The Semigallian cultural area

Ilona Vaškevičiūtė


The studies of archeological cultures and ethnic history of tribes are based on ethnic boundaries as one of key issues.

A large cultural area of barrows with stone circles developed in the first ages after Christ in the present territory of Latvia and Lithuania. In, approximately, the 4th–5th century this large area disintegrated into a few Baltic tribes.

In the 13th–14th century the areas inhabited by Semigallians in the Mūša–Lielupė basin was included in two states – the southern part in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the northern – in Livonia. This political boundary, which divided the Semigallian lands, persisted for a few centuries and in 1919–1920 was recognized as the Latvian–Lithuanian boundary.

The territory and inhabitants of Semigallia has been in the focus of attention already for a few centuries. At the end of the 19th century A. Bielenstein undertook to find out the areas inhabited by Semigallians. He suppo-sed that the western boundary between Semigallia and Curonia stretched till the confluence of Vadakstis and Agluona rivers, the southern boundary with Samogitians and Lithuanians ran across the forests in the south of Sidabrė and Meškučiai, the southeastern boundary ran from Bauskė along the Mūša river and till Panevėžys, the boundary with Selonians was marked by a belt of forests. In the north the Semigallian lands must have stretched till the Gulf of Riga in the environs of Lielupė mouth. A. Bielenstein’s assumption has been later recognized by all historians and archaeologists.

The earliest interest of Lithuania in Semigallia manifested through mapping of its archaeological sites (F. Pokrovskis, J. Elisonas, P. Tarasenka).

The books "The Latvian archaeology" and "Latviešu vesture", published in Riga in 1926 and 1938, were in the most dedicated to the history of Baltic tribes. According to the map included in these books the territory inhabited by Semigallian in the 1st–4th century A. D. was the largest they ever had. The northern boundary reached the Gulf of Riga but included a wider sector of coastal area. The western boundary was marked by Ežerupis and Vadakstis, whereas in the east the Semigallian territory crossed Dauguva and included part of its right bank. In the southeast the Semigallian territory included all Selonian lands. The southern boundary was traditonally marked by Mūša.

The territory occupied by Semigallians in the 5th–9th century was somewhat smaller. The western and southern boundaries remained unchanged. In the north Semigallia bordered on the Gulf of Riga but in a smaller sector of coastal area. In the northeast the Semigallian territory did not reach Dauguva.

In the 9th–13th century the Semigallian territory became even smaller. In the north it bordered on the Gulf of Riga. The western boundary ran along Ežerupis and Vadakstis, in the southwest the Semigallian territory was reduced by Samogitian lands, whereas in the east the former Semigallian territory is represented by Kuoknesė land.

Thus, in Fr. Balodis’ opinion, the Semigallian territory varied in the course of ages. It reached its maximum in the 1st–4th century A. D. and gradually decreased in the following periods.

J. Puzinas in his overview of the Lithuanian archaeology also distinguished Semigallia–Mūša basin – Akmenė–Šiauliai–Rozalimas–Pumpėnai–Biržai. The southern boundary of Semigallian territory, indicated by him, almost coincides with the data of recent investigations except that it was moved a bit further to the north including some Selonian areas and in the southeast and west the Semigallian territory was a bit reduced.

M. Alseikaitė in her work “Balts in the prehistorical times” makes an attempt to highlight the theory of the origin of Balts. The territory of Semigallian tribe, as defined by the author, was limited by Šiauliai and Upytė lands in the south, Lielupė basin and Gulf of Riga in the north, in the northeast the Semigallian territory included the areas till Dauguva; in Lithuania the Semigallian territory stretched till Tauragnai–Svėdasai. The western boundary of Semigallian territory, i.e., the boundary with Curonia, was not indicated. Evidently, her and J. Puzinas’ views on this question are at variance. The author ascribed to Semigallian territory by far greater areas; particularly in the southeastern part.

Estonian archeologist H. Moora in his book about Baltic tribes of 1952 pointed out that already in the 2nd century A. D. there existed well-defined cultural areas; flat burials grounds between Venta and Dauguva were ascribed to Semigallians. In H. Moora’s opinion this territory in the course of time expanded to the east and to the south.

Greater details about Semigallian culture are contained in R. Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė’s book “Lithuanians in the 9th–12th century”. The Semigallian territory defined in this work is somewhat smaller if compared with the one defined by above mentioned researchers. It particularly refers to the southern and eastern boundaries. The southern boundary is limited by Mūša. In author’s opinion at the beginning of the IInd millennium A. D. Semigallians moved further to the north, whereas their territory in the south was occupied by Highlanders and Samogitians.

