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The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

After the breakdown of Livonia and Livonian Order its member knights did not bother leaving Livonia. Instead they found new ways to keep their property by becoming landlords and collaborating with new Polish rulers. Polish administration decided to make a Duchy of Courland and Semigallia who would be ruled by an old knight elite. The Duchy consisted of whole Courland, Semigallia and Selonia. First Duke of Duchy was the last Master of Order the Gotthard Kettler. He took office in 1562.

The rulers of Courland were nominal vassals of Poland, however throughout the years, Duchy became more or less sovereign from Poland. It’s because Polish government had other important things to do like fighting Sweden, Russia and Ottomans. Duchy became well-governed and economically stable part of Poland. Main political forces in Duchy were 121 strong German aristocrat families.

First Duke Gotthard Kettler was devoted Lutheran so he established Lutheranism as Duchies main confession.  The duchy was free from Polish contra reformation policies, so Courland and Semigallia remain a strong Lutheran territory until this day. There is however the small district of Alsunga in Southern Courland who was owned by Catholic landlords who remains as a Catholic island in mostly Lutheran Courland.

Kettler did much to reconstruct damage made by Livonian war; however he made a mistake to give his two sons equal rights of ruling the Duchy. Oldest son Friedrich would take charge of the economy of Semigallia and youngest son Wilhelm would take care of Courland. This dual rule did not last long as in 1596 the Duchy was divided into two ducal courts and governments. This situation was advantageous for landlord nobility who could promote their interest in both ducal houses. Friedrich was official Duke from 1587 to 1641 but Wilhelm took an important role in states economical matters. In 1617 with the help of Polish mediators the dispute was settled and a new constitution was arranged.

In the time of war between Poland and Sweden both brothers struggled to keep Duchy out of war. Wilhelm however tried to get support from Sweden for his claim on ducal office. But he was defeated and forced to go to exile to Pomerania.

Duke Jacob and his fleet

After Fredrick’s death the heir to the office was Wilhelm’s son Jacob. Jacob is known as most successful ruler of the Duchy. He ruled fourthly years until 1682. He was enlightened mercantile ruler. He made vast improvements to the Courland trade fleet. The Couronian ships were of good quality and could cross oceans. Duchy had trade contacts with France, Netherlands, England and Portugal. He also attempted to involve Duchy in colonial politics. From 1659 to 1661 Duchy owned island fort in Gambia river in Africa. A fort was named by Jacobs’s name. It was later taken by England and renamed as James fort. Another short-lived colony was located in the Caribbean Sea on the island of Tobago. In 1654 Duke sent ship named Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland and established a colony there. It was taken later by other colonial powers. Both colonies were short-lived and with little use, but the fact that Courland actually had colonies goes deeply into Latvian historical memory. There was even a theatrical play made about the colonization of Tobago. Duke also maintained Courland itself by building manufactures.

Curonian colony in  Gambia, Afrika

The happy days of Duchy went into the end when the Swedish army invaded Courland and took Jacob prisoner. He was under Swedish imprisonment from 1658 to 1660. After he returned many achievements had been lost and Duchy went into decay.

Jacobs’s son Friedrich Casimir was a failure. He was more interested in life of glamour than in state matters. Production went down and Tobago was sold to England. During his reign Duchy was under high influence from Poland and Russia.

In 1698 at the age of six Friedrich Wilhelm became new Duke. The duchy was defacto ruled by General Ferdinand. After the end of the Great Northern war Duchy now had a border with the Russian Empire. Russian ambassador Peter Bestuzhev became most important man in the Duchy. In 1710 Russian Czar Peter The Great  arranged Fredrick’s marriage with Anna Ivanovna (the future Empress of Russia).  The wedding party in Petersburg was too intense for young Friedrich. Heavy Russian style drinking made Duke ill on his way home and he died in a carriage.

The next heir to the throne was Ferdinand. But he resided in Danzig. The constitution demanded the Duke to live in Duchy so he was not recognized by Duchy Diet. In 1726 Maurice De Saxe the son of Polish king Frederic Augustus the Strong was elected as the Duke. Russia disliked him and sent forces to expel him from the Duchy. In 1737 last titular Duke of Kettler family the Ferdinand died. Anna Ivanovna now Empress of Russia elected Ernest Johan von Biron as the Duke.

