The 'Amber Elites' in Ancient Kaliningrad Went to Eternity With Their Horses

Necropolis excavation in the Sambian Peninsula, Russia reveal not graves of the simple folk described by Tacitus, but sophisticated people – who played Roman games

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Goods in a leader's grave, Putilovo-2
Burial urn and goods in a leader's grave, Putilovo-2Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

On the shores of the Baltic Sea, surrounded on three sides by cold waters and blasted by chilly northern winds, lies the Sambian peninsula. Today part of the Kaliningrad oblast in Russia, in the past this region was one of the birthing places of the Baltic kingdoms; later it would become a key part of the Prussian kingdom formed by the Teutonic knights in the 13th century, with its capital in Königsberg.

And for thousands of years, precious amber would wash up onto the cold shores of this fertile land, which became a key source of the stone to the ancient world for over 2,000 years. (The fossilized resin pieces washing up ashore originate in the now submerged “blue earth” layer in the Sambian Peninsula northwest of Kaliningrad. )

In his treatise Germania, written around 98 C.E., Tacitus described the inhabitants of these territories, whom he called the Aesti, and their connection to the amber trade. They weren’t necessarily appreciative of the value of the treasure showing up on their beaches, according to him.

Map of Prussian kingdomsCredit: Renata3

Burial with horses

The first excavations of the burial grounds in this part of the peninsula began in the second half of the 19th century. At the time the archaeologists dated the necropolis to the 3rd to the 8th centuries C.E.

Now, over 150 years later, scholars have returned and over four years of excavation, they have revealed a vast burial area of more than 8,000 square meters featuring cremation urns, horse burials, and in some cases, luxuries in the graves of what seems to be the ruling classes of the region.

Cremation urns in one of the elite burials from the 4th/5th century C.E.Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov
An element of the horse helmet on the remains of a horse skull in a burial from the 6th century.Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

So far only around half of the area, with about 300 different burial sites, has been investigated. One is the Putilovo-2 cemetery, formerly known as Gauten – and as is so often the case in archaeology, the ancient treasures were uncovered pursuant to infrastructure development.

The excavations of Putilovo-2 started in 2015 as part of the “Amber in the ancient cultures” project initiated by the Kaliningrad Amber Museum and conducted by the Sambian archaeological expedition of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, led by Konstantin Skvortsov. As of 2021, this area, located 5km from the shores of the Baltic Sea in the Zelenogradsky district, has been under massive excavation as part of the construction works of highway A-217.

The finds in Putilovo-2 date to the fourth to the seventh century C.E., starting in the Late Roman period, continuing onto the “migration period” - a time characterized by invasions of Huns, Goths, and Alans, and other peoples challenging the Roman dominance in Europe; and the following period, the so-called Dark Ages, which is known mainly for outbreaks of plague, famine, and a period of intense cold.

View of the Putilovo-2 necropolis excavation site Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov
A jar in a horseman's grave from the 6th century.Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

Among the graves were burials of what seem to have been elites connected with the amber trade, Konstantin tells Haaretz.

‘Gross discharges of the sea’

The Roman historian Tacitus writes about the Aesti: “…of all the rest (of the Germans) are the only people who gather amber. They call it glesum, and find it amongst the shallows and upon the very shore. But, according to the ordinary incuriosity and ignorance of Barbarians, they have neither learnt, nor do they inquire, what is its nature, or from what cause it is produced. In truth it lay long neglected amongst the other gross discharges of the sea; till from our luxury, it gained a name and value. To themselves it is of no use: they gather it rough, they expose it in pieces coarse and unpolished, and for it receive a price with wonder” – Tacitus, Germania, chapter XLV

Amber and glass beads and a silver pendant from the 4-6 centuries CECredit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov
Spider in Baltic amberCredit: Floortje Walraven

While Tacitus holds the dwellers of these territories to be uneducated barbarians clueless as to the nature of the amber, the archaeological data suggests a different story. The people living in the Sambian peninsula knew well what they had at hand, and while they may not have known how the amber came to be, even if the Romans knew it originated in tree sap – the peninsula peoples clearly knew quite well how precious the stones were and utilized the resources provided to them by Mother Nature.

We know this because the Sambian peninsula became the center of the amber trade road. Amber and other commodities from Scandinavia and the Baltic territories such as furs, animal skins, honey, and wax were traded along this route. To the south the road passed along the Vistula Lagoon and the Vistula River into the lands of the Gepids, the Goths, and other Germanic Tribes. It passed through modern-day Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia until reaching the Roman city of Aquileia in northern Italy on the head of the Adriatic. From here, goods were distributed via the Mediterranean to Rome, the provinces, and beyond.

A clear Germanic influence

Imagine a woodland area, with islands of land amid bodies of water, Konstantin describes. It is the late Roman period, and you are sitting at home by the fire. Outside cold winds blow, but you can see smoke and lights burning from the huts all over the woods. Every pocket of suitable land was intensely settled in this Sambian territory during this time, with people living in big open settlements believed to average about a hectare in area.

Yet thanks to the riches delivered by the sea, this is where the Aestian elites were born.

Fibulas dating to the 4th – 7th centuries C.E. from Putilovo-2 cemeteryCredit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov
Bronze fibula with silver details from the end of the 4th centuryCredit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

Formerly, various historians thought that during the late Roman and early migration period, the western Balts, aka the Aesti or the Sambian-Natangian peoples, were primitive cultures with no essential social structure.

