Early medieval jewelry highlighted at Prague Castle

Photo: CTK

The Story of Prague Castle is a permanent exhibition at Prague’s most famous site, covering its magnificent thousand-year history – from its architecture to the lives of the Czech kings. But, this week, a new small exhibit was added, one that will be of most interest to those passionate about jewelry. Around 30 items in gold and silver, dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries, in other words the early medieval period, have been put on display.

The pieces are estimated as being worth tens of millions of crowns, but from the perspective of archeologists and historians they are of course invaluable. All - from tiny earrings to ornamental buttons - were excavated from an original 9th century burial ground uncovered at Prague Castle near the historic Riding School. Excavation at the site began in the 1970s and was completed in 1987, but remarkably, the jewelry has never before been publicly shown. At the opening on Thursday I had a chance to discuss the history of the jewelry with archeologist Jan Frolík, one of the main organisers behind the exhibit:

“These burial grounds were very important for the beginnings of Prague Castle as well as the future Czech state. The site was excavated in the ‘70s and ‘80s and consisted of 141 graves, in which we found 148 buried remains. The site yielded the richest collection of jewels found in any early medieval cemetery in Bohemia. The jewels can be divided along three categories: the first group of jewels were direct imports from the Great Moravian Empire, the second, were made at Prague Castle itself, often inspired by Great Moravian Empire techniques, and the last, of which there are but a few, came from further abroad, from the Byzantine Empire, either what is today Turkey and Greece.”

JV: How would you describe the techniques that were used at the time of the Great Moravian Empire?

“Very fine art, consisting of very small pieces from gold and silver, but the technique has largely been forgotten. It’s impossible to produce the same jewelry today.”

Sylvie Novotný and Jan Frolík, photo: CTK
JV: What were some typical motifs which feature on some of the jewelry found in the area of Prague Castle?

“One extraordinary motif is that of a small horse’s head that was used on the ear-rings. That motif was unknown at other locations.”

The pieces may strike many as impractically tiny but specialists say they were used the same way we’d use them today: as ear-rings or circlets in one’s hair or to adorn one’s clothes, albeit in their case usually only on special occasions. Of course, only few in the early days of Prague Castle and Bohemia enjoyed the luxury of such items. Many of those found with the items were women and children who belonged to important families. Jan Frolík again:

“These jewels were used by family members belonging to ducal groups, and their servants, that is the early builders of the Czech kingdom.”

JV: Were these items found at all of the graves or just some of them?

“Actually items were found at about two-thirds of the graves: around one third of those buried were not given any items at all. With the exception of their remains, their graves were empty.”

What might be the reason?

“It is difficult to say for certain, but it might be simply that some families were less generous, or for some reason protested against their relative being buried with the items. It’s also possible that some of those buried may have been early Christians in Bohemia, who might not bury their dead with such items. ”

Photo: CTK
JV: But there was some jewelry, I understand, which featured possible Christian symbols.

“Yes, some globular buttons featured the cross, for example. It is possible, although it might also be that those who made the jewels simply adopted Christian symbols. It isn’t necessarily proof that those who were buried with them were actually Christians. That is very difficult to prove. It could be that they saw the items simply as ‘nice pieces of jewelry’ and not as Christian motifs.”

If there are questions over who was a Christian, says archeologist Jan Frolík, there is comparatively little doubt over who were pagans: some of those buried - who died in childhood - were adorned as warriors in battle dress, which he says is unusual. Others were found in their graves with ritual objects – in one case a bag filled with human teeth.

“On the opposite side we have one grave which belonged to a pagan: a very old woman who was buried with a bunch of human teeth?”

JV: So, some kind of ‘witch’ or shaman?

“Possibly one or the other, although we can only speculate what uses the teeth ‘served’.”

Curator Sylvie Novotná, photo: CTK
JV: This research began in the 1970s, was completed in the 1980s: why has it taken so long for the items to go on display?

“The on-site excavations were finished shortly before 1989, when we saw major changes in our country. Docent Smetanka who was in charge moved to the Faculty of Archeology shortly afterwards so that was one reason things were postponed. I am very proud to have been able to help take up the thread.”

JV: Now, how does this fit into the larger exhibition? I know that you are not the curator, but obviously the jewelry from the 9th – 11th centuries bring in an important element.

“I am one of the authors of The Story of Prague Castle, namely dealing with archeology. We had the possibility to add the display with this jewelry and so decided we should do so. It’s very valuable and I hope that the public will enjoy seeing these items.”

In fact, with all there is to see at Prague Castle, it could be easy to overlook this rare display – or not recognise the items in their case for their true value. But anyone interested in jewelry – from motifs of horses’ heads to those buttons with crosses – will be intrigued, if only to wonder about those who once wore those items in Bohemia’s early days.