Sunday, September 9, 2018


There it is a "special link" between Rome and Lithuania since classical times, a link due to the "amber".

Indeed no Roman legion ever reached the shores of the Baltic sea, as we all know, but at least one Roman soldier arrived for sure in what is now modern Lithuania. In his “Natural History” Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote that during the reign of Nero (37-68 AD) a member of the equestrian noble order was sent (with a group supporting him, of course) to the northern regions to procure the supply of amber to decorate the arms of gladiators. According to him, it was a distance of about six hundred Roman miles between the center of amber source (in coastal Lithuania and surroundings) and Carnuntum (near Vienna, on the right side of the Danube). He brought back amber in such vast quantities that during the days of gladiatorial contests the whole Roman amphitheatre, gladiators and servants were decorated with amber. The largest piece of amber was 13 pounds in weight (4,2 kg). Pliny the Elder explained the passion for amber. He wrote that instead of wearing neck-rings many Roman women used amber as they counted on its curative powers (it was a widespread belief that amber could cure thyroid and other throat diseases) and on the magic of its beauty.

This link seems to be at the origin of why sixteenth-century Lithuanian noble houses were only too happy to ground their contemporary power in a historical myth which traced their ancestry to Ancient Rome. The Roman origin myth of Lithuanians aristocracy takes us back to the times of Emperor Nero when the Roman Duke Palemon (probably the name of the member of the equestrian order remembered by Pliny) and 500 of his noble companions, incensed by the tyrant's high-handedness, took their families (four Roman patrician houses: the Centaur family, the Column family, the Bear family and the Rose family) and left the Eternal City. After a long journey through seas and oceans, they settled on the Baltic coast, according to the myth. These 500 noble Romans allegedly started the dynasties of Lithuanian dukes and gentry. The Roman origins legend helped solve two important issues: first, Lithuanians thus made claim to a place in History among other European peoples and, second, linked their story to the History of Antiquity and Christendom (Lithuana is the northernmost country worshipping Catholicism and Rome's Pope). In sixteenth-century Lithuania, the Roman origin myth became a powerful historical narrative and a centre of Lithuanian identity. The political community of the Grand Duchy, still in formation, needed it to anchor its identity. The story of Palemon, propagated in contemporary chronicles, gave the origin myth to the class of landowners and gave them a place among European peers.

Furthernore, we must pinpoint that the ancient West Balts came into contact, directly and indirectly, with the advanced material culture and foreign concepts of imperial Rome during the period known as the "Old Iron Age" (AD 1-400) in Lithuanian archaeology. Roman traders and their middlemen arrived to procure natural drift amber, an exotic material that would be transformed in the workshops of Aquileia (northern Italy) into items much desired by the fashionable ladies of Italy: finger rings, necklaces and amulet pendants, ornately carved scent bottles and other miniature vessels, mirror-backs, and intricate figurines of deities, theater performers, and cupids riding dolphins and horses. This trade contact, some archaeologists believe, greatly stimulated the cultural evolution of Baltic society. They term it a “golden age” that saw trade embassies from Rome, and by the early third century cargo ships from the Frisian port of Fectio (near Utrecht, Netherlands) anchor off the Baltic coastline, bringing in sacks of coins, metal tools and weapons, textiles, household wares and personal ornaments to be exchanged for amber (according to academics Michelbertas and Jovaisa). This allowed Balts to acquire new metal and farming technologies, plants and livestock, which in turn increased productivity and population and began to stratify Lithuanian society into nobles and farmers.

Last but not least we have to remember that what is now Lithuania was at the end of the so called "Amber route". The route had different branches, one from the Oder river toward the central-western Alps, while the main branch of the route led from Lithuania across the Alps into the northern Italy. Yet another land amber road led from the shores of the Baltic Sea as far as the Dniester river, through the mouth of the Danube into the Caucasus, reaching into the eastern regions of the Black Sea and the south-western parts of the Caspian Sea. The travellers of these routes reached as far as Asia Minor.

