The Kernavė Archaeological site, about 35 km north-west of Vilnius in eastern Lithuania, represents an exceptional testimony to some 10 millennia of human settlements in this region. Situated in the valley of the River Neris, the site is a complex ensemble of archaeological properties, encompassing the town of Kernavė, forts, some unfortified settlements, burial sites and other archaeological, historical and cultural monuments fromthe late Palaeolithic Period to the Middle Ages. The site of 194,4 ha has preserved the traces of ancient land-use, as well as remains of five impressive hill forts, part of an exceptionally large defence system. Kernavė was an important feudal town in the Middle Ages. The town was destroyed by the Teutonic Order in the late 14th century, however the site remained in use until modern times.
The archaeological site of Kernavė offers exceptional testimony to the evolution of human settlements in the Baltic region in Europe over some 10 millennia, with evidence of the contact of pagan and Christian funeral traditions. The settlement patterns and the impressive hill forts are outstanding examples of the development of such types of structures and the history of their use in the pre-Christian era.
The earliest traces of inhabitants have been discovered at the River Neris in the Pajauta valley. The representatives of the Swiderian culture, late Palaeolithic hunters, came here in the 9th-8th millennia BC, followed by more settlements in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, due to the river rich in fish and the vast hunting terrain on the upper terrace of the Neris.
The early centuries of the Christian era have been called the golden age in the culture of the Baltic people. The development of iron-making from bog ore and the intensification of agriculture and stockbreeding accounted for demographic growth. From the 1st to the 4th centuries AD, large settlements were scattered over the banks of the Neris and in the Pajauta valley. Some hills were adapted to defence (Aukuro Kalnas, Mindaugo Sostas, Lizdeikos Kalnas hill forts). During the great migration of peoples at the end of the Roman period, the wooden fortifications of Aukuro Kalnas were burnt down by nomads, and the settlements in the Pajauta valley were deserted. The climate deteriorated; ground water rose, and living in the valley was no longer possible. New settlements were established on the upper terraces of the river in the vicinity of the hill forts. The ancient tribal centre became an important feudal castle at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. The residence of a duke was set up on Aukuro Kalnas, the other hill forts serving for defence. Craftsmen and merchants settled down at the hill forts. By the mid-13th century Kernavė was a feudal town. The craftsmen working for the ducal court inhabited the upper part of the town on the Pilies Kalnas hill fort. Specialized craftsmen lived in the lower town in Pajauta valley.The burial ground was situated outside the town in the Kriveikiškis hill fort. Funeral customs, as well as the discovered cerecloths, reflect not only the traditions of the last pagan state in Europe, but also attest to the influence of neighbouring Christian countries. The most flourishing period of medieval Kernavė was from the end of the 13th to the first half of the 14th centuries. It was one of the major towns of Lithuania, as well as a grand ducal residence. In 1365, it was attacked and devastated by the Teutonic Order. Another assault by the same order finally destroyed the ancient capital of Lithuania in 1390. The town and the castles were never rebuilt. The inhabitants settled on the uppermost terrace on the site of the present town. The remains of the ancient town were covered with thick alluvial deposit, conserving even organic remains.
The landscape in this region consists of sandy hills formed during the retreat of the last glacier. Land use is characterized by hayfields and pinewoods. The lowest parts of the valley are partly marshland. Kernavė is a complex ensemble of archaeological properties, encompassing five hill forts, some unfortified settlements, burial sites and other archeological monuments dating from the late Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages. In the centre of the cultural reserve, at the edge of the upper terrace, there are four hill forts standing beside each other.
The settlements, a burial site and historical monuments dating back to the Iron Age occupy the remaining part of the upper terrace. At the foot of the hill forts, in Pajauta Valley (c . 25 ha), there are the remains of the medieval town of Kernavė under the alluvial deposits of the River Neris. The unfortified settlements and burial sites of the Stone and Iron Ages were situated close to the river in the narrow stretch of the riverside. The largest burial site of the 13th-14th centuries is located on the upper terrace of the river Neris, northwards from the Kriveikiškis hill fort. The later periods of history are represented by the sites of Kriveikiškis (15th-19th centuries), Kernavė II (15th-20th centuries), the estate of Kriveikiškis (15th-20th centuries), the old church of Kernavė (15th-19th centuries) and related sites.