Biron was the strongest player in Russian Court. He had a high influence on Anna Ivanovna as one of her favorites. Biron was a rich man so he ordered to build a summer residence in Rundale. The castle was projected by the famous architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Biron enjoyed himself much in the reign of Anna but when she died in 1740 good times ended. First Anna before his death appointed him as regent of the Russian Empire. His regency lasted three weeks when he was overthrown by his enemies and sent to Siberia.

Birons castle at Rundale

In 1741 Ludwig Ernst van Brunswick-Lüneburg-Bevern was appointed as the Duke. However he lost the title when the Elisabeth of Russia carried a coup and the title was lost.  In the last years of Duchy it was ruled by the Duchy Council (1741-1758) Carl of Saxony (1758-1763) then again Ernst Johan von Biron (1763.-1769) and Peter von Biron (1769-1795). In 1795 in the result of the Third Partition of Poland Duchy was annexed by Russia. This was the  end of an era of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.

The Duchy gave many goods to Latvia lands. Cities and countryside were maintained and enriched. The ports of Liepaja and Ventspils became rich trade points. Jelgava (Mittau) the Capital of Duchy got a marvelous baroque palace. Dukes established new cities like Jekabpils (Jacobstadt) and Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt). Otherwise for peasants it was hard times with German landlords who ruled all countryside and owned all peasants. However the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia is one of the landmarks of the Latvian history.

Selectecd Sources

Strods, Heinrihs. (1993) Kurzemes lauksaimniecība 17. gs. beigās un 18. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte.

Andersons Edgars. (1970) Senie kurzemnieki Amerikā un Tobago kolonizācija. Stockholm. Daugava.


Zalsters Arturs, Eižens (2002) Hercoga Jēkaba burinieki. Jumava: Ventspils: Jumava 2002.

Lancmanis, Imants. (1992) Ernsts Johans Bīrons, 1690-1990 : izstāde Rundāles pilī : katalogs. Latvia. : Rundāles pils muzejs.


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Medieval Castles in Latvia

During the rule of German knights more than hundred castles were built in present Latvian territory.  Castles were residences of vassals and bishops and were main centers around Livonia. Locations of castles became civil centers and now most of them are cities. Today most sites of castles either lies in ruins or show little trace of their presence. Only few Medieval castles like in Riga, Venstspils or Bauska have been conserved, some have been partly restored like Turaida. In this post we will take a look at some of the most famous castles around Latvia.

Castle of Aizkraukle (Acheraden)

Aizkraukle has already mentioned in previous posts as palace site for early Selonians and Latgalians and Livonians. It was sited on right side of river Daugava 82 km from Riga. First castle was built by natives but burned by Crusaders, then Crusaders build their own stone castle. It was functional until in 14. century new castle was built nearby and the old castle was abounded. New castle was build in 14. century. Castle was property of Livonian Order. Castle was stormed by Russian army in 1577. and in 1599. it was abounded. In 17. century due to the territorial division, the left bank of river Daugava was given to Duchy or Curland and Semigallia and right was given to Sweden. Therefore Aizkraukle lost its importance and the castle became fully lost. At left side new center Jaunjelgava (Fridrichstad) was established and at right Koknese (Kokunhusen) took importance. Small amount of Ruins still stand today and have not been conserved and are getting smaller.

The ruins of Aizkraukle castle

Castles of Aizpute (Hasenpoth)

Castle of Aizpute

Aizpute is small town near Liepaja in Lower Curland. It was home to two castles- Bishopric and Order. Bishopric castle was built in 13. century and was center of  Chapter of Priests of Bishopric of Curland. One of castles components was church which still stands today. Other parts of castles slowly perished because after breakdown of Livonia the main center was Order’s castle which was located at other side of river Tebra.  The Order’s castle was built at same time as the Bishopric. It served as military base long after Livonian war because it was restored by new owners. In 1659. it was attacked by army of Sweden and captured. It was restored again but in 18. century it lost its importance and palace owner build new mansion like castle and the old was used as living space for servants. In 1915.-1918. the German army established prisoner of war camp.  In prewar period it was used as asylum. After the Second world war it was not restored again it in seventies was abounded because it was too dangerous for its inhabitants. Locals tried to conserve the castle but lacked funds do it and today castle has no roof. Despite that its still are observable, but needs some serious work to let it last longer.

