World Academy of Carpatho-Rusyn Culture


Slavs, Early settlement patterns.

Slavs, Early settlement patterns. The original homeland of the Slavs is considered by most contemporary scholars to have been between the Elbe, Vistula, Buh, and Pripet rivers north of the Carpathians. The first proto-Slavic tribal unions began to form during the late Bronze and early Iron Ages (1200-1000 BCE). From this core area the proto-Slavs gradually settled the great expanse of land stretching from the Elbe River in the west to the Dnieper River in the east and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the *Carpathian Mountains in the south. Throughout they established an agriculturally-based society which archeologists refer to as the “Lusatian” culture (1400-300 BCE). About 500 BCE these proto-Slavs found themselves in difficult straits. Under pressure from the nomadic Scythians in the east, they retreated to the valleys of the Pripet and Buh rivers. Meanwhile, the dynamic Celts took over Bohemia, Moravia, the upper Vistula region, and part of Silesia and the *Upper Tisza Region, while farther west Germanic tribes pushed across the Elbe and moved into the Oder River valley. Consequently, the Slavs were pushed farther away from the centers of civilization, ancient Greece and Rome, with the result that they were to remain behind the general evolution of central, southern, and western Europe. Several more centuries would have to go by before the Slavic tribes would be able to create consolidated socio-political entities.

In the first century BCE and the first century CE the Slavs began again to expand gradually from their original homeland in an eastward, westward, and southward direction; in the process they assimilated a part of the Germanic and perhaps the Celtic tribes which they encountered. By contrast, in the east (present-day southern Ukraine), the Slavs pushed up against new Irano-speaking tribes: the Antes, the Croats, and the Serbs. The Antes headed a tribal union, composed primarily of Slavs, which attempted to block the advance during the fourth century CE of yet another nomadic people from the east, the Huns. The Croats united the Slavic tribes living in Galicia, the Carpathian region, Silesia, and a part of Bohemia, from which they formed a large tribal union referred to by authors of the ancient world as the lands of the *White Croats, or White Croatia. Somewhat farther to the west, the Serbs established their authority over Slavic tribes living between the Elbe and Saale rivers (upper Saxony and Lusatia). In effect, the Antes, Croats, and Serbs formed only the military elite in these tribal unions and they were soon slavicized.

Beginning in the third century CE, the Slavs began to cross the western Carpathian passes and to take over territories in Slovakia and the Upper Tisza Region, and to push on even farther south to the borders of the Roman provinces of *Dacia and Pannonia as far as the Danube River. For a certain period, this Slavic advance was held in check by the Germanic Goths and then by Asiatic nomadic peoples, at first the Huns (fourth-fifth centuries), then the *Avars (sixth-eighth centuries). By the sixth century, however, the Slavic settlement of central and eastern Europe was completed. At the same time, the Antes tribal union was pushed back into the forest region beyond the steppe by the Huns and then destroyed by the Avars. As a result, the Antes disappeared from history.

By contrast, the Croats and Serbs maintained control over the Slavic tribes under their hegemony. The tribal union known as White Croatia extended from the upper reaches of the Dniester river valley proceeding westward along the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains as far as southeastern Bohemia. The Serb/Sorab union was concentrated in the valleys of the Elbe and Saale rivers. But in the sixth century, just as the Slavs had completed the process of replacing the Celts, the Germanic tribes, and the Thracians throughout central Europe, the Avars crossed the Carpathians and created their own state, the Avar Kaganate, in the Danubian Basin. For nearly 200 years the Avars dominated all the peoples, including the various Slavic tribes, living in the region from the Alps in the west to the Carpathians in the east and as far south as the Sava, Drava, and Danube rivers. As a result of the Avar presence, the Slavs of central Europe were held back from general European developments as experienced by their neighbors, the Germanic tribes.

The Avars experienced their first great defeat in 627 below the walls of Constantinople. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) defended his capital by reinforcing his imperial troops with Croat and Serb warriors whom he invited to Byzantium from the Carpathian and upper Elbe regions. The Byzantine victory freed the Slavs living in Illyria (present-day Croatia and Serbia) from Avar domination. The grateful emperor then settled this Byzantine borderland with Croats and later Serb tribes from the north. The local Slavic peoples not only welcomed the Croat and Serb leaders and their retinues as defenders, they even adopted their tribal name as their own.

