Hillforts 2018

Hillforts 2018

22 December, 2018

Pilskalni

Last weekend, Rita, Max and I went on a Hillfort adventure in Latgale, the easternmost region of Latvia. This was something like the 10th or 11th year that Rita and her colleagues have set out to explore the Latvian wilderness in search of pilskalns.

Ieva, Rita, Juris and Ieva posing for their Pilskalns book

What is a pilskalns? Well, it is a hill that was once occupied by a Baltic tribe. The archeological evidence shows that these were like castles, but instead of stone walls, they used wood, so there isn’t much physical evidence of the actual fort left. There are over 475 of them scattered throughout Latvia, and according to our guide, Juris Urtans, who literally wrote THE book (and actually many books) on Pilskalns, he says they are indicitave of the Baltic tribes that flourished in Eastern Europe from about the beginning of the Iron Age through the 13th century or so.

One of Juris’ Books
Artist’s Rendering of what the hillfort might have looked like back in the day.

However, they did not have their own historical records or anything, so most of what we know is only anecdotal. In addition to Juris, we were also accompanied by two Ievas who are both experts in historical fields as well. It was very good company. One of the Ievas brought along her husband Ģirts and their youngest child, Augusts, who is literally the cutest baby I have ever seen.

Rita and Augusts

They brought an off-road stroller, and pushed him around all these different hills in the middle of winter, and he hardly complained at all.

Kūkas, Krustpils novads, Latvia

Our adventure began on Saturday morning when Ieva picked us up in and started driving to Latgale just past Jēkabspils where we met Juris and the rest of the company which included Ieva, the three of us, the other Ieva, her husband and son, and Juris and his wonderful wife Māra, to see our first fort, Asotes Pilskalns. This one has been well-established and has a marker in front of it made of glass so that if you look through it at the right angle, you can see what the walls and fortress would have looked like back in the old days.

Ieva, Max, mara, Rita, and Juris

We walked to the top of the fort, and Juris gave a little lecture for us (in Latvian of course so Rita translated), and then we had a little lunch with hot cider and smoked fish. It was beautiful to break bread and breathe the air on the top of this hill, thinking back how it might have been a thousand years ago.

The forts are strategically located, usually along a river. The thought is that these were fortified bases with a larger village below. And if attacked, the people of the village could retreat to the fortress while they repelled the attackers. Standing at the top of the hill looking down over the Daugava, I could feel that sense of power and thwarting ability.

The other interesting features that we found on almost every hill were craters and trenches that have been there since World War I, the War of Independence, or World War II. Latvia is scarred with the memories of a long history of being in the middle of great powers going to war with one another.

The region of Latgale is of historical interest in and of itself. I don’t know much about it, but it has a higher population of Russians than the rest of Latvia, it is more Catholic, and the people speak their own dialect of Latvian called Latgalean. Rita also says that traditionally the people there are more open and friendly (maybe even a bit more wild) than the rest of Latvia.

I also learned how the borders of Latvia were formed in 1918 when Latvian soldiers pushed their way through Latgale, claiming all the villages where people spoke the Latvian language. And then they stopped. It was cool to look at an old map to see how Latgale used to be a separate part of another empire long, long ago. You learn so much when you go on a Hillfort adventure with really smart people.

Atašiene, Krustpils novads, Latvia

We went to a second hillfort, but this one was not as obvious as the first. In fact, Juris said that they had thought that this pilskalns was excavated for sand and destroyed. It was first discovered in the 1920s, and when researchers went back to find it, they found a hole in the ground (see the photo of the snow in the valley). But, it turns out that the original discoverer wrote the coordinates wrong, and the fort itself was actually a kilometer away from where they had excavated, so it was still there after all. It was covered with trees and I had a nice time exploring.

I found a couple really neat trees, like this pine that is holding onto the cliff face for dear life. Rita says that there is a tradition which holds that if you crawl under such a tree root on the night of a full moon, you will become a werewolf. Too bad she didn’t tell me sooner!

Devils Stone, Trūpu Velnakmens

The Devil’s Stone near Viļāni

After packing up, we headed out again and found one of the many Devil’s Stones that are scattered around Latvia. This one was just amazing! Juris says it was split into pieces when it was struck by lightning. The rock itself is gigantic. I walked into the center of it, and I swear that I felt some kind of energy. Trees were crooked, and the whole hill just felt weird. I was kind of glad to get out of that place. Magic abounds throughout Latvia, but not all of it is positive.

The final stop for Saturday was a small museum in Viļāni which holds some of the very artifacts that Juris had found on nearby pilskalni. How cool is that? The curator opened it up for us, and I learned how linen is made from flax… which just amazes me.

Kūkas, Krustpils novads, Latvia

Our Saturday trip ended back at this cabin house where we stayed the night and had a meal. I helped cook the fish that Juris cleaned. The whole thing was wonderful except there was no heat, and by the morning, it was so very, very cold.

Happy Birthday Juris!

It was also Juris’s birthday, so we sang to him. Then all the really smart people shared presentations on historical topics. The most interesting one for me was how Juris and his team are using new technologies to find hidden pilskalni. They use satellites to look at the contours of the hills to see if they have been altered by humans. After finding hardly any new ones for a long time, they have found ten or more in the past year.

Mežāre, Krustpils novads, Latvia

After cleaning up the cabin on Sunday morning, we went to the most obvious hillfort of our trip. This one was perfectly level, and you could clearly see it was something more than a normal hill. People still use it for parties, and there were swings and lights, and we met three very nice black dogs.

Finally, we drove to Juris’ very own hillfort near Kūkas, Dzirkaļu pilskalns. He bought a country house adjacent to land that has lovely woods, and a very high imposing hillfort. We climbed to the top, and we even walked on a trail he had recently discovered that the ancient Balts would have used to climb to the top. It had two distinct layers and he said that one side would have been for sledges and the other for horses and pedestrians. The side for horses was dug in a bit more deeply than the sledge side.


Ģirts pushing little Augusts through the snow, up and down hills.

We spent some time at the top of the hill where Juris pointed out the defensive features and how confusing this area was and would have been for enemies. It was easy to get lost in the thick trees, and all the steep hills looked kind of the same. He then showed us the well that was supposed to bring you money if you drank from it. We didn’t drink from it.

Finally, we ended the day back at the top of another hill next to our vehicles. We unloaded what remained of the food, and shared it standing in the cold air of Latgale. They began to plan the next adventure for next spring. It is best to go to the hillforts before there are too many leaves and ticks, I was told.

Planning the Next Adventure
Max drew me on the car…

Side Notes

  1. Archeology 101: I learned that archeologists do not like to excavate all of the sites because it damages them. But they can find evidence of the ancient civilizations with the help of moles. Yes, in the black dirt of the mole hills, there are sometimes little pieces of pottery that let the archeologists date the hill and prove that it was once a fort. How cool is that?

2. Ieva was an amazing driver, but on the way home, her car started to overheat, and we had to stop. We were stuck on a highway 50 kilometers from Riga when it started to snow. Luckily, she had a friend nearby who brought his Honda CRV and we managed to tow the car home driving about 50 kph all the way with cars zooming past us, and snow falling down. It was pretty scary and impressive.

3. Rita published a book about the first head of the Archives of Latvian Folklore, Anna Bērzkalne. So that is pretty cool!

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