Castle of Alsunga (Alschwagen)

Located in Curland near Kuldiga. It belonged to the Order and was used as household  castle of Kuldiga. It was used to store crops and cattle. It was so important that in 16. century was upgraded to resist fire weapons. After the Livonian war it belonged to the adviser of Duke of Curland and Semigallia, but he sold it to noble man Jakob Shwerin. In 1659. it was besieged by Swedish troops and done large amount of damage to it. In 1783. Duke of Curland Johan Biron bought castle from Sherin family, after liquidation of Duchy it was given to crown of Russia, and was inhabited by tenants who could not restore the castle. After First  world war it was used as civic building. It shared the function of post office, dairy, peoples hall and elementary school. School was there until eighties when new school building was established and castle became fully abounded.  But new extensions of castle are still used.

Castle of Alsunga

Castle of Bauska (Bauske)

Located 15 km from Lithuanian border. Build in 15. century as Orders fogt castle. It was used as the border fortress to secure Livonian border from Lithuanian attacks. When it became as property of Duchy of Curland it was used as residence of Dukes and maintained for their use. 1625. castle was captured by Swedes but in 1628. recaptured by Poles.  Year after it again became property of Duke. Because of numerous attacks by Swedes it was badly damaged. In 1701. during the Great Northern War the king of Sweden Carl XII captured it and ordered to entrench it on his way to Poland. But in 1705. Russians captured castle but in 1706. because of change of tactical situation they detonated half of castle. It was not used ever since and became ruins. Castle was saved by famous fon Lieven family who bought the castle and started to conserve it and made it as a park. In Soviet Era attempts of further historic conservation was done. The reconstruction continues until this day and the Bauska history museum is established there.

Castle of Bauska at winter

Castle of Cesis (Wenden)

Cesis is located in middle of Vidzeme and 92 km Riga and 2 km from river Gauja. Castle of Cesis is one of the most famous castles in Latvia because it was main residence of the Order. Its foundation was started in 13. century. There the Master of Livonian Order lived along his most trusted brothers of Order. The city of Cesis became sprawling center with defense walls and was member of international Hanseatic league. In 1577. castle was attacked by Russians. Inhabitants of the castle was trapped with no chance of escape and they blow themselves up making collective suicide. It was used by later day rulers until destroyed again by Russians in 1703. After that the ruins were owned by noble landowner families. In 1974. the every-year archeological excavations took place, preserving the castle and making museum around it. Today the ruins of Castle of Cesis is one of the most interesting tourist sites outside Riga.

Ruins of Castle of Cesis

Castle of Ēdole (Edwahlen)

Located near Kuldīga and Piltene. It’s not clear when the castle was build, but moderate indications show that it was built in 14. century. It  became subject of landowning dispute between brother of Danish king and heir of Bishopric of Curland. At the end it came in heir’s hands making it property of Beer family. In 1905. castle was burned down by revolting peasants because of escalating 1905. Russian revolution. It was not fully restored until 1914. During the First World war when Curland was occupied by Germany the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II Crown-prince Joahim lived there. During the Soviet era it was used as house for disabled persons.  It was used for movie shooting many times, most famous was Latvian adaption of Astrid Lindgren’s Emil of Lönneberga. (Emīla nedarbi 1985). After the fall of Soviet Union its now used for many purposes, but now is a private tourist attraction.

Castle of Ēdole

Castle of Jaunpils (Neuenburg)

Castle is located near city of Tukums at the border of Curland and Semigallia. It was used as Orders household castle and regional center. It is considered built in 15. century. After the fall of Order it was bought by fon Rekke family. It was not damaged until in 1906. the revolutionary’s set it ablaze. Owners restored it but lost it after World war I. The local school was established there until 1940. During the World war II it was used as German war hospital. In Soviet Era it was used for agricultural purposes. Today the castle is tourist attraction.

