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Under Gediminas’ feet: archaeological research and the history behind the grand duke’s monument

2023 was the year when we celebrated the anniversary of 700 years since the first mention of Vilnius in historical sources. The legend of the city’s founding tells us that Grand Duke Gediminas, who had come to this area on a hunt, had a prophetic dream based on which he went on to establish the city. Archaeologists have revealed that at the beginning of the reign of Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas (1316–1341), Lithuania’s first brick castle had already been built in Vilnius at the foot of Upper Castle Hill, while beyond its defensive walls there was a wooden city that had expanded in this area for at least several decades. During this time, the castle was fortified a number of times, and its area increased almost threefold.  
This exhibition is dedicated to reminding the public of the results of the archaeological research conducted in 1996 at the site of the monument of Grand Duke Gediminas, considered to be the founder of the city of Vilnius, and the history behind this monument. This virtual exhibition is one of the last in the cycle of anniversary events organised by the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania dedicated to commemorate Vilnius’ 700th anniversary.
The first ideas to memorialise Grand Duke Gediminas, who, according to legend, had transferred the capital to Vilnius, emerged back in 1988 at the start of the national revival period. The archaeological excavation work that was being conducted at the site of the Vilnius Lower Castle at the time had revealed numerous details about the very earliest periods of Vilnius’ history, thereby encouraging us to revive our interest in Lithuania’s history and to learn more about it. Once Lithuania’s independence was reinstated, in the spring of 1990 the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania organised the first round of a competition for a monument design. The decision was made to erect the monument in the territory of the Lower Castle, thereby linking it to the very oldest part of the city. The initial aim was to create a monument for the founding of Vilnius, but this idea was transformed into a monument honouring the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas. The seven best designs from the first round competed in the second round held in October that same year. The commissioners also included a design by Vytautas Kašuba in this round, which ended up being voted as the best submission and won first place. In 1991, the monument-building initiative was handed over from the Ministry of Culture to the Vilnius City Municipality, which confirmed the design project of sculptor Vytautas Kašuba and architect Henrikas Šilgalis on July 7, 1992.
 When talking about his work, the sculptor Kašuba underlined his refusal to portray the duke on horseback from the outset, yet the horse element remained. The basis for the monument’s composition was determined by the dominant forms of Cathedral Square – the bell tower inspired the upright figure of Gediminas, while the horizontal aspect of the Cathedral was reflected in the horse situated behind him. The surrounding relief gave birth to the idea for a double pedestal – Gediminas is positioned in front of his horse a little higher up, as if he were on a hill, while his horse is behind him, on the lower part of the pedestal. The decision was also made to portray an iron wolf on the pedestal, as it is a part of the legend of the founding of Vilnius, while recognition of the other rulers of the Gedimind dynasty (Algirdas and Kęstutis, Jogaila and Vytautas) was expressed in medallions with their portraits. 
In order to find the ideal site and most suitable relationship with the landscape, a life-size model of the monument was assembled from a light iron frame and wood panels in 1995. The model was moved around in the park behind Cathedral Square at least several times. That same year, guided by the position for the monument chosen by the architect Šilgalis, archaeologists examined several sites of the Vilnius Lower Castle and discovered remnants of the castle’s defensive wall and later structures. One of the positions proposed for the monument was behind the Cathedral, in the depths of the park closer to the Vilnia River in the so-called Royal Gardens. Archaeologists were meant to dig a trench of up to 400 m2 in size here, however as deliberations dragged on until late autumn in 1995, the research work never commenced, especially as the contracting authority had not allocated funds for this project. 
The monument continued to be “pushed around” on paper plans into June, 1996. The position recommended by Šilgalis in the Royal Gardens, in front of the Palace of the Grand Dukes southern facade, was rejected, and a new position was planned on the large flower bed in Cathedral Square, not far from St Casimir’s Chapel. 
