The Last Century of Avar Rule

In the early 8th century, there emerged a new 'culture' to which archaeologists gave the name 'griffin and tendril', after the motifs of its cast bronze belt ornaments. At the turn of the 20th century, and again in recent decades, archaeologists applied techniques of art history-typology to associate this 'culture' with a distinctive, autonomous society, or, alternatively, a new group of immigrants. Since there was absolutely no evidence of a new wave of immigration, originating in the eastern steppes, after 700, the appearance (more accurately, evolution) of the 'griffin and tendril' civilization was arbitrarily dated back by several decades. However, it is now clear that the sole catalysts of major cultural change in the Avar empire were the Eastern ethnic groups who arrived in the 670s; the material culture — art, clothing, equipment, weapons — of the late Avar period evolved autonomously from these new foundations. This process spanned two generations, and many of the villages and cemeteries that embodied the new culture were founded only after 700.

Few cemeteries remained in continuous use all the way from the first half of the 7th century to the collapse of the Avar empire. Of the cemeteries discovered in Transylvania, only the partially explored one at Tövis may be assigned to this category, on the basis of a cast bronze strap-tip from the late period. The new wave of immigration had a dramatic impact on the pattern of settlement: most of the villages and cemeteries that existed at the end of the 7th century had been either reconstructed, or newly founded in the preceding {1-241.} twenty-five years. Rich and varied grave finds at Aranyosgyéres (where the previously noted burial with horse signalled the transformation) testify to a large, late Avar cemetery. The objects, all typical of the late Avar period, include both the earlier, solid type and later, pierced type of cast strap-tips and buckles with a tendril design; round and pendant belt ornaments with flowery tendril and lion motifs; diverse stirrups with flat footrests: pikeheads and war axes of diverse shape; as well as women's apparel, notably round and oval earrings with bead pendants, melon seed beads, and hair clasps. Some cemeteries, such as the one at Baráthely (no. 2), only came into use in the late Avar period.

On the western periphery of the Transylvanian Basin, around the junction of the Maros and Küküllő rivers, the graves of Avar military chiefs — containing horses and weapons — suddenly appear in the late Avar period, at sites that bear no earlier traces. Graves (with a horse) at Baráthely, Hari, and Muzsnaháza, have yielded stirrups from the late period, as well as bridles with curved sticks, cast strap-ornaments, and spearheads of a late type — objects associated with the Avar military class of the 8th century. At Magyarlapád, a grave with horse was unearthed at a spot between the Gorgány River and the castle; the grave-goods — stirrups with footrests that curve upwards, large, round, rose-shaped bridle ornaments (falera), four-arc harness decorations, a spear, and a war axe — date its origins to the last decades of the Avar empire. The grave is the only one of its kind discovered in Transylvania. Other traces of late Avars have been found in the lateral valleys of the Maros valley, areas that were suitable for pasturing and stock-breeding but had been sparsely settled. The traces include the contents of a grave at Lesnyek (Hunyad county) — a cast-bronze strap-tip, gilded in a floral tendril pattern, gilded bronze harness ornaments, and a silver brooch — as well as a belt ornament, with pendants, found at Szentgyörgyválya, in the Strigy-Zsil valley. Judging from these finds, the late Avars lived in an area only half as large as that of the early Avars.

{1-242.} By the 8th century, many of the regions that once enjoyed a central importance in the Avar empire (such as Fejér and Tolna counties) had lost their significance. Thus, in the Temes region, which in earlier times was densely populated, only a few finds testify to the late Avar period: griffin and tendril patterned belt ornaments at Denta and the Temesvár-Módosi bridge (five graves that also yielded horses, sabres with tendril-design belt ornaments, distinctive mask- and pendant-design belt ornaments, and a ceramic vessel, fashioned on the wheel, that dates from the late period); a turned-bone container for needles, indicative of a woman's grave (Perjámos-Sánchalom); and a few grave dishes made on a potter's wheel (Lovrin, Radna). The eastern part of the Great Plain, between the Maros and Fehér-Körös rivers, presents a similar picture: only the cemetery at Székudvar — where a grave (with horse) yielded stirrups and a fine, pierced strap-tip of cast bronze — betrays the presence of late Avars. The date of two Avar graves at Simánd is not known.

