Archaeologist Domagoj Perkić on Croatia's Heritage as Cultural Crossroads

Archaeologist Domagoj Perkić on Croatia's Heritage as Cultural Crossroads

Dr. Domagoj Perkic is a curator with the Dubrovnik Archaeology Museum. He began his career in 1997 as a conservator with Croatia's Ministry of Culture, working in the Karlovac region, where he headed up excavations on more than forty archaeological sites.

Karlovac is in central Croatia, 35 miles southwest of the country’s capital of Zagreb, and not far from the border with Slovenia, which was a sister state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Tito from 1946-1980, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Dr. Domagoj Perkic

Dr. Domagoj Perkic

Karlovac, like much of Croatia, has long been a cultural crossroads, given its location at the junction of Western, Central and Southeastern Europe. In fact, Karlovac was named after its founder, Charles II, Archduke of Austria, who built the city from scratch in 1579 in order to strengthen their southern defenses against Ottoman encroaches.

Charles II was just one of many travelers, traders and invaders who left their mark on the region over the course of more than a millennia, so perhaps not surprisingly, Domagoj’s work has spanned a tremendous breadth. He has explored sites ranging from hilltops to caves to churches from eras that include the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Halcolithic and Bronze ages, as well as the Roman and Medieval periods, up to and including the 19th century.

Because of a geographic position that encompasses important sea channels north and south, and river routes between the east and west, Croatia represents a blend of four different cultural spheres. It was an intersection of influences from the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire—as well as a meeting point of the Middle European and Mediterranean cultures. The relics of those ancient byways make for intriguing insights and since 2002, Domagoj has been a member of a research project examining settlements and communications in the context of the connections between the Adriatic coast and Croatia’s interior.

In 2001, Domagoj experienced some professional serendipity when he was asked to become a senior inspector for underwater cultural heritage with the Ministry of Culture in Zagreb, allowing him to combine his passion for diving with his livelihood. In 2006, he had more synchronicity, with the opportunity to serve in that capacity in Dubrovnik, his hometown. In 2014, he assumed his current role as a curator with the Dubrovnik Archaeology Museum.

In a Kafkaesque twist of fate, Domagoj had a dramatic personal experience of his own involving cultures colliding, finding himself at 19 years of age to involuntarily be a member of an army that had declared war with his homeland. That experience, perhaps combined with his vantage point as an archaeologist, has inspired a life philosophy from which we can all benefit.

Meg: Can you explain what being a conservator involves?

Domagoj: I studied archaeology at the University of Zagreb. In Croatia, and in many other countries, there is a problem to find a job when you graduate, especially in archaeology. I couldn’t find a job here in Dubrovnik where I had lived since I was a child, but I found a position with the Conservation Department in Karlovac, a town 50 kilometers southeast of Zagreb, the country’s capital.

At that time, from 1997 to 2001, infrastructure was being built in the Karlovac region, and in Zagreb, the capital town, as well as on the coast. My first assignment was rescue excavations on a route on which a highway was going to be built. Before a highway is built, archeologists have to go into the field and look for archeological sites so they will not be damaged by the building of the highway. In the Karlovac region there were many, many minefields from the war. The mine sweepers were the first in the field, and the archeologists were the second.

We found many archeological sites on the route of the future highway and there were various excavations, and I was the leader of archeological excavations on that route. We excavated about 20, 25 sites from different periods, from the Paleolithic period to the Modern Age. My job was to do everything. I couldn’t be a specialist for just one 50-year period, so my range of interests has been very wide. There are good things about it and bad things, but that is a conservation archeologist’s job. Of course, I have some preferences, but I have to do everything. If something is endangered, I have to excavate and to protect that site.

Meg: So the job market at the time you were beginning your career meant you got exposure to all different periods of history and activities as an archeologist. Can you share what some of those different activities are?

Domagoj: A highway is built section by section. Before the building of a highway they send a map of the route. With that map, we walk on the fields and look for any sites. Some sites are known, so we have to read articles and books to research and find documented sites. But we found many archeological sites along the route that were previously unknown. I walked about 150 kilometers, a few days at a time, for about five years. I like to walk on the fields to explore. So it was very nice for me, especially because at that time I didn't know anything about that region, so it was nice to learn about a new countryside, new customs and new people.

Meg: Were you by yourself or with a team?

