Avars, Germans, Romans and Slavs in the Carpathian Basin

(568–8th century AD)

 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Carpathian Basin fell under the rule of barbarian peoples for a long period. Until the end of the Migration Period, up to the arrival of the Magyars (AD 380–896), nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples or military groups (Huns, Alans, Avars, Bulgarian Turks, Magyars) coming from the East continued to arrive in this region and tried to conquer the local, settled peoples (Romanised population, Sarmatians, Germanic tribes, Slavs). The local Late Antique and Germanic communities of the Carpathian Basin came into contact with the Eurasian steppe peoples in an age when movements of individuals and communities became possible on a larger scale, in the huge area between the Chinese Great Wall and the Atlantic Ocean, between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean Sea. In post-Roman Europe, the Avarian state, organised along steppe-nomadic lines, was unlike any other.

After the brief Hunnic rule, the Carpathian Basis saw the formation of competing Germanic tribal kingdoms. On the territory of the province of Pannonia (western Hungary), the Germanic Ostrogoths and Suevi co-existed with the remainder of the Romanised population, the territory between the rivers Danube and Tisza (central Hungary) was inhabited by the Germanic Sciri, and east of the river Tisza (eastern Hungary, northwestern Romania), Germanic Gepidae lived together with the remaining Sarmatian population. At the beginning of the 6th century, Germanic Langobardians (or Lombards), arriving from around the river Elbe, settled down in Pannonia, but after the appearance of the nomadic Avars in AD 568 they moved on to Italy.

The Avars, a people of Inner- and Central-Asian origin, joined by East European nomads, settled down in the Carpathian Basin. The Avar Khaganate was the first entity to unite under one rule the different regions of the Carpathian Basin: Transdanubia (western Hungary), the Great Hungarian Plain (eastern Hungary) and Transylvania (western Romania). The Avars from the eastern steppes conquered the Germanic and Romanised population, and, in the course of campaigns against the Byzantine Empire, carried off to the Carpathian Basin a great number of prisoners of war from the Balkans. From that time on, immigration of Slavic groups is likely to have taken place. So far, about 60,000 graves of the Avar Age have been excavated in the Carpathian Basin, and about a third of these burials can be dated to the Early Avar Age (AD 568-700).

Though it happens only rarely that all of the elements can be traced at one site, people of different origins and cultures inhabited the same settlements and used common cemeteries, forming many-sided contacts. The material and spiritual culture of these peoples was characterized by continuous changes and interrelations, it was strongly influenced by the civilisations surrounding them, like Byzantium, Iran and China. In the Carpathian Basin, we can trace the colourful mosaic of ethnic and cultural traditions of foreign origin up till the late 6th and early 7th century. Later on, acculturation and integration occurred. This process of unification can be well demonstrated by the material heritage and burial rite of the late 7th century. Until the end of the 7th century, Late Antique and Germanic traditions can be traced in farming, crafts, and material and spiritual culture, but by the 8th century these had amalgamated with the culture of the eastern peoples.

 

 

Avarians

Inner Asian Avars revolted against their Turkish lords and took refuge westward in search of a new homeland. During their journey, Central Asian and East European steppe groups joined them. The Byzantine emperor directed them to the Carpathian Basin, and, according to the literary sources, their envoys wearing long braids and caftans were gaped at by the people of Constantinople in AD 558. The Avars agreed to fight for the Byzantine Empire against unruly barbarians and in turn would receive annual payments. Despite the agreement, the Avars were within half a century (568-626 AD) regularly conducting military campaigns against Byzantium, laying waste Balkanic provinces and invading towns Sirmium and Singidunum (now Belgrade). The greatest attack of the Avars against the Byzantine Empire was the siege of Constantinople in 626, which was unsuccessful and after which, probably because of domestic power struggles, the Avar Khaganate turned its attention inwards and ceased its international activity.

The Avars had both light and heavy cavalry; their main weapons were the composite recurved bow, spear and straight sword. It was the Avars who introduced iron stirrups in Europe, which proved to be an important innovation in the formation of European cavalries. The appearance of Avars in the Carpathian Basin is marked by shallow sacrificial pits, without human or animal remains but connected with the cult of the dead (‘votive-deposit pits of Turkish type’), which contain spears, bridles and stirrups; and by the presence of eastern-type burials with a horse, horse harness, and hand-made vessels with four knobs on the rim. Burials in short tunnels extending from one end of the grave-pit, appearing in the Tisza valley (eastern Hungary), and burials of parts of horses and other animals show East European nomadic traditions.

The Avars’ centre of power was situated somewhere between the rivers Danube and Tisza, in central Hungary: this is the area where we find burials of the military groups and of an Avar chief (a khagan?) at Kunbábony. In keeping with their social status, graves of the warriors buried with their horse and weapons were given a central place in the cemeteries of the Great Hungarian Plain and Transdanubia (eastern and western Hungary).

