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EUGENIJUS JOVAIŠA. The Aestii. The Western Balts (Kaunas: Vytauto Didžiojo universiteto leidykla, 2020). Review. The Baltic States played a decisive role in the homeland and expansion of the Indo-European peoples

One of the leading Lithuanian scholars in history and archaeology, prof. Eugenijus Jovaiša (www.aisčiai.eu) is very well known for many of his books and e-books, but especially for his series of three magnificent, perfectly illustrated books about the Aestii in Lithuanian language („The Aestii. Origins“, „The Aestii. Development“ and „The Beginnings of the Lithuanians and Lithuania“, 2012-2014). They provide the basis for the first book in English about the Aestii which encompass the burial monuments of the Aestii from the period of late antiquity, the social structures of the Aestian society, its development, the Great Aestian Migration, the Galindian roots of the origin of the Lithuanian and other phenomena of the material and spiritual culture of the Aestii. The book is for the scholars interested in late antiquity and Gothic history. I would also add: the book is a must to all people who are interested in European and Indo-European history.

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Balandžio 05 d., 13:08
Skaityta: 280 k.
EUGENIJUS JOVAIŠA. The Aestii. The Western Balts (Kaunas: Vytauto Didžiojo universiteto leidykla, 2020). Review. The Baltic States played a decisive role in the homeland and expansion of the Indo-European peoples

According to Tacitus, the Aesti had the same customs and attire as the Germanic Suevi. It has been suggested that the Aesti worshipped the mother of the gods, similar to the Nerthus cult among northern Germanic peoples. Tacitus wrote that the Aesti were "the only people who collect amber—glaesum is their own word for it—in the shallows or even on the beach". Glaesum, an apparently Latinised word for amber, is the only surviving example of the Aestian language; it resembles the later Latvian equivalent: glīsis or glēsa. The word is possibly of Germanic origin, given its similarity to the Gothic word glas. Tacitus, however, describes their language as closer to that spoken in Britain than that spoken by other neighbouring tribes. The Old Prussian and modern Lithuanian names for the Vistula Lagoon, Aīstinmari and Aistmarės, respectively, appear to derive from Aesti and mari ("lagoon" or "fresh-water bay"), which suggests that the area around the lagoon had links with the Aesti. Despite the phonological similarity between Aestii and the modern ethnonyms of Estonia, especially in popular etymologies, the two geographical areas are not contiguous and there are few, if any, direct historical links between them. The etymologies of Aesti and Eesti remain subjects of scholarly conjecture. This is almost all public information that we get from the Wikipedia. Is that all we can know about the Aestii? Magnificent research of E. Jovaiša proves, - not at all. 

So, first of all, who were (and are) the Aestii (the Aestiorum gente of Tacitus)? As prof. Michael Kulikowski (Pennsylvania State University), a great specialist of the history of the western Mediterranean world of late antiquity, puts it, the history of the Aestii „is one of many obscure chapters in the life of Northeast Central Europe“. According to M. Kulikowski, „(n)ot until the high middle ages do the lands between the Vistula mouth and the seacoast of Lithuania boast documentation sustained enough to allow for continuous narrative. Classicists, for the most part, choose to regard Tacitus’ map as a primarily ideological construct, an ethnographic product that cannot be superimposed onto a historical reality. Historical linguistics in this period is of necessity somewhat speculative and its relationship to the archaeological record distinctly fraught. It is therefore of very great benefit to scholarship that Eugenijus Jovaisa’s Aestii, first published in Lithuanian in 2012, is now available in an English translation that will give its startling conclusions much wider currency. For much too long, Lithuanian and other eastern European scholarship was difficult of access even to those scholars able to read the necessary languages. Worse, when accessible it was frequently distorted by the ideological imperatives of the Cold War era. For the past thirty years, however, studies of ancient Lithuania and its neighbouring regions have made great strides forward and this monumental history of the Aestii is one dramatic result. While it is impossible here to summarize the scope of Jovaiša’s arguments for the pre-history and early history of the Aestii, the comprehensive archaeological coverage and lavishly illustrated maps will allow students of Vor- und Frühgeschichte to see the most recent results of archaeological research. Jovaiša likewise pulls together the now-considerable evidence for the shifting geography of Baltic, Germanic and Slavic language distribution particularly on the basis of hydronyms. His researches have consequences for scholars with no particular interest in Iron Age central Europe, because they impinge directly on one of the great controversies of ancient and early medieval history: the “origin and migration” of the Goths. Jovaiša makes a convincing case for regarding the Oksywie/Wielbark archaeological culture – long regarded as Gothic, irrespective of whether one posits still earlier Gothic origins in Scandinavia – was in fact part of the cultural world of the western Balts. He shows, He shows, moreover, that the main characteristics of the Wielbark culture are entirely distinct from those of the Danubian and Black Sea archaeological cultures asso ciated with the historically-attested Goths. In other words, Jovaiša provides sound archaeological evidence to show that the long-standing push to identify Wielbark=Goths=Cernjakov=Goths has always been, and continues to be, an aprioristic effort to validate the sixth–century legends retailed by the Byzantine author Jordanes. In this way, Jovaiša provides definitive support for the most natural interpretation of Gothic origins – that the historical Goths of the third and fourth centuries were a creation of the Roman limes, a “people” of thoroughly diverse origins forged in the economic and military give-and-take with the Roman empire, who could first be meaningfully identified in the eastern Carpathians and the plains north of the Black Sea in what is now Moldova and Ukraine. As with any work of such sweeping ambition, specialists will no doubt find much here with which to argue. The long time-horizon and the huge variety of sources Jovaiša embraces all come with inherent disciplinary trajectories and controversies, and it will be left to specialists to sort out what degree of certainty we can repose in some of these conclusions. But the non-specialist – the Classicist, the ancient historian, the historian of central Europe in the early middle ages – cannot afford to ignore this book, nor indeed the heartening evidence it provides for just how rich a store of historical evidence can be found in parts of central and eastern Europe that were for far too long cut off from the worlds of international scholarship.“

