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One of the Avar warrior graves unearthed in the Vinkovci City Cemetery in Croatia.	Source: Ivan Bosancic

Nomadic Avar Warrior Graves From Dark Ages Unearthed in Croatia

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In Croatia, archaeologists have unearthed the graves of two ancient warriors, who belonged to the much-feared Avars ethnic group. These nomads terrorized Eastern Europe for decades during the Dark Ages . The graves are providing researchers with an insight into the history and culture of the Avars. This find is so important because there are relatively few previous archaeological sites associated with these nomads.

The two graves were found in an old Catholic graveyard in the town of Vinkovci, which is in Eastern Croatia. They were found by workers who were expanding the graveyard to make space for more burials. Workmen came across a grave that was carefully constructed out of stone tiles and seemed most unusual.  According to Archaeology News Network , they “notified archaeologists from the city museum.”

Warrior Grave Influenced by the Romans

Experts from the Vinkovci City Museum examined one of the burials, and they found the nearly complete remains of an adult male, who was almost certainly once a warrior. Also found with the skeletal remains was a bronze belt buckle that came from the period 600-800 AD when this part of Croatia was part of the Pannonian Avar Empire. The graves were found “near the site of the Roman city of Cibalae,” according to Archaeology.org.

Anita Rapan-Papeša, an archaeologist who worked on the project told Archaeology News Network that “so far, no Avar graves have been found in the Vinkovci area, although it is known that the Avars resided in the area.”  The individual was buried in a cist grave, that is a grave that is lined with stone slabs and topped with a dome of stone, and this was a surprise.

The cist Avar warrior grave unearthed in Croatia. (Ivan Bosancic)

The cist Avar warrior grave unearthed in Croatia. ( Ivan Bosancic )

Rapan-Papeša, who is an authority on the Middle Ages stated that “when we observed the walled grave, it turns out that Avars saw how Romans were buried so they made their own copies of Roman graves,” according to Croatia Week . This would show that the Pannonian Avars were influenced by Roman cultural practices.

Grave Robbers Took Almost Everything

Apart from the cist grave, the team of archaeologists found an earthen grave. Here they uncovered another warrior who was buried with his horse. This style of burial was once very common in nomadic societies. There were no grave goods found with the Avar, but the horse still had some of its original accessories and equipment.  It appears that the burial had been looted in the past. Rapan-Papeša told Archaeology News Network that  “the horseman was robbed, but not the horse, which the looters did not touch.”

Archaeologists investigating the earthen Avar warrior grave at the excavation site in Croatia. (Ivan Bosancic)

Archaeologists investigating the earthen Avar warrior grave at the excavation site in Croatia. ( Ivan Bosancic )

These burials are a very rare find. During the investigations of the grave, the archaeologists found the remnants of a saddle and some bronze accessories, possibly ornaments on the animal’s skull. These bronze objects are very rare and only five or six similar items have been unearthed in areas once ruled by the Pannonian Avars.

Skull of the horse together with what could be ornaments, found with the Avar warrior. (Ivan Bosancic)

Skull of the horse together with what could be ornaments, found with the Avar warrior. ( Ivan Bosancic )

Nomadic Conquerors Who Changed History

The Pannonian Avars are an enigmatic people who were very important in the history of Middle Age Europe. Archaeology.org reports that they “were Eurasian nomads who arrived in Europe in the sixth century AD and conquered other nomadic tribes.” It is believed by some that they were originally the ruling class of the Rouran Khaganate that dominated much of Central Asia until it was overthrown by the Göktürks.

The Avars were able to regroup and first created a state on the Pontic Steppe and later in Pannonia, in Central Europe around the mid-6 th century AD. It is possible that some of the nomads remained in the steppes and could be the ancestors of the ethnic group known as the Caucasian Avars, who still live in southern Russia.

The Pannonian Avars were fearsome horse archers and they carried out many raids on the Byzantine Empire . They drove the Slavs into areas that had formerly been part of the Eastern Roman Empire, and this ultimately led to many regions becoming Slavic in character. The Avars fought many wars with the Byzantines, and they even besieged Constantinople with the Persians. By the 7 th century AD, they began to decline because of constant wars with the Bulgarians and the Pannonian Avar Empire was eventually conquered by Charlemagne in the late 8 th century AD.

Further investigation of the site has revealed more Avar graves. There are believed to be five more nomads buried in the Vinkovci City Cemetery. There are plans for further archaeological research and this will provide a window into the Avars and their empire.

Top image: One of the Avar warrior graves unearthed in the Vinkovci City Cemetery in Croatia.    Source: Ivan Bosancic

By Ed Whelan

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