Avar Rule before 630

The historical record indicates that in the last third of the 6th century, the Avars had yet to decide whether the Carpathian Basin should be their permanent home. They maintained their claim to the region between the Lower Danube and the Balkan mountains, where, in 584–86, they occupied Moesia and part of Scythia Minor, and began to implant their political and economic structure. However, between 593 and 598, Eastern Roman troops that had been transferred from the Persian front put an end to Avar rule in the northern Balkans, and they followed this up in 600–601 with successful counterattacks in the Temes region. The Avars' pattern of settlement reflects the 'transitional' character of this period: drawn to the south, the Avars had little interest in the northern third {1-228.} of the Carpathian Basin. Their area of settlement extended in the northwest to the Danube (with only a military bridgehead lying beyond this line, at Dévény), and, in the north, to the onetime Sarmatian rampart at the periphery of the forest belt in Pest-Heves-Borsod counties (of today), a line that they crossed only in one or two places in the northeasterly Nyírség. In the south, the settlements extended roughly to the stretch of the Danube in Sirmia. They dwelt at the centres of marked-off pastures, in so-called auls; the latter's traces — single graves and small burial grounds holding 10–20 graves — are difficult to assess. From the perspective of archaeology, Avars became more 'visible' only after the defeats they suffered in 600–601, when they began to systematize their rule in the occupied territories. Larger cemeteries, many of which remained in use for generations, appeared first at their winter quarters (e.g. Dunaújváros, Kölked), then near their villages. In Transylvania, it is difficult to separate the archaeological legacy of the pre-601 generation from that of the later ones.

In the first decades of the Avar period, the section of the Maros valley between Arad and the Tisza River was supervised by the Prince of Kunágota — one of the highest dignitaries in the Bayan period — and his retinue. The prince's aul was situated in the valley, between Pécska and Arad; he presumably travelled along the northern bank of the Maros to reach his other residences. When the prince died, he was buried secretly at a location far from the Maros, in the northern puszta. The pattern of burial was similar in the case of the lords of the 'Kagan's' ordus, on the left bank of the Danube, whose hidden graves lay on the periphery of a region of marshlands and sand dunes between the Danube and the Tisza (Bábony, Bócsa, Kecel), or of a contemporary of the prince of Kunágota in the Tisza region, east of the river at Kunmadaras. The Kunágota prince's grave, which yielded much gold, can be dated back to the 590s by a gold solidus, in almost mint condition, and dating from the end of Justinian I's life, as well as by his sword, which has Byzantine gilded {1-229.} reliefs typical of that emperor's era. The graves of his military escort and those of his successor or successors hold horses and weapons, and are located along the Maros — on the northern bank at Németpereg (several rich graves from the early period, with horses) and Apátfalva, and on the southern bank at Fönlak (two remarkable, 7th-century graves), Németszentpéter, Nagyszentmiklós-Bukova-puszta (two graves with horses and arms), Óbesenyő, Kiszombor O., Deszk G. All of the grave goods are of Asian origin: the weapons (swords with long, straight blades, which were typical of mounted warriors, strong, armour-piercing lances, large bows with reinforcing plates made of bone, and heavy arrows with triple-edged heads) as well as the harnesses (iron stirrups, bridles, and ornamented saddles). There are fewer traces of buried women: a grave at Temeskenéz yielded some early beads, and handmade pots indicative of the early Avar period were unearthed at Széphely, Temeskenéz, Temesság and Temesremete. Splendid big earrings, consisting of silver spheres, were found in the early 1800s at Oravicabánya, in Krassó-Severin county; along with other finds, they confirm that the early Avar settlement area extended to the Lower Danube. Traces have been found of frontier posts facing the Byzantines: a Byzantine bronze buckle with a cruciform perforation, along with parts of a pinked belt, at Orsova, and an early Avar war axe and pikehead at Szőlőtelep.

