Grave Robbers Return Przeworsk Culture Burial Goods in the Ukraine
An extraordinary incident has helped archaeologists in Ukraine gain fresh insights into how Celtic culture influenced development in the lands of their country more than 2,000 years ago. The event in question took place in 2019, when antiquities thieves showed up at the Regional Historical Museum in Vynnyky, Ukraine to turn in damaged burial goods they’d retrieved from an illegally excavated ancient cemetery. Among the items the thieves brought in were a bent double-edged sword, a shield handle, a broken shield boss, a spearhead, iron spurs, and an assortment of brooches.
Unearthing Broken Grave Goods: The Przeworsk Artifacts
The graveyard that produced this unexpected find belonged to the Przeworsk people, who lived in the territory of modern-day Poland and western Ukraine between the third century BC and the fifth century AD. Astonishingly, the would-be antiquities looters claimed the artifacts they’d retrieved had already been exposed when they arrived at the site, which they said was located next to a village called Yampil near the city of Lviv.
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It seems the cemetery had been unearthed and plundered earlier by another group of antiquities thieves, and when the second group stumbled upon it they decided to turn the artifacts they found in rather than stealing from a graveyard that had already been robbed by rivals.
Whether they were motivated to take this unusual action by sudden qualms of conscience, or by the fear that they might be blamed for the earlier plundering as well as the second one if they were caught, we may never know. But, what seems most likely is that they were discouraged by the fact that the burial goods they recovered had all been broken, and they simply didn’t believe they’d get enough on the black market for such items to make the risk of stealing them worthwhile.
Items from burials in a Przeworsk cemetery, Velyka Dibrova. (V. Sydorovych / Lviv Regional Council)
Archaeologists Delight in the Looters Dismay
The less-than-intact state of the Przeworsk grave goods likely explained why they were left behind by the first group of plunderers, who probably only removed the items they knew could be sold on the black market. But while the broken grave goods may have disappointed the antiquities looters, they delighted the archaeologists and ancient historians who were given the chance to examine them. Their condition and characteristics actually revealed the influence of the ancient Celtic culture on Przeworsk burial practices in the second and third centuries.
“Borrowing from the Celts, the population of the Przeworsk culture buried weapons, jewelry, personal items and pottery,” wrote Volodymyr Sydorovych, a research fellow at the Lviv Regional Council at the History and Local Lore Museum, in an article published in the Ukrainian journal Arheologia. “Almost all items were intentionally damaged,” they explained. “There are cases of intentional damage to small items: brooches, spurs, scissors, pins, needles, etc.”
The cemetery was a Przeworsk installation. But both the choice of grave goods and their damaged condition linked the Przeworsk people to the Celts, who flourished in Eastern Europe for a few hundred years after migrating to the region from the west. Scholars believe that weapons and other grave goods were broken as a way to mark their symbolic “death” after which they could be carried into the afterlife by their recently deceased owners.
As for the burial site itself, a team of archaeologists assembled by Volodymyr Sydorovych, was able to locate it based on the directions they were given by the grave robbers. Inside a deep pit dug by the first grave robbers they found fragments of bones and ceramic shards, but little else. The site had been cleaned out of useful items, but from what remained they were able to determine that the cemetery was approximately 1,800 years old.
Items from the Przeworsk burials in Koshylivtsi, at the Lviv Region Local History Museum. (V. Sydorovych / Lviv Regional Council)
A Historical Melting Pot: The Przeworsk People, the Celts and the Romans
The dominant culture in the territory of modern-day Poland and Ukraine at that time was Germanic. It is known to archaeologists as the Przeworsk culture, having been named after the Polish town where its artifacts were first discovered.
Historical sources refer to the Przeworsk people as Lugians, and they were apparently comprised of an alliance of ancient Germanic tribes that had lived independently of one another before the third century BC. There are some historians who believe that the Lugians later became the Vandals, and were in fact the people who infamously sacked Rome in the year 455.
The latter theory remains unproven. What is known for sure is that the Przeworsk people originally lived in southern Poland, and only spread beyond the Vistula River into western Ukraine in the first century AD.
When they arrived they would have encountered the already-established Celts, whose fabulous La Tene culture gained great power and influence in Western and Eastern Europe in ancient times. Starting in the third century BC Celtic migrants began to arrive in Eastern Europe in significant numbers, with the largest number of them settling in what is now western Ukraine (where the newly found burial site near Lviv was unearthed and looted).
Alliances were apparently forged between Celt settlers and Przeworsk migrants in Ukraine, which would explain why the latter adopted customs associated with the former. In addition to mimicking Celtic burial practices, evidence shows the Przeworsk people also adopted their metal-smithing techniques.
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Interestingly, the Celts were not the only culture that impacted the burial customs of the Przeworsk people. Excavations at other Przeworsk cemeteries in Poland and Ukraine have produced burial items that were manufactured in Rome. This includes glass goblets, liquid containers, pottery, jewelry and weapons of various types.
It isn’t clear how these items arrived in what Rome would have considered “barbarian” territory. They were likely passed along complex trade networks, reaching remote areas of Europe that Rome would never attempt to incorporate into the Empire’s ever-expanding boundaries.
Researching the Przeworsk culture cemetery at Velyka Dibrova. (V. Sydorovych / Lviv Regional Council)
Waiting for a Better Day
Unfortunately, archaeological exploration in Ukraine has been hindered over the years by extensive vandalism and theft. Ukrainian archaeologists who visit looted sites can only lament the missed opportunities, knowing that the losses must have been immense. Their quest for knowledge of the distant past has of course been made even more difficult by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has put heritage sites at risk and forced scientists to suspend virtually all projects that involve field work.
Nevertheless, archaeologists like Volodymyr Sydorovych will keep performing their professional duties as best they can, waiting and hoping for the arrival of a day when the military occupation has ended and rampant looting in the Ukraine has been brought under control.
Top image: Goods with Celtic influence found in Przeworsk burial at Velyka Dibrova, Lviv region, Ukraine. Source: V. Sydorovych / Lviv Regional Council
By Nathan Falde