Living history reigns for a day in Lithuania

  • 2001-07-12
  • Brent W. Walsh
KERNAVE - The Lithuanian town of Kernave hosted an amazing festival of history and hands-on archeology last weekend. Kernave is located 35 kilometers northwest of Vilnius and is thought to be the site of the coronation of King Mindaugas in 1253. As July 6 is a national holiday commemorating the crowning, Kernave found itself a natural host to the weekend of celebration.

The setting for the third annual Living Archeology Days in Kernave was atop old castle mounds situated in beautifully rolling hills nestled next to the River Neris. The festival was conceived and developed by the Kernave Archeology and History Museum and Reservation, which protects 200 hectares of land near the town where researchers have uncovered the remains of a medieval settlement.

The festival was made possible by volunteers along with the support of corporate sponsors recruited by the museum.

Aleksas Luchtanas, a department dean from Vilnius University and the event's director, leads student archeological digs in Kernave throughout the year. "This area is extremely rich with archeological treasures. The festival today is on the same site as a famous wooden castle that was last destroyed by the Crusaders around the year 1390," said Luchtanas.

The festival consisted of 25 different areas depicting life and survival from the Stone Age until the early 15th century. That is a lot of history to cover, but the exhibitions were manned by nearly 100 volunteers, many of whom have backgrounds in history and archaeology.

The recreated village was amazing in its size and complexity. Entire wooden structures were constructed for the festival. Gigantic, deeply dug fire pits laced with small boulders provided a cooking area for the participants.

Standing next to a roaring fire while dressed in a dirty, linen smock was Daiva Luchtaniene, the director of the event. As she skinned, cleaned, and barbecued a rabbit, she said, "It's important to have a high level of authenticity when enlightening people as to their history and the history of their land. This is not a museum, but rather the roots of all Lithuanian people. Many visitors here this weekend say they feel a rebirth of nature when observing the past ways of life," said Luchtaniene.

Those present were able to search for their roots via a myriad of experiences. You could witness Stone Age herbal medicine remedies, and then cross the field to help brew an ancient form of beer. You could practice your horseback riding, sword fighting, archery, or metalworking.

Many of the active displays were manned by experts in their fields; there were stalls on musical instrument construction, the creation of amber jewelry, and making tools from animal bones.

The turnout over the weekend was estimated at 20,000 people. The hands-on nature of the activities was intriguing to both locals and foreign tourists. Craig Schurter, an American from Chicago, felt the Kernave festival was far ahead of any Renaissance or historical festival he had ever visited.

"Lithuania and the rest of this area of Europe are extremely lucky to have such events. I'm very interested in this type of active-history and am active in an annual festival near my home that draws nearly 100,000 people. The authenticity and quality of our event is nowhere near what I have seen today in Kernave," said Schurter.

"Archaeology gives a miraculous gift. It brings us back to the ancient past, to the roots of our civilization," reads a mission statement from the event's program. "It allows us to experience that which our ancestors' hands felt hundreds and thousands of years ago. Living archeology is the recreation of our past from the information we have in the present. Kernave is the cradle of Lithuania's heritage."