Kernave: Lithuania's 'Troy' to celebrate UNESCO heritage site listing

  • 2005-03-23
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Few countries are so fortunate as to have an archaeological treasure trove preserving 10 millennia of human settlement. A discovery so impressive that it bears comparison to the Greek city of Troy, which had been consigned to myth until late nineteenth-century archaeologists dug up a hill in Turkey proving its existence, and showing that a stack of eight cities had been built on top.

In the 1970s, Lithuanian archaeologists began following up rumours of a magnificent ancient city, stumbling across a site about 35 km from Vilnius unscathed by war and industrial development, which many now call Lithuania's first capital 's Kernave.

The five distinctly shaped hills that make up the Kernave complex are part of an ancient wooden hill-fort system. In 1979, however, geological forces caused the hillside to split open.

"It opened perfectly, it was as if we had been handed an archaeological layer-cake," said Professor Aleksas Luchtanas, Lithuania's top archaeologist.

The initial hoard of discovered objects dates back to the fifth century, but in ensuing years, summer after summer, scholars have revealed generous traces of human habitation. The findings tell the unbroken tale of the site's development, from the Stone Age up to its demise at the hands of Teutonic Knights in the late 14th century, which might have led to the rise of Vilnius as Lithuania's leading city.

Though the site has yielded a rich collection of tools, skeletons, arms, coins, foundation works, and even roadbeds, only a scant 2 percent of the 200-hectare Kernave Cultural Reserve has been excavated to date.

"There is much yet to be discovered here, many generations of Lithuanians will reap the benefits. We make new discoveries each year, and the site is larger than we thought it was a few years ago," said Luchtanas.

In July 2004, UNESCO (the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) placed Kernave on its list of almost 800 places of outstanding cultural heritage around the world, because it "presents an exceptional testimony to the evolution of human settlements in the Baltic region over some 10 millennia," and because its "impressive hill-forts represent outstanding examples of such types of structures and the history of their use in the pre-Christian era."

The official celebrations marking the inscription of Kernave, which should bring a host of foreign dignitaries to Lithuania, will take place in May this year.

A 600-year-old

coin returns

The Bank of Lithuania has minted 2,000 50-Litas, one-ounce silver coins in honor of the occasion.

It's not easy for non-numismatists to get excited about a commemorative coin, but this one is compelling because it is, in a sense, a re-issue of a 600-year-old silver coin found at Kernave in the grave of a roughly 30-year old man.

It was a triumphant find for Gintautas Velius, the young archaeologist who discovered it, because it allowed him to affix a date to the site he had been excavating so meticulously.

"I was overjoyed at being able to date the site," Velius said. "We know that these coins were issued by Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila between 1387 and 1390, and, because we know Kernave was destroyed by the Crusaders in 1390, this means we can confidently date the burial ground to within that three-year window, which is a rare thing in archaeology."

Velius said the burial ground proved to be of great value because, aside from coins, he and his colleagues also uncovered Christian and pagan decorative objects in the same grounds 's evidence of the syncretism of that era.

UNESCO also underscored, in its 2004 justification for listing Kernave, that it "has exceptional evidence of the contact of Pagan and Christian funeral traditions."

By marrying a Polish princess, Jogaila entered a dynastic union with Poland that saw Lithuania formally adopt Roman Catholicism and plant both feet in Europe, though its pagan cultural substratum remained strong for several centuries.

The obverse ('heads') side of the antique coin, showing a mounted knight, sword poised above his head 's the heraldic emblem of Lithuania's Grand Dukes that became the modern state's coat-of-arms 's has been accurately reproduced in the new version.

Velius was unable to specify the discovered coin's unit of currency, due to lack of evidence, though it is silver.

Even if you aren't an avid collector, you may wish to take note, as this is one of the last coins the bank is issuing in litas.

If all goes according to plan and Lithuania meets its EU-mandated deficit and inflation targets, and, assuming bands of marauding knights don't sack the central bank's vaults, the euro will be the only currency used in the country as of January 2007 (though the bank will still mint coins in euros).