Domagoj: Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with my colleagues. Many team members changed during that five years, and many archeology students participated in the excavations. The university in Zagreb was just 50 kilometers away.

Meg: How were you able to recognize a potential archaeological site?

Domagoj: It’s my job. I participated in many excavations while in school because I liked it, so I had some experience with discerning what a site looks like. For example, in areas where there were wars in the past, archaeologists look for hills that are a good strategic position for defense, or, on the surface you look for some pottery.

Archaeological sites are often near natural communication routes, so you look for features of the environment that can be “read” and offer information and a means of communication. You look for sites near that communication, so you have to be very aware of your surroundings. And because the topography is karst, or limestone, we look for caves, because we know caves were often used for shelter, so a cave is potentially an archaeological site. So, what we look for changes. Sometimes we look for a cave, sometimes we look for a hill, and sometimes we look for a field. Fields are needed for agriculture, and on the edge of the field we can expect to find a settlement. Of course, as you have more and more experience, it’s much easier to read the environment and find a site.

Meg: Can you describe a site that was particularly interesting?

Domagoj: Every site is interesting for me because it’s all archaeology. If I had to choose, I would single out some caves in the Karlovac region: Zala Cave, which is near the town of Ogulin, Jopića Cave near Brebornica and Lipa Cave near Protulipa. At the time I became an archaeologist, some members of my team were speleologists and I started to go with them into caves. We excavated these caves and found finds from the Paleolithic era, which means early Stone Age, maybe 15,000 years ago. Two speleological clubs in particular made my work possible: Speleological Club Karlovac and Speleological Club Ursus Spelaeus. Those friendships continued until today. For example, when I excavate some caves today in Dubrovnik region, I engage speleologist from Karlovac.

In some cases, we found Roman necropolises from the 3rd Century; the term necropolis means cemetery, and translates as “city of the dead.” Later I used the excavations from the caves with the Roman necropolises to do my PhD. Finding a Roman necropolis in a cave was something new in archaeology, because they are always outside the communications, meaning the Roman roads, never in caves. But in the Karlovac region, we found Roman necropolises in the caves--and just from one short period. For maybe 10 to 15 years that cave was used for necropolises. Never before, never later, and just in that region. In this part of the Roman world, they didn't use caves for their own necropolises. It was something new.

Bones from a Roman necropolis

Bones from a Roman necropolis

Meg: Why did they do it?

Domagoj: Of course, we can't be sure, but one possibility was the Plague. It was just a short time between 250 - 270 A.D. that these caves were used as a necropolis. I found in historical sources that at that time all over the Roman world there was a big influence of the plague. It’s called the Cyprian Plague. Cyprian was a bishop in Carthage and  a notable Early Christian writer. He wrote some letters to Rome about the plague from that specific time period, so there are some historical sources about the influence of plague. I found from other books and articles that the influence of this plague was all over the Roman world and almost half the population died from it. We know from some other archaeological sites that the Adriatic coastline was affected by this plague, and that in the hinterlands there was plague. The Roman emperor Claudius II Gothicus died from this plague in 270 A.D. while he was in battle with Barbarian people on the Danube, 200 kilometers from my region. So we know the influence of the plague was in that region. We suppose that because it happened at that time that that was a possible reason.

Of course, you can ask ‘Why didn’t the other regions use caves for burial during this plague?" because in other high-risk situations, people had different practices, but this was the custom in this area.

The most important thing with the necropolis was the evidence of burial rituals like those used all over the world at that time. When people were buried, everything you usually have to do was done. For example, you have to put a coin, pottery, food, and drink with the remains. If you do not do it, the spirit will not be satisfied. It’s a kind of a ritual. The standard ritual was observed for every person in these caves--the coins, pottery, food--but the place is unusual. The act of practicing rituals is so important for people, especially in the past, they will do everything they can to maintain the ritual, even stupid things, from today's point of view.

Meg: I understand it was the plague but do you have any ideas why they were burying in the caves instead of the fields? Was it to keep the death away from the population?

Domagoj: I read some books about the Black Death from the Middle Ages. When the plague came to cities, the first feeling was fear. The second impulse was to escape, go away as far as you can go. The size of the necropolises in the Middle Ages are changed. There were so many people dying they couldn’t put them in a normal cemetery. In Constantinople during the 6th century A.D. there was a big plague again and there were so many dead that they used a whole tower in one day for the remains of 1,000 people. So, the location of cemeteries or necropolis changed under the circumstances.

