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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