The Szilágynagyfalu Group

A group of archaeological finds that seems to bear no relation to others in the Carpathian basin is located around the upper reaches of the Szamos, Berettyó, and Kraszna rivers, on both sides of the Meszes mountains.

Two groups of tumulus cemeteries were discovered near Szilágy-Nagyfalu (as it was called in the 19th century), in the Berettyó valley. The larger one, overlooking the Rákos creek, consists of 43 mounds. The largest, the 'Nagyhalom' ('Big Mound', no. 7) had a diameter of 38 metres, while the others had a diameter of 6–10 metres. The height of the Nagyhalom was over six metres, that of the others between one and four metres. A second group, consisting of ten mounds, was discovered west of the Berettyó, on a plateau overlooking the 'Halmosd' stream, but it has yet to be fully excavated.

On the first site, mound no. 12 was excavated by Jakab Mattyasovszky in 1878, and mound no. 11 by Károly Torma in 1879. Mounds 2, 7, 10, and 13 were excavated in August-September 1880 by Flóris Rómer, Ferenc Pulszky, and József Hampel. Three other tumuli (mounds I–III) were explored by Maria Chişvasi-Comşa in 1958.

The funeral rites revealed by the mounds, or kurgans, had one common element, cremation. The tombs, which had been constructed on the surface before being buried under a mound, vary in structure. The first type had square vaults, built of interlocking beams or thick planks, and covered by boards. The vaults of the {1-259.} second type were smaller — indeed, more like large coffins — but of similar construction, and covered with stone slabs. The third type, without vault, held the ashes of one or more persons, along with pots, and a separately buried horse. All three types contained numerous vessels. Each group held from three to six urns, and mound 7 yielded four sets of vessels, or 20–22 dishes in all. Neither the early nor the more recent excavations give a clear indication of the number of persons buried under each kurgan. According to some accounts, all of the vessels contained ashes; others indicate that the ashes were scattered amidst the dishes. The ceramics that were found are generally alike: pots, made on a wheel, and decorated with bunched, horizontal lines over which come bunches of slanted, wavy lines. Mounds 10 and 11, on the other hand, yielded pots of the 'Medgyes type', made on a wheel.

The metal objects found (apart from Roman coins that had been placed, according to Avar custom, in the graves) provide a rough dating of the mounds. The earliest, from the first half of the 8th century, is a late Avar, cast-bronze belt ornament with a griffin-patterned pendant (no. 2, 'Rómer mound'). Of slightly later date is a piece of burnt strap-tip, of the same type as that found in grave 44 at Érsekújvár/Nové Zámky (mound 12). Another find in that mound is a buckle bearing tendril-patterned decoration on a worked background; it dates from the late 8th century, and is similar to pieces unearthed at Győr, Bozsok, Zimony, Tatárszentgyörgy, Tiszafüred, and Komárom. Kurgan III yielded a silver strap-tip (?), with filigreed decoration, that appears to be from the 9th century.

Traces of cooked meat confirm the 'pagan' character of the burials, as do the iron-hooped, wooden buckets that held drink. According to reports, only mound 12 held 'weapons'; the others yielded only iron knives of varying size. Two iron scythes were found next to the horse's skeleton.

Little evidence has surfaced regarding the homes of the Slav group in the Szilágyság. The settlement linked to the mound cemetery {1-260.} at Szilágynagyfalu was on the Nagyrét, where the finds consist mostly of tiles collected at the Benedek brickyard. More recently, a fairly large, sunken-floor house with a regular plan was excavated at Érszakácsi-Csobánkút, near Tasnád; the site yielded not only decorated tiles (fashioned on a wheel) and spindle-whorls of the Szilágynagyfalu type, but a number of hand-formed baking pans as well. However, those pans do not alter the conclusion that the site dates back to the 8th–9th century. The similar finds at Paptelek can be linked to the main settlement of the Szilágy group, at Mojgrád.

New light was thrown on the age and significance of the Szilágynagyfalu kurgans by a similar tumulus cemetery discovered at Kolozsvár-Szamosfalva, on the upper terrace of the Kis-Szamos River. Six of the seven burial mounds (with a diameter between 12 and 16 metres) have been excavated, and the initial reports concern four of them. The structure of the vaults was essentially the same as that of the first type at Szilágynagyfalu; the only difference was that the rectangular 'log-houses' had been set in grave pits of varying depth. In vault no. I, urns holding the ashes stood in orderly groups, although ashes were also found scattered amidst the urns in the middle of the vault. Tumulus IV contained mainly scattered ashes. The urns are of an earlier type than those at Szilágynagyfalu: they have an 8th century, Slavic-Avar shape and style of decoration. The late 8th century dating is confirmed by a splendid set of silver(?) Avar belt ornaments from tumulus I; the iron-hooped wooden bucket found in that grave also dates from the Avar period. Some time back, vandals despoiled a similar tumulus, with a vault made of wood, that was located at Apahida; other sites in that district, in the Kolozsvár-(Monostor-)Pap valley and at Nagyiklód, have been identified as belonging to this culture and period.