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Udolph (Göttingen Academy of Sciences) argues that E. Jovaiša’s book stands out in a special way from other works on the prehistory and early history of the Baltic States: “The reason is that the author does his archaeological research in a remarkable way which also includes the results of other disciplines: history, folklore, geography and linguistics. Genetic research is also addressed. It is an exemplary interdisciplinary study that will greatly enhance research in the future. This is not only important for the history of the Baltic States, but also for the entire region of Eastern Europe and even beyond. The research makes it more and more likely that the Baltic States played a decisive role in the homeland and expansion of the Indo-European peoples. Last but not the least, the research recognizes that there are closer relationships between the Baltic, Germanic and Slavic languages. A “Baltic-Slavic” language community - always accepted - probably didn't happen.”

Prof. Vladas Žulkus (Lithuanian Academy of Sciences), author of five books on history and archaeology of Klaipėda, Curonians, and earliest Curonian settlements in Palanga, reminds us that the main questions raised in the research of E. Jovaiša (“The Aestii”. Who are they? Where do they originate from?” This is how Eugenijus Jovaiša starts his book.”) are considered to be really sacral. Nearly every archeologist raises such questions writing about the Baltic cultures or tribes. In fact, we are not always capable of providing answers to them, given that such rather enigmatic tribes as the Aestii are analysed. The archeologist, who does research on the materials from the Old Iron Age, immediately imagines the challenges involved in attempts of a researcher to give the answer to those questions. Several decades ago no one could have even thought about it. At present we are aware of much more but this ample awareness does not always provide new knowledge. It is even a more challenging task to write about the Aestii – the Western Balts, who lived along the southeastern coastline of the Baltic Sea. Since long the opinions and interests of Polish and German researchers, who have sometimes suggested different versions of the origin of Aestii, have prevailed there. Unfortunately, these interests are not always of purely scientific character but they are politicised as it frequently happens with the theories of tribe origin. The opinion of Lithuanian researchers was not visible among those of German and Polish archeologists. It was enough to follow the traditions created by others. For decades the areas of Baltic and Aestian cultures were narrowed almost to the territory of former Soviet Lithuania and ambitions to encroach on cultural priorities, which had already been decided upon in the ethnic history, were restrained. Accepting the traditional attitude “a priori”, researchers are frequently deprived of confidence in newly acquired data and a desire to interpret them. So far this seems to have been the case, when referring to the ethnic dependence of the Wielbark culture of the Lower Vistula. I could only congratulate my colleague Eugenijus, who has the courage to go against the traditions existing in the scientific world for more than 100 years. However, I know that it was not scientific adventurism that forced him to think the Aestian history over again. All the interpretations in Jovaiša’s book are grounded on archeological facts and substantiated opinions of other researchers. This is a study, which presents a whole of data on the Aestian Balts in the Old Iron Age. The prevalence of Aestian culture in the area of Wielbark culture previously assigned to Germanic people previously is well-grounded. The impetuous expansion of Aestian culture (“Great Aestian Migration”) in the Old Iron Age revealed and presented by Eugenijus Jovaiša consistently and in stages is one more new and convincing theory, which allows linking previously hardly understandable cultural phenomena. In fact, not all the stages of Aestian development can be fully revealed at present. To what extent does the “Great Aestian Migration” comply with the so-called Gothic Migration? This is only one of the intriguing problems linked to the relations of the Aestii and their neighbours. I think that the new path mapped out by E. Jovaiša in investigating the Aestii will lead to successful solutions to the problems of ethnic and cultural development of Western Balts as well as to further scientific discussions. The considerations of the author about the further perspectives of Lithuanian archeology, as a science, are truly well-timed. The “modern” tendencies to refuse ethnic-cultural interpretations in archeology and to replace its historical content with technological investigations of artefacts and limited interpretations of typologies raise well-grounded concerns to the author. Having convincingly laid emphasis on the realities of Aestian relations with Germanic and Slavic cultures, E. Jovaiša succeed in drawing a consistent picture of Aestian (Western Baltic union) culture possessing only significantly fragmented knowledge of Baltic cultures in the Old Iron Age. The history of Aestii is alive again in the book of Eugenijus Jovaiša. Just like this pretty Aestian girl in a brass cap on the cover of the book. This generously and nicely illustrated book will be accessible to a big number of researchers and will undoubtedly get wide appeal among European archeologists.”

