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A NATION SKILLED IN WAR. THE LITHUANIAN MILITARY ELITE IN THE 13TH–14TH CENTURIES

10 November 2020–20 June 2021
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is organising an international exhibition, A Nation Skilled in War. The Lithuanian Military Elite in the 13th–14th Centuries, where cultural society, young people, guests from abroad and warfare specialists will be presented with a very significant and unique aspect of Lithuanian military culture heritage, as well as the military elite who made a fundamental contribution to the creation and rise in power of the Early Lithuanian state. This international exhibition was meant to open on the Lithuanian State Holiday (the coronation day of the King of Lithuania Mindaugas) before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic altered our plans, yet it did give the idea behind the exhibition added meaning – now we are greeting this cultural event as if we were elite soldiers, having overcome the first attack of this invisible enemy, united and more resilient.

The exceptional cultural, historic, diplomatic and political significance of this international exhibition could be highlighted by its special patronage, provided by the Ministers of National Defence of the Republic of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis (until December 2020) and Dr Arvydas Anušauskas (from December 2020) and Chief of Defence of the Republic of Lithuania, Lieutenant General Valdemaras Rupšys.

This, one of the first international exhibitions to be held in Lithuania following the global pandemic crisis, shows that cultural life is indeed returning to normal not only in Lithuania, but across all of Europe: exhibits exclusively needed for this exhibition are coming from museums in our country, and from memory and science institutions in Belarus, Estonia, Germany. All the exhibition's exhibits are a reflection and testimony of the formation of the Early Lithuanian state recorded in written historical sources, and of the time of Lithuanian expansion – the 13th and 14th centuries. Some of them reveal new archaeological research contexts, while others have come from medieval Lithuanian burial grounds, a third group consists of unique artefacts related to Lithuanian raiders' campaigns.

The international exhibition, A Nation Skilled in War. The Lithuanian Military Elite in the 13th–14th Centuries, is situated on the second floor of the Exhibition Centre in the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, where an impressive number of unique exhibits – over 500 – are displayed from a range of collections belonging to the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the National Museum of Lithuania, the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas, the Alka Samogitian Museum, the Faculty of History of the Belarusian State University (Гістарычны факультэт Беларускага дзяржаўнага ўніверсітэта, Мiнск), the Estonian History Museum (Eesti Ajaloomuuseum, Tallinn), the Romano-Germanic Central Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz). Treasures from the rich collections of these famous foreign museums have never been exhibited in Lithuania, making this international exhibition in Vilnius their museum-debut in our country.

It is important to note that this significant cultural event was preceded by around a decade of intensive research on early Lithuanian warfare conducted by the specialists at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, while a major stimulus to organise an international exhibition about warfare and the military elite was the latest archaeological excavation of Lithuanian burial grounds in the territory of today's north west Belarus and the discovery of a unique and impressive archaeological artefact on the site of the Lithuanian grand dukes' residence in the Vilnius Lower Castle – a gilded lamellar armour plate dating to the second half of the 14th century.

The unexpected finds from recent years have indeed obliged us to take a fresh look at this very significant Lithuanian military cultural heritage and to of course turn our attention to those historic or anonymous figures that directly contributed towards the creation and strengthening of the Lithuanian state. Incidentally, due to the wide scope of material related to early warfare, the chronological timeframe of this international exhibition had to be narrowed down somewhat, limiting ourselves to the period from the state's consolidation and the reign of the King of Lithuania Mindaugas (ca 1236/1253–1263) until the rise and establishment of the longest ruling dynasty in Lithuania, the Gediminds, and the apogee of the Lithuanian state's expansion into the east and south east, i.e., the 13th and 14th centuries.

Taking into consideration the nature, origins, quantity, exclusivity and message of the exhibits, the international exhibition, A Nation Skilled in War. The Lithuanian Military Elite in the 13th–14th Centuries, has been divided into three thematic sections.

The first part of the exhibition – Fire. Earth. Water – tells visitors about burial customs of the 13th–14th centuries that are best represented in Lithuanian cremation graves. Besides having the chance to learn about exclusive artefacts found in these graves, visitors can see for themselves how far to the east, south east and north east Lithuanians' ethnic boundaries reached, far beyond the territory of modern Lithuania: to see the location of Early Lithuania and how the state's territory changed, with expansion occurring primarily at the expense of former Kievan Rus' lands. Archaeological research is trying to supplement our meagre historical source data, to broaden our knowledge of historical geography, to specify the range of settlement of the Lithuanian ethnos in the period of the Lithuanian state's creation and to reveal some of the aspects related to the world view and warfare traditions held by Lithuanian society at the time. It is believed that the spread of the cremation custom is directly related to the burgeoning and strengthening Lithuanian state and the raiders that ensured its consolidation, stability and unification – the leičiai. This part of the exhibition displays many grave goods from cremation graves – weapons, jewellery and tools. All of this reveals the uniqueness of the pagan Lithuanian state – the “unproclaimed empire” – in 13th–14th-century Christian Europe.

