Ancient Traces in Palanga and Šventoji
The number of people who like visiting the Lithuanian seaside during the cold season is increasing. Much less crowded than in summer, this land casts a spell of tranquillity with its empty beaches perfect for long walks, winter beauty and a feeling of mystery in the air. And the Lithuanian seaside really does have secrets – a considerable part of which still lie in the ground.
The sandy coast of Lithuania attracts archaeologists searching for traces of history like a magnet. The most famous of them is Dr. habil. Rimutė Rimantienė, who explored the Baltic seaside in the 1970s. Excavations and research carried out by her expeditions were particularly consistent and significant in forming an approach to seaside history. However, over the course of several decades, a new generation of ambitious archaeologists has matured, eager to continue Rimantienė’s work. With the help of highly modern technologies, the archaeologists of the Lithuanian Institute of History, led by Gytis Piličiauskas, are now supplementing and re-writing the history of the Lithuanian seaside.
Today, scientists are convinced that people in prehistoric times continuously lived on the entire length of the seashore stretching between Šventoji and Palanga. Here, archaeologists have discovered many 5,000-year-old human camps, and some findings date back to 4,000 BC. In the course of excavations organized by Rimantienė and Piličiauskas, tens of thousands of different Neolithic artifacts were discovered here: from pottery fragments, various amber articles and semi-finished items to a wide range of fishing and hunting equipment as well as stone and flint weapons. Most of the findings went to the Lithuanian National Art Museum in Vilnius, and the amber treasure (which we wrote about earlier) was sent to the Palanga Amber Museum.
The research revealed that very special communities of fishermen and amber collectors lived on the seaside. The landscape was quite different from that of today – the Šventoji River changed its course several times over thousands of years, and instead of the present sand dunes, swamps and lagoon lakes were characteristic of the area. All archaeologists agree that people fished in the lagoons, but they have different opinions on whether people settled only on the river banks or near the lakes as well. Many remnants of settlements have been found on the bottom of the Baltic Sea even as far as 20 kilometres from the present coast – the sea level has risen sharply over the course of thousands of years and continues to rise at present. It is also believed that the Baltic seaside was devastated by a tsunami wave several thousand years ago – this could have been the reason why the treasures of amber blanks are found deep underground and not a single Stone Age repository was found near Šventoji, although people lived here almost continuously from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age.
When bones found in the settlements were examined with technological aids, it was found that the largest part of the Neolithic people’s diet consisted of freshwater fish and seals, and the least part of their diet came from forest animals. Seals were identified as one of the most important sources of materials for life. When they hunted seals, people supplied themselves with food, fur for clothing, and fat for lamps. Furthermore, findings that are not typical to the Lithuanian seaside show that the local population maintained close ties with communities that lived far to the north: an axe made from the slate typical to northern regions most probably arrived at the Lithuanian seaside through exchange.
Rimantienė’s dig also uncovered an impressive 5,000-year-old, 2-meter wooden pole with a carved mask of a goddess with owl features. Based on this artifact, artists carved pillars symbolizing the Baltic gods, which can be seen in the Samogitian Žemaičių Alka sanctuary. It’s a pagan sanctuary with a paleo-astronomy observatory restored in 1998. You can calculate the dates of calendar holidays according to the shadows of the pillars, when the sun sets in the sea. Although the original Alka of the 15th century stood on Birutė Hill in Palanga, the restored sanctuary was erected in Šventoji. The Samogitian sanctuary is also used for rituals today, and pagan rituals held here attract followers of the Baltic religions and simply curious travellers. Will you come to see it?