A. Tautavičius in his works touched upon the question of Semigallian localization. According to him, the Semigallian territory included the Mūša basin: the eastern edge was marked by Degėsiai cemetery, the western – Rukuižiai, the southern – Vilkančiai, Vinkšnėnai ir Račiai cemeteries. The find places situated further to the south and west most likely belonged to Samogitians (Junkilai, Požėrė, Vėžlaukis). From the map given by A. Tautavičius we can see that the Semigallian territory was considerably extended in the southern direction. The territory occupied by Semigallians was distinguished on the basis of cemeteries. It stretched till Venta in the west, Šiauliai district in the southwest, northern edge of Panevėžys district in the southeast. The eastern boundary remained undefined because of the lack of data of archaeological sites of the 5th–7th century in the Kupiškis, Rokiškis and Biržai districts. The Semigallian territory was defined as a somewhat larger one than it used to be before. A. Tautavičius goes back to the history of Semigallian origin and culture in his article “The Samogitian ethnogenesis”. In Tautavičius’ opinion the Samogitian culture had the same original mother as Semigallians. He repeatedly emphasized the kindred Semigallian and Samogitian culture which proved their similar origin.

M. Gimbutienė in her book “Balts in Prehistorical Times” (1985) ascribed to Semigallia the part of Middle Latvia and Northern Lithuania corresponding the Mūša basin. However, the southern boundary of Semigallia was not discussed in greater detail. The author confined herfelf to the statement that Semigallians lived in “the Mūša basin".

A considerable part of M. Michelbert’s book "The Roman Iron Age in Lithuania" is dedicated to the Northern Lithuanian barrows with stone circles. It is stated that the Semigallian culture has developed from the northeastern area (352–450 m) of East Lithuanian Barrow culture.

V. Sedov’s book "Finno-Ugrians and Balts in the Middle Ages" is dedicated to the history of all Baltic tribes. The author bases himself on the works of Latvian and Lithuanian archaeologists, but distinguishes the Baltic tribes into "Latvians" and "Lithuanians" on the ground of state borders settled in the historical times. According to the author such tribes as Semigallians and Selonians are "Latvian" tribes. In this respect he as if goes back to A. Bielenstein’s view according to which Semigallians and Lettigallians spoke Lettish. The Lithuanian archaeological atlas served as the reference book for describing the southern boundaries of Semigallia. The western boundary was marked by Venta, southern – Šiauliai, Papilė, Mažeikiai, eastern – Panevėžys–Pasvalys.

In the book "The Lithuanian Ethnogenesis" specialists of different fields of research make an attempt to analyse the process of developing of Lithuanian ethnos. The greater part of this book is dedicated to differentiated Baltic tribes. For example, A. Tautavičius, who describes the cultural areas and their burial sites as well as development of Barrow culture in Samogitia, Northern Lithuania and Southern Latvia, reasons that this culture was created by the local inhabitants and people who moved into this scantily inhabited area from the coastal area in the 1st age B. C. or the 1st age A. D. In the 5th–6th century the Semigallian culture branched from the common stem of Baltic tribes. The close links between the Semigallian and Samogitian culture are emphasized. In author’s opinion these links had been predetermined by a common Barrow culture in the past. Writing about the sources of Lithuanian nationality R. Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė analyses the changes which took place in each of the mentioned tribes in the 5th–6th century. In author’s opinion Semigallians gradually moved not only to the north but also to the northwest. She also thinks that in earlier periods Semigallians used to occupy a larger territory. In later periods they moved to the north.

Among Latvian archaeologists, who in the last decades devoted most of their time to Semigallian cemeteries, we can mention M. Atgazis. Describing the boundaries of tribes he pointed out that in the north Semigallia reached Lielstraupe, west – Zante and Ežere, whereas the boundary with Lettigallia was yet not clear. The author accepted the southern boundary of Semigallian tribe as described by A. Tautavičius. The author agreed that the Semigallian and Samogitian cultures had much in common.

The Semigallian culture receives much attention also in Latvian archeaology. However, the issue of boundaries is not discussed explicitly. The maps available in the Latvian archaeology ascribe to Semigallia only the lands in the Lielupe basin. The eastern boundary of Semigallia did not even reach Dauguva, the northern – the Gulf of Riga. The southern boundary is not defined. The areas inhabited by Semigallian are indicated only till the Lithuanian–Latvian border. In other words, the territory inhabited by Semigallians is defined as a by far smaller one than described by A. Bielenstein, Fr. Balodis, H. Moora and others.

One article of the author of this work is dedicated to Semigallian and Curonian relations. On the basis of material from Pavirvytė cemetery the author states that in the 10th–11th century Curonians penetrated not only into Livonian lands (in the northern part of Curonia) but in small groups moved to the areas inhabited by Semigallians.