The second part – Riders. Warriors. Raiders – presents the weaponry used by Lithuanian raiders. In addition to the archaeological artefacts on show, weapons and armour, horse gear and protection details characteristic of this period, visitors will get the chance to see a reconstructed Lithuanian raider and his horse's ammunition. The archaeological artefacts kept in Lithuania's museum collections that are directly related to warfare tell us a great deal about the very unique military heritage of Lithuanians, warfare trends and the directions war campaigns took. The wide-ranging geography of our ancestors' war campaigns presented on the map in this part of the exhibition entrenches the characterisation of Lithuanians as the “vikings of the land”.  

The third part of the exhibition – Elite men – acts as the culmination of the whole exposition and its narrative: it contains a unique wealth of military-related treasures, presenting the weaponry of 13th–14th-century Lithuanian dukes and other war commanders decorated with silver and other exceptional ornamentation. The exhibits that have mostly come from museums abroad are well-known in the world and are attributed to the military elite. Here visitors can admire impressive, one-off authentic treasures and the gear of a Lithuanian duke or war commander reconstructed according to archaeological research data and historical sources.

All three integral parts of the international exhibition, A Nation Skilled in War. The Lithuanian Military Elite in the 13th–14th Centuries, are connected by historical events summarised in the map of war campaigns launched by Lithuanians, which not only shows the directions they took and the territories they reached, but also the size and might of the Lithuanian army at the time, when several battles or campaigns would be organised simultaneously and in different directions.

When visiting this exhibition, it is very important to notice how each of the thematic parts supplement one another. For example, in the first part of the exhibition where visitors learn about burial customs and inspect the unique finds from the rich Staryja Baruny flat burial ground in today's Belarus, they move on to the second part where they can see how the Lithuanian raiders buried there could have looked.

Some of the exhibits shown in this exhibition are associated with events that go back to the times of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Traidenis (1269–1282), harking back to his relations with the dukes of the former Kievan Rus' lands. It is known that these relations developed into a military conflict in the winter of 1275–1276, during which the duke of Galicia-Volhynia Lev Danilovich requested assistance from his suzerain – the Tatar troops of the Golden Horde led by their commander, and joining forces launched attacks upon Lithuania. However that time the Lithuanians not only defended their borders, they also strengthened them in Black Ruthenia, settling “immigrants” – Prussians, Sudovians and Skalvians – who were flooding into Lithuania on this frontier. All those who fell in this war were taken back and buried in the Staryja Baruny flat burial ground, located a mere 70 km from Vilnius, where along with their remains a great number of artefacts testifying to battles against the Golden Horde.

The Staryja Baruny flat burial ground also produced an elaborate axe head inlaid with silver – of the same type that is exhibited in the third part of the exhibition which informs us about the Lithuanian military elite. The object that has come to this exhibition is associated with another Lithuanian war campaign in another direction as it was found in a river near Kirumpää Castle, in the territory of present-day Estonia.  This castle was first mentioned in historical sources on account of campaigns made by the Lithuanians – chronicles mention the battles of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas (1316–1341) against the Teutonic Order in the first half of the 14th century. It is known that until it lost the Battle of Medininkai in 1320, the Order would launch two to three campaigns each year, but after its defeat there it only invaded Lithuania again in 1322, when reinforcements came to Prussia from Western Europe. The Lithuanians were not always just on the defence from their enemy – they would also invade the Order's lands, launching violent attacks and marauding the areas surrounding the castles. As soon as the Teutonic Order reached Lithuania in 1322, it immediately received a strike back in Estonia – an enormous Lithuanian army reached and destroyed the Livonian Order's Kirumpää Castle. It appears that during the battle, one of the Lithuanian military elites – a duke or other war commander – lost this elaborate silver-inlaid axe head.

The organisers of the exhibition want to draw attention to the fact that most of the artefacts characteristic of the Lithuanian military community of the 13th–14th centuries were found in burial grounds and cemeteries in our country, while in other countries these were mostly quite incidental finds not related to a particular site, possibly lost during historic campaigns, their origins tracing back to the centre of the strong military state – ethnic Lithuania, whose territory at the time reached much further into the east than the borders of modern Lithuania.

It is interesting that some of the exhibits kept in Lithuanian museums are being brought back for a new life: having noticed repeating ornamentation and conducting research and restoration procedures, scientists' assumptions have been confirmed that a great number of horse gear details, swords and other artefacts were silvered. This level of luxury is surprising in the context of Lithuanian and European warfare history – it is obvious that elaborate weaponry was characteristic among Lithuanian war leaders and lower-ranked raiders.

