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Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie

Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen
Schloss Gottorf
D-24837 Schleswig

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Giants of prehistory – hillforts in former East Prussia

Despite a long history of research since the beginning of the 19th century and the estimated number of more than 2000 hillforts, ie fortifications made of earth, wood and stones, are among the least understood monuments of the Baltic lands.

Approximately 450 of these partially surprisingly well-preserved monuments (Fig. 1) are known from the territory of former East Prussia. Their investigation is part of a project titled "Research of Continuity and Continuity of Research. Basic Research on settlement archaeology of the Irona Age in the Baltic Region"

Fig. 1:  Burgwall von Germau/Russkoe aus der Luft/aerial foto of hillfort of Germau/Russkoe (foto: I. Skhodnov, Kaliningrad

(Fig. 2). The 18-year project is funded by the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz since 2012 and is carried out by the ZBSA in close cooperation with the Museum of Pre- and Protohistory in Berlin. The main goal is the reconstruction of the archeological knowledge of former East Prussia before 1945 on the basis of the German archives of pre-war research period, which today are scattered over various museums and private archives in the whole of Europe. After digitization, documents are scientifically evaluated and merged into an online database developed within the project. At the same time, the data sets are mapped in cooperation with the GIS department of the ZBSA on different information levels in a geographic information system. Fig. 2: Karte der Burgwälle in Ostpreußen, mit Angabe des Untersuchungstandes für das Samland/map of hillforts in former East Prussia, with indication of state of research for the Sambian peninsula (chart made by: T. Ibsen, ZBSA)This step is followed by a modern review of all identified sites in the field. Some of those monuments are then thoroughly investigated with field methods to provide insights into the settlement dynamics of the Baltic tribes in the period between 500 BC and 1250 AD and to answer questions about the suspected settlement continuity.

This is where the hillforts come into the game. Direct references to open settlements are very rare in the relevant archives in contrast to, for example, burial grounds. The project therefore uses the numerous fortifications of the region as a starting point for the study of settlement development. They may have been predominantly - albeit with special functions such as ruler's seat, sanctuary, refuge or storage for harvest and livestock - as settlements or at least have been an important part of the settlement landscape. The architectural complexity of the facilities, however, generally complicates their extensive investigation. The solid main walls, often up to 10 m high and 30–40 m wide at the base with equally thick trenches, were not seldom arranged to whole systems of several ramparts and ditches on naturally protected promontories or even in open terrain as a ring fort (Fig. 3). Traditionally, they can only be studied at elaborate, time-consuming and staff-intensive excavations at selected locations at the rampart. The archaeologically datable finding material is usually limited to typologically hardly datable ceramic fragments, only occasionally relevant metal finds such as arrowheads or other parts of weapons and other small finds allow a more precise dating. Many of the hillforts and their ramparts have been used with various transformations for a variety of purposes up to the recent past, which is why the different original construction phases are difficult to differentiate today.

Fig. 3: 3-D-Modell von Kraam/Gracevka/3-D-model oft he hillfort of Kraam/Gracevka (chart made by: I. Skhodnov, Kaliningrad)

The primary goal of the hillfort research in the context of the project is to integrate as many of the numerous monuments as possible into their settlement archaeological background in selected micro-regions. On the one hand, this requires a correspondingly dense database for the surrounding sites, and on the other hand a clear dating of the castle walls themselves, at the best supported by natural sciences such as Radiocarbon-analysis.
For this purpose, the ramparts and trenches of the fortifications are being investigated by means of motor driven drill in the context of the project (Fig. 4). In contrast to traditional personnel-, Fig.  4: Bohrungen am Burgwall Kraam/Gracevka im Jahr 2014/drillings at the hillfort of Kraam/Gracevka in 2014 (foto: T. Ibsen, ZBSA) time- and cost-intensive rampart sections, the almost non-destructive borings are suitable, to gain without much effort information on the inner structure of the ramparts, even from bigger depth. At the same time the drillings allow the extraction of organic datable samples like wood or charcoal from layers with for example burned wooden constructions (Fig. 5). Fig. 5: Bohrkern mit Brandschicht in 1,5 m Tiefe aus dem Burgwall von Diewens/drilling core with charcoal layer from 1.5 m depth from hillfort Diewens (foto: T. Ibsen, ZBSA) Rows of many boreholes in small distances over the whole rampart can provide a very quick overview of stratification and correspondingly different stages of construction. The method was successfully tested in May 2014 on the large eastern rampart of Apuolė in Lithuania, which was already investigated in the 1930s by a traditional section through the rampart.
The results of the drilling survey in the frame of the project generally coincide with those obtained from the excavations of the 1930s, which certify the occupation and use throughout the first millennium AD (Fig. 6). All dates obtained through the drilling fall into the same period.

Fig. 6: Grabungsprofil von Apuolė aus den 1930er Jahren mit aktuellen Datierungen (95% Wahrscheinlichkeit)/section through the rampart of Apuolė hillfort from the 1930s, combined with modern datings (all 95% probability) (chart made by: T. Ibsen, ZBSA)

Since these first test in Apuolė, the drilling prospection has been applied to ten hillforts on the Samland peninsula of today’s Kaliningrad region of Russia (Fig. 7). Seven of the fortifications could be classified in chronological order by several Fig. 7: Karte des Samlandes mit Kartierung der untersuchten Denkmäler zwischen 2014 und 2017/map of the Sambian peninsula with indication of investigatetd monuments from 2014 to 2017 (chart made by: T. Ibsen, ZBSA) C14-dates. The results tend to show that the emerge of the fortifications, which traditionally is dated back to the middle of the first millennium AD, must be placed about 1000 years earlier. In four of the seven investigated monuments, charcoal from fire strata was found in the lowest parts of the ramparts. The dated samples show, that those ramparts were formed as early as the late Bronze Age and older pre-Roman Iron Age (about 800–500 BC) (Fig. 8). For the younger pre-Roman Iron Age (about 500 BC to 50 AD), there are dating hints of five ramparts. Also in the Roman Empire (about 50–375 AD) and the subsequent Migration Period (375–800 AD) some of the hillforts have been used. For the Viking Age (9th–11th century), so far, dateable material from the ramparts is missing. For the subsequent phase before and shortly after the conquest of the region by the Teutonic Order (11th–13th century), only two of the fortifications provided datable charcoal material, which allows it to set them into this latest phase of hillforts in East Prussia.

Due to the new results of the drilling surveys in the course of the project, which will be systematically continued in the next few years on as many monuments as possible, the previous research picture changes fundamentally. Obviously the hillforts in this particular region played, much earlier than previously believed, a significant role in the struggle for control of resources and superregional trade relations in the amber-rich, but metal-poor landscapes of the southern Baltic coast.

Fig. 8: Schematische Übersicht über neue Burgwalldatierungen im Kaliningrader Gebiet im Rahmen des Projektes/overview over recent datings of different hillforts in the Kaliningrad Region in the frame oft he prject (chart made by: T. Ibsen, ZBSA)

In future research, these results must now be combined with the temporal and spatial distribution of the surrounding sites, such as burial grounds, open settlements or depot finds. Only then we can start reinterpret the function of the hillforts and the social processes, which made the construction of hillforts necessary.

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