The Beginnings of Slavic Settlement East of the River Elbe

By Brather, Sebastian | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Beginnings of Slavic Settlement East of the River Elbe

Brather, Sebastian, Antiquity


According to the models of twenty years ago (Herrmann 1983) several different groups of Slavs invaded East Central Europe in the sixth century AD, and the cultural characteristics observed there may be referred to eastern Slavic "homelands". Recent research has shown that this is to be simplistic. Dendrochronology, new theoretical approaches, and the reevaluation of documentary evidence now show quite a different picture (cf: Cutta 2001). The material culture--ceramics, hillforts, houses, graves--has been re-interpreted in the context of contemporary Europe as local changes in settlement, economy, and society--sometimes after the beginnings of early medieval settlement. In this paper, I review the most recent evidence for characterising settlements, cemeteries and pottery as early Slavic and for dating them to the Migration period (fifth-seventh century). But we begin with a synopsis of the documentary evidence and the attempts made to match the archaeology to it.

Documentary records

Slavs east of the Merovingian kingdom were first mentioned in the Chronicon by Fredegar who reports c. 631 AD that the Merovingian king Dagobert I. (629-639) was defeated by the "Slav" king Samo near the Wagastisburg, and that soon after the Sorb dux Dervan broke with the Frankish king (Fredegar IV 68; Eggers 2001). After 631 the Frankish sources are silent about Slavs, and it remains unclear where Dervan ruled. Until the times of Charlemagne they do not mention any detail about the regions east of the kingdom. Only at the end of the eighth century do Slavs again become an object of Frankish annals and chronicles. The renewed interest was due to the efforts of Charlemagne to "bring order" to the situation along the rivers Elbe and Danube caused by the conflicts with Avars and Saxons, Danes and Slavs in two different regions along the eastern frontier of the Carolingian empire.

The question of how and when the regions east of the rivers Elbe and Saale became Slavic is not answered by the literary sources; a Slav immigration is not mentioned anywhere. More information is given in the Descriptio civitatum ad septentrionalem pagam Danubii of the so-called Geographus Bavarus, probably late ninth century. This political "snap-shot" gets hazier the further the described region lay to the east, presumably because the knowledge of the western observers diminished with increasing distance.

However, the attribution of placenames to "Slavic" and "Germanic" roots shows a marked frontier between them which runs approximately along the rivers Elbe and Saale, except the eastern part of what is today Lower Saxony west of the middle Elbe (Figure 1). This toponymic mapping above all suggests a dense Slavic population--and therefore has given substance to the idea of a major invasion of Slavic-speaking peoples at some time in the early middle ages (Trautmann 1948-1949; Rospond 1989-2000; Eichler 1975-1978; Herrmann 1968). The mapping of Slavic placenames reflects of course Slavic-speaking populations--as it is supported by modern Slavic-speaking minorities in Lusatia (eastern Brandenburg) and the Hannoversches Wendland (Lower Saxony)--but as late as in the thirteenth century such names were established by colonisation; unfortunately onomastics is unable to give an absolute chronology for the names Frontiers of actual placenames are the result of linguistic interaction and balance during a longer period of time, not only of Slavic immigrations in the early middle ages.


Archaeological evidence: how early is the Slavic material in the west?

The material culture of the lands between the rivers Elbe and Oder/Neisse was identified and explained by Joachim Herrmann as the result of "Slavic immigration". Correspondences with cultures in the regions east and south-east of Central Europe were seen as proof of immigrants front different directions (i.e. Poland and Bohemia).

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