Migration Period
between Odra and Vistula

You are here: Home page / Thesaurus / Archaeological Cultures / Wielbark Culture

Wielbark Culture

Wielbark Culture, archaeological culture in existence during 1st - mid-5th century AD. Its territory shifted noticeably throughout its duration.

Wielbark C. took form in Pomerania during the 1st century AD possibly evolving from the Oksywie Culture established in the region during the Late Pre-Roman Period. This connection is suggested by an uninterrupted use of many grave fields and continuous evolution of some pottery vessel forms. Some features of the burial rite (stone covered mounds, stone circles and stelae) which have parallels in Scandinavia came into use on the southern Baltic coast during the second half of the 1st century suggesting the involvement in the emergence of Wielbark C. of arrivals from the North. Although evidently multi-ethnic, Wielbark C. is usually treated as a material manifestation of the →Goths , possibly also of the Gepids. According to a different concept the people of Wielbark C. were a component of “Gothic societies”, next to the so-called Masłomęcz Group (centred on the town of Hrubieszów in eastern Poland) and Cherniakhiv Culture.

Archaeologists have identified six zones of Wielbark C. settlement depending on its chronological confines: zone A covering the Vistula delta and Chełmno Land; to the west of it - zone B, covering the Baltic coast as far as the area bounded by the Parsęta and the Ina rivers. Zones A and B are where the earliest sites of Wielbark C. are found; zone A continued to be settled until the very end of this archaeological unit, zone B was vacated at the onset of the Late Roman Period (early 3rd century). The same is true also of zone C which takes in Kashubia, Kraina, northern reaches of Greater Poland and parts of Lubusz Land. To the east of zone A, in the drainage basin of the Łyna, Drwęca and Pasłęka, was zone D, occupied starting from the younger segment of the Early Roman Period until – similarly as zone A - the onset of the →Migration Period . Zone E was settled at the onset of the Late Roman Period and took in the area of Mazovia to the east of the Vistula River and Podlahia, during the same period as zone F which took covered Polesia and Volhyn. Zones E and F continue under Wielbark C. settlement until the onset of the →Migration Period . The withdrawal from the settlement zones in the west and occupation of settlement zones in the east at the time of the transition from the Early to the Late Roman Period (2nd/3rd cc.) reflects major changes in the political situation in the central European Barbaricum, presumably in the aftermath of the Marcomannic Wars. Much of the Wielbark C. population migrated east of the Vistula River to occupy a territory previously under →Przeworsk Culture  settlement. Another result of the same process was the rise of the Cherniakhiv Culture during the Late Roman Period, around 250 AD.

The development of Wielbark C. has been separated into two main phases: the Lubowidz Phase (from the grave field at Lubowidz near Lębork) – from the time of its emergence until the close of the Early Roman Period (second half of the 2nd century) and the Cecele Phase (from the grave field at Cecele, in Zone E) – Late Roman Period until the decline of Wielbark C. soon after the onset of the →Migration Period  (first half of the 5th century).

Wielbark C. is known mainly from the study of its grave fields; the study of its habitation sites is much less advanced.

The three distinguishing features of Wielbark C. are:

  1. biritualism: cremation and inhumation burials in the same cemetery, the ratio of the two forms different in different grave sites;
  2. grave inventories not furnished with weapons and containing only a very small number of tools, in contrast to its predecessor Oksywie Culture and its neighbour - →Przeworsk Culture ;
  3. a limited number of iron objects in grave inventories.

In settlement Zones B and C are found cemeteries classified as type Odry-Węsiory-Grzybnica, with burial mounds (earth or earth-and-stone-core structures), pavements, stone kerbs and stone circles. Unlike the stone kerbs,  associated with burial features, stone circles are mostly interpreted as sites of assembly (thing), ritual gatherings  of the user community of the burial ground. A site unique for central and northern European Barbaricum is the grave field at Nowy Łowicz on the Drava River, with more than 60 burial mounds. The tradition of raising barrows was kept up also to the east of the Vistula River. A form special for this zone is type Rostołty – some of these burial mounds are very large and are interpreted as burials of high status individuals.

Another distinctive feature of Wielbark C. are grave inventories containing a fairly rich selection of dress accessories made of  gold, silver and copper alloys. These and other items of metalwork achieve their most elaborate and flamboyant form in late 2nd century, in a style described as “Wielbark Baroque” (Fig. 1.) which makes use of highly sophisticated techniques: granulation, filigree, soldering, plating with silver and gold foil which may additionally be decorated with repoussé, etc. The two latter techniques were in use mostly during the Late Roman Period, a time of a more intensive exchange with southern Scandinavia.

The heyday of Wielbark C. is documented its vast cemeteries containing numerous richly furnished graves, e.g., at Malbork-Wielbark, Weklice, and Pruszcz Gdański. The largest of surviving and investigated mortuary sites is the cemetery at Czarnówko, in settlement Zone B, with around 1700 graves dated to the Roman Period. This is also the site of the discovery of an extraordinary bronze cauldron provided with three mounts in the form of men’s heads sporting a peculiar Germanic hairstyle - the Suebian knot (nodus suebicus). The only parallel to this vessel, definitely produced within the Roman Empire, is the Mušov Cauldron discovered in a “royal grave” in Moravia.

Wielbark C. disappears from the archaeological the record around mid-5th century, the time of a major upheaval everywhere in the eastern reaches of the central European Barbaricum. The settlement network of Wielbark C. in Poland and to the south came to an abrupt end. This was the start of the →Migration Period . Only small Germanic groups remained in the region between the Odra and the Vistula; their size, time of emergence and interaction with groups of Slavs moving into the region is still being investigated.  

J. S.

Literature: R. Wołągiewicz, Kultura wielbarska – problemy interpretacji etnicznej, [in:] Problemy kultury wielbarskiej, Słupsk 1981; R. Wołągiewicz, Lubowidz. Ein birituelles Gräberfeld der Wielbark-Kultur aus der Zeit vom Ende des 1. Jhs. v.Chr. bis zum Anfang des 3. Jhs. n.Chr., Monumenta Archaeologica Barbarica 1, Kraków 1995; J. Jaskanis, Cecele. Ein Gräberfeld der Wielbark-Kultur in Ostpolen, Monumenta Archaeologica Barbarica, Kraków 1996; M. Mączyńska, D. Rudnicka, Ein Grab mit römischem Import aus Czarnówko, Kr. Lębork (Pommern), Germania 82, 2004, p. 397-429; A. Cieśliński, A. Kasprzak, Cmentarzysko w Nowym Łowiczu w świetle najnowszych badań. Kurhan 29, [in:] W. Nowakowski (ed.), Goci i ich sąsiedzi na Pomorzu. Materiały z konferencji “Goci na Pomorzu Środkowym”, Koszalin 28-29 października 2005, Studia Archaeologica Pomeranica II, Koszalin 2006, p. 107-121; M. Fudziński, H. Paner (eds.), Nowe materiały i interpretacje. Stan dyskusji na temat kultury wielbarskiej, Gdańsk 2007; M. Natuniewicz-Sekuła, J. Okulicz-Kozaryn, Weklice. A Cemetery of the Wielbark Culture on the Eastern Margin of Vistula Delta (Excavations 1984-2004), Monumenta Archaeologica Barbarica XVII, Warszawa 2011; J. Jaskanis, Wodzowskie kurhany kultury wielbarskiej na Podlasiu, Białystok 2012.