Some funeral customs, including the ones in the Northern Lithuania, have been discussed by V. Žulkus. In his opinion Semigallian and Selonian territories were divided by the boggy Lėvuo plain merging in the south into the Lėvuo valley. Usually, buried individuals are oriented towards them. In this way the author specifies the Semigallian–Selonian boundary.

The above given list of works can be extended by some smaller works, articles, which in various aspects touch upon the issue of Semigallian territory and population.

All these publications are considerably supplemented by archaeological material of the last two decades collected in Jauneikiai, Pavirvytė, Šukioniai, Stungiai and other archaeological sites. It may be helpful in specifying the southwestern and southeastern boundaries of Semigallia.

The material collected in the Pavirvytė cemetery indicate that the western boundary with Curonia should be drawn not along the Venta river but along the Virvytė river till its confluence with Venta, I. e., evidently, the territory on the left bank of Venta till Virvytė belonged to Semigallians. From Viekšniai the boundary should be drawn along the Venta river. The southern boundary should make a line between the northern edges of Šiauliai and Kuršėnai (the Lieporiai cemetery in the southern part of Šiauliai did not belong to Semigallia). From Šiauliai and furthern to the east the boundary would run along the southern edge of Pakruojis district (Stačiūnai, Šukioniai, Meldiniai cemetery) and northern edge of Panevėžys district along the Lėvuo river. Due to the lack of archaeological sites the eastern and southeastern edges of Semigallia still remain a problem. The territory between Lėvuo and Pyvesa in the present Pasvalys district is obviously Semigallian. This view is supported by archaeological material from Smilgiai and Pumpėnai cemeteries. Further in the north and in the east, i.e., at the joint of Kupiškis and Biržai districts, might have been marked by Vabalninkas and Anciškiai cemeteries (both are completely destroyed). Therefore, the line of the eastern boundary of Semigallia may, presumably, be drawn from Vabalninkas and furthern along the Apasčia river till the confluence with Nemunėlis. The territory between Apasčia and Pyvesa has very few archaeological sites. The landscape is low and boggy. Evidently this area was unfavourable for living and for burying purposes. It seems likely that the greater part of Biržai district was a wasteland between Semigallia and Selonia.

Having determined the probable boundaries of Semigallia we can now go on to the next question – the characteristic features of this tribe. The religious beliefs, idea of life, and mode of life of all Baltic tribes were similar or even identical. Semigallians were not an exception. They built barrows, buildings, fortifications, established settlements. Today we know about 20 barrows in Lithuania.

The ethnic differences are somewhat more distinct in funeral customs. Namely funeral customs enable to distinguish between the cultures of different tribes.

The Lithuanian part of Semigallia includes about 60 burial grounds. Some of them have been explored. They are: Linkaičiai, Jauneikiai, Degėsiai, Valdamai, Diržiai, Pamiškiai, Pavirvytė, Stungiai and Šukioniai cemeteries. So far 20% of burial sites and more than 1000 burials in them have been investigated. The investigated sites are scattered over the whole territory. The investigated burials are dated to the 5th–12th century. In the northern part of Lithuania the number of burials from the 8th–11th century is by far greater than the number of burials from the 5th–7th century. Whereas in Latvian Semigallia on the contrary – the number of burials from the 5th–7th century is greater.

Semigallian cemeteries are in most cases found by the old barrow cemeteries. This implies the stability of ethnic composition of the population. However, it is possible to trace changes of the world outlook and customs. The increasing number of the population resulted in an increasing number of burial grounds. The burial sites used to be established on small hills with a small river flowing in the neighbourhood.

The same burial sites would be used for a few centuries. There are cemeteries which were established in the 5th century and contain burials from the 12th–13th century and even from the 16th–17th century. Having returned to the old habitation places the inhabitants would use the same burial grounds.

Inhumations represent one of the most characteristic funeral customs of Semigallians. It persisted throughout the whole period of existence of this tribe. The individuals would be buried in shallow – 30–90 cm deep-grave pits. In the 5th–7th centuries the buried individuals were wrapped up in sheets. In the 8th–12th century some individuals were buried in coffins.

The Semigallian burial items include many weapons and few working tools. Axes are usually found in male burials of the 5th–7th century. In burials of the 8th–11th century axes are found but rarely. Among other male working tools we can mention knives. Ice-picks, bindings of drinking horns, pincets and riding bits are sometimes found in the leg or waist area.

Female burials usually contain hoes, small knives, awls and needles. Hoe is one of the most characteristic tools of Semigallian females.

