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The early medieval settlement of Wiskiauten / Mohovoe

Dr. Timo Ibsen

Settlement-archaeological research in former Eastern Prussia

The project is part of the externally-funded project ‘Suzdal and Mohovoe/Wiskiauten – geophysical prospection and comparison of data from Early Medieval settlements in the Kaliningrad area and in Western Russia’.

Since 2005, the Archäologisches Landesmuseum/ZBSA has conducted archaeological research in former Eastern Prussia, the present Kaliningrad area of Russia. The project was financed in the period from 2005-2007 by ESF (the European Social Fund), since 2007 by DFG (German Research Foundation) and RGK (Roman-Germanic Commission). Since 2009, the Wiskiauten project has been integrated into the structure of the ZBSA. The aim is to discover settlement traces which correspond chronologically to the more than 500 burial mounds located in a small wood, 3 km to the south of the Baltic Sea at the foot of the Courland Spit. Since 1865, numerous examples of Scandinavian grave goods have been excavated from these graves. Together with the fact that these barrows differ significantly from  the Prussian flat-grave burial practice prevalent in the region, this has led to the interpretation that, between AD 850 and 1050, a trade centre from Scandinavians, presumably from the Mälar region around Birka, existed at Wiskiauten/Mohovoe.

Wiskiauten overview

Since the beginning of the project, geophysical survey has been carried out over a total area of 150 ha. Of the numerous anomalies indicating settlement traces beneath the soil, 250 features have been examined by drillings. A total of about 60 radiocarbon dates provide an initial chronological outline. Combined with results from a total of 20 minor excavations, the following picture is revealed: Alongside scattered finds from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Pre-Roman Iron Age, mainly concentrated to the East and Northeast of the cemetery, a large proportion of the remains must be assigned to the period between the 6th and 8th century AD. These are located between the cemetery and the coast of a now silted-up area of sea located 1 km to the east which provided a navigation link to the Courland Lagoon/Baltic Sea. The 11th and 12th centuries are also extremely strongly represented. Settlement traces from this latter period are located to the south and north of the barrow field. However, traces from the 9th and 10th centuries have so far only been represented by scattered radiocarbon dates.

Wiskiauten excavation area 21A

In 2009, attention was focussed on the area about 800 m to the east of the Scandinavian burial ground. Preliminary investigations here, involving geomagnetic survey, test pits and  excavations, had revealed clear evidence of finds from the 9th and 10th centuries AD, located about 30-50 m from the shore of a former inland lake. In order to verify this, a 15 x 10 m excavation trench, ‘21A’, was excavated. It was found to contain several cultural layers and around 20 secure traces of postholes which can be linked with two hearths, unequivocally indicating the presence of dwellings and/or auxiliary/service buildings. Alongside exclusively hand-made pottery, animal bones comprised the primary material recovered. Of the numerous iron artefacts, a total of about 30 rhombic iron roves (i.e. rivet plates) attract particular attention. These were employed in, among other things, Scandinavian ship building. Several amber beads, both finished and unfinished examples, together with a large quantity of raw amber, indicate the working of this material which represented such an important trade commodity in Viking times. Iron slag and part-finished horn products document some of the activities that are typical of Viking Age trading places; a casting crucible revealed the working of non-ferrous metal, a cut-up dirhem indicated general trading activities. A small bronze belt fitting, decorated with an eastern ornamentation and provisionally dated to the 9th-11th century, demonstrates the integration of the settlement traces uncovered into the supra-regional trade and communication network of the Viking Age.

Wiskiauten post hole

With respect to dating, in addition to evidence provided by the pottery, attention can be drawn to three radiocarbon dates. With confidence limits of two standard deviations, these are cal AD 782-974, cal AD 904-1116 and cal AD 1017-1154, respectively. As such, they lie precisely within the desired time span and confirm the chronological parallelism of the excavated house remains and the Scandinavian-influenced barrow cemetery.