In the leading stratum of Avar society, the Mongoloid anthropological element prevails.

At the beginning of the Avar Age, probably owing to a deliberate settlement policy of the Avars, we can trace many different ethnic and cultural elements in Transdanubia, the western part of the Carpathian Basin. The integrating strength of the highly centralized Avar society is shown by the fact that the material and perhaps also the spiritual culture of the Germanic, Romanised, Byzantine and Slavic population living under Avar rule, changed within a century. Except for the Late-Antique Keszthely Culture (see below), the earlier ethnic and cultural differences disappeared. The Avars, practising shamanic beliefs, seem to have been tolerant as regards the religion of their subjects, who were, however, obliged to perform economic and military services.

The acculturation and integration of the Avars in the new European environment proved to be superficial, though already the second generation started to use on its formerly simple, functional costume metal ornaments of Byzantine shape, decoration and technique. Byzantine products (jewellery, belt-sets, metal vessels, amphorae) served as prestige objects in their circles. Yet all these phenomena did not reflect a deeper cultural change, which would be a progressive modification of their way of life and their socio-political structure. In fact, the centralized Avar Khaganate with its eastern steppe-nomadic organization basically remained conservative, and during its more than two hundred years of existence it was not able to become integrated with Early Medieval Europe, be it ideologically, politically or economically. Its organization weakened and declined, and its fall, at the end of the 8th century, was caused by internal decay and by Frankish and Bulgarian attacks.

 

Germans

On the basis of the archaeological finds it is hard to believe the words of the monk Paulus Diaconus, according to whom all of the Langobardians left Pannonia after Easter in AD 568. Judging by the find material and the burial rite, Germanic people continued to be buried in the Pannonian cemeteries of the Avar Age. Here we can trace Merovingian female and male costume, weapons and tools, and amulets reflecting the spiritual culture. Rich find material of good quality indicates the existence of a noble stratum and independent Germanic leadership (in cemeteries at Kölked, Zamárdi and Budakalász).

Present knowledge suggests that the Germanic people of the Avar Age had diverse origins. They probably included descendants of Germanic groups living in Pannonia from the 5th century, and remaining Langobardians who had not fled. Archaeological finds also suggest that after the demise of the Gepidian kingdom, part of the population moved to Transdanubia (western Hungary) from the Tisza valley (eastern Hungary), from Syrmia (Serbian-Croatian border) and perhaps from Transylvania (central Romania). Other Gepidae, mainly peasants, remained in the Tisza valley, according to a literary source which says that Priskos, a Byzantine military leader, marched through their villages in AD 599-600. A Byzantine source specifically mentions Gepidae fighting together with the Avars in the siege of Constantinople (AD 626). On the basis of single finds, we can speculate about the movements of Frankish, Alamannic, Bavarian (at Keszthely) and even Scandinavian (at Tác) individuals.

In the case of the Germanic peoples, the process of acculturation is reflected in a special way. In male graves, Avar weapons (bow, arrows, oriental swords) appear together with traditional Germanic weaponry (spatha (long sword), seax (short sword), pilum (javelin)), frequently in graves containing also horse burials. At the beginning, female attire featured belt decorations, pins and belt-terminals decorated with Germanic-type stamped ornament and with incised dentate ornament in Animal Style II. In the women’s graves, growing Avar influence can be traced through the spread of Byzantine jewellery, and the appearance of metal decorations of Byzantine type, design and execution on clothing that displays elements of the Merovingian tradition (e.g. women’s ornamental belt-pendants (‘Ziergehänge’), and shoe-strap fittings (‘Wadenbindengarnituren’). In some cases, Germanic or Antique pagan amulets and Christian objects, appearing together, reflect the syncretic world of beliefs of the buried person (e.g. amulet capsules decorated with with cross motifs).

 

Romanised population, Byzantines

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the leading stratum and part of the population left the territory of Roman Pannonia, but another part of the population, mainly peasants and artisans, remained in their homeland. Archaeological traces of these groups (romani) can be clearly observed until the end of the 5th century in the cemeteries and settlements, and in the abandoned, formerly Roman towns and fortresses that they used together with the Germanic population. It must be a deficiency in archaeological research that we still lack data on the Romanised population living in a largely Germanic environment under Avarian rule.

By the end of the 6th century we find the Romanised population mainly in the row cemeteries that were newly laid out in the area of the Late-Roman fortresses of Keszthely (Castellum) and of Pécs (Sopianae) (southwestern Hungary). In the Early Avar Age there also will have been Romanised and Byzantine people arriving from the Balkans. These probably Christian communities preserved or renewed their relations with the Romanised population of the Mediterranean. The characteristic costume of their women includes earrings with basket-shaped pendants, disc brooches with Early Christian motifs, and dress-pins. The Early Christian symbols include crosses, bird-shaped brooches and pins decorated with bird figures (one bird-shaped brooch bears an incised cross). At the turn of the 6th–7th centuries the aisled basilica in the Keszthely fortress was rebuilt.

