

However it was the War between Swedes and Poles (1600-1621) which set Latgalia apart from other parts of Latvia. The war divided the Vidzeme and Latgalia into two pieces. One- Vidzeme became a Swedish possession- the other- Latgalia stayed as a Polish province known as Inflantija. The Swedes were Lutherans and Catholicism was removed from Vidzeme.  Now Latgalia became a completely internal region of Latvia.

After the succession of Poland, Latgalia became a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian government didn’t bother to make a standalone Latgalian province, instead they joined Latgalia with Vitebsk- city in today’s Belarus.  The province of Vitebsk was formed.


During this time of foreign power imposed separation the Latgalia preserved its unique dialect, the ways of national dress and cuisine.  To show how Latgalian dialect differs lets compare words written in official Latvian and Latgalian.  The mother- māte muote, father- tēvs tāvs, he- viņš-jis, her- viņa-jis. Riga- Rīga- Reiga.

The question of Latgalia became important when Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and there was a chance to establish a sovereign Latvian state.  Considering the fact that Latgalia was a part of the Province of Vitebsk there was a real fear of Latgalia becoming part of Russia rather than Latvia.  There were even poetic calls for unification of Latgale, the Latvian poet and leftist politician Jānis Rainis wrote “The both sides of Daugava will never part! One Courland, One Semigallia, One Latgalia is ours !” However at December 1917  in Rezekne the Latgalian Second congress made a historical resolution claiming Latgalia as different region than Vitebsk and associated themselves with Latvia. This paved the way for all four Latvian region unification in one country of Latvia.

At the time of the First Republic of Latvia, Latgalians were active politicians. They participated in all five parliamentary elections. There were plenty intellectual writers who justified Latgalians as an independent nation, but many approved either – one nation two languages, or one nation one language.  Prominent Latgalian politician Francis Trasuns wanted Latgalian dialect to become a juridically equal to Latvian language, while others hoped the language differences will disappear. There were 20 political Latgalian movements, not just national but religious, farmer, and even socialistic.


Latgallian prewar political party poster

After the Soviet Occupation all national movements were considered as enemies of the state. Despite that Latgalian dialect perceived.  Today the Latgalian national movement is once again alive. There is not a large influx of Latgalian parties but there is Latgalian music bands and folk bands and even Hollywood movies translated in Latgalian.

At the end I must say that we could not clearly depict Latgalians as a different nation which is not an integral part of the Latvian nation. The two most visible differences are Catholic Conversion and Latgalian dialect. We however can compare Latgalians to Ukrainians as they got different  Slavic language but close to Russian, but the Latgalians newer completely ideologically separated themselves from Latvians or Latvia as Ukrainians did. So the most correct way to perceive Latgalians is describe them as Latvians with different dialect and cultural differences.

Since last year few Russian nationalist groups sponsored by the Kremlin have made calls for Latgalian autonomy. These people are mostly Slavic origin and have no connection with original Latvian Latgalian activists and personalities. Their supporters are Russians, Byelorussians and Poles of Latgalia who live there. In such way they are ignoring that Latgalia is a historical Latvian region and all the other minorities who entered there have no right to abuse the ideas of Latgalian autonomy, for their political means. It has been reported that people striving for such fake autonomy is supported by the Russian foreign intelligence service. Therefore such actions are hostile to the Latvian state. So we must remember that Latgalia and Latgalians are integral part of the Latvian nation.

Selected Sources:

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

Zeile,Pēteris. (2006) Latgales kultūras vēsture : no akmens laikmeta līdz mūsdienām. Rēzekne: Latgales Kultūras centra izdevniecība.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava


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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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Curonians against Vikings. The tales of battles and raids.

