Glittering amber meant wealth and prosperity for Aestii, the old aboriginal tribe of what is now Russia's Kaliningrad Region in the Baltic. From time immemorial this area was famous as the treasure - trove of "solar stone".
Even as far back as the Bronze Age this unique material, much appreciated by ancient craftsmen, was bartered for choice weaponry, utensils and decorations. Amber is pretty precious in our time and age, too.
by Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Archeology Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences
Immense riches of the Amber Coast lying on the northwestern fringe of the Barbaricum, a "land of Barbarians", beckoned as a land of opportunity for tradesmen, and sundry adventurers and predators.* The aboriginals, being part of the West Baltic tribal community and speaking kindred languages, had to be always ready to defend themselves against any enemy. Otherwise they could lose their wealth, amber, which is the fossil hard resin of conifers dating from the Late (Upper) Cretaceous and Paleogene and located on the northwestern coast of Sambia (a peninsula which Hellenes called Basilia, Celts - Osericta, and Teutons - Austerwia).
In his Germania the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 58 - 117 A.D.) wrote this on the Amber Coast tribe: "Aestii worship the first mother of gods, and they wear wild boar images as a token of their cult; these stand in good stead of weapons and protect devotees of the mother goddess even in the thick of enemies. The sword is quite rare, they would rather use staves.**"
Apparently Tacitus could learn that from Celts who peopled lands in the middle reaches of the Danube and the northwest of what is now Poland and trekked to Sambia. The local population acted as middlemen in the amber traffic between the Aestii and Rome.
From Roman annals we also learn that between 62 and 65 A. D. the Roman emperor Nero ordered an expedition under Quintus Attilius Primus, a top Roman official, to the northwestern coast of the Baltic. He and his men were escorted by soldiers of the XV Legio Apollinaria that soon distinguished itself in the storming of Jerusalem. The Quintus envoys pursued diplomatic objectives above all- the Romans wanted the Aestian chiefs to agree to stable shipments of amber to Rome. That is why the Roman
* See: V. Kulakov, "The Vikings Cross the Baltic", Science in Russia, No. 5, 1998. - Ed.
** Here, sticks, clubs and stakes employed as weapon. - Ed.
Trappings of a buried Germanic mounted soldier (Sorthenen-Kulikovo, now Zelenograd district of the Kaliningrad Region, recovered by Engel in 1931).
"guests" chose to play soft and tried to endear the hosts by an amicable clinking of coins rather than by a deadly shine of gladii. There were mutual exchanges of gifts, there were feasts and friendly get-togethers, too. The legionarii could not help but succumb to the temptation of personal enrichment: they offered money, arms and part of their war gear in exchange for amber. The largest piece of amber brought by the Quintus-led expedition to Rome weighed 4.26 kg.
That's how, owing to the amicable attitude of the Romans, a Great Amber Way was opened from the Vistula to the south. In return, the natives started getting arms and war outfit they needed. But this amity came to an end in the Marcomanian War of 166 - 180 A. D. waged by German and Sarmatian tribes against Rome, which ushered in the twilight of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 2nd century bands of bellicose Teutons drove out the indigenous Aestii from Sambia, too, as evidenced by numerous archeological finds recovered there.
These events caused changes in local burial ceremonies. The burial sites found there were filled with weapons and utensils used by aliens who had trekked from the west, from the Jutland Peninsula and the present islands of Seeland, Fyn and Bornholm. The invading tribesmen, who called themselves early in the 1st century A. D. Cimbri, ousted the Aestii as far eastwards as the upper reaches of the Oka, now central Russia. Even the Celts, known to Roman historians as Veneti, could not stem their thrust. Thus, the natives, who relied overmuch on divine assistance, could counter the invaders only with sacred images and staves mentioned by P. Cornelius Tacitus. In the long run Germans seized all of Sambia.
K. Skvortsov, a Kaliningrad archeologist, recreated the appearance of the warlike invaders in the course of excavation in a burial ground at Lauth-Bolshoye Isakovo (Guryev district of the Kaliningrad Region). The Teutonic foot soldiers wore scant apparel - pants cum girdle, they covered their torso with cloaks of cotton held together by bronze clasps, or fibulae. This primitive getup (they could well make do with it, for up until the 5th century A. D. the climate in Europe was much milder) was complemented by an exquisite headdress of calotte (skull-cap) tied in a knot, with a circular bronze surmount. The knot identified a skirmisher as belonging to this or that tribe.
The German infantrymen were armed with stakes, knives and axes. For defense they employed shields of wood supplied with iron umbones (hand-protecting ledges). The Teutons began their attack by throwing javelins, and then proceeded with spears and axes. Then it came to one - to-one skirmishes, where it all depended on a skirmisher's quickness in
striking with his dagger in hand-to-hand fighting.
As to the Teutonic horsemen, they were expert in equestrian fighting skills as early as the beginning of the 3rd century A. D. - they adopted the tactics devised by Celts for mounted convoys dispatched to protect amber caravans. The aforementioned javelins, spears and axes were supplemented with short blades (daggers).
The Germanic foot soldiers did not use tactics any different from that employed by "Barbarians" of the Roman times. Riding in, the equestrians alighted and, holding their steeds by a bronze ring hanging from a horse's lower lip, tried to strike at the foe at close quarters.
The Teutons did not recognize any missiles except javelines as something inferior to their dignity. As testified by the many epic tales, das Nibelungenlied above all (dating to 5th century A. D., recorded ca. anno 1200, published in 1757), Teutonic Helden (heroes) would like to engage their foe face to face, they would not hide behild a swarm of arrows like nomads did, and would not encumber themselves with heavy armour as knights did; instead, they adopted delicate cross- and shoulder- belts (baldrics) supplied with small metal brackets. Such baldrics held short swords (gladii) sheathed into sumptuous scabbards or else carried long blades, die Spaten of mounted warriors.
The Teutonic "Barbarians" adapted their steel to sword-belts in keeping with their tribal customs of warfare. By and large, Amber Coast conquerors used knives fashioned after single-blade daggers used by tribes of Northern Caucasus and after Roman gladii. The cutting edge was never sharpened, the skirmishers hit with the awl-like point of a knife that could get into the slots and grooves of any breastplate or cuirass.
The Hun epoch foreshadowed the twilight of Germanic sway in the Baltic southeast. Moving south to clash with enfeebled Rome, the foolhardy descendants of the Cimbri met their end on gory battlefields. The Amber Coast was occupied again by the Aestii who moved in from the east. In the 5th century they were armed with dagger knives worn on the left side or else stuck in shoulder-belts on the back. This weapon spread to the northwest, which proves clearly that the Western Baits, getting rid of the Germanic patronage, struck root for good and took control of all trade routes. This way Prussia, the land of amber and of valorous soldiers, was born.
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