All the caves which we excavated, their entrance is small, maybe two to five meters. Some are very, very tiny holes. You have to go down into some small holes, then at the end of the main chamber they put on the dead people of the floor of the cave. The fear of infection was very strong. By putting the bodies so far away from the entrance, that fear was lessened. The people who carried the bodies had fear, of course, but they had to do their ritual. Rituals are so strong. During all of history, from our point of view people do very strange things just for a ritual. It’s strange from our view, but from their view the ritual is the most important thing in their life.

Roman necropolis from inside the Bubi Cave

Roman necropolis from inside the Bubi Cave

Meg: How did you find the cave?

Domagoj: It was very strange how we found one of the first caves and the most important one, which we call the Bubi cave. Bubi was the nickname for a child who lived in that area. He was with his father picking mushrooms in the area, and he almost fell down into the cave because the entrance was a hole in the ground that was maybe two by two meters wide. There was good communication between local people and speleologists. Bubi’s father told the speleologists, who went to the cave the next day and they saw many bones on the surface and some archaeological finds. They informed me about the site and then we went to the cave. So, the first time I went to the cave I knew it is archaeological site, but I could not imagine how it looked in reality. We had to crawl down a tunnel to get to the main chamber, and when we got there, there were many, many human bones and other findings. Everything was on the surface. It was really fascinating.

Bubi

Bubi

Meg: How many bodies did you find?

Domagoj: Thirty-five. We found some coins, and based on their markings, we knew the time the necropolis was created and the bodies were interred. Later we did some anthropological analysis and C-14 carbon dating to be sure, which confirmed the necropolis was from the 270s. The anthropologists’ analysis showed there were 16 males, 10 females, and 9 children, a ratio between the males, females, and children that could be considered standard for Roman necropolis. If it had been only males, or only children, that would have been unusual.

If they had died in a conflict there would have been some cut marks in the bones from battle. Because there were no scars, we knew there was no violence. If you die over the course of a few months or a year from an infection, there will be a trace of the on the bones . But if you die from the plague or some other infection that killed you within 15 or 20 days, there will not be traces on the bones. Of course, there is the possibility of DNA analysis, but the problem is that it is very expensive. The second problem is that DNA testing can be unreliable. For example, like in the Middle Ages the scholars took two teeth from one skull from a person in the Middle Ages who died of the plague, and one tooth showed the DNA of the plague and the other didn't show it. As a result, if there is no influence indicated, that does not prove that there is no influence. I couldn’t be sure if the result is negative. And it’s so expensive, I couldn’t do it.

Meg: Did you immediately know the necropolis was highly unusual?

Domagoj: Yes, but it took us three or four years to deduce that there was a plague at that time. Because we didn't excavate the four caves in a few months, it took a few years. You have to clean the pottery, you have to conserve the coins--all the steps take a lot of time. Maybe a few months later, you can see that coin is from the 270s. At the beginning, I didn't know if all of the coins were from the same time or different times. Of course, in Croatia especially, but also in other countries, there is a problem with funding for archaeology, so you can't get a lot of money in a short period.

Domagoj: I wasn’t at the site long, of course. I was there with the speleological team. At that time I had just started to learn about speleology. My speleological colleagues, who became friends, taught me the techniques and skills to go down into vertical tunnels 10-15 meters deep, because at the time I didn't know how. Later it became my hobby, which it continues to be today. But at the time I knew nothing. They gave me the rope and just said “go down.” 

Going down the pit entrance

Going down the pit entrance

I was full of adrenaline, and I was full of curiosity about what I would see. Everything was so muddy, dark, there were many bats. After descending 10-12 meters down a rope, we had to crawl in small and narrow tunnel, with our heads half in the mud, half over the surface. The only light was from our helmets, but we did not have battery-charged lamps on our helmets, we had lamps with an open flame made from mixing water and calcium carbide.

At the end of narrow tunnel, we entered into the wide main cave chamber with many stalactites and stalagmites, and on the surface we saw many, many human bones, mixed all over the surface. It was not the whole, unaffected skeletons, because the underground waters go up and down, and that water mixed the bones and archaeological finds. Then I recognized some roman pottery and I realized, we are in Roman necropolis. We are the first people to see this in more than 1500 years.

