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Kernavė Archaeological Site

Kernavė, Where the Only King of Lithuania Was Crowned


Lithuania was one of the most powerful states in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages and as a result, has a rich history and culture . At this time, the capital city was Kernavė, which today is an extensive archaeological site. Although the city was abandoned many years ago, the remains have been turned into an archaeological park in recent years. In 2004 it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The History of Kernavė: Capital of The Duchy of Lithuania

Archaeologists believe that this area has been inhabited continuously since the Paleolithic period and the history of the site is associated with the rise and fall of the Duchy of Lithuania. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Baltic region remained pagan during the Middle Ages which led the Pope to order an attack on the pagans and convert them to Christianity. Germans and Scandinavians took up the crusade against the Baltic people.

Representation of the Knight of the crusade (Nomad Soul / Adobe Stock)

Representation of the Knight of the crusade ( Nomad Soul / Adobe Stock)

The Teutonic Knights were at the forefront of the Crusade which led to the emergence of the Duchy of Lithuania, which not only managed to retain its independence, but even expanded. It eventually occupied large areas of what is now Lithuania, Belarus, and Western Russia.

The Lithuanians built a town with fortifications here during the early Middle Ages and when the Duchy was being consolidated by Mindaugas, he made Kernavė the capital of the new Lithuanian state. Mindaugras was crowned Grand Duke of Lithuania - the first and only Christian king of Lithuania.

Although Mindaugras was later assassinated, his successors, the Dukes of Lithuania , also made Kernavė their capital. It remained the capital of the Duchy even when it was unified with the Kingdom of Poland . According to sources it was a multi-cultural settlement with many tradesmen and merchants.

Medieval cavalry attack illustration. Battle with Teutonic knights. (Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

Medieval cavalry attack illustration. Battle with Teutonic knights . ( Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

During the Lithuanian Civil War (1389-1392), the Teutonic Knights captured and burned the town. It was abandoned and the inhabitants built a new settlement on nearby hills. The old ruins of Kernavė gradually sank into the soggy ground and were covered in peat . The site was excavated in the 19 th century and with so many archaeological discoveries made, it has been called the ‘Lithuanian Troy’.  In 1988 Kernavė was declared a state cultural reserve , which also includes a small village of the same name.

The newer village of Kernavė that was built on the hill is near the old capital and is still inhabited.

The Sights at Kernavė Archaeological Site

The large archaeological park is set in a river valley . It contains remains from the Stone Age and some from the modern era with a number of unfortified settlements that date from the Neolithic and the Middle Ages .

The most significant part of the reserve's territory is the ancient defense system , one of the most unique in Europe as a chain of five wooden hill forts was built during the Duchy of Lithuania. 

There are also a number of burial sites near the defensive fortifications with approximately 130 burial mounds identified.

The pathways around Kernavė, formal ancient capital of Lithuania (Asta Plechaviciute / Adobe Stock)

The pathways around Kernavė, formal ancient capital of Lithuania ( Asta Plechaviciute / Adobe Stock)

While many of the remains have sunken into the peaty ground and are no longer visible, the large oak forest in the reserve contains a number of runes inscribed on rocks. Extensive pathway wind around the hills, which were once topped by forts. One of the most popular parts of the park is the area where Mindaugras was crowned as ruler of Lithuania .

The beautiful wooden chapel that dates from the 19 th century is a fine example of Lithuanian folk architecture and the foundation of an 18 th century church to be seen.

Visiting Kernavė Archaeological Site

An entry fee is charged to enter the park which is 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

The wooden chapel on the Kernavė Archaeological Site (Falvijus Piliponis / Adobe Stock)

The wooden chapel on the Kernavė Archaeological Site ( Falvijus Piliponis / Adobe Stock)

It is possible to walk the hills which were once topped by the forts as there are paths around the site. Kernavė Archaeological Site also has a museum that contains many of the artifacts that have been uncovered over the years, and it is possible to hire a local guide at the reserve.

Top image: Kernavė Archaeological Site                         Source: Photo by V. Geguzis

By Ed Whelan


Baronas, D. (2015). Christians in late Pagan, and Pagans in early Christian Lithuania: the fourteenth and fifteenth centurie s. Lithuanian Historical Studies, 19, 51-81

Available at:

Poškienė, J. (2018). Lithuanian Troy: Preservation and Interpretation of Kernavė, a UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site

Available at:

Vėlius, G. (2003). Kernavė in the context of towns of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania . Archaeologia Lituana, 4, 161-174

Available at:

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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