DThe dead man lay stretched out in an oak coffin with his head to the north-east. His weapons, a long iron sword with a gilded scabbard and a broken composite bow, accompanied him. Beside him his charger rested prone in a shallow pit, fully bridled and ready for the ride into the underworld. The most spectacular object of the burial site, however, was the base on which the dead had been laid: a lamellar armor made of more than five hundred perforated iron plates, which were connected with leather straps and cords to form a movable armor. This armor and the speed of his horse made the rider almost invincible on a battlefield in the early Middle Ages.
The tomb of the cavalry warrior was discovered in 2017 during the construction of the highway in the eastern Hungarian city of Derecske. Even younger, namely only three years old, are finds from a burial mound in Mamai-Gora on the lower reaches of the Dnipro, from which arrowheads, a short sword and an amphora of the Scythian culture of the sixth century BC were recovered. The exhibition in the Halle State Museum of Prehistory, in which the plate armor from Derecske makes its grand appearance, while the objects from Mamai-Gora had to remain in Ukrainian bunkers for reasons of war, is therefore historically and contemporary up to date. At the same time, she names with desirable clarity what connects the warrior from East Hungary and the dead from the Dnipro: They were horsemen, they were nomads – and they went to Europe.
With the Huns, the Romans felt free
For the historians of Graeco-Roman antiquity and their successors, who sat in Christian monasteries, nomads on horseback were the spawn of hell – city destroyers, enemies of the system, heathens and barbarians. The Eastern Roman scholar Priskos experienced that the matter could also be seen from another side when he took part in an embassy by his Emperor Theodosius to Attila, king of the Huns, in the fifth century AD. In his camp he met a man who had once been a Roman citizen and was now living with his family among the Huns. When Priscos asked him why he had defected to the enemy, the man replied that although he was cultured as a Roman, as a Hun he was free – without tax burdens and subjection duties other than the military succession to Attila.
The exhibition in Halle largely ignores such practical considerations, but after an all too short introductory chapter on pre-Christian horsemen, it shows the material advantages of an existence in the Hunnic sphere of power: chains, fibulae, necklaces and earrings, brooches, sword fittings, all of them Gold. However, in order to be buried with such valuables, one had to belong to the Hun upper class – which, of course, consisted not only of nomadic cavalrymen, but also of their Germanic business partners. This Asiatic-European confederation was a community of gains that lasted as long as the precious metal, stolen on raids and extorted by tribute, poured into the Hun empire. When the flow of gold stopped because the Romans had adjusted to the Hun warfare, it dissipated within a few months and the surviving Huns merged with the local population.
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