Previous findings show that, prior to the arrival of the Scandinavians and at the least since the 6th century AD, two Prussian settlements existed at Wiskiauten. During the 9th and 10th centuries, Scandinavians participated in events and activities at the settlement. However, even when the Scandinavian burial mounds went out of use in the middle of the 11th century, the local settlement continued in existence and retained its supra-regional trade links until the arrival of the Teutonic Order in the middle of the 13th century.

Wiskiauten geomagnetics


Results 2010

The new excavation trenches, 21B and 21C, with a combined area of 1047.25 sqm, were opened up to the West and North of the previous year’s excavation area, 21A. 

Übersicht 2010

Excavation trench 21B had a size of 50x30 m, but only two thirds were excavated, whereas the smaller trench 21C, of 4.5x10.5m, was excavated completely.

 Übersicht über Grabungsfläche 21B

The smaller excavation 21C contained the same thick occupation layers as area 21A, with a lot of finds but without any clear structures. Excavation trench 21B was much richer in features. Altogether, 3 fireplaces and 30 certain and a smaller number of uncertain postholes were discovered.


Pfosten im Profil

All these features were concentrated in the eastern part of area 21B. They probably belong to several houses, of which one was uncovered completely. A second house was partly unearthed, and a third ground plan can only be assumed. A geophysical survey was conducted before the excavations (fig. 4). After removing the first 30 cm of humus, the whole area of investigation was scanned with Georadar and Geomagnetics on a very high resolution 10cm-grid. The resulting images show a larger number of anomalies – due to the excavation results – can preliminarily be interpreted as postholes.
In addition to the building ground plans, 5 waste pits were examined, containing not more than a few pottery fragments and some badly preserved animal bones. In all the profiles a thin cultural layer, badly disturbed by agricultural activity and bioturbation, followed the slightly rising topography from South to North. This cultural layer was nearly sterile, except in areas with a high concentration of postholes and other features. Here it contained a considerable number of small finds.

A large assemblage of animal remains was retrieved, and has been analysed in a diploma thesis by S. Knorre (CAU Kiel), in cooperation with the Archaeozoological working group of the Archaeological States Museum Schleswig. Many pottery fragments were found. With 3 exceptions they are from handmade pottery, whereas wheel-made pottery, which first appeared in the region not earlier than the year AD 1000, is missing completely. This might confirm the settlement’s abandonment shortly after the turn to the 11th century AD – exactly the time when the barrow cemetery also went out of use.
The number of amber finds is remarkable. It was mostly found as raw material, but also with traces of handicraft or in form of finished beads. The Kaliningrad region, especially the Sambian peninsula, has the world’s highest natural concentration of amber, and this did not only attract the Scandinavians. It is believed that amber has been the source of trade and economic prosperity in all archaeological periods.


Funde aus Fläche 21B

A glass bead, two bronze finger-rings, fragments of combs and a lot of iron nails and rivets complete the list of finds. The most interesting find was a sword hilt with fine silver inlays, which finds exact parallels in the 10th century barrows in the Scandinavian cemetery at Wiskiauten. It connects the settlement traces of excavation areas 21A-C with the barrow cemetery and shows general contacts with the Scandinavians, but it remains an unsolved question, whether the Scandinavians lived here themselves or if the houses were inhabited by local Prussian people.

The excavated part of the settlement proves an extension of 30 x 60 m, but due to several auger holes and test pits the whole settlement can be estimated to have covered 6 hectares.


Results 2011

In previous seasons, a combination of geophysical survey (performed by geophysicists of the CAU Kiel), augering, C14-datings and excavations had proven a dense settlement network in the vicinity of the barrow cemetery. The settlement remains date back to the period between the 5th and 13th centuries AD and show a much more intensive settlement activity than previously thought. In 2009 and 2010, ground plans of houses, pits, hearths and cultural layers of the 9th and 10th centuries were uncovered for the first time, approximately 1,000 meters east of the Wiskiauten burial ground, next to a now silted-up lake; these features are contemporary with the main phase of the Scandinavian burial ground.

Individual finds, such as a dirham, a sword pommel or a belt fitting and other small finds indicated a loose connection to the Scandinavian world (see results of 2010 and 2009). But still it remained unclear whether the unearthed parts of a settlement are associated with Scandinavian people or with native Prussians.