The dating of the Szilágynagyfalu-Szamosfalva group is quite clear. Its beginnings lie in the Avar period, no earlier than the second third of the 8th century. The pots found at Szamosfalva are of the same age as some of the urns in an older group of Slavic urn {1-261.} cemeteries at Tordas, Mezőszopor, and Vizakna. The Avar rulers acknowledged the leader of the people responsible for the Szamosfalva mounds as equal in rank to distinguished chiefs of Avar clans. The silver-studded belt symbolizes the Slav chieftain's freedom, dignity, and 'Avarness'. The collapse of Avar power probably caused only minor disturbance in the lives of the mound people. It may well have led to the plunder of Szamosfalva's kurgan II (which ultimately yielded 8th century tiles), and of the odd mound at Szilágynagyfalu as well. There is no sign of interruption in the group's development at the beginning of the 9th century. The pots of Szilágynagyfalu, with their distinctive shape and decoration, are mere 'visitors' in Transylvania's other regions, just as the late Medgyes-type urn pots are 'visitors' in Szilágynagyfalu. Moreover, not a single example of the Maroskarna 'A'-type of Bulgar ceramics seems to have reached the Szilágy region.

The 19th-century excavations had already made clear that in light of the cremation rites, these mounds were linked to Eastern Slavs. The question remains, where did these Slavs come from, and when did they settle in the region? The answer lies not only in the funeral rite (which, as noted, was rather varied) but in the finds yielded by the mound group.

The practice of burial under kurgans became widespread among Western and Eastern Slavs, but only later, at the beginning of the 9th century. In contrast, some Eastern Slav tribes (notably the Krivičes, Poljans, and Dulebs) began to follow this practice as early as the 6th–7th centuries, although their rites — except in the case of the kurgans at Borševo, on the Dnieper — differed from those in Transylvania. Even in Transylvania, there is no assurance that this group used kurgans to the exclusion of all other forms of burial. For instance, there is no assurance that the fine, Szilágynagyfalu-type urn (containing an iron knife among the ashes) found at Iriny came from a mound.

{1-262.} The Slav cremation tumuli that are closest in age — 8th–9th century — and proximity were found in Laborca-Latorca-Bodrog (Királyhelmec) region. However, the grave finds there are far more modest than those in Transylvania: the only Avar belt ornament found was a single cast-metal tip from a small strap. Such is also the case with the cremation kurgans found in the region the Prut and the Dniester rivers, and which can probably be grouped together with the mounds in eastern Slovakia. The decorative technique of the Szilágynagyfalu pottery (which shows considerable local development) points to the same conclusion: in all likelihood, this Slavic group, which buried its cremated dead under mounds, crossed the northeastern Carpathians and settled in the Szilágy and Szamos regions around the middle of the 8th century — at roughly the same time as another Slavic group, one that also left a legacy of mounds, settled in the Bodrog region. Conclusive archaeological evidence is furnished by the finds at Mojgrád, which are of Eastern Slav origin. The tumuli at Mojgrád have yielded four different, cast-bronze earrings, each of distinctive half-moon shape and decorated with stars; one at least clearly came from a grave, for it was found together with blue glass beads and fragments of Szilágynagyfalu-type dishes. Similar jewels have surfaced at Karcsa (in the Bodrog region) and in a tumulus at Királyhelmec, and further finds, at Kassa-Zsebes and Felsőremete, point in the direction of Galicia and Ukraine. The Eastern Slavic group that settled in the Szamos valley probably did so as allies, rather than as subjects, of the Avars. Their material culture, the chiefs' apparel, and even their funeral rites (horse burials) show clear signs of Avar influence.

One of the few settlements of mound Slavs in the Tisza-Szamos region was uncovered at Karcsa, in the Bodrog region. A similar site was discovered in 1979 on the Lázári-Lubi field at Szatmár. On this site, a hut, equipped with a fireplace, yielded tiles made on a wheel, hand-fashioned baking pans, a bronze ear pendant, {1-263.} with star shaped decoration, of the same type as those found at Karcsa (and Mojgrád), and, perhaps most importantly, the first material proof of Slav agriculture in the Carpathian Basin: the small, iron sole of a plough.

During the 9th century, those among this group of Slavs who lived east of the Meszes drew back to the western side of the mountains — presumably to avoid the Bulgars' advance into the Carpathian Basin. A surprisingly large number of mound cemeteries have been found in the Szilágy region, and a fair proportion of them can be linked to this particular group. One noteworthy example is Érkávás, which, though far from the Avar settlement area, lies at the very heart of this Slavic group's territory: the site yielded several cast-metal belt ornaments decorated in a griffin pattern. So far, only a few archaeological finds (such as the 9th–10 century vessels yielded by kurgans 10–11 at Szilágynagyfalu) point clearly to the continued presence of Eastern Slavs at the time of the Hungarian Settlement. Yet the many Slavic toponyms in the Szilágy region, around the Kraszna and Berettyó valleys, are just as indicative of the group's survival as the arrowhead of a Hungarian conqueror that was found in one of the tumuli at Királyhelmec.