The Jaunpils  Castle

The Jaunpils Castle

Castle of Koknese (Kokenhusen)

Koknese is located in right bank of Daugava near the Pļaviņu hydroelectric plant. It was battle site during Crusades. Crusaders build their own fortifications and Koknese was important military center for the Order. Around it the city of Koknese sprawled becoming important center. In 1577. Russians captured it, but was pushed away by Poles. Later it was besieged by Swedes. Sweden administration made Koknese as one of the administrative centers of Swedish Vidzeme. In 1656. Koknese was attacked by Russians and renamed as Dimitry, but Swedes took it back. But wars made Koknese to decay and city of nearby Jaunjelgava became more important.  In 1700. Koknese was attacked by Polish-Saxon army. After they lost battle of Spilve, they destroyed the castle. During the First world war Koknese was on the main front lines, but tick castle wall survived the artillery shots. In Prewar period castle was popular tourist attraction.  But in 1961. the new project of Pļaviņu hydroelectric power plant drastically changed the geography of Koknese. New power plant flooded lower parts of Koknese and made remaining parts of castle just near the river when it before was further away from the river. To save castle from falling into river the work of conservation was done.

Castle of Koknese before building of hydroelectric dam

Ruins of Koknsese Castle now

Castle of Krustpils (Kreutzburg)

Krustpils is located at right bank of river Daugava, between Pļaviņas and Daugavpils. Krustpils is part of city Jekabpils. First it was designed as castle of Archbishop of Riga, but taken by Order many times. After the Livonian war when it was damaged it was bought by Korf family, who rebuild the castle adding many new Baroque style additions.  After the First World war it was given to Latvian Army, where the Latgalian Artillery Division was located. Then it was taken by Germans who made castle as war hospital. Then Soviet Army took control of castle making it as a barracks for Soviet Air divisions. Soviets did not cared much for castles repairing and made it ill-stated when they left in 1991. Luckily castle was taken by Jekabpils history museum who did state of the art restorations and made castle into splendid museum.

The Castle of Krustpils

The Castle of Krustpils

Castle of Rauna (Ronneburg)

Rauna is located near Cesis. Rauna was the main residence of Archbishop of Riga, an important center in Medieval Livonia. Livonian war and later day wars destroyed the castle it was completely lost during the Swedish times. However some ruins still stand there today.

Castle of Rauna

Castles of Riga

Riga was site of many castles. First was residence of Bishop of Riga. Today only building visible today is church of  St. John. Another Bishops castle were built but it’s not visible today.

Church of St. John- all that remains of old Riga castle

First castle of Order was destroyed during Livonian civil war in 1297. What was left was Church of St. George which now serves as the museum of decorative arts and design.

Remaining part of destroyed castle

The last but not least was the second castle of Order. It was the second and third castle of the Order which now is an landmark of Riga. It was finished at 14. century  but in 15. century was again destroyed because of civil unrest between people of Riga and the Order. New castle was built at the same spot and was used as residence for Order. Last strongest leader of Order Walter fon Pletenberg took residence back to Cesis. In 1562. castle was site where the Livonian Order officially ceased to exist. New owners used castle as administration center. It was residence of Russian generalgowerner. When the new Republic of Latvia came into being, castle was chosen as Residence of President of Latvia. Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis and authoritarian dictator Kārlis Ulmanis ruled country from this palace. During the Soviet Era it was used as place for museums and Pioneers palace. In 1993. new president of Latvia Guntis Ulmanis came back to palace. Since then Vaira Vīķe Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers resides there. Castle needs serious repair works because many parts of castle is damaged by the hand of time. Castle also serves as place for Museum of Foreign Arts and Museum of National History of Latvia.

The Castle of Riga and Residence of President of Latvia

Castle decorated with flags during national festivities

Castle of Sigulda (Segenwold)

Sigulda is located at right side of River Gauja. Castle of Sigulda was palace of Order. It was destroyed in Livonian Order and has not been restored ever since. Ruins were conserved during Soviet Era.

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

Castle of Šlokenbeka (Schlockenbeck)

Šlokenbeka is located near Tukums. Its the only fortified mansion in Latvia. It was mansion of vassal. It changed hands many times and were upgraded may times. It newer suffered war damage so it its one of the rarest fully conserved castle in Latvia. Even when Castle was used as war hospital for Germans in WWII and was near front line it was never hit by any shell. Today mansion belongs road works firm and they have turned mansion into guest house, medical service and road museum.

