Splendor and Power in the Age of Migrations / The History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: Gold ornaments discovered in a female aristocratic tomb, Florești 5th century A.D.

The Romans abandoned the Province of Dacia towards the end of the 3rd century A.D and during the following seven centuries Transylvania became part of various political formations ruled by peoples of different origins, primarily Germanic but also of other Eastern provenances.

Photo 2: Map of the migration of Huns and the displacement of populations

The appearance of the Huns by the Volga River around 370 A.D. triggered a series of displacements of the barbarian communities living outside the borders of the late Roman Empire. The Huns were a population with nomadic steppe traditions, who at the beginning of the 5th century established a vast empire with its center in the Lower Danube and after 424 A.D. in the Pannonian Plain.

The Huns reached the height of their power under Attila, who led several military expeditions against both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. The communities living in the Carpathian Basin, primarily of Germanic origin, came under their rule, and consequently were integrated into the political structure of the Hunnic Empire and took active part in their military campaigns.

One of these peoples were the Gepids, whose king Ardaric is mentioned in written sources as one of the important figures at Attila's court. After Attila's unexpected death in 453, a military conflict broke out between his sons. Taking advantage of the situation, Ardaric placed himself at the head of a military coalition of several Germanic populations and revolted against the Hunnic rule. He defeated Attila's sons in 454 in the battle of Nedao, a place that remains still unidentified. As a result, the Huns were forced to retreat while their much-feared empire fell apart. In the eastern half of the Carpathian Basin, more precisely in the Tisza Plain and in Transylvania, political power was taken over by Ardaric and his followers. The Gepid kingdom lasted a little over a century, until 567, when it was destroyed by a Langobard-Avar coalition.

These events left significant archaeological traces. If the Transylvanian discoveries from the first half of the 5th century are scarce, for the middle and especially the second half of the same century this situation is different.

Photo 3, 4, and 5: Objects discovered in the princely graves of Apahida and the hoard of Cluj-Someșeni

The two princely graves of Apahida, the hoard of Cluj-Someșeni and the female tomb of Florești-Polus Center prove more and more evidently the existence of a center of power around the ancient city of Napoca. Most likely, the development of this center can be linked to the collapse of the Hunnic Empire and the birth of the Gepidic Kingdom.

Photo 6: Map of necropolises discovered in Transylvania

The consequences of these events are also noticeable in the long run. Starting with the second half of 5th century, and especially in the 6th century settlements consisting primarily of sunken dwellings, with household annexes and various workshops were created and used for several generations. Their longevity is confirmed by the presences of larger necropolises, also known as row-grave cemeteries. Throughout the Gepidic period, the Someșul Mic River valley retained its character of regional center, but after the end of the 5th century there is no evidence for the presence of social elites in the region.

Photo 7: The female tomb in Florești

Photo 8: Skull deformation

The discovery of a female tomb in Florești in 2007, during the rescue excavations preceding the building of the Polus Center commercial, alludes to this archaeological context. It was part of a larger necropolis with over 100 graves, broadly dated from the second half of the 5th century to the middle of the 6th century. The tomb is among the earliest in the cemetery and was placed in a somewhat isolated position from the rest of the necropolis. The resting place belongs to a young woman of about 18-20 years old. The cause of her death remains unknown. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall, a relatively tall stature for that time. Her skull had been artificially deformed. This custom appeared around the Middle and Lower Danube with the expansion of the Huns but it can’t be attributed to any specific ethnic group. It probably represented an ideal of beauty or a sign of status. The custom spread among various Germanic populations following their contact with the Huns and the Alans. Cranial deformation was obtained by applying compresses and bandages on the heads of newborns or young children, who still had softer skull bones.

Photo 9: The gold pieces of the female aristocrat Florești tomb

Apart from an amber bead and an antler comb, the funerary inventory of the tomb consisted exclusively of gold pieces. The costume in which the woman was buried can be broadly reconstructed based on the objects of non-perishable material discovered in the tomb and especially based on their position in relation to the skeleton. The two large gold earrings have an openwork polyhedral head in which precious stones were mounted, most likely almandines (a type of red garnet), which were lost a long time ago.

The most spectacular ornament is the necklace made of nine almost identical gold pendants. They are composed of two parts: a lower, leaf-shaped one, which hangs from an upper crescent-shaped element. The surface of the two parts is decorated with almandine inlays surrounded by a pearled gold thread, between which there are decorative motifs obtained by granulation. The almandine plates were mounted in separate cells, and behind them a gold foil was placed that was intended to reflect the light, thus giving the stone a stronger shine and a brighter color.

From a stylistic point of view, the pendants of Florești-Polus Center are part of the so-called polychrome style typical for the 5th and 6th centuries, characterized by the decoration of inlaid precious stones. From a technical point of view, they belong to the Hellenistic tradition of Mediterranean and Black Sea origin that had entered the Carpathian Basin in the first half of the 5th century and had become widespread among the aristocracy. According to recent archaeometric analysis, the almandines were brought from what is today Sri Lanka and South India, which indicates that the region was included into a wide communication and economic network sustained by the late Roman Empire.

Photo 10: The position of the gold ornaments discovered in situ

The dress in which the woman was buried was fastened with a belt, as shown by the massive oval gold buckle. The role of the two pins, also made of gold with a flattened and twisted end, is indicated by their position in the shoulder area. According to their shape these could have been hairpins, but they were used as brooches holding a tunic (long shirt) or a peplos (simple dress) on the shoulders or to fasten a cloak over the tunic. This custom of replacing brooches with pins is known from several tombs from that time, stretching from Hispania to the Eastern Carpathians, but it is mostly widespread in the Carpathian Basin.

Photos 11, 12, and 13: objects found in the graves of Apahia, Cluj-Someșeni, Turda, and Velț

The young woman buried in Floresti was part of the social elite of her time. Her tomb, together with the two princely graves of Apahida and the hoard of Cluj-Someșeni as well as the female tombs of Turda and Velț, signals the development of several centers of political power in the Transylvanian Basin around and immediately after the middle of the 5th century. Through its grave goods, it counts as one of the most magnificent female tombs from the migration period not only in Transylvania but in all of Europe.

The objects discovered inside the tomb and the way they were combined indicate that the woman followed the fashion prevalent in the Middle Danube region at the time, which emerged in the Hun Age and was still observed in the second half of the 5th century. It is impossible to tell the ethnicity of the person buried at Florești based solely on these pieces because they were part of a fashion spread in large areas of Europe at that time and were worn as symbols of power and status.

Conspicuous showing of wealth was vital in maintaining one’s position among the elites in the highly competitive society of the 5th century. The funeral constituted such a moment of self-representation in which the family of the dead was able to display its social status before the community. Based on historical sources, it is very likely that the woman buried at Florești was a member of an aristocratic family that had come to power after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire and was trying to consolidate its power in the new political configuration created by the Gepidic Kingdom.

Text and video presentation by archaeologist and curator Alpár Dobos. Film concept by Geanina Simion and Dragoș Popa. A team of The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.

The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iași and The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.

#TheHistoryofRomaniainOneObject #SplendorandPowerintheAgeofMigrations

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