Males used to fasten their clothing with brooches. In the 5th–8th century various crossbow brooches were the most popular ones. Beginning with the 9th century, there appeared penannular brooches. Males also used to wear bracelets (they are usually found on the left hand) and neck-rings. The wearing style of ornaments remained the same till the 12th century. Only the forms of ornaments changed and the number of burials with neck-rings increased.

Female burial items include more ornaments and they are more variable. Female burials of the 5th–7th century usually contain headbands and a pair of pins interconnected by chains. Bracelets are found on both hands. Some females were buried with neck-rings. Headbands in burials of the 8th–12th century are found in rarer cases, but the number of neck-rings increases till 2, 3 or even 4.

The burial items in children’s burials are not numerous. Knives are found in the shoulder or waist area. Young boys are buried with spears. The clothing used to be fastened with brooches or pins. One bead is often found on the neck and a bracelet on the hand. Bracelets are often remade from a larger bracelet and adapted to fit a smaller hand.

As was already mentioned, inhumations were a typical trait of Semigallian culture. The custom of cremation was not known to Semigallians.

An opposite orientation of buried individuals is another typical trait of Semigallian burial customs. This custom was also followed by Samogitians and Lettigallians. However, differently from Samogitians, Uplanders and Lithuanians Semigallians had no custom of burying horses together with individuals. In this respect Semigallians are closer to Lettigallians. Semigallian burial items never include hoarse burial items (as was a custom with curonians) or riding gear (as was a custom with Highlanders). This custom also relates Semigallians with Lettigallians.

Abundance of burial items is another characteristic trait of Semigallian funeral customs. However, it was also characteristic of neighbouring Curonian, Samogitian, Lettigalian and Selonian tribes. Anyway, the composition and placement of burial items distinguish Semigallians from the neighbouring tribes. It is particularly true of the number and placement of weapons.

Ethnic similarities and differences are emphasized by such burial item as axe. The custom to put axes in burials was known to Semigallians. However, beginning with the 7th century males were buried with axes in by far rarer cases than in Lettigallia and Samogitia. Two types of axes were used in Semigallia – socketed and with a blunt end. The socketed axes were widespread in the western part of Semigallia, the axes with a blunt end in the eastern. Samogitians and Curonians used only socketed axes, Lettigallians, Selonians and Uplanders – axes with a blunt end. Burials of the 9th–12th century do not contain battle axes with handles embellished with bronze which were characteristic of Lettigallians.

A hoe is one more burial item particularly characteristic of Semigallians. So far they have been found only in the Semigallian territory. Isolated case occur in the Uplander and Lithuanian tribes. Semigallian females used knives with bent points. In general working tools in Semigallian burials are by far rarer finds than in the burials of other tribes.

Distinguishing features of Semigallian culture are also reflected by the ornaments put into burials. Though metal ornaments were worn by all Baltic tribes the popularity of various types of ornaments was different.

Females of all tribes wore metal headdress. However, its types differed. Only Semigallian women and women of the neighbouring Samogitia wore headbands made of large bronze plates interconnected by small spirals. But differently from Samogitians, Semigallian women used to wear a large spiral garland above the headband. Semigallian women as also Lettigallian women would not embellish the edges of their caps with metal pendants as was the custom with Samogitian, Curonian and Scalvian women. Sometimes caps and headbands had small bronze bits suspended on their edges.

For fastening male and female clothing Semigallians and Samogitians used different ornaments. Males used brooches, females – a pair of pins. The palcement of pins in burials differed Semigallians from Samogitians. The most popular pins were: ring-shaped, with a triangular head and various cruciform pins. Semigallian, Samogitian and Curonian women used pins interconnected with long chains and having suspended pendants.

Semigallian women liked bracelets with a prominent triangular edge. This form of bracelets was also popular among Samogitians and somewhat less popular among Uplanders. Only Semigallians and Lettigallians used to wear the "warrior" and massive bracelets.

Rings were not popular in Semigallia. They were popular among Curonians. Buckles and metal parts of belts are rare finds in Semigallian burials implying that Semigallians had no custom of burying with belts. This is a distinguishing feature of Semigallians if compared with Samogitians and, particularly, with Curonians Belts are also few in Lettigallian burials.

Summarizing what was said above we may state that the Semigallian culture has most in common with the Samogitian and Lettigallian cultures. No a doubt, all these tribes had the same original mother – the barrow with stone circles culture. There exist certain differences within the tribe. They were conditioned by cultural influence of neighbours – Curonians and Samogitians in the west, Uplanders in the south, Selonians and Lettigallians in the east. These differences manifest not only in the material culture but in the language as well. Various aspects of the Semigallian language are closer either to Lettish or Lithuanian.

Translated by Ada Jurkonytė