Archaeological excavations in Mežotne Hillfort
Mežotne hillfort is one of the biggest ancient Zemgalian fortifications. Starting from the 19th century and till the 21st century, archaeological excavations in Mežotne had been carried out six times. For the first time, the hillfort was thoroughly described by August Bilenstein in 1892. Larger scale archaeological excavations were carried out under the supervision of Valdemārs Ģinters (1938—1940, 1942), Emīlija Brīvkalne (1948—1949), Māris Atgāzis (1969, 1970). Presumable location of Zemgalian port was researched under the supervision of Artūrs Tomsons in 2017. That year, Mežotne hillfort and its ancient city were recognized as the archaeological sites of the year in Latvia.
During the excavations, the cultural layers of Mežotne hillfort were divided into 10 rounds of construction, which has proven that from 9th to 13th centuries the hillfort’s fortifications had been burnt down ten times and also ten times restored.
Archaeological excavations allowed to get a glimpse at the construction and location of the fortifications. In the plateau of the fortification’s fence, remains of 14 buildings (living and household) were found. Size of the biggest one was 8x6 meters, while the smallest had 5x4 meters. In one of the building, remains of an oven were revealed. The oven partially consisted of bricks and was dated from the 13th century, since ovens of such type were found only in the 13th century dwellings of Mežotne and Tērvete. Also, millstones, fragments of clay crockery, burned grains, tools, pieces of cloth and weapons were found, thus allowing us to make conclusions about the occupations and lifestyle of our ancestors. In total, on the territory of Mežonte hillfort and its ancient city, 3996 items were found, 392 from which was revealed on the territory of the city.
On top of the mound archaeologists found various bronze decorations – arbalest fibula with animal heads on the ends, silver plated spiral arbalest fibula, 3 horseshoe fibulas and 2 bronze cabling bracelets.
Visualisation of deposit
Pieces of cloth were found together with the arbalest fibula, which allowed to presume, that before being dug into sand, it was folded into cloth. Archaeologists wrote in their reports: “It is clearly seen, that they were hidden on purpose – some of the inhabitants hid it in the moment or danger, possibly, upon the enemy attack. Later, when the castle was restored, the hidden decorations were not found.” The revealed jewelry was dated from the 9th century.
Two burned skeletons of warriors were found in the ruins of the fortification by the steep slope. Near the skull of one of the skeletons, a head of spear was found. While near both of them were situated a metal awl-like arrow-head and a fragment of another arrow-head. Before that, archaeologists had never been lucky enough to find remains of direct witnesses of a local castle fall due to the fact that battle casualties were often buried on burial-grounds. It is possible that those two Zemgalian warriors were killed or severely wounded and remained lying on the ground. When the castle burned down and the fortification mound collapsed, both warriors appeared to be buried under the burning ruins.
In the 10th layer of archaeological excavations, a double-sided sword was found, which is one of the earliest known Latvian-discovered Viking swords. It could have derived from the 9th century. It seems that one of the attackers had to leave his sword, when the burning fortification collapsed. Archaeologist V.Ģinters wrote that: „The discovery of the Viking sword at the foot of the mound can be regarded as a hint, that Mežotne castle was defended from some Scandinavian raiders” .
However, it should be taken into account, that starting from the 9th century Scandinavian weapons were imported and are found in considerable amounts at Curonian and Zemgalian sites.
The sites of archaeological excavations in Mežotne hillfort can still be seen today.
In 2012, for the first time in Latvia the backfill of the archaeological ditch by the defensive mound of Mežotne hillfort was carried out, thus restoring the historical line of the mound and preserving it from further erosion.
Ģinters, V., 1939a. Senā Mežotne, 1938. g. izrakumi pilskalnā un kapulaukā. Senatne un Māksla, 1, 64-98. [www.periodika.lv]
Ģinters, V., 1939b. Senā Mežotne, 1939. g. izrakumi. Senatne un Māksla, 4, 15-46. [www.periodika.lv]