In order to detect the migration of a people from archaeological evidence, it is necessary to distinguish a series of specific objects which function as cultural indicators wherever they are found. In the case of the Longobards, at times confederated with the Suevi, Saxons, Avars and Thuringians, it is difficult to trace a material-cultural history which connects the mythical Scandinavian roots with their presence until the 4th century on the Elbe.
Archaeology does however let us identify, from within the complex mix of the Germanic peoples, several features which later stood out as cultural peculiarities of the Longobards when, in the 5th century, they evolved from a small and fierce subgroup of the Suevi into the founders of a powerful kingdom on the Danube. These characteristics remained unchanged during the first phase of settlement in Italy, until the mid-6th century.
The numerous urn cemeteries dating from the mid-1st century BC and the 3rd AD excavated in Saxony are associated with villages inhabited by semi-nomads who lived in wooden houses, herding livestock, gathering plant foods and practicing raiding and plundering. The tribes were centred on aristocratic groups, led by warrior chiefs elected by the army, and were buried with their weaponry; the classes at the base of the social pyramid were interred without grave-goods in the cemeteries.
The presence of spurs indicates the use of horses in battle; this feature, found much later among the Longobards, is a rarity amongst western Germanic peoples. Roman influence is documented by the presence in burials of imported products in bronze and glass, used by the Germanic aristocracy as status symbols demonstrative of their high social rank.
Towards the end of the 4th century many of the cemeteries located in the lower Elbe valley were abandoned, a phenomenon thought to be associated with the departure of the Longobards for Bohemia. A closer analysis of the archaeological evidence, however, suggests that at this time the Longobards, rather than being a migratory population, were composed of an alliance of separate military units which shared a common material culture known as the ’grave-line cemetery culture’, found in the late 5th century over an extensive area between the Rhine, Elbe and middle Danube (fig. 3).
The practice of inhumation, which spread in the 4th century outside the Roman Empire, was typical of this culture. Male grave goods consisted largely of weaponry (spear, shield, long sword, arrows, sometimes spurs) together with everyday objects (clasps, buckles, knives, combs); female burials contained jewellery, brooches and weaving equipment. Pottery utensils such as beakers and ‘biconical’ bowls – ribbed, smooth or with engraved or relief decoration – were also present.
New settlements distinguished by the same material culture were founded south of the Danube in the 5th – 6th century, the period in which the Longobards moved to this area, which corresponded roughly to the Roman province of Noricum Ripensis. The mixture of cultural items of both Germanic and Roman extraction is well documented in the cemetery of Maria Ponsee.
Settling in areas that had been Roman provinces, the Longobards absorbed Late Antique and Mediterranean cultural elements, together with traditions derived from the Steppe peoples with whom they came into contact. From the Àvars they acquired the pagan rite of burying a sacrificed horse together with the horseman, and from the Mongols that of lengthening the cranium by applying tight bindings.