Once a decision had been reached for the site of the monument, archaeological research commenced on June 8, 1996 and continued until August 10. This research was carried out by the Castle Research Centre “Lietuvos pilys” (headed by Vytautas Urbanavičius), while work in the excavation trench was organised by the archaeologist Gintaras Abaravičius. The research was commissioned by the Vilnius City Municipality (then – the Vilnius City Council) and the major Alis Vidūnas. The client requested for the research work to be conducted very quickly, so archaeologists had to work in multiple shifts. Once research began on the planned site, the monument was again “pushed” closer to the centre of Cathedral Square, near the stairs that used to be there.
 Once the upper layers were removed and the service utilities were exposed (power and communication cables, the city central heating pipes), the Cathedral Square’s second level granite steps started being dismantled. Once the first blocks were lifted, workers noticed that some of these steps, or more precisely – some of the red granite blocks that had been cemented into the base of the steps – had profiled and polished surfaces at the bottom. It was determined that the red granite details were part of the pedestal for the monument dedicated to Russian Empress Catherine II that had stood in the square in front of the Cathedral in 1904–1915. These stone blocks were used once again as steps.
 During this research of the monument’s site, at a depth of around 1.5 metres below the surface of the square, researchers found part of a cobble-stone street from the late 19th century, and deeper still – a stone-paved square that used to be between the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the Cathedral and Castle Gate in the 17th–18th century, and even deeper – a third stone-paved layer from the stone partition wall with an opening for the gate that used to go from Castle Gate towards the Palace of the Grand Dukes. On one corner of the gate opening, workers found a stone with a recess hewn in that had been incorporated into the masonry, into which a support for the wooden gate would have been placed. This oldest paving and the wall are related to the reconstruction work of the ruler Sigismund Augustus’ palace and castle territory, carried out in the mid-16th century or somewhat later.
At the same time as this discovery of the third layer of paving, researchers also found the foundations of a wooden 16th-century house consisting of two rooms, around 10 x 6 m in size, which was located adjacent to the partition wall. One room revealed a brick floor, a stove in the centre for cooking food, and near it – fragments of Renaissance flat tiles; the other room contained a wooden floor and the remnants of a semicircular, pot-shaped tiled stove (furnace) along with stove tiles heaped nearby.
An area only 200 m2 in size was excavated further, where pylon supports for the monument’s foundations were later drilled. At a depth of 3 metres and deeper, the horizons of the wooden built-up part of the city were discovered. The upper part of this layer showed signs of fire damage – there was a significant  amount of charcoal and scorched building logs. Below the fire-affected layer, there was another 6-metre built-up horizontal layer with the remnants of wooden buildings, wooden boards as ground surface covers, a brick-reinforced stove or fireplace and homestead fences. The deepest layers revealed several surfaces of a wooden road that used to lead from the southern side of the castle (from Castle Gate) to the grand dukes’ residence and the wooden city lying north of it.
The peat layer (at the level of the wooden built-up horizon) was found to contain pottery potsherds, 3 crossbow arrowheads, the shaft of a spoon or similar utensil with a Gothic inscription, as well as a twig broom, a small oar, a cross-shaped pendant and a little bell. These kinds of artefacts are characteristic of the 13th–15th centuries. Probably the most striking among them were the bone blanks, or preforms, found in the peat layer. These were the joint ends from animals’ long bones (off-cuts) and plates that had been chipped away from larger bones – blanks into which little holes had been cut. It is believed that bone buttons were made from the cut-out circles. More than 60 such plates were found. The holes cut into these artefacts had diameters of 0.7 cm (23), 1 cm (20) and 1.1 cm (19). The mentioned finds allow researchers to postulate that a bone-worker’s workshop could have been located at this early Vilnius site in around the 14th–15th centuries. The deepest layers also revealed even earlier rusticated pottery potsherds and spindles.
After reviewing the deepest layers of this monument site in Cathedral Square, it may be said that the monument was erected above a part of the city alluded to in its founding legend, almost in the very centre of the Lower Castle that Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas had just started to significantly enlarge. 
Author: Gintautas Striška
Translation: Albina Strunga
Reference materials:
Abaravičius G., Remecas E. Vietos LDK kunigaikščio Gedimino paminklui Vilniuje, Katedros aikštėje, archeologinių tyrimų ataskaita, 1996 m., Vilnius, 1997.

Didžiojo Lietuvos kunigaikščio Gedimino paminklas Vilniuje, sud. B. Vasaris, Vilnius, 1996.

Published:: 2024-03-20 15:07 Modified: 2024-03-21 07:50
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