Author Dr. Gintautas Zabiela
Hillforts – the oldest defence fortifications in Lithuania

Hillforts are the best known and the most beautiful archaeological monuments in Lithuania. Their total number approaches one thousand. Lithuania has more hillforts, to which this atlas is devoted, than our neighbouring countries.

The position and structure of hillforts

Hillforts, as well as the other archaeological monuments left by the past generations, emerged, developed and were abandoned along with other contemporary objects interconnected in terms of function. All this is called a complex of archaeological monuments. It is an accumulation of contemporary objects of different functions, left or used by one community. Hillforts are usually the major element in the whole complex of archaeological monuments.

The concept of “hillfort” is rather broad from both the territorial and the chronological point of view. The present look of hillforts can hardly display common features. That is the consequence of the current condition of hillforts. All the hillforts, which have survived until today, have been damaged by various natural and human forces. With reference to the current level of our knowledge of hillforts and on the basis of the collected data, hillforts are identified as relief formations featuring close type external earth fortifications with traces of the activities of the people who once constructed them. The very name of the “hillfort” is rather old and originates from the times when the main elements of the wooden castle erected on top of the hillfort were earth ramparts. In the Lithuanian language the word “pilis” (castle) originates from the word “pilti” (pile, cast).

A complex of archaeological monuments with a hillfort in the centre comprises foreworks, baileys, foot settlements, old cemeteries, ritual places, old manufacturing sites, roads, etc., located within the distance of 1 km of the hillfort. The hillfort, as a defensive facility, contains two basic elements, i.e. the fortified locus itself and its fortifications. The fortified locus is the levelled summit of the hilltop. It was arranged on the summit of a mound. The levelled summit was enclosed by earth fortifications, which include ramparts, ditches, terraces and slopes, as well as wood fortifications, which include various fences, barriers, towers and walls. Only earth fortifications have survived until today. They usually consisted of several lines. Apart from the main rampart and ditch there used to be one or a few lines of additional smaller ramparts and shallow ditches.

The hillfort was subjoined by further three constituent parts of the archaeological complex: foot settlements, foreworks and baileys. Foot settlements, which were attached to the majority of hillforts, are uncovered most often. Foreworks and baileys are scarce satellites of hillforts, characteristic exceptionally of the latest hillforts, i.e. those dated to the 13th – beginning of the 15th centuries.

The history of investigation and restitution of hillforts

Comprehension of hillforts is impossible without their investigion. Two directions of investigations can be singled out, namely surveys of hillforts and archaeological excavations. During surveys information is collected about the location of the hillfort, its appearance, finds, previous references in sources and literature as well as the verbal tradition, the site is photographed and in some cases its plan is drafted. An excavated hillfort is identified as a hillfort in which excavation of an area of no less than 1sq.m. yields fixed material about stratigraphy and finds. By 2005, 184 hillforts were excavated in Lithuania, of which only the hillfort of Šeimyniškėliai was fully investigated during 16 excavation seasons (1990–2005).

Hillforts started to attract more attention in the first half of the 19th century (Pranciškus Vilčinskis, Frédéric Dubois de Montepereux). Diverse data on Lithuanian hillforts were presented at the end of the 19th century by Fiodor Pokrovskij. In 1909 Juozapas Radziukynas published the first Lithuanian booklet devoted to hillforts. From 1908 to 1913 Ludwik Krzywicki conducted extensive excavations of 7 hillforts. C 1925 Petras Tarasenka prepared the first register of Lithuanian hillforts. From 1931 to 1934 General Vladas Nagevičius carried out thorough excavations at Apuolė and Įpiltis hillforts and made coss – sections of their ramparts. In the post – war period, investigations of hillforts were continued by Pranas Kulikauskas and Regina Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė. All the Lithuanian hillforts were then surveyed and the data were published in the 2nd volume of the “Archaeological Atlass of the Lithuanian SSR” issued in 1975. After the restoration of the independence of Lithuania, monument – protection – type investigations of hillforts became more frequent and a deeper analysis was made of the separate groups of finds thereof.

The need for protection of hillforts arose in the beginning of the 20th century and began to materialise only in the thirties. First of all, an attempt was made to protect them against the devastating anthropogenic factors, i.e. erosions caused by ploughing, digging, constructions and flows of visitors. In the fifties and sixties, hillforts, exposed to the threat of devastation, were just investigated and left to their fate. From the beginning of the seventies, real efforts to rescue hillforts were made. Individual significant hillforts were straightened up until the last decade of the 20th century. In 1993, the Department for Protection of Cultural Values launched an action program aimed at rescuing hillforts demolished by natural forces. Differentiation of rescuing works started: badly damaged hillforts of minor significance were measured and fully investigated, at hillforts, which were better preserved, rescuing works were co – ordinated with investigation of sections affected by corosion, and in some cases the work was restricted to anticorosion fortification of the slopes. In the result of these undertakings, a number of hillforts were straigtened up and adjusted for visitors.