One outstanding find is the grave of an ironsmith, buried with his horse, at Fönlak, on the edge of the Maros' flood plain. Although it had been partially plundered, the grave yielded one of the most extensive sets (44 pieces) of bronze press-moulds ever to be discovered in the Carpathian Basin; the set is a treasury of Persian/Byzantine-style moulds of belt, harness, and saddle ornaments. The fact that the deceased was buried with his moulds and tools indicates that goldsmiths and ironsmiths enjoyed an exalted social status. Of comparable importance is the grave of an ironsmith (with horse) discovered at Kunszentmárton. In addition to a {1-230.} sword, a pike with staff, and a 41-piece set of press-moulds, the grave also yielded a costly and elegant example of the early Avars' combat wear: a corselet of linked iron plates.

The grave (with horse) discovered on the southern bank of the Aranka, near Németszentpéter, is noteworthy not only because of its unusual, north-south alignment, but also because of the folded horsehide at the feet of the corpse. Its age is indicated by a solidus, minted between 615–25, during the reign of Emperor Heraclius, and used as a pendant or other ornament; such coins are known as 'light' solidi, for they were 'official counterfeits' used to pay tribute to the Avars. The deceased Avar lord's helmet, made of linked iron plates, is a unique find; it could be identified from 6th–7th century frescos at Afrasiab (Old-Samarkand), in Central Asia. The grave goods included, in addition to the common weapons (long single-edged sword, pikehead, heavy, triple-edged arrowheads) and harness, a remarkable weapon-belt that had five side-straps and pressed-silver strap tips made in the Fönlak smithy. A Heraclius solidus found at Sajtény, on the northern bank of the Maros, was of similar quality, while the silver coins from the age of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantinus, unearthed at Nagyszentmiklós, on the southern bank, indicate more modest burials. The Pécska and Orsova grave-finds (including 6–7th century Byzantine buckles), the graves at Kispereg, and the pot from a grave at Zádorlak belong to the early Avar period, but they have yet to be dated more precisely. Similarly, the dwellings unearthed at Barra, and holding stone ovens, spindle buttons, and spindle discs, can be dated back to the early Avar period only by a rough estimate.

The graves and objects uncovered in the Ér valley, Érmihályfalva, Érkeserű, Székelyhíd, and Iriny testify to early Avar settlements. The Érmihályfalva find includes handmade, narrow-necked mugs, mugs with handles (cf. Küküllővár), and other vessels. These objects may have originally come from Rétalja, where a more recently discovered grave (with horse) contained a straight sword {1-231.} with a ringed hilt, triple-edged arrowheads, a pair of hook-eared stirrups, bridles decorated with hemispheric buttons in early Avar style, and a 'szalu' — a distinctive tool found in Avar and Turk graves that also held a horse. A handmade dish of Central Asian type, with a four-cornered rim, identifies and dates the Avar grave at Székelyhíd-Horó-tanya (cf. Marosnagylak); a grey pot that reflects Central Asian technique and style does the same for the grave at Iriny. Other early Avar graves have been found in the area where the Sebes-Körös reaches the Great Plain, in the vicinity of the rich 6th century grave (with a horse) at Ártánd, and at Köröstarján-Csordás-domb.

Traces of early Avar auls or ordus, similar to those found at the mouth of the Maros, have been discovered in the Transylvanian Basin as well. A reference point is the site at Szentendre, north of Budapest, where noblemen's graves are dated from 578–610 on the evidence of a gold tremissis of Iustinus II and a solidus of Fokas; the two large, 'Szentendre-type' gold earrings, with pyramidical and spherical pendants, that were unearthed 'somewhere in Transylvania' (and must have come from graves), are presumably relics from an ordu of the same period. Another fine piece of jewellery from 'somewhere in Transylvania', a 'Deszk-type' pair of gold earrings with pyramidical pendants, dates already from the first half of the 7th century. Thus Transylvania must have received its share of Byzantine tribute to the Avars: of the 'light' solidi of Mauricius (582–602) (found at Szegvár, Tiszakeszi, Csősztelek, Kőhalom, and in the vicinity of Marosvásárhely), and the "light" solidi of Fokás (602–610) (at Kula, Szilágypér, Körtéd/Krušica, and Mezőszabad), coins that became the almost exclusive form of tribute from Fokas' successor, Heraclius (Hajdúdorog, Szeghegy, Szentes-Jaksor, Sajtény, Németszentpéter).

