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Author(s) of the publication: Vladimir KULAKOV

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By Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology

This geographical point of interest by the name of Kurshskaya Kosa (Baymouth bar) is located on the territory of what is now the Kaliningrad Region of Western Russia. The sand ridge on the Baltic shore has been and remains a vitally important resting place for flocks of birds of passage on their seasonal migrations along routes of thousands of kilometers. Written accounts left by the crusaders, who reached this area in the latter half of the 13th century, speak of the warriors being deafened by the loud chirpings of large flocks of birds of all shapes and sizes. The knights were also impressed by carpets of birds' nests which literally covered the local sand dunes overgrown with shrubbery and trees. The first German settlers in these realms called it Nestlanda land of nests. And the area is associated to this day with many puzzles. One of them-the history of "the opening up" of the Kurshskaya Kosa - has now been resolved by our archeologists.

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The Land of Nests caught the attention of scholars not so long ago, with the first archeological teams crossing the area in 1869 - 1870. Later on scientists spent a lot of time investigating seasonal sites used by fishermen of the New Stone Age (8 - 3 centuries B.C.) and discovered them near what are now Nida (Lithuania), Morskoye and Rybachy (Russia).

It was a commonly accepted fact that the ancients used only the prehistoric talus clay islands of the Tertiary Period (early Cenozoic Era, 66 mln years ago) which were located in the aforesaid areas. In the Iron Age (1 thous. years B.C.) the unstable Kurshskaya Kosa sand ridge often turned into a chain of islets being split up under the pressure of waves and winds and then regaining its original shape. It was because of this instability that it did not attract any permanent settlers and it was only in the late 13th century that warriors of the Teutonic Order "saddled" the sand ridge, cutting the traditional routes of nomad inroads on Christian settlements which appeared by that time on the Yantarny Bereg (Amber Coast) seashore in the vicinity of the historic German fortress of Konigsberg (East Prussia) which is now the Baltic Russian seaport of Kaliningrad. But, as proved by the latest findings, the historical "reality" of the place was far more complicated and intriguing.

In 2001 a new stage of studies of the local antiquities was launched on the initiative of the Kurshskaya Kosa National Park which is located in the south-western part of the Land of Nests. This time around the studies were conducted by the Baltic expedition of our Institute of which I have been the head since 1974.

Several kilometers to the south-west of the Rybachy village we discovered in the Korallen-Berg coastal dunes an early Middle Age settlement. Our excavations revealed thick layers of ashes left by several fires buried under thick layers of sand of eolian origin. It was because of them that German archeologists, who discovered the site back in 1869, considered it annihilated. In actual fact what we call the cultural layers of the Korallen-Berg sites have been preserved untouched: over the centuries the Baltic winds hid the ruins of the settlement under a meter-thick alluvial layer of sand.

In the course of the excavations we opened up deposits formed during the lifetime of the ancient village. Judging by their stratigraphic pattern, they belong to two periods of existence of the settlement which can be roughly described in the following way: in the latter quarter of the 10th century a "multi-national" group of settlers resided there- 300 meters above the level of the Baltic Sea. Among them were Scandinavians and the , Kurshis-members of one of the local tribes. And the place was visited by "guests" from Eastern Europe-subjects of the Kievan princes.

These settlers were attracted to the Land of Nests by purely mercantile considerations. At the early stages of its existence the residents of Korallen-Berg collected and processed amber, and its semi-finished plates, or flakes, were shipped to Scandinavia and Russia. The locals also hunted wild beasts for their bones and horns from which they made combs. One such comb was found in the excavations. But these economic activities on the remote site did not last long. The village was destroyed by a devastating fire in the early 11th century and what remained of its residents left the Korallen-Berg once and for all.

These original hunters were later replaced by the ruthless sea warriors called Varangians* in the early Russian chronicles. The name originates from the Old Islandic word "ver, (verus)" which stood for "oath" and designated the principles of tribal unity of these ruthless Norsemen whose law supreme was their oath of loyalty to their chieftains. And it were the Varangians who destroyed the original Korallen- Berg and settled there themselves. This is proved by some bits of ceramics found in the more recent sediments of the place. Also found in the excavations were more than 50 iron boat nails (the practical invaders used these bits and pieces for building their homes).

Numerous bones of wild boars indicate that the Varangians obtained their livelihood by hunting (wild boars were among their delicacies). The new settlers on the Korallen-Berg built their homes on wooden frames, with walls of boards and brushwood, faced with clay and bleached, or whitewashed.

One major "function" of the dwellers of Korallen-Berg was control over trade along the historic route described in the chronicles as "from the Varangians to


See: V. Kulakov, "Baltic Route of the Vikings", Science in Russia, No. 5, 1998.- Ed.

Pages. 90


South-western part of the Kurshskaya Kosa and artifacts of the Vikings era.

