Secrets of mysterious ‘barbaric’ tribe that used snakes to predict the future revealed
They are the most secretive and mysterious of all the peoples to have lived on what is now Polish territory.
Known as the Spartans of the Baltics, they were not afraid of death and would bravely stand to the last man in battle even if the numbers of the enemy were ten times bigger.
They were feared and respected in equal measure by the nations that neighboured them, the Poles, Lithuanians and Ruthenians, and their courage has gone down in folklore.
The Poles knew them as capable of sacrificing their own children if it gave them an advantage. It was better for them to die a noble death than to be enslaved.
Yet very little is known about the Yotvingians. We don’t know what they called themselves, nor what language they spoke. We don’t even know for sure where they came from.
Their name may be of Viking origin. Some researchers believe it may come from the Scandinavian name Jatvigra, which in turn is linked to the name of the 10th-century English king Eadwig.
Researchers also know little about how they dressed, what their customs were or what they believed in.
What is known is that they lived on hill forts surrounded by marsh and forest in an area that stretched from the Masurian lakes in the west to the Nemen river in the north and east down to the Narew river in the south, or maybe even beyond.
When they weren't fighting, they farmed, fished, kept bees and made pots and metal objects.
While their Baltic neighbours the Lithuanians created a great kingdom for themselves and their other neighbours the Prus achieved eternity, albeit in name only as the Germanic Prussians, the Yotvingians have disappeared from the pages of history.
They were finally exterminated by the Teutonic Knights in a catastrophic event in 1283. Their culture died and the survivors scattered.
In Poland, their memory exists in the handed-down stories of locals in the Suwałki and Augustów regions of Podlasie, as well as in place names such as Hańcza, Wigry, Wiżajny, Szurpiły and Szelment, and even in local surnames such as Kolendo, Magalengo, Krejpcio, Skrunda, Waraksa, Możdżer and Skinder.
This diluted picture remained for a long time as researchers tried in vain to piece together scraps of knowledge in their search for the lost tribe.
All of this changed spectacularly a few years ago when police investigated the illegal trade in historical weapons and artefacts.
Faced with jail sentences of up to ten years, the criminals agreed to take archaeologists to a site they had been plundering for First World War objects but had in fact found items that were much older.
What the archaeologists found exceeded their wildest expectations. After sifting through the site at Krukówek near Suwałki, they found their Holy Grail: a Yotvingian cemetery with masses of metal objects that they buried with their dead.
The secret tribe that had only been known in shades of black and white came crashing into life in full technicolour.
The fruits of these discoveries are now on display in the exhibition Yotvingian Eldorado, in the Podlasie Museum in Białystok’s town hall on the main market square.
Jerzy Siemaszko, the exhibition’s curator and head of archaeology at the Suwalki Museum, told TFN: “This is the biggest exhibition ever with artefacts of the Yotvingians.”
They date back to the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and include weapons, jewellery, tools and objects of everyday use. It is billed as the largest collection of Yotvingian memorabilia in the world.
Among the most visually stunning objects are purposefully broken and bent swords that were buried with the charred remains of cremated warriors.
“For them, objects also had souls. When someone died, their possessions also died with them,” Siemaszko said.
A large number of small Christian crosses were found too, yet there is no record that the Yotvingians adopted Christianity.
“They may have acquired them in raids and used them as decorative items. Or, they may have added the Christian god to the many gods that they already worshiped,” he added.
Researchers have surmised from the faiths of pre-Christian Slavs and other pagan Baltic peoples that the Yotvingians may have worshiped natural deities such as trees and rivers, as well as phenomena like lightning and storms. It is also believed that they used snakes to predict the future.
Another interesting find was a large number of small bells. Siemaszko revealed that researchers have tested them and found that many of the bells rang at a frequency above that which is audible to humans.
“They may have been used to keep vermin away from dwellings, or even just as a kind of toy because of the effect they would have had on domestic animals,” he said.
Siemaszko says that the discoveries from Krukówek are so important for two reasons. “Before this, we simply didn’t know what they did with their dead,” he said.
However, the fact that they burned the corpses means that a lot of valuable archaeological information that could have been gleaned from skeletons cannot be recovered, such as their diet, cause of death and DNA.
The other reason is that archaeological research at other Yotvingian sites, for example Szurpiły, did not reveal such a rich bounty.
“These people did not just throw away valuable items in the places where they lived. Why would they do that? But they did place such items in graves,” he said.
Another boon for the archaeologists was that after the Yotvingovians, no other peoples were present on the site and it slowly became a forest. The result is that as an archaeological site it is pristeen, apart from the damage caused by the 21st-century tomb raiders.
When the end came for the Yotvingians, it came with the speed of an executioner’s sword.
While they had been living as they had been for centuries in a loose tribal structure, coming together as an armed force only in times of need, their neighbours were modernising quickly.
“The first centuries of the new millennium were the time when states were being formed, and everyone wanted to grab as much as possible for themselves,” Siemaszko said.
In the end, a new power appeared to the west of Yotvingia, which the brave Balts could not cope with: the Teutonic state.
“The Teutonic Knights attacked many times, decimating not only the warriors, but also whole villages and towns,” said Siemaszko.
They had the strongest army in Europe at the time and in 1283 they set out on a deadly crusade that put an end to the Yotvingians as a force in the region.
They besieged one of the most important Yotvingian strongholds. It was captured thanks to the betrayal of several Yotvingian warriors. Many of the Yotvingians were slaughtered, while others were displaced to other areas.
Over the centuries that followed, the remaining Yotvingians lost their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness and were washed up into surrounding cultures.
At the end of the 19th century, according to a census conducted in 1860 in the Grodno region, there were 30,000 people who identified themselves as Yotvingians, even though they did not know the language of their ancestors.
After the world wars of the 20th century, the national identity of the Yotvingians disappeared forever.
However, a few individuals claim to be their descendants. “I know a man across the border in Lithuania who says he is a Yotvingian,” Siemaszko said.
The extinct tribe remains in the memory of historians and history enthusiasts.
Today, many people from Poland, Belarus and Lithuania organise historical reconstructions related to Yotvingians.
The exhibition in Białystok City Hall can be viewed until January 31, 2022.