Libmonster ID: EE-320
Author(s) of the publication: Vladimir KULAKOV

by Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Institute of Archeology, RAS

The summer of 2013 on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea was hot, though intense heat was hardly felt under the crowns of ancient trees, which covered one of the heights in the environs of Zelenogradsk (Kaliningrad region). Under this natural "umbrella" is actively working an international archeological expedition, organized on the base of the Baltic Federal University named after Immanuil Kant (Kaliningrad) within the framework of the international project "Cross-Roads 2.0". Young scientists and students from Russia, Lithuania and Poland carried out here excavations of the Prussian burial ground Minor Kaup. One of the findings turned out to be unique.

Excavation near Zelenogradsk. In the foreground-location of the burial ground K70.

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The story about the finding I would like to begin from afar, touching upon the sources of such notion as a family portrait, which we connect with a high organization form of the society.

One of the first portrayals of the family-the most important social cell, a base of civilizations, including a contemporary one-is known through frescos of Pompeii. This small town, located on the slope of Vesuvius, in the center of the Apennine Peninsula, was buried under the volcanic ashes in 79 A.D. The excavations connected with this town promoted formation of archeology as science in the 18th century. There are found a great number of monuments of ancient art in Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum. Among them a special place belongs to the fresco representing, according to specialists, a family portrait. United by love for versification (this is evident due to objects for writing in the hands of the man and woman on the fresco), young people demonstrate spiritual community, which points to the unity of their views on the environment.

Undoubtedly, earthly love plays a significant role in the family. This unalterable truth is illustrated by another

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pair portrait of the 1st century A.D., originating from El Fayum in the Nile delta.

According to the presented artistic data we can assume that the family portrait originated at the apogee of the development of ancient civilization, in the epoch of the early Roman Empire. In the years of the rule of Emperor Octavian August and his closest heirs Roman society preserved purity and simplicity of ancient customs, reflected in respect for the family as an important social phenomenon. This respect is characteristic also of the Renaissance, when the family portrait was an important component of European fine arts. We can assert that it has not lost its significance even today, in the postindus-trial epoch.

But what about family relations in Baltic region in the epoch of Vikings? This we found out during excavations near Zelenogradsk.

... That August day began as usual. Each of the expedition participant was engaged in his work. One of them, Roman, was clearing a rather solid filling of the burial ground under the code name K70. Finally his work was completed and we saw a horse's skeleton lying at the bottom of the grave. The clearing was a success: all details were well seen, among bones there showed up darkly like a cinder iron objects (bit, buckles, and stirrups). These findings allowed us to date the burial ground by the late 10th century. By the way, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the main find on the burial ground were horses' skeletons, as Prussians regarded these animals as the best "messengers" between the sky and the earth. Each burial starting from the 5th century A.D. was accompanied by sacrificing the horse.

Examining the findings Roman handed me over a rather unusual rectangular fragment. It's hard to imagine our surprise, when after its clearing, on the carefully scraped out right side we saw a woman's figure in a long skirt cut by a fine engraving tool. Her head and lifted up hands (this gesture means a prayer addressed to Gods), if you looked closely, formed a kind of a trident. The woman's face, framed by curly hair, was only marked by a chisel, but, nevertheless, it staggered. Unfortunately, the angles of the object, which turned out to be bone brackets, did not preserve. They were damaged by iron nails, which were used to fasten it to the wooden saddle pommel.

"Here are some more brackets,"-Roman showed me other bone fragments, lying among horses' vertebrae. After recording all this sudden wealth we started clearing other findings. It turned out that a pair of them, in size smaller than the woman's figure, portrayed figures of two children, wrapped in a kind of felt cloak. Their heads, damaged due to nail corrosion, did not preserve, but fingers hidden in the "cloak" cut, were seen well enough as well as soles of feet, marked, like the woman's figure, with an ornament made by dividers. It seems as if the bracket with the woman's figure was in the center of the saddle pommel, while the figures of teenagers (?) were fastened to its sides.

Thus, we faced the family portrait. Evidently the faithful wife placed her portrait surrounded by two children's figures on the saddle pommel of her husband carefully preparing him for a journey beyond the clouds. Her gesture symbolizing a prayer is turned to Prussian Gods with a request to spare a deserved place in the other world to the deceased. It is noteworthy that we could not find any weapons in the burial ground. Perhaps, the unknown inhabitant of the ancient land of Sambia (this was the name of the present-day Kaliningrad Peninsula in the 10th-13th centuries) did not accompany merchant caravans along the Neman to Kiev and even further, to Constantinople, fully armed, but led a settled way of life, possessed a workshop, where worked masters bone-cutters. As our excavations show a lot of Prussians decorated their saddles with carved bone. But the finding in the burial ground K70 surpassed all others by its splendor. The saddle edges were decorated with rectangular brackets, overlaid with curved and wattled ornaments. Besides, the latter according to its outlines resembled small snakes. Such associations are not accidental as it is a well known fact that Prussians and their neighbors worshipped grass-snakes, regarded as inhabitants of the other, underground world.

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Our finding demonstrates not only a high level of applied arts of the inhabitants of Baltic region of the epoch of Vikings, their means of bone processing and ability for portrayal of symmetric ornamental compositions. The discovered draft family portrait leads us to the main conclusion: in the 10th century the family in Prussia already proved to be a cell of the society, the kin with its leaders lost its significance and there began to form a structure of the society based, first of all, on individual contacts of its ordinary members. The discovered images represent important testimonies to prove the existence of Prussian culture. As was considered earlier it was completely destroyed by the Teutonic order founded in late 13th century, wiped off the face of the earth by settlers from Germany. But we should not forget that these settlers were strangers in the land, which was a possession of forbears of the Prussians for thousands of years.


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Vladimir KULAKOV , THE 10TH CENTURY FAMILY PORTRAIT // Tallinn: Library of Estonia (LIBRARY.EE). Updated: 02.01.2023. URL: (date of access: 15.07.2024).

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