But Konstantin says that excavations over the years, mainly the finds from the Sambian-Natangian cemeteries, reveal quite the opposite. His excavations in the area over the last 20 years uncovered dozens of clearly high-status burials, elites laid to rest with imports from Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, Germania, and Rome. The finds prove these elites were formed at least as early as the third century C.E. and not the fifth as previously was thought.

Moreover, as his scientific efforts over the years showed, their connection to their eastern Germanic neighbors ran much deeper than trade. They lived literally next door, understood the Germanic culture and myths quite well, even adopting them, and there may even have been marital relationships between the ruling members of the communities.

Items found in Putilova-2 and other local necropolises show clear signs of Germanic influence in their material culture, including goods in the animal style typical of the Germans, bearing Germanic motifs and traditions, depicting their symbols and mythological stories.

Roman dinars from the 1st – 2nd century CE. Credit: Skvortsov Konstantin N.

A castle of headstones

Like many other burial sites, Putilovo-2 was extensively robbed in antiquity, mainly in the Middle Ages. Although rich in amber, this area is poor in easily attainable metals. But why strain to dig deep for metal ore and produce it when you have metals in abundance in the cemeteries.

During the Middle Ages, mainly in the 12th-15th century, the locals used these graves as “quarries” for rock and metal. Nor was that the end of the “theft”: With the arrival of the Teutonic Order to the area, the crusaders needed materials for building their castles, and the stones covering the ancient graves were perfectly suited for such an enterprise.

Despite the looting over the ages, we can say today that the prevalent burial practices in the cemetery was cremation and in the case of some people, burial with their trusty steeds.

Gold wire ring from a chamber grave in Putilovo-2 from the 4th/5th century Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

The urns ranged from simple ones placed in small pits for the hoi polloi, to large urns given fancy burials inside big wooden boxes that were oriented south-north, next to a plethora of grave goods. Some of the dead had evidently been warriors, who were buried with their horses next to their tombs – some with as much as three of the equines, who were laid to rest with their heads facing south.

The urns and boxes were placed in a pits dug about 1.5 meter deep, usually covered with two big slabs with a mound of rocks piled on top. Sometimes the slabs collapsed, which seems to have persuaded would-be thieves that there was nothing more beneath except sand and some stones, and thus preserved some of the graves for future generations.

Next to the cremation urns, various artifacts overlooked by the robbers were also left behind for posterity. These included pottery, adornments made of bronze, silver, and gold, and a wide variety of brooches, from simple to elaborate designs. Torques (grivniya), bracelets, belt buckles, beads made of glass and amber - some even originating in distant Roman provinces such as Syria and Egypt, rings, and – weapons.

Indeed, the archaeologists unearthed a large variety of weapons: different types of swords, spearheads, axes, daggers, and shield bosses. Most were found in the graves involving horse burials.

Somewhat less dramatically but illustrating day-to-day life, the archaeologists also discovered working tools such as drawknives, scissors, and scythes,Roman silver dinars and large brass sesterces minted in the first and second centuries C.E., which were found in abundance from the 4th to 5th centuries C.E.

Details from a belt, early 5th century Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

Explaining that discrepancy between the coins’ issuance and their internment with the dead, Konstantin says the sesterces were considered as something of value and might have been used as a sort of currency in the afterlife. Therefore, they were placed in graves not only of adults but of children too, within all classes.

And among the four graves unquestionably associated with Aestian elites found so far in Putilovo-2, one, discovered in the 2021 excavation season, yielded an unexpected find not seen in these territories before.

Strategy games

One of the larger pits contained a big urn, which had been buried with various items, including a jar that probably held some liquid, a Scandinavian-type spearhead, a bronze dagger with handle, a fibula brooch, scissors, a gold ring, an iron shield boss – and an assemblage of about 100 glass game pieces.

The game pieces had apparently been placed in a bag made of perishable material that failed to survive the test of time. The pieces belong to a popular Roman board game called Ludus Latrunculorum, never before found in the Sambian – Nathangian territories. And then they found a second grave with Ludus pieces, Konstantin says.

The latter part of the game’s name, latrunculus, is a diminutive of latro, which is Latin for mercenary soldier or highway robber. The name of the game in total is translated as the “game of brigands” or “game of soldiers” and it was a two-player strategy board game of military tactics, somewhat like checkers.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough evidence to fully reconstruct this popular pastime, although there are several interpretations. In any case both Romans and the “barbarians” serving in the Auxiliaries played this game throughout the Roman Empire. This in and of itself is another strong indication of how integrated the people of these Aestian societies were with the surrounding regions. Even here, so far from the Roman Empire, people knew and enjoyed this game, proving yet again the western Balts were at the same cultural level as other barbarian tribes living in these territories.

Glass game pieces of the Ludus latrunculorum, late 4th century Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov

The same chap buried with the Ludus gear was not only lucky enough to lay his hands on Roman and Scandinavian goodies: he may also have been one of the high-status elites, maybe even a chieftain, as he too was laid to rest for eternity next to, not one, but three horses. The horses also seemed to have lived well, when they did live. One was found kitted out with a bronze bridle still lying on his mandible, and another was buried with his grooming kit bag.

After seeing the riches and trade goods found within these graves, it is apposite to challenge Tacitus’ characterization of the Aestian folk as ignoramuses. The amply excavations show they utilized their strengths and exploited the land’s unique resources. These were not primitive people clueless about the world beyond; rather, they were part of a span of tribal communities inhabiting the cold northern territories, forming social structures and administrative centers with elites, and keeping close contact with the surrounding tribes.

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