The Castle Schlockenbeck from birdwiew

Castle of Turaida (Treyden)

Turaida is near Sigulda at right bank of river Gauja. First it was used as residence of Bishop of Riga,later Archbishop. Before there was Castle of Kaupo which was attacked by Kaupo himself. At 15. century it was taken by Order. Later day rulers took castle with out destructive fight and it survived , only to be damaged by fire in 1776. In Soviet Era Castle was restored, but only partly because all castle-building periods were not known. Therefore it’s not complete not as Castle of Trakai in Lithuania. This is criticized by some who see this as ridiculous, but others view Castle of Trakai as Disneyland and praise the Castle of Turaida because it’s fully fictional and shows more real view. In 2006. Castle was endangered by landslide who threatened to destroy the castle, but emergency works prevented further landslides.

The Castle of Turaida

Castle of Ventspils (Windau)

Ventspils is at entry of River Venta in Curland. As important port it was used for Order, and the castle was intended to protect the port. A city grow nearby becoming main center of Upper Curland. At Polish times it was used as army garrison. When Swedes captured city they burned and damaged the palace. But it was restored, used as a church, Russian army garrison and prison.   Prison existed there until  of 20. century and used by Soviets. Soviets did much damage to Castle because they lack of understanding of historical values. After the regain of independence castle got a second life. A museum was established there, boosted by rich Town Council and Mayor Aivars Lembergs, museum became one of the most modern state of the art museums in whole Latvia.

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

Most of Livonian castles faced its doom in Livonian war when new weapons blasted the old walls into air. However some managed to survive, as listed here and serves as valuable source of Medieval history.

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The Latvian Prehistoric neighbors – early Lithuanians and Estonians

It would be unwise to exclude Latvian Baltic neighbors Lithuanians and Estonians from aspects of Latvian history because both three nations share much in common in the basis of Baltic history. Let’s take a brief survey about Prehistoric aspects in Lithuania and Estonia.

Estonia as much as Latvia was under the ice shield during the last Ice Age. Some minor parts of Lithuania were not covered by the ice shield. First country inhabited by humans was Lithuania in 9000 BC at the same time the humans came to Latvia. Estonia was covered by ice much longer than other two Baltic states.  The first traces of humans in Estonia were dated at 8000 BC.

During the Stone age the Baltic settlers practiced hunting and fishing lifestyles. After the beginning of the Bronze age the slow move to productive economy started. Lithuanians were first to make fortifications, Estonian made very complex roundly set rock molds still visible today at Jõelähtme.

During the 9-13 century in both Baltic states just as Latvia the new organized tribes formed. The early Lithuanian tribes were Samgotians, Aukštaitians, and tribal peoples simply known as Lithuanians. The present day Kallinigrad and Poland were inhabited by many no extinct Baltic tribes mainly Prussians, Skalvians and Youtwingians. The Samgotians are common with Latgallians as they have a different dialect than other Lithuanians. The Estonia was inhabited by Estonians and Seths who lived North-eastern Estonia and Russia.


Just as early Latvians the Lithuanians and Estonians established wooden fortresses however the Estonians was first to build stone fortifications like the Varbola Stronghold built in the 10 -11 century. One of the main centers of Lithuania was Kernave which was the first capital of Lithuania before it was burned down by the crusaders.

The Ruins of Varbola Stronghlod. The Kernave- first capital of Lithuania.

At the time of Viking raids the Estonians were also a victim of Viking raids.  At the 11 century Estonia was invaded by Russians. The Grand Duke of Kiev Jaroslaw the Wise attacked Estonians and established a support base called Jurjevo at 1030.  The Russians occupied the South eastern Estonia until in 1061 the Estonians drive out the invaders. Russians also attacked Lithuanians but at 12th century the Kievan Russia resolved in many minor states unable to conquer Baltic lands. Plus the invasion of the Mongolians halted the Russian development for many hundred years. There are Russian historians who say that if the Mongol invasion had never accrued; the Baltic region would be conquered by Russians long before western crusaders.

Just as the Latvians the Lithuanians and Estonians were divided in small statehood’s or micro-states ruled by king like rulers. When the western invasion begun in the Baltic region the three Baltic nations witnessed different fates. Estonians were attacked by Danes and Germans and together with Latvians enslaved by German crusaders. But Lithuanians repulsed all invasions and established their own kingdom which lived until 16th century when it was unified with Poland.

Selected Sources:

Maisalu, Ains (Ed.) (2000) Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Plakans, Andrejs. (2011) A concise history of the Baltic States. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

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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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