Monday, November 07, 2011

The treasure of the Pietroasa

Vivid magazine Romania. Romanian art, culture and economics and photography
http://www.vivid.ro/index.php/issue/77/page/artbeat/tstamp/0

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E-mail this to a friend Artbeat The treasure of the Pietroasa By: Tim Judy Tim Judy explains the treasure of the Pietroasa Posted: December 2005 On a muggy August afternoon in 1956 a line of Romanian soldiers stood ready at the Mogosoaia train station near Bucharest under orders to receive a freight train due to arrive from Moscow.

Hovering into view, the armoured wagons groaned under the weight of tonnes of valuable artworks. Among the thousands of items that were carefully unloaded and placed under armed guard to be transported to Bucharest was the greatest discovery ever unearthed in Romania – the Treasure of Pietroasa.

The golden hoard of ancient treasure had already gained international fame before its reappearance on that late summer day, travelling the exhibition circuit through the imperial capitals of Paris, London and Vienna.


When Europe was plunged into the first world war the treasure’s path became twined with monumental social upheavals.

Fighting on the side of the Entente, the Romanian government found itself on the run from encroaching German troops. Holed up in the northeast city of Iasi, desperate officials sent the treasure along with a hoard of other priceless goods to Tsarist Russia for safekeeping. The Bolsheviks seized power soon thereafter and the treasure disappeared for 40 years before a thaw in bilateral relations led to its return.

The Romanian people bestowed an almost mythological aura to the series of gold objects, naming the treasure the Hen and Her Golden Brood, and poetic platitudes celebrated the homecoming of part of Romania’s soul.

Former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave extra impetus to the legend, paying the Hen special attention when he presided over the 1972 opening of the National History Museum of Bucharest, where the treasure can still be admired. “This has been her (the Hen’s) most glorious day,” he declared among much communist pomp.

But the origins of the treasure never did square with official party history, which conveniently glossed over the shadowy era of Romania’s past, when the Romans withdrew south of the Danube, the Dacians disappeared from the historical record and swarms of tribes from the icy regions of the north and the rolling steppes of the east moved in to fill the imperial vacuum.

The obvious starting point for tracing the origins of the treasure is the village of Pietroasa, in the county of Buzau, which sits at the base of Istrita hill, a 754-metre-high, dome-shaped peak that suddenly interrupts the monotony of the great Wallachian plain. The strategic position of the hill has attracted a constellation of tribes throughout the region’s history, making it an archaeologist’s paradise.

Excavations in the area began as early as the mid 19th century, and each year since archaeologists have struck spades into the earth to reveal Bronze-Age cemeteries, Dacian sanctuaries, Roman antiquities and Gothic cemeteries.

But the greatest find in the area, the Treasure of Pietroasa, was discovered by happenstance in 1837 by two peasants cutting limestone in a quarry.

The discovery consisted of one large eagle-headed fibula and three smaller ones encrusted with semi-precious stones; a patera, or round sacrificial dish, with carved figures of what appear to be Gothic gods in Greek dress surrounding a seated three-dimensional fertility goddess; a twelve sided cup, a neck ring with a Runic inscription, a large tray, two other necklaces and a pitcher. There were 22 pieces in total, but only 12 have survived.

Debates still continue over whether the treasure dates from the 4th or from the 5th century but undoubtedly the hoard belonged to the Goths who lived in Dacia from the 3rd to the 5th century AD.

Alexandru Odobescu, one of the pioneers of Romanian archaeology who published in the late 19th century a 650-page comparative work called Le Tresor de Petrossa (Paris, 1889-1900) believed it dated from the 4th century and belonged to Athanaric, leader of the Gothic Tervingi tribe. He believed that some of the pieces were forged in Byzantine workshops, but the Goths made the more ornamental items, having learned this technique from the Scythians and Sarmatians who had spread the technique across Europe, from Novocherkassk in south-east Russia to Pietroasa in Romania.

Pietroasa, a centre of Gothic power Today Pietroasa is best known for its strong wines, processed from vast swathes of vineyards that are buoyed by rich soil and an almost Mediterranean climate. Limestone is ubiquitous throughout the village. It is said that the Geto-Dacians had cut the rock in the same quarry where the treasure was found to build their fortresses at Coasta Dogarului and Gruiul Darii; the Romans and Goths also cut rock for their forts and settlements. To this day natives extract blocks of limestone for wells, pillars, fences, houses and all the monuments that are set up in the villages clustered around Istrita.

Pietroasa is also a focal point for a dispute that has dogged Romanian historians since the founding of the nation state: the degree of influence the migratory tribes exerted in ancient Romania.

The official history has always run along the lines that after the Emperor Aurelian withdrew Roman troops from the territory of Dacia, Romanisation remained ingrained among the Geto-Dacians giving the native population (the alleged ancestors of modern-day Romanians) a sense that they belonged to a superior civilisation to that of the migratory peoples, whose level of cultural development was rudimentary.

A patrea – a large sacrificial dish with a seated three-dimensional woman in the centre, thought to be a fertility goddess.

But as the historian Lucian Boia points out in his book Romania:

Borderland of Europe, “The northern half of the Balkan Peninsula was part of the Roman Empire for some six centuries, long enough to permit the consolidation of a thriving Roman lifestyle.