In 2011 suspected sites in the northwest of the necropolis were examined in more detail. Already in 2009 a cable trench with lots of archaeological objects in the profiles was documented here. Some of the features have been dated to the 9th and 10th centuries. These settlement remains were investigated in 2011 in six excavation areas, "22A" to "22F", covering a total area of 1050 m².

Lage der Flächen 2011

Location of excavation trenches in 2011

Two north-south oriented strips of 50 x 10 m were first scanned with geophysical instruments and then excavated. While only drainage systems and house remains of the 17th to 19th centuries were exposed in the eastern trench, in the western trench settlement remains of the 9th to 12th centuries have been documented.

Fläche 22A, Befunde

Some unearthed features in excavation area 22A

Several posts and waste pits, a large pit of unclear function filled with many fieldstones, possibly belonging to a house or yard, as well as a ceramic vessel with cremated bones interpreted as an urn grave indicate a settlement, which was in use for at least four centuries.


glass bead

However, apart from a blue segmented glass bead, the find material was limited to pottery fragments and animal bones. Relevant metal finds, which should be expected if the site was a Scandinavian settlement, could not be found.

Two smaller excavation trenches were placed directly next to the 2009 cable trench. On the one hand a waste pit with pottery and animal bones was exposed, which was dated by radiocarbon to the range cal AD 723-893. In a neighboring excavation area of ​​10 x 4 m, a furnace has been discovered, dated by radiocarbon to the period cal AD 893-1013.

Not far away in a 3 x 3 m excavation trench, 22C, a well was uncovered, which was dug through the glacial clay layers into the sand at 2.5 m depth.

Brunnen Fläche 22C

Well in excavation area 22C

Three wooden planks of the destroyed well were encountered near its base. The well was filled with settlement material of the 11th and 12th centuries. As special finds, an bucket made of tree bark and a wooden bowl were discovered.

Holzschale aus Brunnen

Wooden bowl from the well

The latter is similar to the many discovered pottery fragments of ceramic vessels made with the use of the pottery wheel, which appears in the region around the year AD 1000. However, fragments of handmade vessels have also been found. Obviously this rough pottery has been used together with the technically more advanced ceramics. Among the numerous animal bones, many remains of fish and a bone for sledging were identified. The fish bones will allow statements about the dietary habits of native Prussians in the 11th and 12th century. The dating of the well is confirmed by individual finds from the immediate surroundings: a sword chape and a fibula with retrospective animal heads, which can also be dated to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Fibel und Schwertortband des 11./12. Jh. aus Umgebung des Brunnens

sword chape and fibula from the 11th / 12th cent. found next to the well

The well must be understood as part of a Prussian settlement, already discovered in 2008 approximately 150 meters from the 2011 features. Altogether the excavations about 1,000 meters northwest of the Scandinavian barrow cemetery have confirmed the extent of a larger settlement complex, which might have had its roots in the 9th and 10th centuries, but which expanded only after the cemetery was abandoned.

In summary, the 2011 excavations again contribute to the impression of an extensive settlement system around the barrow cemetery, which was in use for at least 6 to 8 centuries, consisting of smaller settlement units of a rather rural agricultural aspect, but missing a real center which characterizes other important trading settlements of the time. The old theory of Wiskiauten being an important port of trade cannot be confirmed by the excavations within the frame of the project. Probably it is no coincidence that there are no written sources mentioning Wiskiauten. Although still integrated into the super-regional trading networks, it was perhaps a site of only minor importance. However, the Wiskiauten cemetery is still one of the richest of its kind on the southern coast of the Baltic, which thanks to the excavations of recent years can now be interpreted in the context of its settlement archaeology.


Team 2011

Project completion and final publication
After the last excavation campaign in 2011, the project officially ended with expiry of the DFG funding in 2012. Preparations for a final monograph, presenting the results of 7 years of excavation, are ongoing.
We would like to thank Dr. H.-D. Bienert and the DFG for funding the excavations and the whole project. And thanks as well to the many students from Germany and Russia from Kaliningrad and Kiel, who did the main part of the work!


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