An early Avar aul may also be indicated by an earring, with a gold setting, of Italo-Byzantine origin, that probably comes from Kolozsvár (and not, as previously recorded, from Abrudbánya). {1-232.} This jewel is the only Transylvanian trace of the Italian contacts nurtured by many Avars who had settled in Pannonia and along the Tisza.

Judging from the press-moulds found at Erzsébetváros (Nagy-Küküllő valley) and Korond-Firtos (Kis-Küküllő valley), the demand in Transylvanian auls for fancy belts and harnesses was met by highly esteemed smiths whose tools and methods were similar to those at Fönlak. A fine example of their craftsmanship was found — evidently on the site of a plundered grave with horse — at Gyulafehérvár: a bronze, Maltese-cross shaped belt link of the Fönlak type and size, with, at its rounded centre, the outline of a moustached face.

The valley of the Küküllő rivers was in all probability the site of an early Avar settlement; the graves (with horses and weapons) of this district's garrison have been found at Nagyenyed, in the nearby Maros valley. The grave (with a horse) uncovered at Diód may also be linked to this centre, as may an intact, early Avar 'nomadic' dish that must have come from a grave and was found at Szászsebes. The settlement of Avars in the Gepidic-Germanic village at Mezőbánd probably originates dates from the period of consolidation, after 600. The Avar graves (with horses) uncovered at both ends of the Mezőbánd cemetery indicate that — perhaps after a brief period of cohabitation — the Gepid inhabitants were expelled. An exquisitely-wrought gold ring, decorated in a serrated, Germanic II 'animal pattern', and unearthed in one of these graves resembles one, made of silver, that was found at Keszthely-Fenékpuszta; after exhaustive analysis, it has been dated to the 580–630 period. The ring's decorative style is congruent with that of objects identified with the earliest Avar princes (the 'Jankovich golds' and Kunmadaras); these have been dated by the gold solidi (found at Kölked) from the age of Iustinus II (565–572) and Mauricius (582–602). A pressed belt ornament, similar to the one from Mezőbánd, was found in a grave in Nyíregyháza-{1-233.} Kertgazdaság, along with a worn Mauricius solidus that had been sewn on a garment. On the basis of available evidence, it can be estimated that the Avar graves at Mezőbánd date from 600–630.

In 626, at Constantinople, the Bayan dynasty's army of Avars, Bulgars, Gepids, and Slavs suffered at great defeat. In the aftermath, the subject peoples in the Avar empire turned rebellious; the Slavic tribes in Dalmatia threw off the Avar yoke and sought the protection of Byzantium (629–30). The internal wars that shook the whole Avar empire left observable traces: villages and cemeteries fell into disuse, and many graveyards dating from before 630 — including the Avar graves at Mezőbánd — were devastated and plundered. The Bayan dynasty ultimately regained control, but as a consequence of the internal conflict, the Avars lost a precious ally, the Bulgars, and they were compelled to take defensive measures against the Slavic peoples in the west and southwest.

There is no clearer sign of these events than the devastation suffered by the graves of Gepids and Avars at Mezőbánd, and the sole dated and positive piece of evidence also comes from Transylvania: a trove of 237 gold coins (some reports put the number at over 300, and even 5,000) that was discovered in 1831 at Korond-Firtosváralja. The most recent coins in the treasure, which obviously had been accumulated through many decades of extortion, were solidi minted around 625, at the time of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantinus; thus the concealment of the treasure (and the flight or death of the owner) must have occurred around 630. The treasure also serves to buttress the conclusion that the early Avars' central area of settlement in Transylvania lay in the valley of the Kis-Küküllő.