Development of hillforts

The Lithuanian hillforts represent just a small part of the gigantic assemblage of prehistoric fortifications, which were widespread in the forest and forest – steppe zone all over Europe in the prehistoric and early historic times. The first fortifications appeared in the Near East 10–9 thousand years ago. In Europe, they are known since the Neolithic. The most famous are the fortifications of the Celts and the Scythians. In the European forest zone, the earliest fortifications developed from fortified Neolithic settlements. In Lithuania, the earliest hillforts date from the 1st millennium BC. They can be found in both eastern and western Lithuania. The earliest east Lithuanian hillforts belong to the Brushed Pottery culture, which existed from the turn of the 2nd – 1st millennium BC until the 2nd century. With reference to fortifications, several types of hillforts of the Brushed Pottery Culture can be singled out. These include small hillforts on top of mounds without evident fortifications, big hillforts without evident fortifications, hillforts reinforced by ramparts along the edges of the levelled hilltop and small hillforts with round – shaped levelled hilltops, enclosed with 2–3 rings of fortifications. The main traits of hillforts of the Brushed Pottery Culture are reiterated at hillforts located in other places of Lithuania.

At the turn of the 2nd – 3rd century, the Brushed Pottery Culture disappeared and most of its hillforts declined while some remained inhabited for a while. The overall number of hillforts decreased, but their fortifications underwent a fast development and were further strengthened. The layers of hillforts reveal remnants of burnt wooden defence barriers and three – edged arrowheads associated with nomads. In southern Lithuania, miniature hillforts appeared, their levelled hilltops encircled by a rampart and measuring 10–15 m in diameter. They had adjacent foot settlements covering an area of up to 6 ha. At that time conditions matured for the emergence of refuge type hillforts.

Starting from the 6th century, territories and hillforts of different Baltic tribes can be distinguished in Lithuania. The hillforts of Curonians, who dwelt at the seaside, in northwestern Lithuania and western Latvia, are rather big and substantially fortified. The hillforts of Semigallians, who dwelt in the planes of northern Lithuania and south Latvia, are scarce and somewhat smaller. The Selonians, who dwelt in northeastern Lithuania and southeastern Latvia, have left only a very small number of hillforts with considerable archaic features. In eastern Lithuania, hillforts are scarce but better fortified. Hillforts of central Lithuania are average in size and are most often set up on protuberances of riverbanks. The characteristic feature of Samogitians is coupled hillforts. The Scalvians, who dwelt on both sides of the lower Nemunas in western Lithuania and the northern part of East Prussia, have left scarce but well fortified hillforts. The Yotvingian tribes, which dwelt in southwestern Lithuania (Uþnemunë area), northeastern Poland and northwestern Belarus, have left average size, well fortified hillforts, in which part of the mound was formed by piling. The hillforts of Nadrovians, who dwelt in the southwestern end of Lithuania and the eastern part of East Prussia, are hardly known, their fortifications are not very strong.

The golden age of Lithuanian hillforts is the 13th century – beginning of the 15th century. That was the time of continuous fights against the Order. The names of the majority of wooden castles on hillforts of this period are known from written sources. The 13th century hillforts are less well known. Their characteristic features are feeble fortifications and unlevelled hilltops. The fortifications of the 14th century hillforts are really powerful. Ramparts were constructed of rammed daub and reached 5–7 m in height, while ditches dug behind them were 6–10 m deep. These hillforts often had baileys or foreworks. At that time, hillforts designed for a specific function, unknown in other epochs, appear. The Order brought to Lithuania the motte and bailey type hillforts, which were widely known in western Europe in the 10th – 14th centuries. A few hillforts of this type are known in Lithuania. Most of them are sites of the wooden castles of the Order. The time of decline of wooden castles is not quite clear. Individual wooden castles are mentioned until the middle of the 15th century.

The formation principles of the atlas

The present atlas of Lithuanian hillforts describes all the hillforts, known to the authors by the middle of 2005. They are arranged on the basis of districts and municipalities. Hillforts are described according to a unified system: the atlas indicates their location, orientation, shape and size of the levelled hilltop, measurements of the defensive fortifications (ramparts, ditches, terraces), the steepness and height of slopes, destructions of the hillfort, the present appearance, the basic data about the objects in the complex of the hillfort (foreworks, baileys, foot settlements, cemeteries, etc), the basic data from the investigations of the hillfort, historical facts about the castle erected on the hillfort, the dating of the hillfort, directions how to find it and the main literature about it. The main attention in the descriptions is focussed on the defensive function of hillforts. The basic measurements of defensive facilities are indicated: for ramparts – the height from the levelled hilltop, the width at the base and the height of the external slope; for ditches – the width at the top and the depth; for slopes – the height of the steepened slopes; for terraces – the width. In addition, the coordinates of the hillforts are also indicated (in the WGS 84 system), the level of preservation and the present look is described, data are submitted on the constituent parts of the complex of archaeological monuments and results of investigations. Hillforts are dated on the basis of the available data, directions are given as regards access to them, and the basic literature is indicated. The atlas contains a list of literature about hillforts and a geographical index. The atlas gives a lot of attention to illustrations. A map excerpt is published for every single hillfort, as well as a current photo and an older picture, if it is more informative than the current one. All the known plans of hillforts with contour lines, compiled by 2005 (covering about half of the hillforts) are published. Many people have contributed to this enormous work, and the authors convey their sincere gratitude to all of them.