The book of about 400 pages with many detailed and aesthetic illustrations and maps has thirteen chapters divided into five parts: “The Balts and the Aestii in the history of Europe”, “The Aestii and their neighbours”, “The Great Aestian Migration”, “The sources of knowledge of the Great Aestian Migration” and “The Great Aestian migration in the archeological material”.

In the “Summary of Conclusions” (p. 318-328) E. Jovaiša emphasizes: “The Great Aestian expansion and migration essentially changed the Eastern Baltic cultural map, had a great impact on the formation of western Baltic tribes and their social structure and directly involved the world of Western Balts into the processes of the Great Migrations. As a result of continuous relations with the Germanic peoples and the Romans, the world of Western Balts was supplied with vast amounts of non-ferrous metals on a regular basis and had a chance to know innovative technologies and the system of class society, which was fast to spread in the area of Western Balts situated at the closest distance from the Amber Road. The 1st–2nd century society of Wielbark and Sambian-Natangian cultures and the Galindians, like the Germanic world, lived in the time of the military aristocracy. It did not take long for the time to arrive in the trading communities in the Lower Nemunas. Its arrival in this area occurred at a bit later date – from the mid-2nd century, and the latter communities welcomed the early Middle Age having lived through the early (150–260), middle (260–350) and classical (350–450 and later) periods of the society of the military aristocracy. The graves of elite warriors of the military aristocracy found in different tribes of Western Balts and their distinctive death shrouds prompt the conclusion that the military units of Western Balts participated in the farthermost European campaigns in line with the Goths and Germanic peoples (a memorable event is a recent discovery of the 5th century grave of a Galindian warrior with a death shroud from Byzantium).The most important thing is that the warriors having made their comeback can be seen, thus leading to the assumption that the warriors from the Aestian world used to contribute to military units. Whether migration processes affected entire tribes – Sambia is said to have been abandoned in the 7th century – there is no answer, but considering that nearly the entire right bank of the Vistula was Baltic, the conditions were in favour of such journeys and military units. Opinions on the wandering foreign communities in Sambia in the 6th–7th centuries vary. However, it is worth remembering that Sambia saw the 13th century as a Baltic region speaking a peculiar Prussian language. What message is sent by the raised questions? First of all, they speak of an urgent need to expand the research on the ethnic history which falls into the scope of exclusive attention of the peoples worldwide. While writing the oldest pages in history, we should not look for foreign real or imagined influences but, first and foremost, evaluate the culture of our ethnic group and its development stages in the light of the history of other peoples. Apparently, this is the right time for the archaeological community who writes books to address the issues of the division of the oldest history of Lithuania which will help to come up with a universally acceptable system of periodization on the basis of our historical development, bringing our early history back to the undivided part of historical development, bringing our early history back to the undivided part of European history which has been there since time immemorial.”

“The Aestii” answers many questions and raises new ones. This mind-provoking book can be read as an interesting novel but is a very serious investigation in the territory which, I hope, will interest many other scholars of the world as well. The Aestian world is no less mysterious than the Celtic one (which has become synonymous with the mysteries of the Old Europe). This year, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of world famous Lithuanian-American archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas (Lithuanian: Marija Gimbutienė, January 23, 1921 – February 2, 1994), known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of Old Europe and for her Kurgan hypothesis, which located the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the Pontic Steppe. Perhaps it’s the very time to explore the Aestian world more thoroughly. 

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