Apparently, the Ér valley remained an important Avar district. The two late Avar graves, found in a despoiled state at Székelyhíd-Veres-domb, date back to the turn of the 8th century, for their contents reflect the period of change. The first grave yielded remarkable, Oriental-style cast and pressed belt-ornaments and strap-tips, part of a wooden dish with copper straps, and a stick-shaped braid clip; the second, a distinctive stirrup and a straight sabre. An intact, 8th century grave at Érdengeleg-Újtemető yielded a sabre and a weapon-belt with a tendril-design, cast strap-tip. Sunken-floor dwellings that date from the late Avar period have been discovered at Biharvár; they contained horseshoe-shaped stoves made of stone or clay and fragments of mainly handcrafted vessels.

Concurrently, Szatmár, Szilágy, and the Szatmár districts of Szabolcs-Szatmár county — areas which had been uninhabited for close to 150 years — suddenly gained in importance. A number of finds attest to this change: at Sikárló a cast-bronze strap-tip, decorated {1-243.} in a tendril pattern; at Zilah, a large, silver-plated bronze strap-tip, with a unique decoration depicting a griffin as well as a big-toothed beast of prey falling upon a stag; from a grave (with horse) at Érkávás, a large, cast-bronze strap-tip (bearing, once again, the depiction of a griffin attacking a stag) and harness decorations; from the onetime Szilágy county, and now in a museum, cast buckles and belt ornaments with griffin decoration; and at Doboka, a belt ornament with a 'flat tendril' type, disc-shaped pendant. In the case of some of these sites (such as 'Szilágy county' and Doboka), it cannot be determined whether they are of Avar origin, or whether they are linked to the Slavic population represented by the 'mound' cemeteries at Szilágynagyfalu-Szamosfalva. Ornaments dating from the same period (8th–9th century) and found at Mátészalka and Záhony came from territories inhabited by Slavs.

In the 8th century, the material culture (especially pottery) of Transylvania's Avars and Slavs became so intertwined that the two groups can be distinguished, if at all, by the burial rites revealed in their graveyards. The fact that a Slav settlement may show traces of Avar influence does not prove that Avars had been present; it merely indicates that the Slavs had occasionally adopted the Avars' metal and ceramic products, objects that now identify a specific historical period.


The second half of the Avar period, like the first, can only be assessed in terms of changing patterns of settlement. Cemeteries must be excavated, and their size, composition, and stratification studied if one wants to gain insight into the structure of society. The different types of burials — with horse, with horse and weapons, with weapons and decorated belts — can all be found throughout the Avar territory, but the social status that they indicate will vary {1-244.} greatly, for the graves may hold members of the military escort of regional rulers, people from military frontier posts, village or other community leaders, heads of family or chiefs of clan. It is not possible yet to determine which of these social strata predominates in the graveyards discovered so far in Transylvania. The only firm conclusion that can be drawn from the archaeological sites is that at the end of the 8th century, the Avars were still present in the western Transylvanian Basin, around the middle Maros valley and the lower reaches of the Küküllő rivers; thus their area of settlement had become reduced to salt-mining districts of Torda, Marosújvár, and Kisakna. There are also Avar traces, dating from the second half of the 8th century, in southern Transylvania and the Szamos valley. Although these traces might indicate that the Avars had begun to exploit the rich pastures of these more mountainous regions, it is more likely that they were left by Slavic chiefs who had assimilated Avar ways.

The name of the Küküllő rivers is probably a toponymical legacy of the Avars, derived from the Turkish 'kökeleg' (in Hungarian: 'kökényes', in English: 'sloe, blackthorn'). Archaeological finds attest that the valley of the Küküllő rivers was a key area of Avar settlement all the way from 567 to the 9th century, and the centre of Avar power in the 6th–7th centuries; it is also the site of largest late-Avar cemetery, dating from the 8th century, to be discovered in Transylvania (Baráthely cemetery no. 2).