The Avar Occupation of Transylvania

In the context of the period of Great Migrations, the archaeological finds relating to the earliest Avar dwellings and military outposts are truly of exceptional quality. A burial rite, dating from the 6th–7th centuries, of the Avars and early Turks was discovered in Central Asia (in the former Tuva ASSR and Mongolia) some thirty years ago. The mounted warriors and armed clan chiefs had been buried fully dressed and armed, and generally at some distance from the graves of other members of their family and clan. Shortly after the funeral, their horses were sacrificed near the grave for a funeral feast; the remains of the feast were then burned on a pyre, and the residue, along with the harnessed hide of the horse, was buried in a shallow grave. This custom was still present among the first generation of the Avars who invaded the Carpathian Basin, and then, for reasons unknown, it apparently died out after 600. {1-226.} Another important indication of the Asian connection is that the stirrups — rectangular or looped shape, with a round footrest for soft-soled boots — and pony bridles discovered in early Avar firepits in the Carpathian Basin matched those found in Central Asia. The earliest Avar iron stirrups (which were also the first in Europe!) were brought by these people from their former homeland — a fact proven not only by the perfectly matching shapes, but also by the material, which contained nickel, a metal unknown in the Carpathian Basin. Traces of funeral pyres, including iron stirrups marked by fire, have been found in some 35–40 locations, all the way from the Dévény Gate to the banks of the Küküllő River; there can be little doubt that they indicate the initial pattern of Avar settlement. Their easternmost outpost was situated in a gorge leading out of the Barcaság (Barzenland) region. Gold coins of the Persian King Chosrau I (531–579), found in the Brassó (Kronstadt) district, could have been brought there only by the Avars.

Given what is known about the historic events of 567–68, it seems logical that the Maros and Küküllő valleys should have been among the first areas to be occupied and settled by the Avars. This settlement's farthest point along the Kis-Küküllő River, at Dicsőszentmárton, is indicated by a pair of stirrups marked by fire.

A typical early Avar pot, hand-made and with a narrow neck, was discovered in a grave at a nearby village, Küküllővár. A pair of elongated stirrups, twisted by the heat of a funeral pyre, was found at Németszentpéter-Góliát, on the Maros River south of Arad, along with a bridle bearing fire marks and an armour-piercing pike of the type that Avars used to kill the sacrificial horse and then bury with the remains of the feast; these objects are the unmistakable signs of Avar presence. It appears, then, that Gepidia's two principal arteries, the Maros and Tisza valleys, came under Avar rule at the very beginning of the period. That the road along the Olt and Sebes rivers continued to serve as the link with the eastern regions of the Avar domain is indicated by coins found near Nagyszeben {1-227.} and Sebes: a gold solidus and a bronze coin from the age of Iustinus II (with markings that indicate they were minted around 570); a Mauricius solidus (a pierced jewel) found in the former county of Maros-Torda; and a Mauricius (582–602) solidus obulus found between Kőhalom and Olthévíz. Most of the Byzantine coins — in fact, all of the authenticated ones — that can be linked to the early Avar empire were found in graves, and this is probably the provenance of the above-noted coins as well.

If relatively few traces have surfaced of the sparse occupation of the Transylvanian Basin by the early Avars, this is not simply a reflection of insufficient archaeological research. The process that started in the 3rd–4th centuries, and then slowed down in the 6th century, during the period of Gepid rule, reached its final phase in the first sixty years of Avar domination: Dacia became Erdőelve, Silvania, then Transsilvania. In terms of human settlement, this was the low point, compared to which the situation in the 8th and 9th centuries already foreshadowed a process of development that would mature in the Middle Ages.