To the north of the Danube, on the other hand, in the present-day territory of Romania, the Romans ruled only half of Dacia; moreover, the extent of Romanisation in this province is open to question, as it belonged to the Empire for only 165 years (from AD 106 to 271, when it was abandoned as the Romans withdrew to the Danube). Then there is the problem of the so-called dark millennium between the withdrawal of Roman rule in 271 and the foundation of the Romanian states in the 14th century.” It was during this “dark millennium” that groups of armed Germanic tribes left Scandinavia and northern Poland to find new fertile lands east and southeast of the Carpathians, creating the Cernjachov culture that spread through modern-day Wallachia, Moldavia and southern Ukraine (in Romania it is known as the Santana de Mures culture, named after the city where a Visigothic cemetery was discovered). The Carpi, a group of “free” Dacian tribes established east of the Carpathians, initially put up a resistance but were completely overwhelmed and many were resettled south of the Danube, paving the way for Gothic dominance, which, according to the Roman historian Ammianus, extended from the Danube to the Don and from the Carpathians to the Black Sea.

Solid gold eagle-headed fibulae encrusted with semi-precious stones, one of the surviving pieces of the treasure.

In light of archaeological finds in Pietroasa, the village appears to have been one of the seats of power for the 4th century Goths.

(Archaeologists have identified five other Cernjachov sites that appear to have been political centres in the north Pontic region).

The village is like an open air museum, hosting the ruins of a fortress, which was originally excavated by Odobescu in 1866, and a once luxurious villa that was decorated with stained glass windows and marble inlays and equipped with underground heating (hypocaustum) fed by the valley’s springs. Groups of Cernjachov graves have also been discovered in the area, distinguished by the spread of inhumation rather than cremation, the lack of weapons in the men’s graves and brooches (fibulae) and necklaces in the women’s burial places. (A short sword was found in one of the men’s graves in Pietroasa, as well as Roman coins, which most likely indicates that the deceased was of high status.)

Professor Mircea Babes, Director of the School of Archaeology at the University of Bucharest and editor of a 1976 critical edition of Odobescu’s work, believes the fort and the villa were home to Athanaric, leader of the Tervingi (traditionally known as the Visigoths) and, like Odobescu, believes that Athanaric was the original owner of the treasure.

“The treasure, fortress, villa and Cernjachov-style graves are all connected to the 4th century, owing to the dating of the pottery and Roman coins found in the area,” says Mr Babes, who has been leading excavations in the area since the 1960s.

Dr Marius Constantinescu and Professor Mircea Babes, standing in front of the monument where the treasure was found.

In the 4th century an economic revolution was sweeping through Germanic Europe and production and trade flourished, with goods being distributed over wider areas. With new wealth being generated the tribes’ social structures also started to change.

Dominant social elites began to emerge, evidenced by the rich burial goods and separate elite dwellings, like the fort at Pietroasa.

This would mean, in effect, that Athanaric was the leader of a powerful, independent political unit, and oversaw a strong centre of production and consumption.

The idea that the Germanic peoples were capable of establishing legitimate centres of power clashes with the belief held by a few Romanian historians that the Goths and other migratory peoples had only a negligible influence because of their backwardness.

Archaeologist Dr Marius Constantinescu, former head of the History Museum of Buzau and who is leading the excavations of the Cernjachov graves, dismisses any notion that Athanaric could have been the resident of such an exquisite villa or that his followers made up a formidable force. “The fort and the villa, were used solely by the Romans as a defensive line to protect Constantinople,” he says. “The Goths were only capable of building from wood and had a very rudimentary lifestyle.” Mr Babes agrees that the fort and villa were built by the Romans, but says they were built for Athanaric and his Visigoths in an attempt to enlist them as allies, in protecting the Danube frontier.

Nationalism and archaeology in Romania The role of the migratory peoples was also greatly downplayed during communism, when much emphasis was placed on ethnic continuity of the Romanian people and historians were under political pressure to stress the strength of the local population, the alleged Daco-Romans, over foreign invaders. “The propaganda section of the Central Committee of the Communist Party prodded us (archaeologists and historians) to write as little as possible on the various tribes that came through present day Romania, such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Celts, Goths and especially the Slavs,” Mr Babes says.

“In the 1970s and 80s even the Romans started to fall out of favour and the role of the Dacians started to grow. When Ceausescu said ‘we are Dacian and Roman’ a group of influential amateur historians, who have been tagged by professionals as Dacomans [Dacomaniacs is the best English translation] would say ‘No, the Romans were foreigners; they were our adversaries who destroyed the Dacian kingdom.’ This idea began to catch on among members of the Institute of Party History, which was under control of the Central Committee, and they started to advance this belief on xenophobic grounds.” One person who adhered to this idea was Ceausescu’s brother, Ilie, who edited The Military History of the Romanian Nation, which was published in 1983 and became the first official history book, which was used in all schools. One chapter was even titled, “The battle of the Romanians against the migratory peoples of the 4th century.” As Mr Babes points out “nobody can say there were Romanians as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries and there was certainly no kind of organised Romanian state. The first mention of the Romanian people was in the 9th century when Arabian sources cited the Valachs.” Still today the Dacomans, led by Napoleon Savescu, are writing and lecturing, making fantastic claims about a great Dacian empire that rivalled the Roman’s. They also continue to propagate an old argument that the Treasure of Pietroasa was Dacian, a claim that started as far back as the early 20th century by Nicolae Densusianu, founder of the faulty Dacologie school of thought.

A 4th century burial from the Cernjachov culture, near the village of Petroasa “Because the treasure is so rare and unique in all the world, such as the fibulas shaped as birds, the runic inscription on the necklace, and because of the myths that have been built up around it, the nationalists refuse to believe that it could have belonged to anyone else but the Dacians,” Mr Babes says.

The inflated beliefs of the Dacomans have been easily pierced by professional archaeologists. And Athanaric, the most likely owner of the treasure, was no low level barbarian but a powerful figure who could hold his own against the might of the Roman empire.

The story of Athanaric will continue in Part II of this article, to appear in Vivid’s next issue, in February.

It will also cover the Hunnish invasion, the great river crossing and the strange events surrounding the discovery of the Treasure of Pietroasa.