On the Origins of Churches and Churchyards of Southern Estonia: The Evidence of Early Grave Finds


  • Heiki Valk




Medieval churches, Southern Estonia, archaeology, cemeteries, cremation graves, christianization


Data about the earliest history of medieval churches of southern
Estonia are fragmentary, being limited to the first mentions of
the parish, priest or congregation, or to mostly scanty historical
information about the architecture. Some information can also be
provided by archaeological grave finds, which often date back further
than the first data about the churches.

The article presents a brief survey of the finds from the churchyards
of southern Estonia, the area of medieval diocese of Tartu, from
before ca. 1450 AD. The finds, mostly jewellery and fragments of
cremated bones, show that churches were often built on top of old
cemeteries from the Final Iron Age, whereby the pre-Christian
jewellery items, mostly brooches, rings and bracelets, date mainly
from the 11th to the early 13th centuries. If the cases in which the
archaeological information is limited or non-existent are excluded,
60% of the rural churches of southern Estonia (9 out of 15) were built
on pre-Christian cemeteries. The percentage may even be higher,
since archaeological data for more than half of the churchyards is
either missing or insufficient for drawing any conclusions. In the
cases where major temporal gaps exist between the Final Iron Age
finds and the first written or architectural data about the church,
the cemetery probably functioned continuously as a village cemetery
in the Christian period.

The pre-Christian origins of the cemeteries in the churchyards indicate
that the local communities were actively involved in choosing the
locations for the churches at the time of Christianization. Place continuity
also shows that, despite the violent nature of Christianization,
the natives of southern Estonia did not oppose having Christian
sanctuaries built on pre-Christian cemeteries, and evidently, the
continuous use of the former burial site was considered important.


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Author Biography

Heiki Valk

Heiki Valk (b. 1959) is archaeologist, working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu, and the Head of the Archaeological Centre for Research and Infrastructure. His research deals with the Late Iron Age, Medieval Period and Early Modern Times, especially the culture of the native rural population of southern Estonia, with a focus on the cultural aspects of the archaeological record, and the relationship with folklore, ethnographic data, religion and cultural processes. His main fields of study are cemeteries, burial customs, sacred places and the distribution patterns of archaeological monuments. A special project is related to the chronology of the hill forts in southeast Estonia. Heiki Valk is the author of over 350 publications, the editor of several books, a member of the editorial boards of four journals, and the editor-in-chief of Tutulus, the popular annual journal of Estonian archaeology.