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Archaeologists find traces of legendary Viking centre By Thoralf Plath

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Sunday September 10, 2006

By Thoralf Plath, Kaliningrad, Russia- Russian and German archaeologists believe they may have found traces of human settlement in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that could lead to the legendary Viking trading centre of Wiskiauten. The find lies three kilometres south of the coastal resort of Selenogradsk in a field near the Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of sand dune off the coast.

The stone structures found almost a metre down are the remains of a well and several houses and date to the 12th century.

"This is still a bit recent, as the Viking era is at least two centuries earlier," the head of the German team, Timo Ibsen, says.

"But we are on the right track."

Ibsen and his fellow archaeologists from Kaliningrad, Vladimir Kulakov and Konstantin Skvorzov have been looking for the lost site of Wiskiauten for years.

Wiskiauten is one of the last great archaeological secrets that the Baltic region still has to give up.

Despite 160 years of research in the early history of the region, no one knows where the fabled site lies.

All that has been found is a cemetery, which lies on a flat hill called Kaup near the village of Mochovoje. It has been known since 1865, when amateur local archaeologists began retrieving precious funeral items from more than 500 graves.

They found silver items, swords and the tips of lances, women's jewelry and even the remains of costumes, all unmistakably of Scandinavian design.

The oldest Viking graves date back to the 9th century.

"There are lots of women's graves, and for this reason we believe that these people from the north were not here on raids," says Kulakov, head of the Baltic expedition of Russia's National Institute of Archaeology.

"Rather, they lived here in a multi-ethnic community alongside Danes, Goths and the local Prussians."

Kulakov has been looking for traces of Wiskiauten since the 1970s and has made several finds, despite the depredations of increasingly professional illegal grave robbers, who have plundered dozens of hill-top graves.

Wiskiauten was a major settlement at the dawn of Baltic culture, similar to other sites in the region, like Hedeby near Schleswig on the German-Danish border, Ralswiek on the island of Ruegen, Vineta near Wolin in Poland and the recently discovered Elblag, or Truso, on the Polish coast.

The Viking trading network along the Baltic coast is well researched. Only Wiskiauten is missing.

It is known that Wiskiauten had direct access to water. The Scandinavians were boat people after all.

Three kilometres to the north of the cemetery lies the Curonian Lagoon, a large body of fresh water separated from the Baltic by the Curonian Split.

"A thousand years ago the opening to the sea still lay here in the south of the spit and not to the north as it does today. This strategic position led Wiskiauten to gain in significance," Ibsen says.

In the spring of this year German geologists investigated how far the lagoon extended to the south during the Viking era. At the same time a large geomagnetic survey was underway at the instigation of northern European archaeologists.

For days scientists from Kiel University in northern Germany used a tractor to drag geo-radar machines around the frozen fields surrounding the hilltop graves.

By the time they were finished, they had scanned more than 60 hectares. "Geomagnetism yields fantastic results. You can even see the course of the old paths," Ibsen says.

The researchers struck luck almost immediately, finding a Byzantine coin at the first structures. This is evidence of long- distance trade conducted by the Balts.

The driving force behind trade links with the orient was amber, the gold of the Baltic.

Work at the dig is coming to an end for this year. The results are to be evaluated at the Archaeological Museum in Gottorf Castle in Schleswig over the months ahead. They can be found at www.wiskiauten.eu.

The objects found are housed in Kaliningrad's art history museum.

The research has generated a Wiskiauten cult in the region, with Selenogradsk wanting to turn its early history to the good of the tourist industry.

Kulakov has mixed feelings about this.

"Actually we would rather do our work in peace. All this publicity merely attracts grave robbers, and they have done enough damage here as it is," the Kaliningrad archaeologist says.

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur