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‘The settlement is approximately here’ – The Early Medieval site of Wiskiauten

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Dr. Timo Ibsen

Wiskiauten/Mohovoe in the Kaliningrad region in the light of old documents and new research

This dissertation, completed in February 2009, deals with the Early Medieval site of Wiskiauten in former East Prussia (today Mohovoe in the Kaliningrad region of Russia). It was discovered as early as 1865 and since then it has been investigated, initially, by German and, after the Second World War, by Russian archaeologists. Wiskiauten is one of the most important Early Medieval cemeteries on the Southern Baltic coast. The grave goods recovered from more than 500 burial mounds dated to the 9th to 11th centuries AD clearly indicate the presence of Scandinavian people. Here, at the foot of the Courland Spit in the amber-rich Sambian peninsula on the settlement area of the local Early Prussians, they presumably maintained a trading centre. Although the cemetery was initially investigated by Germans and, following the end of the Second World War, by Russians, and is considered to be relatively well researched, there was for a long time a lack of an overall view of this important cemetery and, especially, of its environment. Despite 140 years of research history, it has not proved possible to localise securely the associated settlement.

With the rediscovery of the pre-war excavation records from the former ‘Prussia-Sammlung’ (Prussian Collection) at the beginning of the 1990s, and the initialisation of a Russian-German research project in 2005 with financial support from the German research Foundation (cf. also the project: ‘Der Frühmittelalterliche Fundplatz Wiskiauten/Mohovoe im Kaliningrader Gebiet – Siedlungsarchäologische Forschungen im ehemaligen Ostpreuβen’ (The Early Medieval settlement of Wiskiauten/Mohovoe in the Kaliningrad region – settlement-archaeological research in former Eastern Prussia)) which, using large scale geophysical survey methods and excavations under the direction of the present author, the long overdue overview of the site could be presented in this dissertation. By integrating archive documents, finds from the cemetery and the results from modern settlement research, the site was re-assessed and the previous picture corrected on several points.

Embedded in a landscape populated from the Neolithic into the Middle Ages, the use of the bi-ritual cemetery – in which, according to an analysis and interpretation of the grave finds, mainly people with strong contacts to Birka and Gotland have been buried, and which possibly was founded following the collapse of the trade settlements belonging to Central Swedish and Gotlandic merchants and warriors in Grobina, Lithuania, 200 km to the north – reached its peak in the 10th century AD. At the same time, there is a rather erratic increase in Early Medieval sites in the direct vicinity, which may be associated with economic and cultural impulses from the Scandinavians and linking of the area into the Viking Age communication and trade network on the Baltic. Through the application of geophysical survey methods, scientific dates and geological coring techniques/surveys, together with a total of 20 small-scale excavations, and after evaluation of the results of the previous excavations, a picture emerges which, in brief, can be said to show a much earlier start and a considerably longer duration for settlement activity in the vicinity of the large burial mound cemetery of Wiskiauten than previously been assumed. The settlement traces demonstrated since the beginning of the project allow the conclusion that, already in the 6th century AD, several minor settlements existed near a now silted-up inland lake with a link to the water routes of the Courland Lagoon and the Baltic. These settlement remains are attributed to the indigenous Prussians. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Scandinavian settlers and merchants were involved in the settlement activities. The supra-regional trading contacts highlighted on the basis of excavation finds apparently also remained in existence following the withdrawal of the Scandinavians after the middle of the 11th century in what was now again a purely Prussian settlement.

Despite the expanded research results outlined above, the question concerning the extent to which Wiskiauten actually functioned as the presumed trading centre, as proposed in the literature, cannot be answered conclusively at present. It is true that, with its Scandinavian grave finds, its area of between 6 and 12 ha, its sheltered natural harbour and the discoveries and finds resulting from the settlement excavations carried out to date, it displays to some extent the characteristics of an Early Medieval emporium. But the present state of research is insufficient to allow a final assessment. However, the site’s strategically favourable location, at the intersection of land- and water- routes across the Courland Spit near the former mouth of the Memel/Nemen into Courland Lagoon, and the control this confers over the trade in amber which is so abundant in the region, as well as the existence of the cemetery with its clear Scandinavian characteristics, allow the conclusion that it represented a hub in the contemporary supra-regional communication and trade network.

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