Tag Archives: Prehistory

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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