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Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula


Beginning in August 2021, the Sambia Peninsula Expedition of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences is conducting archaeological excavations at the Putilovo-2 soil burial ground ahead of a proposed highway construction in the Zelenogradsky district, in the Kaliningrad region of Russia, on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea.


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Funerary inventory from a chamber of a "chieftain's" burial at the turn of the 4th/5th centuries
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Vessels from an elite burial of the 4th/5th centuries
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

The site has been known since the 1860s from finds at the Museum of Antiquities of the Prussian Society in the Royal Castle in Konigsberg. Some small excavations on the site were carried out in 1873 and in 1905. Based on these earlier excavations the burials were dated from the third to the eighth century. Unfortunately after 1945 the exact location of the site was lost.




In 2011, during exploration work conducted by SAE IA RAS along the route of the planned construction of the Primorsky motorway, archaeologists 'discovered' the site for the second time. From 2015 to 2017, the SAE IA RAS team conducted research at the Putilovo-2 burial ground within the framework of the programme "Amber in ancient cultures", initiated by the State Amber Museum.


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Grave goods from a female burial of the 6th century
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Funerary goods of a military burial of the 5th century
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Horse skeleton in a 6th century burial [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

The surveyed area is more than 8,000 square metres, and approximately 50% of the site has now been surveyed. About 300 funerary complexes dating from the fourth to the seventh century AD and a small number of settlement sites dating to the first centuries AD have been identified and examined in the investigated area.


By and large, the funerary practices at the necropolis correspond to local burial traditions of the Late Roman and Early Migration Period. Remains of stonework have survived over a small number of the graves. Most of the studied burials are represented by simple pit cremations dating to the sixth and seventh centuries and urn cremations dating to the fourth and fifth centuries. Military graves were accompanied by burials of horses.


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: Urn burial; 5th century; Right: Urn burial, 4th century
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: vessel from the burial of a horseman of the 6th century; Right: elements of
a horse headband on the remains of a horse skull in a 6th century burial
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: vessels from the 4th-6th centuries; Right, a ceramic, moulded mug\
 from a 5th century burial  [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

In the course of the research, it was established that the burial site had been subject to destruction since the Middle Ages, and that it served as a 'mine' for extracting metals by the local population. Presumably the locals discovered the cemetery at the end of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries during the mining of pitchstone for the construction of the Teutonic knights' castles and churches. 




While breaking up the stone slabs marking the burials, they also discovered funerary goods of various metals, including some of a high quality. Less visible equestrian burials were, as a rule, untouched. Several funerary objects, which had not been discovered by treasure hunters either in the Middle Ages or in Modern times, were preserved in the lower parts of the urns and near the walls of the grave pits. 


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: fibulae from the late 4th to early 7th centuries; Right: fibula from
the late 6th century in situ [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: Roman denarii from the 1st-2nd centuries; Right: Axe and dart tip
from a 5th century burial [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: Shield umbo from a 4th century burial; Right: Bronze fibula with details in silver,
end of the 4th century [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Burial items are quite diverse and are represented by ceramic vessels, ornaments made of bronze, iron and silver - fibules of various types, neck torcs, bracelets, parts of belt sets, glass and amber beads, and pendants. Various items of weaponry were found in military burials: spearheads and darts, axes, combat knives and daggers, a single-edged sword and iron shield pins. 


In addition to weapons, tools and implements of labour were found in the men's graves: scrapers, scissors, scythes, socketed axes, whetstones, etc. Among the burials of the fourth – fifth centuries, silver Roman denarii of the first and second centuries are often encountered and occasionally large copper-alloy Roman coins, generally represented by sestertii also from the first and second centuries. 


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Amber beads, glass and silver pendant from the 4th-6th centuries
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

In the tombs, along with materials characteristic of the Aestii culture at the end of the Roman period and the Great Migration, various imported objects have been found which originate from neighbouring territories - the eastern part of the Velbarsk culture area, the islands of the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia, as well as the Danube regions and the Chernyakhov culture.


During the course of the research, four graves were discovered, the earliest of which dates to the end of the 4th century and the latest to the 6th, and which can be reasonably regarded as the burials of the Aestian elite. The details of the burial rites and the rich choice of grave goods testify to a high social status of the people buried there.


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: amber pendant bead of a dagger hilt from the first half of the 5th century;
Right 6th century bronze fibula [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: parts of a waist belt from the 1st half of the 5th century; Right: silver bell-shaped pendants
and glass beads from the 1st half of the 5th century [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Left: gold wire ring from the end of the 4th century; Right, Buckle and a belt tip from
a belt set from the end of the 4th century [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

These graves belong, undoubtedly, to the so-called "vozhdeskim" or warrior elite. They were rectangular wooden chambers oriented north-south, with cremated remains of the horsemen. To the west of the horsemen's graves, there were horse burials (up to three animals, with their heads facing south), in accordance with local customs.




In these burials, dating from the late fourth or early fifth century, in addition to the usual inventory typical for the Sambian-Natangian culture, objects produced in various regions of Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula were found.  These include a wire ring made of gold, an iron dagger with a bronze tip, an axe and a large copper spearhead decorated with silver etchings depicting solar symbols on the shaft, as well as various other objects made of iron, bronze, silver, horn, etc. 


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Gold wire ring from a chamber burial from the turn of the 4th/5th centuries,
after restoration [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Glass ludus latrunculorum tokens from the end of the 4th century
[Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

One of the most noteworthy finds in these graves was the discovery of about a hundred Roman glass tokens from the ludus latrunculorum, a game popular in the Roman Empire between the firs and fourth centuries. There have been no similar finds in the Sambian-Natangian area to date. This game spread from the Roman Empire with the barbarian allies and merchants over the territory of Germania Libera, where it also became popular among the barbarian elite, especially among the Germans. 


The Putilovo 2 necropolis, located at the source of the Primorskaya river, which flows into the Gulf of Kaliningrad near the town of Primorsk, occupies an important position in the ancient landscape of the region. This waterway system, which originated at the point where the largest quantities of amber were discharged from the sea, was used in ancient times to transport amber from the heart of the Sambic peninsula to the source of the Vistula, in the area of the Wielbari culture. 


Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Bird's-eye view of the Putilovo-2 necropolis [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Putilovo 2 excavation view [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

Graves of 'amber elites' unearthed in Russia's Sambia Peninsula
Hearth in a settlement of the first century AD [Credit: Konstantin N. Skvortsov, RAS]

The overall character of findings show that this area belonged to the main administrative and trade centre of north-western Sambia in the fourth and sixth centuries AD. People who inhabited this region were certainly connected with the amber trade, thanks to which the clan elite grew rich. The population of this micro-region was integrated into the system of amber collection and communication along the amber route between Sambia and neighbouring regions, which is also confirmed by the numerous imports found in the funerary inventory. It is clear that the collection and sale of amber had a significant impact on the life of the local population in antiquity, and that this activity was an integral part of life in this micro-region for several thousand years.


Excavations of this important archeological site of Roman influences and the Great Migration in the region will continue till the summer of 2022.


Authors: K.N. Skvortsov & S.A. Zotz | Source: Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences [trsl. TANN; December 29, 2021]



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