Rare Avar graves found in Croatia

Two rare Avar graves have been unearthed by archaeologists in the city cemetery of Vinkovci, eastern Croatia. This is the first Avar grave ever found in Vinkovci. The former Roman city of Cibalae in southeastern Pannonia was under Avar control in the 7th and 8th centuries, but until now, none of their graves had been discovered.

Fittingly enough, the ancient graves were discovered by workers expanding the Roman Catholic Cemetery of Vinkovci to make room for more burial plots. When they bumped up against a grave made of old tiles, they stopped work and called in archaeologists from the city museum. They unearthed a tile cist with a tile tent roof containing skeletal remains of an adult. When inclement weather and even more inclement pathogens struck Croatia, all archaeological investigations were suspended, but because the tomb had already been partially exposed and was in danger from the elements and from looters, the excavation was given a dispensation to continue.

Graves made from recycled roof tiles, bricks and slabs were fairly common in the late Roman period. They came in a variety of forms — simple cut graves with tile floors, cists with roofs of curved tiles placed convex-side up, curved tiles tilted against each other to cover the body, tiles used to make floors, walls, placed at head and feet and against each other in a tent-shaped roof. They have been found in Italy as well as France, Greece and other parts of the Empire. They generally date to late antiquity

Because the tile grave in Vinkovci is an elaborate version with complete walls, end pieces and gabled roof made of Roman brick and marble slabs taken from what had once been a luxury property, archaeologists first thought this was a late Roman burial. A few pieces of bronze found inside the tomb dated it stylistically to the the turn of the 7th to the 8th century, the Avar period. That means the invaders, having destroyed many Roman towns and driven their residents to flee west, used the ruins of their architecture to copy a Roman burial. That’s rarely found so late, and indicates there may have been some continuity of population in the area from late antiquity through the migration period and into the early Middle Ages.

The second is a cut grave containing the remains of a man and a horse complete with copper bridle ornaments. The grave had been looted in antiquity, but the thieves only stripped the warrior’s body of its adornments. The horse buried with him still had its finery, including an iron bit, iron stirrups and iron saddle braces, the first Avar saddle remains ever found in Croatia. The bronze ornaments on the harness include bronze rosettes, gilded circles and six fittings in the shape of a boar’s head.

This is a very rich Avar warrior burial, of a type found in important military cities that were part of a defensive ring along the southern Avar border in the turbulent 8th century. Its presence in Vinkovci opens up the possibility that it too may have been for some time one of the defensive strongholds on the southern border.

There are at least five more graves at the site and archaeologists will continue to excavate. They will remain on site to supervise the expansion of the city cemetery in case any more finds are revealed.

3 thoughts on “Rare Avar graves found in Croatia

  1. “And so we shall come, destroy your walls, rape and murder your population, and bury your rich homes with us”

  2. According to the ‘Annales Regni Francorum’, they were indeed made Catholic:

    “AD796: …But the Friuli leader (H)eiricus reacted, sent Vojnomir the Slav (Vonomir I) to Pannonia and plundered the stronghold of the Avars (“hringum gentis Avarorum”), who had long been quiet and were fighting a civil war among themselves, – Chagan and Iugurrus were in this internal mischief massacred – the treasure of their old kings, collected over many centuries (“multa seculorum prolixitate collectum”), he sent to Carolus (the later Charlemagne) in the palace in Aachen (“ad Aquis palatium”). Quo accepto peracta Deo largitori omnium bonorum gratiarum actione idem vir prudentissimus atque largissimus et Dei dispensator magnam inde partem Romam ad limina apostolorum misit per Angilbertum [Saint Angilbert] dilectum abbatem suum; porro reliquam partem obtimatibus, clericis sive laicis, ceterisque fidelibus suis largitus est…”

  3. The Monk of Saint Gall (“Monachus Sangallensis”), a.k.a. “Notker the Stammerer“, (notably, born almost 50 years later!) in his ‘Gesta Karoli’, Bk. II, possibly describes the Avar ‘Rhingum‘ in Pannonia, or what he heard about it:

    “…[they] devastated the whole land like a wide-sweeping conflagration, and then carried off all their spoils to a very safe hiding-place […] fortified by nine hedges. […] fashioned with logs of oak and ash and yew, twenty feet wide and the same in height. All the space within was filled with hard stones and binding clay; and the surface of these great ramparts was covered with sods and grass. […] But in all the circles the estates and houses were everywhere so arranged that the peal of the trumpet would carry the news of any event from one to the other.”

    On a sidenote, Leo III became Pope in 795, while in 799 he only narrowly escaped to Carolus, he quickly was provided with parts of the massive treasure and sent back to Rome. Then, in 800AD, Leo crowned Carolus –not accidentally, one might argue– Emperor of the “Roman” Empire.

    Einhard, however, who died in 840, lets us know:

    “The greatest of all his wars, next to the Saxon war, […], he undertook against the Huns and the Avars. He prosecuted this with more vigour than the rest and with a far greater military preparation. However, he conducted in person only one expedition into Pannonia, the province then occupied by the Avars; the management of the rest he left to his son Pippin, […] shown by the deserted and uninhabited condition of Pannonia, and the district in which stood the palace of the Kagan is so desolate that there is not so much as a trace of human habitation. […] Only two of the nobles of the Franks were killed in this war. Eric, the Duke of Friuli, was caught in an ambuscade laid by the townsmen of Tharsatica, a maritime town of Liburnia. And Gerold, the Prefect of Bavaria, […]. For the rest, the war was almost bloodless so far as the Franks were concerned, and most fortunate in its result although so difficult and protracted.”

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