Room for new developments

What happened in late antiquity?



Room for new developments

Room for new developments

In late antiquity people sought protection on hilltops and behind walls. Christians started erecting the first monumental churches. While the end of the Western Roman Empire led to a considerable reduction in the population and the dissolution of the old order, it also made room for new developments.

The migration of groups with Slavic culture and language led to the founding of new settlements on the plains. Grave finds give an impression of the flourishing village life of the time, while today’s place and field names attest to the linguistic mixing of populations in Carantania. In the eighth century the hitherto pagan Slavs became Christianized in a movement that spread from Salzburg and Aquileia, and churches and monasteries such as that at Molzbichl near Spittal were founded.

Provincial capital and episcopal see

Located near present-day Spittal an der Drau, the Roman city of Teurnia became important as a provincial capital in late antiquity, and was fortified with city walls as the times grew increasingly uncertain. At the same time monumental ecclesiastical buildings attest to the dissemination of the Christian faith and the status of Teurnia as an episcopal see. High-ranking individuals financed the elaborate decoration of the ecclesiastical buildings with mosaic floors featuring various symbols of early Christianity.

Late antique pilgrimage site

The Hemmaberg mountain near Globasnitz in Lower Carinthia is one of the most important early Christian archaeological sites in the Alpine region. As early as the fifth century, there was a hilltop settlement here with a church which gradually became a major site of pilgrimage with extensive links to northern Italy. With a stark increase in numbers of pilgrims, in the early sixth century building commenced on two double churches, accommodation, open squares and ancillary buildings. Elaborate mosaics with ornamental devices and depictions of birds decorated the floors of the churches, the largest such floors to be found in Austria.

Uncertain times

Late antiquity was an uncertain time and the people living in Carinthia reacted by establishing protected self-sufficient hilltop settlements. Local trades flourished, while long-distance trade was limited to quality products such as olive oil and special types of wine.

At first, the Roman roads continued to be controlled by the military, which increasingly made use of mercenaries from the Barbaricum. The culture of these immigrants can be seen in foreign-looking everyday objects, arms and jewellery found in the settlements and graves of this time. In Globasnitz in Lower Carinthia individuals with artificially deformed skulls were buried, probably indicating the presence of a Germanic group.

Village life

The Slavs settled mainly on the plains along the course of rivers, founding villages of which some still exist today. These were largely self-sufficient agricultural settlements. However, since almost nothing remains of their wooden architecture, there is little archaeological evidence of this Slav settlement period, especially as many present-day Carinthian villages lie above their early medieval predecessors. What yields more evidence of this period are the graves, which can give us information about Slav dress. Important clues also lie in the names of places and fields, attesting to the mixing of languages among Carinthia’s population at the time.

Powerful men

Around 700 CE individual males in Carinthia were buried with precious clothing and valuable weapons. The finds display elements of Western (Frankish-Bajuwaric) and Eastern (steppe nomad-Byzantine) traditions. One of these finds, uncovered in a grave at Grabelsdorf in Lower Carinthia, was a belt with hanging thongs and richly decorated with metal fittings. Men distinguished in this way must have possessed a certain power in their communities and perhaps held the rank of a ban or župan

The return of the Cross

There is evidence of Christian missionary activity in the Carinthian region radiating out from Salzburg in the eighth century, a phenomenon in which not only religious but above all political reasons played a decisive role: the region was of major geostrategic importance for the bishops of Salzburg. Conflict with the patriarchate of Aquileia – which also engaged in missionary activity – was resolved by Charlemagne in 811 by defining the river Drau as the border between the two spheres of influence.

After initial resistance, permanent foundations of churches and monastic communities followed. Grave goods with Christian symbols indicate that the religion was adopted by the resident Slav population.

Elaborately decorated stones

The churches of early medieval Carantania featured furnishings made of carved stone. They bore patterns of interlacing bands and were used for chancel screens (separating the chancel where the altar stands from the space for the congregation), baldachins above the altar, and lecterns. The chancel screens displayed here came from the church at St Peter bei Moosburg and were made around 800.

Unique inscription

An unusual find awaits the visitor to the parish church of Molzbichl near Spittal an der Drau: incorporated into the altar is an inscription naming a ‘deacon’ – presumably living in Teurnia – with the rare name of Nonnosus, attesting to his veneration locally as a saint in 533 CE. At that time, deacons assisted bishops in their religious and administrative duties and in their ministration to the poor and infirm. Carved in Carinthian marble, the inscription is the last from Roman antiquity and the only one from the sixth century in Austria. The veneration of Nonnosus also stands symbolically for the living continuity between antiquity and the Middle Ages; his relics were transferred to Molzbichl and deposited there in the eighth century.

The transparent man

Modern science enables us to to take a direct look at the life of people from late antiquity. Extensive interdisciplinary examination of skeletons from the lower Jaun Valley has revealed the ancestry and mobility, life circumstances, diseases and causes of death of these individuals.

Daily bread

Worn teeth and caries are indicative of dietary habits: ground cereals contained stone particles from millstones, and carbohydrate-rich fare promotes caries. Isotope analysis of bones and teeth also reveal pointers towards diet and possible deficiencies.

Remains of plants and animals attest to the forms of agriculture and animal husbandry practised at the time, enabling comparison with the preceding centuries under Roman influence.

Hard labour

The degeneration of bones is a natural consequence of ageing but can be considerably accelerated by illness, poor diet or strenuous and frequent activities. Physical infirmity was a challenge for the individuals affected but also for the community that had to look after them.

Ancestry and mobility

Archaeological traces of genetic material (ancient DNA) supply valuable information about the origin and ancestry of individuals. Other chemical analyses (strontium isotope testing) enable us to reconstruct how much individuals moved around during their lives.

Final resting place

The information that can be extracted from burials always depends on the funerary practices of that particular epoch and can vary considerably. With the Christianization of late antiquity, the earlier custom of putting goods into a tomb with the deceased disappears. An unusual burial form from this time are graves made of bones: the bones of the predeceased, arranged in a box shape, were used to line later graves.

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