Indeed in the first through the third century, “amber route” represented, speaking in modern terms, an entire industry. Huge treasures of raw Baltic amber have been found between Wroclaw and Partynica along the Oder River in Lower Silesia. It is believed that animal fur and hide, honey and wax were traded with the Romans along the same routes. In exchange, bronze, silver and gold coins, brass and glass vessels, ceramic items, glass and enamel beads, brooches decorated in enamel and brass, also non-ferrous metals, like copper, zinc, tin and silver were imported into the Baltic lands from the provinces of the Roman Empire. In the third century the land amber route declined in importance giving way to sea trade preferred by all the peoples of the Baltic region. In the third – fifth centuries, the eastern roads were used for trade with eastern neighbours. The third and fourth centuries saw trade links expand with the Scandinavians, especially with the islands of Gotland and Ă–land.

Amber, alongside with imported articles, was an object of trade not only with the Roman provinces, but also within the Baltic lands. Amber jewellery was not an exclusively female ornament; it was worn also by men and boys, even though women’s graves yield more amber artefacts. Often beads of amber were used in strings. Amber beads were combined with beads of glass and enamel, also with brass spiral pendants.In the Late Iron Age amber was costly merchandise in the Roman Empire. Thus, only small amount of it was spared for the local market. The situation changed in the Middle Iron Age. After the fall of the Roman Empire, from the second half of the fifth century, the amount of amber is seen to have increased in all burial monuments in Lithuania. Amber beads-amulets are being excavated in the graves of men and women. Women’s graves are often found to contain amber spindles among other utensils. The burials from the seventh till the ninth century contain fewer imported items. At that time the previously established trade routes with Western and Southern Europe were temporarily disrupted.

In a few words, by the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was carving this semi-precious material into elaborate decorative items, small implements, and eating utensils. To meet the huge demand for raw amber, a trade route developed. It began on the shores of the Baltic Sea, traversed present-day Poland, and continued south through Eastern Europe to the Adriatic coast of present-day Italy (reaching the port-city of Aquileia, as can be seen in the following map). From there, it went overland across the Italian peninsula to Rome. This "Amber Way", as it became known, was the precursor for all trade routes connecting north and south Europe.

Indeed there are many interesting books about the amber trade done by Roman merchants in localities of Lithuania (and the surrounding coastal areas): the following are some excerpts related to Dauglaukis, from a book written by Eugenijus Jovaisa and titled The 'Balts and the Amber' (Vilnius: Publishing Office of Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts, 2001):

Dauglaukis findings

Amber ornaments, together with Roman artefacts, were excavated in most burial monuments in Lithuania. For example, the cemetery of Dauglaukis which is attributed to the culture of the lower reaches of the River Nemunas. Dating to the Old Iron Age, this rich burial monument manifests a versatile usage of amber in the daily life of the Balts.

A 127 burial grouping of Dauglaukis falls into three chronological groups which encompass a period from 70 to 260 AD (70-150, 150-220, 220-260). Twelve Roman bronze sestertii were located in ten graves in the cemetery of Dauglaukis. Their biggest part is attributed to the dynasty of Antonines: Antoninus Pius (138-161), Antoninus Pius adopted successor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and Commodus (177-192) who was the last in the dynasty. This consecutive order indicates active contacts between the Dauglaukis community and the merchants from the Roman Empire. It might seem that there should have been coins of the Severan dynasty, however, it is not so. Other Roman coins are attributed to the late Roman emperors, e. g., there was found a bronze sestertius of Gordian's III reign (238-244).

The community of Dauglaukis lived under the conditions of military democracy. The stratification of society was based on wealth and patriarchal system. Men's graves comprise burial goods which abound in weapons and tools of labour. A man was a leader in the family, household and military. Whereas women's graves were mostly furnished with ornaments, though some burials are equipped with such household articles as awls, needles and, in very rare cases, parts of spinning equipment. It seems that a woman must have been confined to the concerns of the household only.

Private property determined the division of the community of Dauglaukis into 3 classes: 1) “common”, 2) “well-to-do”, and 3) “rich”. An apparent reflection of this differentiation is an average number of burial goods found in a grave of an individual. A “common” tribal woman had 2.7 burial items, a “well-to-do” woman possessed 7.5 articles, and a “rich” woman owned even 14.4 burial goods. Similar finds come from the graves of men: a “common” man had 2.8 items, a “well-to-do” man possessed 5.1 burial goods, and a “rich” man was equipped with 8. 5 burial items. It is interesting that the well-to-do and rich members of the Dauglaukis community owned the largest share of amber - almost 75.3%. Archeologist Sidrys has made a statistical analysis of the amber finds in the cemetry of Dauglaukis and confirmed a direct subordination between amber and rich graves.

Grave 41 yielded 97 amber beads, pendants and other articles together with pieces of raw amber. Amber was used for decorations by everyone: men and women, girls and boys. The biggest volume of amber was located in the graves of women and girls. Amber beads were often used to adorn necklaces (14). As a rule, amber was used together with enamelled and glass beads, sometimes with brass spirals.

It is of interest to note that no genuine amber necklace has been found so far with the exception of the cemeteries of Vidgiriai and Plinkaigalis, dating to the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century AD. Sidrys writes: “Amber must have had no high status or high economic value since the merchants of Middle Lithuania did not mediate between the locals and the Romans in amber export”. The author demonstrates a poor understanding of the end of the Old Iron Age. Though the merchants of Middle Lithuania did not mediate between the locals and the Romans, archeological finds comprise spectacular Roman collections of enamelled and glass beads, imported fibulae and, most importantly, a very rare sample of imported bronze jug. However, there is no or little amber, and the further from the sea, the less amber is found in the burial monuments of the Old Iron Age. But in the burial monuments of the Old Iron Age only! This pattern, however, does not apply to the Middle Iron Age. Why? In the Old Iron Age a high demand of amber in the Roman Empire made amber a highly expensive good in the amber source metropolis itself. Not without reason, amber was combined with imported enamelled and glass beads to decorate necklaces. With the fall of the Roman Empire, already from the second half of the 5th century AD we observe an increase of amber objects in all Lithuanian burial monuments. Therefore, it is not by chance that considerable quantities of amber are found in the above-mentioned cemetery at Plinkaigalis in Middle Lithuania.

Sidrys also notes that “the statistical subordination between amber and rich graves was confirmed in Dauglaukis, as opposed to Vidgiriai which was outstanding in amber”. Compared are two burial monuments which are incomparable by definition. The cemetery of Dauglaukis dates to the period 70-260 AD whereas the early cemeteries of Vidgiriai date 450 years later. If the author had treated amber as a “high-ranking” good, it would have been obvious that with the decline of the “Amber route”, amber became more available to the Baltic tribes themselves.

Amber beads-amulets were located in twenty graves in Dauglaukis. Most of them were found in men's graves, and only some were unearthed in women's and girls' graves. In our literature there are no comprehensive studies made on the nature of amber beads-amulets. We can only assume that these amulets are trully genuine. In men's graves they are usually found in the neck area. They must have been hung on a string and worn round the neck. Tacitus makes a mention of amulets worn by the 'Aestians'. It is true, though, that these were boar-shaped figurines or boar masks which “... protected them, and ensured the safety of the worshipper even among his enemies”.

An interesting find also comes from men's grave 82. It is composed from brass spirals, an antropomorphic brass pendant and one amber bead. Perhaps it was not by chance that amber was coupled with a human-face-shaped pendant? The women of the Dauglaukis community also wore amber to decorate sashes which supported their hair. Such ornaments come from four graves. Women used sashes, made from woollen cloth or leather, to underlie their hair, and on the back of the head would attach an ornament composed from brass spirals separated by big pieces of amber. It should be added that such finds have no equivalents in the assortment of women's head-dress decorations dated to the Old Iron Age.

Amber pendants are extremely scarce in Dauglaukis. They were accidentally excavated in three graves. Grave 63 possessed a necklace which had amber as both 1) a component used together with enamelled and glass beads, and 2) as a pendant. Amber pendants can vary in form. They can be drop-shaped (grave 70), rectangular (grave 79), “wooden mortar-shaped”, etc.

Beside two Roman coins, an amazing article was found in woman's grave 55. It resembles a modern-day thread spool or a fly-wheel. It is the only such find out of all Lithuanian burial monuments dating to the Old Iron Age, and it is hard to say what purpose it served. It might have been a woman's tool used for spinning. Grave 6 was equipped with an amber spindle. Grave 34 deserves a mention, too. It contained three little pieces of raw amber.

The burial grounds of Dauglaukis have revealed a wide range of amber usage in the Baltic household. The finds encompass ornaments, items of religious purpose, tools for labour. With its origins in the Neolithic Age, amber tradition was developed in the Old Iron Age.