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Reconstruction of decoration from site 344 of the Dollkeim burial site (circa 975 - 1000).

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the Greeks..." Merchant boats passed across the Astern part of the Kurshsky Gulf and sailed through the sand ridge through the Brokist Passage whose traces can be seen to this day near the town of Zelenogradsk. The merchants paid tribute to Varangians from the town of Каир-a center of commerce and crafts located at the base of the Land of Nests.

Our expedition has been studying some of the archeological monuments left by these warriors. And it is interesting to note that the silver paid by the merchants for the passage through the sand ridge was used by the local Varangians (the last heathens in Europe) for decorations for their horse harnesses. Burial rituals of the Norsemen who died in gory battles also included the sacrificial slaying of their horses. The ornament of harness decorations strikes one with the intricacy of design, including images which were frightful for the foes of Nestland.

The Vikings amassed so much silver, they used it for making foil and decorations for arrowheads and tips of their spears. Such articles, which amounted to just a fraction of the total booty gained from merchants sailing through the Brokist passage, are really impressive.

But the tributes charged for using this route must have been too much for most of the merchants. This discontent finally led to the digging of the Zarkau channel some distance away from Brokist. It was controlled by the residents of Korallen-Berg and their "business" especially flourished after the capture and destruction of Каир by the army of the Danish King Kanut Magnus in 1016. In the latter half of the 11th century Korallen Berg was wiped out by a big fire and its surviving residents scattered in the surrounding areas.

With time Vikings mixed up with the Kursh natives, forming the core of the local population and it were they whom the Crusaders* encountered there two centuries later. As late as in the middle of the 19th century local fishermen re-


See: A. Valuyev, V. Kulakov, "Teutonic Cross and God Perkuno", Science in Russia, No. 6, 1999.- Ed.

Pages. 93


called that two to three centuries earlier some Swedish fishermen visited this place sailing there all the way from Scandinavia in search of rich catches.

The traditional name of Korallen-Berg, preserved to the middle of the 20th century, is vivid proof of the abiding memories among the locals of the legendary ruthless warriors and their chieftain who had his residence high in the dunes.

The first scholar who studied the settlement, Dr. Paul Schifferdecker, was of the opinion that the name of Korallen-Berg stems from the Lithuanian "koralis", which means "king" or "leader". A local legend speaks of a certain knight who once lived in these places. But these memories are associated not with the Vikings, but with the final years of the Crusaders' aggression on the Baltic coast. The legend speaks of some Heinrich von Kuntsen (the name of a village in the vicinity of Korallen-Berg) who owned a mansion in the dunes. He was a villain and a sworn enemy of the Teutonic Order who tried to revive the heathen traditions among the locals. Heinrich von Kuntsen sacrificed to the heathen gods each and every Christian prisoners captured by him and his gang.

Things went so bad that the Great Magister, Vinrich von Kniprode, who reigned in 1352 - 1382, ordered his soldiers to capture Heinrich dead or alive. But the "champion of Prussian freedom" continued to hide in the thick native forests. Once, on his way home he met a young stranger astride a black horse. The youth invited him on a new military expedition to the north, where fabulous riches lied in store, and the bandit accepted the offer. But as soon as they crossed the Neman the horse under Heinrich suddenly stopped dead and refused to make one step forward. And all of a sudden the godless villain called on the name of the Lord for help. At the same moment the youth on the black horse (who actually was the evil one in disguise) said: "You have remembered the Name of God. This is your luck!" and Heinrich dropped down from his saddle as if struck by a sword. When he woke up he rode to the top of a high mountain with the Neman flowing by towards the sea (probably near what is now the city of Klaipeda). There he made the Sing of the Cross and from that time on he became a Christian. Later on the repentant villain fell into the hands of a people's tribunal which heard his confessions and pardoned him. After that Heinrich turned a faithful ally of the Order. After his death his\widow retired into the Cloister of the Holy Trinity.

This pious episode concludes the Tale of Heinrich of Kuntsen - a literary image of the master of the noble mansion on the dunes of Korallen-Berg- the chieftain of a small Varangian gang. But the strength of the Viking warriors was not in their number, but in their military skill and ruthless cruelty which made the people of the Land of Nests tremble with fear. This awe was reflected and recorded in the local folklore, and the tons of sand have preserved for our curiosity the ruins of the mansion.

Finds illustrating the life of the ancient Varangians, full of dangers and adventures, are now on display in the Nature Museum of the Kurshskaya Kosa. It is located within a stone's throw from the man-made Zarkau Strait-a monument from one of the most dramatic periods in the history of the Land of Nests.

Illustrations provided by the author.


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Vladimir KULAKOV, VARANGIANS IN THE "LAND OF NESTS" // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 10.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/VARANGIANS-IN-THE-LAND-OF-NESTS (date of access: 28.11.2021).

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