Curonian Vikings- modern day fiction book

The four Latvian tribes differed from each other in many ways. The Semigallians are said to be mightiest Latvian warriors. That could be true because Semigallians resisted to crusader invasion longer than others did. The Latgalian kings were the richest rulers of Latvian tribes. The wooden fortress and city of Jersika was a large and proud center in Latgale. The last ruler of Jersika Visvaldis is one of the legendary ancient kings of Latvia.  But the Curonians are seen as the great sailors and raiders.  Curonians lived all around the shores of the Baltic Sea.  That’s why they are known as sailors and even as raiders. Today many adventure stories like Curonian Vikings have been made, making the legend of the Curonians as Vikings very popular among national-oriented Latvians.  Let’s just look at some of these tails recorded by Scandinavians.

The archbishop of Habburg and Bremen Rimbert (801-888) tells the story of invasions made by Swedes and Danes in Courland.  First Danish raiders assembled large army of ships and landed on the shores of Courland. The Curonians gathered a large resistance force and defeated the Danish invaders.  They took half of the Danish fleet, gold, silver and other bounties. The Swedish king Ulaf decided to take advantage of Danish failure and sent an army of his own to outmatch Danes. They managed to land unnoticed and attacked the fortress of Zeburg (Ezerpils), they razed it down and pillaged. Overjoyed by their victory they left their ships and gone deeper into Curonian territory. They besieged the fortress of Apulia (Apole) but  met  heavy resistance.  After eight days of bitter fighting the Vikings were desperate and scared by the inability to take the fortress.  They looked for god’s that may help them by making a sacred lottery. When it turned out that none of their gods wants to help them, they wanted to flee.  But their ships were too far away and they risked to be completely annihilated in the bitter chase by the Curonians. In this moment of despair some merchants who were Christians told the Christ may be the only hope. Again they took the lottery and find out that indeed Christ is willing to help them.  The Vikings again attacked the fortress and the defenders were looking for peace talks. While the most eager fighters wanted to destroy the fortress completely, their king decided to negotiate. The Vikings took 30 hostages and gold and silver.

Another popular tale about Vikings and Curonians are a saga of Egil Skalagrimson.  The story tells the tale about Torolf and his brother Egil. Together they managed raids in the Baltic Sea and landed on the shores of Courland. First they assigned temporally peace deal, when it ended they started to raid various parts of Courland. One day they entered the wide river creek and landed on the shore of thick forest. They spread out in groups and found a small settlement. They raided the settlement and the settlers fled with no resistance.  When it’s begun to get dark raiders started to gather up and head for the ships. Torlof returned at the starting point, but there was no sign of Egil. It was too dark to look for him so  they decided to wait for tomorrow.

Egil Skalagrimson

Egil and his man gone thought the forest and found a large plain with houses. They entered the houses, but no one was there, they took all the goods and wanted to leave unnoticed. But then they in grave surprise met the village men in front of them, blocking the way to the forest.  Egil ordered to flee but the wooden fences prevented their escape.  They were captured by the locals and were tied. While locals went on celebrating, Egil managed to untie himself up and rescue his comrades. Egil and his men started to look for a way to get out from the village. In the process they found a large pit where other captured men were held. They turned out to be Danes and they showed the shortcut out of the village. However when Egil and his man left the village, he asked to Danes where he could find a good bounty. He did not want to leave without good pillage. The Danes showed the house of the richest village man. They burned down the rich man’s house and killed all the residents inside. In the early morning they came back to their ships and continued to raid and pillage where ever they could.

There are also records of Curonian attacks against the Vikings. Chronicler Sax the Grammarian tells the story about the Curonian attack on island of Öland. Danes rushed to confront the Curonians. They met them at the port of Jarnlock.  Curonians prevented the Danes from successful landing; they killed many Danish royals and left them in complete panic.  After the sunset Curonian warriors retreated inland and remaining Danes finally established beach positions. At the dawn of the new day battle restarted at new highs. However the Danes managed to form an organized formation when Curonians were just attacking randomly. Danish warriors achieved victory and destroyed the Curonian invaders.

Curonians were vicious fighters, but when they met German Crusaders they fought bravely but were outmatched and were forced to surrender.

Selected Sources:

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

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

Asars, Janis and others. (2008) Kurši senatnē = Couronians in antiquity. Riga: Latvijas Nacionālais vēstures muzejs.

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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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