In formerly Pannonian territory, more and more objects relating to the Romanised population appear in the cemeteries of the Early Avar Age (at Csákberény and Várpalota), and in some cases there seems to be evidence of individual Balkanic or Byzantine immigrants (at Budakalász and Szekszárd). So the Romanised Christian population, perhaps in order to emphasize its identity in this multicultural environment, gave up its tradition of burying the dead without grave-goods. At Keszthely, even very rich people accompanied by several grave-goods were buried near the granary (horreum). The find material and burial rites show that in the vicinity of Keszthely there still was a community of Romanised and Germanic people. However, the Romanised population of Pannonia in general became ‘Avarized’, and only in the close vicinity of Keszhely can their ‘island’ of Late-Antique culture be traced, where their traditional costume was worn until the beginning of the 9th century. Then they lost contact with the Mediterranean.

 

Slavs

In the first part of the 6th century, in the Germanic, Langobardian-Gepidian period, neither written nor archaeological sources refer to the presence of Slavs in the Carpathian Basin. Presumably their immigration into some of its territories dates only from the beginning of Avar rule. The Slavs soon integrated into Avar society. According to Byzantine sources, they too fought on the Avar side during the siege of Constantinople in 626.

Cremation cemeteries and settlements belonging to Slavic groups which arrived across the passes of the Eastern Carpathians are well known in the territory of Transylvania (western Romania). Slavic people settled on the territory of former Pannonia in three major groups: in northeastern Pannonia (near Budapest), in the valley of the river Zala (near Lake Balaton) and around Pécs (southwestern Hungary). The qualitatively different find material from these geographically distinct areas lends itself in varying degrees to the ethnic identification of these Slavs. In the valley of the river Zala, mixed-rite cemeteries contain the best examples of the ancestral cremation rite of the Slavs (at Kehida and Zalakomár). The process of cultural change is well reflected by the fact that the traditional urned or unurned cremation rite existed side-by-side with the rite of cremation deposited in an Avarian-style shaft-grave (at Pókaszepetk). Jewellery, beads and small costume accessories were uncovered in the cremation burials. It is even more difficult to distinguish Slavic from East European barbarian people merely on the basis of the find material, when the burial rite is of no help. From some Avar cemeteries in western Hungary we know objects resembling those associated with other tribes of Eastern European nomads and Slavs, such as the Antae: bow-brooches, wire ornaments, trapezoid plate pendants, bracelets with flaring ends (at Oroszlány and Pécs-Köztemető). In these cases we cannot really be sure about the people who wore them.

The process of Slavic acculturation is reflected in the change of the burial rite: from cremation to inhumation. Their acculturation can also be traced in the integration of the local material culture. The presence of the simple, so-called Prague-type pottery in Avar settlements has prompted heated discussions in archaeological research. This simple ceramic type can point to Slavs only in the case when this is supported also by other elements in the find assemblage. We do not find evidence of a significant Slavic population in the Great Hungarian Plain (Puszta), which was inhabited mainly by the Avars of eastern, nomadic origin.

 

Hungarian chapter was made in the Institute of Archaeology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (www.archeo.mta.hu) by Tivadar Vida, Zsuzsa Mersdorf, László Schilling and Valéria Kulcsár.

 

 

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Fiedler, U.:

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László, Gy.: Etudes archéologiques sur l'histoire de la société des Avars. Archaeologica Hungarica 34. Budapest 1955.

Martin, M.: Awarische und germanische Funde in Männergräbern von Linz-Zizlau und Környe Wosinszky Múzeum Évkönyve 15, 1990, 65-90.

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Popović, I.: Golden Avarian Belt from the vicinity of Sirmium. Belgrade 1997.

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Exhibition catalogues

Awaren in Europa. Schätze eines asiatischen Reitervolkes, 6.-8. Jh. Ausstellungskatalog. Hrsg.: W. Meier-Arendt/B. Kürti. Frankfurt 1985.

Gli Avari. Un popolo d'Europa. Pubblicazioni della deputazione di storia patria per il Friuli 22. A cura di: G. C. Menis/I. Bóna/É. Garam. Udine 1995.

L’oro degli Avari. Popolo delle steppe in Europa. A cura di: E. A. Arslan/M. Buora. Milano-Udine 2000.

Reitervölker aus den Osten. Hunnen + Awaren. Ausstellungskatalog. Hrsg. F. Daim. Eisenstadt 1996.

The Gold of the Avars. The Nagyszentmiklós Tresaure. Catalogue of the Exhibition. Ed. by. É. Garam/T. Kovács. Budapest 2002.

 

 

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