What did Kernavė look like in the 14th Century?

The birth of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is unimaginable without its political and administrative centres of Kernavė, Trakai and Vilnius. The image of this trinity of capitals remains pure in the realm of both legend and history. The images of the first Lithuanian cities have stoked the imagination of researchers for a couple hundred years already. The authors of chronicles of the time, writing down the progression of important historical events had no idea that someone would find an interest in the cultural landscape after 700 years. Today we can describe the common traits of Lithuanian cities only thanks to archaeological research. 19th century poet and local lore historian Władysław Syrokomla was of the same opinion, the first researcher to drive his shovel into the hill forts of Kernavė in 1857. After arriving to the “pre-Gediminid capital of Lithuania,” this energetic lover of all things ancient soon became disappointed. In his book Departures from Vilnius Through Lithuania, Syrokomla wrote “A barefoot boy opened the gates for us, weak, simple village gates, protecting a poor village of eighteen merchants, surrounded not by a bulwark or wall, but a simple fence of brushwood.” That is the Kernavė we see in the middle of the 19th century, however we get a different view after summing up the archaeological research carried out over more than 30 years.

The “discoverers” of Kernavė, dated to the end of the 13th century – 14th century were not archaeologists, but land amelioration expert, who decided to improve the soil of the legendary Pajauta Valley. In 1986 wooden building baulks spilled from the bucket of an excavator, which led to many years of archaeological research that were full of discoveries.

Before being seized by flames

Today we can say precisely what Kernavė looked like to the Teutonic knights brought by Vytautas in 1390. The local inhabitants, who understood that they would not be able to stand up to the powerful army marching toward Vilnius, decided to burn down the city themselves. This happened because the enemies did not come up against defensive masonry walls in Kernavė that were characteristic of Western European cities.

The saying “no stone was left unturned” after the attack doesn’t apply here.

Though officially the land was Christian, the Teutonic knights did not see any temples of worship, meaning Catholic or Orthodox, burning. However, that was a normal and necessary attribute for a city in Christian Europe at the time.