THE GERMANIC PEOPLES
25th June 2016 – 18th December 2016
György Thúry Museum
The exhibition shows the impressive – newly found – artefacts which form part of the relics from Vas County originating from the early stage of the Migration Period. The cemetery – containing a high number of graves – has been excavated on the confines of Szeleste. It hid warriors and richly bejeweled women.
An ever growing number of various peoples of Germanic and eastern origin occupied the peripheral regions of the Roman Empire during the centuries of its slow decline. In the 5th century, the Huns ruled over the town of Savaria and the area belonging to it, the territorium, which consisted of villa rustica farms and cultivated land, for a short time. At the same time, a part of the inhabitants of the town of mainly local origin, who had received Roman citizenship (civitas Romana), left the once prospering town in several waves.
The Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Scirii, the Suevi, the Heruli and other peoples that turned up here in the 4th and 5th centuries left almost no apparent marks on the environs. Isolated graves and sporadic finds remained from this era the artistically processed precious metal finds of which found – almost without exception – their way into national or international museums.
According to our current knowledge, the Langobards that belonged to the Germanic ethnic group occupied today’s Transdanubia gradually at the beginning of the 6th century. We know very little about their settlements and a little over a dozen of their cemeteries have been excavated by archaeologists. We had not had information about permanent settlements of the Germanic peoples in Vas County up until the time when we got acquainted with the cemetery of Szeleste. Based upon our knowledge so far, we only assumed that there had been a network of roads in the Roman era and armed forces small in number that had been settled here to control the long-distance trade that had took place on these roads.
The cemeteries of the Langobards consist generally of about hundred or far less thinly scattered graves. For fear of grave robbers, the graves were dug actually 3 or 4 meters deep into the ground. Yet, this proved rarely enough to resist the temptation aroused by valuable weapons and jewels. The dead were either robbed by the Langobards themselves or the Avars of Central Asian origin that occupied Transdanubia too in 568.
The appearance of the cemetery of Szeleste is somewhat different from what is common in case of the Langobards; the 112 graves are located here and there in distinctly dense rows. The average depth of the graves is about one metre and even the deepest grave is a little over one and a half metres deep. The dead were placed for eternal rest in coffins grooved from tree trunks or pieced together from boards without nails. Five graves were covered with Roman bricks (tegula) which was typical of the late Roman era. For one grave monument, even the so-called tubus, a type of hollow square brick which was made for the Roman wall heating system, was used. In addition to tegula and tubus, the graves hid objects of the Roman era too; a belt mount, a hairpin, a bronze bell and a bronze coin from the age of Constantine I, from the beginning of the 4th century, have also come to light. The emergence of objects from the Roman era is not unusual in case of the Langobards; they may have come at them through plundering the remains of a villa building in the neighbourhood. Yet, from the burial customs observed the conclusion can be drawn that those who rest in the graves of Szeleste are perhaps no Langobards at all, but people of the age of the Langobards who came partly from this region.
Two-thirds of the graves in the cemetery were robbed soon after the funeral. The Langobards are under a cloud of suspicion as the shallow graves of the poor who lived in servitude were in most cases left untouched. Grave robbery took generally place by digging a hole at the end of the grave from the direction of the head, breaking through the coffin and trying to pick out the goods with some kind of a long-handled tool. One can see in case of the graves of women how successful this venture was; one of the 2-4 decorative pins for fastening garments (fibula) remained in the graves of five ladies. The technique of grave robbery can be easily observed in case of grave N° 406. The bow fibulae, which were originally hanging from the belt of the lady that found eternal rest here, were scraped to the left of the coffin from her corpse which was still fresh when disturbance took place. Whereas, one of the two disc-type fibulae she was wearing on her bust was turned accidentally and the other one was probably broken when they brought it to the surface as they threw it back into the grave in a damaged and defective condition.
In spite of the grave robberies, numerous disc-type, S-shaped and bow fibulae of radiant beauty, glass pearl beads, hairpins, belt and shoe buckles and combs rich in colours and shapes as well as objects associated with daily life such as knives, spindle whorls, a sewing needle and resin knots – which were perhaps used for beauty treatments – have come to light from the graves of women.
In the graves of men, weapons of offence and defensive arms, studded belts, knives and fire starter tools have been found. The armament of men also reflected their social status. Half-free people, those who rose socially from prisoners of war and the subjugated, fought with bows and arrows. The bulk of the people were made up of freelancers that went to battle with long-handled spears. Those who belonged to the military elite had swords, spears and shields fitted with iron in the middle with which they were buried. In addition to their arms, three men also took their hunting dogs to the other world. The grave robbers had five bundles of arrows, thirteen spears, three shields and one sword left over in the cemetery. There were also hatchets and pickaxes, respectively at the legs of three warriors.
Men, women and children alike were given solid and liquid food – two men were also given drinks – for their journey to the other world. Part of the food was put in clay vessels which were placed – due to the size of them – outside the coffin, in a part of the grave which was less affected by disturbance. The majority of the fifty three clay vessels are undecorated. Yet, some of them were decorated with burnished lattice patterns, which were closely related with late Roman pottery, and one of them belonged to stamped pottery.
At the beginning of the Migration Period, artificial cranial deformation – which was aimed at shaping and elongating the skulls of human beings – came into fashion in the Carpathian Basin too. In such cases, the skulls of children were deformed by tightly bandaging the head from birth for years, whereupon the skull of the person in question became higher and more elongated. The marks of this sort of skull shaping could be observed on five corpses of the cemetery, whereas the deformation, which was started too late, resulted in parallel osteoclases on the forehead of a young woman.
We are pleased to present the rich legacy of the cemetery of Szeleste to the general public. The part of the archaeological heritage of Vas County you can see now enriches the Great Migrations Period collection of Savaria Museum. It is only to be hoped that scientific elaboration of the artefacts now shown at a temporary exhibition will also soon take place.
Pap Ildikó Katalin
archaeologist, Savaria Museum