Also, the total of exhibits amassed for this exhibition indicated a new direction for future scientific research that is being pursued by the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and other Lithuanian warfare specialists. Namely, a particular type of symbolism that has not been noticed before but is often repeated and clearly features the symbols of an aurochs (?) and the Sun cross, being found on swords, stirrups, spurs and other relics.

 Thus, the exclusive international exhibition A Nation Skilled in War. The Lithuanian Military Elite in the 13th–14th Centuries is important and special in several regards:

  • the exhibition allows us to imagine not only how a significant part of Lithuanian military cultural heritage and the Lithuanian military elites themselves looked, but also helps us understand how the Early Lithuanian state was established and grew stronger, gradually extending its territory from the Baltic to the Black seas;
  • the important connection between certain exclusive exhibits kept in foreign museum collections and Lithuania and its heritage allows us to take a new look at our state's history, to supplement our knowledge of written sources and arguments that help define the ethnic Lithuanian lands;
  • a significant part of the artefacts in the exhibition are on display for the first time ever in Lithuania, while some have been specially restored for this exhibition;
  • the exhibition is the result of over ten years of scientific research that reveals a clarified and at the same time somewhat unexpected image of the medieval Lithuanian elite raiders, while also determining new directions in scientific research;
  • the exhibition will be accompanied by a comprehensive bilingual catalogue of significant scientific and informative importance;
  • the exhibition is evidence of today's active and close relations between museums and scientists, memory and scientific institutions in Lithuania, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, allowing us to realise projects of such scale and unique thematic content;
  • the exhibition is enhanced and its innovative content is revealed in a series of scientific, cultural and educational events, offering visitors various educational programs and thematic excursions.

On behalf of visitors to the exhibition and itself, the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania community sincerely thanks all the individuals and institutions for their friendly and collegial cooperation, good will, support and understanding in contributing to the organisation of this international exhibition.

Exhibition patrons
Ministers of National Defence of the Republic of Lithuania
Raimundas KAROBLIS (until December 2020) and Dr Arvydas ANUŠAUSKAS (from December 2020)
Chief of Defence of the Republic of Lithuania, Lieutenant General Valdemaras RUPŠYS

Exhibition organisers
Nacionalinis muziejus Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės valdovų rūmai
Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejus
Vytauto Didžiojo karo muziejus
Гістарычны факультэт Беларускага дзяржаўнага ўніверсітэта (Мiнск)

Exhibition partner  
Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in the Republic of Lithuania

Exhibit Owners
Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejus
Vytauto Didžiojo karo muziejus
Гістарычны факультэт Беларускага дзяржаўнага ўніверсітэта
Nacionalinis muziejus Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės valdovų rūmai
Žemaičių muziejus „Alka“
Romisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum
Eesti Ajaloomuuseum
Museum fur Vor- und Fruhgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Exhibition Idea Author and Curator
Dr. Paulius BUGYS

Exhibition Concept and Exposition Plan
Dr. Paulius BUGYS
Sigita VENCKŪNIENĖ
Eglė ZAVECKIENĖ
Dr. Živilė MIKAILIENĖ

Exhibition Consultants
Dr. Gediminas PETRAUSKAS
Yauhen ULASAVETS
Ričardas DEDIALA
Ieva MASIULIENĖ
Medeina STEPONAVIČIŪTĖ
Dr. Povilas BLAŽEVIČIUS

Exhibition Coordinators
Dr. Živilė MIKAILIENĖ
Sigita VENCKŪNIENĖ
Eglė ZAVECKIENĖ

Exhibit Restoration Coordinators
Jurgita KALĖJIENĖ
Mantvidas MIELIAUSKAS
Marija KAVALIAUSKAITĖ
Ingrida LATVYTĖ
Marytė GLEMŽIENĖ
Deimantė BAUBAITĖ
Andrius SALYS
Dainius ŠAVELIS
Asta VASILIAUSKAITĖ

Exhibition Illustrations
Marius ZAVADSKIS

Exhibition Visualisations
Rimas SAKALAUSKAS

Exhibition Photos
Gediminas PETRAUSKAS
Claudia PLAMP

Exhibition Publishing Coordinator
Dr. Živilė MIKAILIENĖ

Exhibition Scientific and Cultural Activity Coordinator
Gintarė ROŽĖNAITĖ-ROZOVIENĖ

Exhibition Educational Activity Coordinators
Dr. Nelija KOSTINIENĖ
Egidijus UŽKURĖNAS

Exhibition Marketing and Information Coordinators
Mindaugas PUIDOKAS
Ramunė VAIČIULYTĖ

Exhibition Technical Installation Coordinators
Kęstutis KARLA
Aurimas RAMELIS
Saulius MARTECKAS

Sponsors