Vienna Team

PI Walter Pohl

Joint research

Vienna is an administrative hub for the project, where the ‘corresponding PI’ Walter Pohl deals with official matters, and a position for project management is installed. Currently, Ingrid Hartl and Rosa Matic share this responsibility. The Vienna team consists of historians (Walter Pohl, Sandra Wabnitz), archaeologists (Falko Daim, Bendeguz Tobias) and anthropologists (Margit Berner, Sabine Eggers, Doris Pany, Karin Wiltschke-Schrotta). Apart from contributing to the general workflow and to discussions about the overall selection of samples and the interpretation of data, we specifically deal with the population history of the period from c. 400 to c. 900 in what is now Austria. Like further eastward along the Middle Danube, populations and polities shifted repeatedly in the period – very favourable conditions to study the impact of migrations.

Research questions

1. The cemeteries of small communities tell us much about the grassroot-level ways of life and social structures. How did life in Roman provinces along the Danube change when the Roman order disintegrated? The much-debated ‘Transformation of the Roman World’ had many faces. Different cultural models complemented and succeeded each other, and the rich archaeological evidence provides many insights. New scientific methods can provide further clues. Genetic data can establish kinship relations, admixture and infectious diseases. C- and N-isotope analysis trace richer and poorer diet. Anthropological studies can detect skeletal traces of work or fighting. This can be complemented by current methods to analyse the social and cultural profiles of cemeteries, and by reappraisal of the written evidence about forms of local community.  

2. How did the composition of the inhabitants of the Carpathian Basin change during the frequent shifts of rule? How did migrations affect the population? To what degree did the cultural groups that emerge from the archaeological record and the ethnic groups mentioned in written sources correspond with genetic clusters? To address these questions, we first have to study the different types of evidence separately, without any foregoing assumptions about their relationship: patterns of genetic similarity and difference; strontium isotopes indicating local or distant origins of individuals; the archaeological record of long-distance cultural relations; and textual evidence about ethnic groups, migrations and mobility. Then they need to be critically assessed in comparison. Was this essentially a population continuum dominated by changing elites who came and went again? Or do we witness a succession of different populations, as the written sources seem to suggest?

Background information

Population change: between Salzburg and Lake Neusiedl

The lands south of the Danube and in the eastern Alps, which the Celtic kingdom of Noricum had dominated in the last centuries BCE, were part of the Roman Empire for almost half a millennium. Two of the most important transcontinental routes crossed each other here: the roughly east-west connection along the Danube, and the Amber Road from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. In the 1st millennium CE, the region remained a corridor for communications and migrations and a crossroad of different populations. No stable polity emerged here. In the 5th century, the Roman Danube frontier came under pressure from many warlike groups of ‘barbarians’, as the Romans called them: Germanic-speaking Alamans, Rugians, Heruls, Goths, Vandals and Longobards; and Sarmatians, Alans and Huns from the Eurasian steppes. In 488, the remaining provincial population of the towns and castles along the Danube between Passau and Vienna was evacuated to Italy. In eastern Noricum and much of Pannonia  a kingdom of the Longobards was established. We have a number of archaeological traces from the period; unfortunately, most cemeteries had already been plundered in the period.

In 568, the Longobards and several other groups under their rule (among them, Pannonian and Norican provincials) moved to Italy, and the Carpathian Basin came under Avar rule. The Avars, led by their khagan, had arrived in Europe only ten years before as refugees from the expansion of the Ancient Turks who built their empire from a centre in Mongolia. Under Avar rule, Slavic groups moved westward as far as the upper Drau and Salzach rivers. While the earliest Slavs, who practised cremation, are hard to detect in the archaeological material, Avar cemeteries soon appear in the region around Vienna. In the 8th century, this region was rather densely populated, and many graves contain brooches, bronze belt-fittings and other typical apparel. Around the same time, Slavs began to bury their dead so that their presence becomes better visible in the archaeological record.

At the end of the 8th century, the Frankish king Charlemagne subdued the Avar realm, and the Avars gradually fade out of the written sources. The population along the Danube and the eastern Alps was now predominantly Slavic and lived under Frankish rule. Some Franks and Bavarians also settled in the region, which remained a peripheral zone of the Carolingian Empire. Around 900, another new people arrived from the eastern steppes: the Hungarians.

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