Farther to the southeast, along the lower Danubian valley, the local Slavs in 679 accepted into their ranks Bulgar tribes (of Tatar origin) from the upper Volga Region. They did this in an effort to defend themselves from the Avars to the north and their powerful neighbor to the south, the Byzantine Empire. The Bulgar leaders created a state known as the *Bulgarian Khanate/Greater Bulgaria, which during the ninth century became the most powerful force in the Balkans. It was also not long after the arrival of the Bulgars along the lower Danube that the local Slavs succeeded in slavicizing the newcomers, although they adopted the name Bulgar as their own. Hence among the Slavs who settled in the Balkans it is only the Slovenes who managed to retain their original Slavic name as an ethnonym.

As a result of the exodus southward by the strongest leaders and armed retinues of White Croatia, that tribal union was considerably weakened, although it continued to exist along the northern slopes of the Carpathians and was able as well to extend its influence over the Slavs living along the southern slopes. The Slavic tribes within the White Croatian tribal union survived until the end of the eighth century, when the Avars were defeated and their kaganate destroyed at the hands of the Frankish king, Charlemagne (r. 771-814), who had formed an alliance with Slavs in the middle Danube region. Immediately thereafter, the first Slavic state in central Europe came into being: *Great Moravian Empire. At its height, during the reign of Svatopulk (r. 870-894), Greater Moravia eliminated its weak neighbor, White Croatia, and extended its own sphere of influence to the eastern Carpathians. It is to this era of Greater Moravia that scholars attribute the christianization of the Slavs in the Upper Tisza Region, following the late ninth-century mission of *Constantine/Cyril and Methodius.

Early Slavic history in eastern Europe, including the Upper Tisza Region, can be divided into two periods: the Early Slavic Period (second half of the fifth to the seventh century CE), and the Old Slavic Period (eighth and ninth centuries CE). Settlements in the Upper Tisza Region from the Early Slavic Period have as yet been insufficiently studied. The settlement patterns are assumed to be of the “open” variety, that is, falling along river valleys in which the dwellings were grouped together in “nest-like” communities (the Tur, Tisza/Tysa, Latorytsia, Uzh river valleys) or spread out as individual dwelling units (the Laborec, Ondava, Topl’a, Olsava, Torysa river valleys). There were also protected hill forts at Solotvyno, Mala Kopania, Vary, Zemplin, Mukachevo, Uzhhorod, and Sarisske Sokolovce (see Map 1). The dwellings themselves were either partially underground dugouts (8-12 sq. meters) or above-ground log-frame structures (15-20 sq. meters). They were heated with clay or, in a few cases, with stone stoves. Burial practices from the Early Slavic Period were characterized by cremation, after which the ashes were deposited in urns buried in graves or left at the place of cremation. Grave mounds (kurgans) were also known among these early Slavic settlers, the most famous of which is near the village of Cherven’ovo west of Mukachevo in Subcarpathian Rus’. Between 5 and 9 meters of earth were placed above the bodies. The material remains of the inhabitants were quite modest and included Prague-type pottery, frying pans, dishes, and distaffs.

Somewhat more varied are the material remains of settlers dating from the subsequent Old Slavic Period. These include ceramics made on pottery wheels and some iron implements, such as knives, hoes, scythes, fish hooks, pointed arrows, and female adornments. The Slavic population lived basically from farming and livestock raising and was organized into territorial communes whose basic unit was the family. The communes were headed by tribal leaders who, in turn, were supported by their retinues (druzhyny). During the Old Slavic period the Slavs of the Upper Tisza Region lived in what might be called the stage of military democracy. At the end of the eighth and in the early ninth centuries political structures in the form of tribal unions began to develop, centered around protected hill forts such as Sarisske Sokolovce, Smizany, Zemplin, Brekov, Uzhhorod, Vary, and Solotvyno. Some of these had already been established by the earlier Thracian and Celtic settlers but reinforced by the Slavs with earthen ramparts, moats, and palisades; others were built anew. The Slavic tribal unions continued to exist until the creation of early medieval states throughout central and eastern Europe.

Bibliography: Markiian Iu. Smishko, Karpats’ki kurhany pershoi polovyny I tysiacholittia nashoi ery (Kiev, 1960); Les questions fondamentales du peuplement du bassin des Carpathes du VIIIeme au Xeme siecle (Budapest, 1972); Valentin V. Sedov, Proiskhozhdenie i ranniaia istoriia slavian (Moscow, 1979); Stepan I. Pen’iak, Rann’oslov’ians’ke i davn’orus’ke naselennia Zakarpattia VI-XIII st. (Kiev, 1980); Bohuslav Chropovsky: Die Slawen: historische, politische und kulturelle Entwicklung und Bedeutung (Prague, 1988); Drevniaia istoriia Verkhnego Potis’ia (L’viv, 1991).

Ivan Pop

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.

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