Meg: You knew the site was unusual. You had the highway to build so you had to keep going, but something about the site obviously stayed with you if you decided to do your dissertation on it.

Domagoj: At the beginning, I just thought about the highway and the archaeological sites which were in jeopardy. The Bubi cave was not directly jeopardized by the highway and our priority was the rescue archaeological excavations on other sites – the highway could not wait for us. But in meantime, whenever we had  a few free days from rescue excavations, we went to the Bubi cave.

During the next few years, we found three more caves with a similar archaeological context – roman necropolis. We made some small excavation in these others caves, and in all of them were entombment from just a small period 250-270 A.D. In each cave we found human bones, and almost the same archaeological finds: pottery, coins, fibulae, Roman needles, axes, everything from the same time period. I saw that I have found a unique moment in history and of archaeology in this area, and it represented new scientific knowledge, so I decided to use it for my dissertation.

It is important to say, in the area around the caves, I found a few Roman settlements and more than 40 small quarries where the material for Roman sarcophagi were produced. Because the the settlements and the quarries were from the same time period--the 3rd century--it was possible to connect the caves with those sites with caves. It meant that we could presume to know where the people who were buried in the caves lived and what their main job was--working in the quarries.

Quarries of the Roman sarcophagi

Quarries of the Roman sarcophagi

Meg: Can you describe what the Romans were doing in Croatia at the time the Plague occured and the necropolis was created?

Domagoj: The Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, traded across almost all of the Mediterranean and the hinterlands. In expanding from the Italian peninsula, step by step they occupied this region. Why? Because they needed the silver, iron, plants for food, and other things.

At the time, Croatia as we know it today didn’t exist, the people here were known as the Illyrians. There were different tribes in different areas. It depends on the region. For example, in Karlovac region there was the Colapiani tribe. They were called Colapiani because there was a river named Colapis, which means curved river, from which Colapiani came.

The Romans wrote about the Illyrian tribes in the 2nd or 1st century B.C. The only information from historical sources we have is from this period, and so we only know about the Illyrians from the Roman point of view, which is negative because they were at war with them. The first battle between the Romans and Illyrians was in the 3rd century B.C. But from the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. , this region was a Roman province.

Meg: Was Illyrian a Roman name or a name the people called themselves?

Domagoj: Romans used that term for them. There are some different thoughts about its origin. According to archaeological excavations, we know that Illyrian tribes are one part of an Indo-European tribe. One possible explanation is that the term “illo ” means moving like a serpent. Similarly term we can find at some Indo-European tribes, like the Hittites whose language is the oldest Indo-European language. In Hittites religion there was big serpent god called Illurjanka, so some scholars connect the name Illyrian with serpents. Why? Because especially here in the Dubrovnik region the Illyrian gods were serpent gods. Later when the Roman and Greek civilizations came here, the Illyrians took some gods from them, for example, the Greek god Asclepius or later the Roman god Esculape, who has the serpent on his stick. They took that god because he was very similar to their gods.

Illyrian jewelry 

Illyrian jewelry 

Meg: So, were the Illyrians tribes that came originally from India?

Domagoj: No. We just know of some Indo-European migration through the prehistory. One of the first migration was in Chalcolithic in 3rd millennium BC.  From an archaeological point of view there were some changes, but usually scholars talk about Indo-Europeans in the sense of their language. For example, all European countries use the Indo-European language except Hungary and Finland. They are not part of the Indo-European language.

Generally speaking, we don't know a lot about the Indo-Europeans from an archaeological point of view. We know that they came somewhere from the East to this region in the late Copper Age, because from archaeological finds we saw some changes in the use of settlements, some changes in burial rites, including building tumuli--a tumulus is a mound of stones raised over a grave, some changes in artifacts, some changes in pottery. We don’t have any evidence of Illyrian tribes for sure before 8th century B.C.

At the end of the Copper Age, at what today is the Dalmatian coast and corresponding hinterlands, settlements began to use hill forts situated on strategic, easily defensible positions, very often near natural communication or prehistoric roads. Hill fort are defined as having ramparts, as these were troubled times with many wars and attacks between different tribes.

Hill forts and grave tumuli were common from around 2150 B.C. until the Roman occupation of this area around the 2nd - 1st centuries B.C.

But we can find some differences between the positions of hill forts in the Bronze and Iron ages. In the Bronze age, the majority of hill forts were located in the hinterlands and there were not many connection between people and the sea in that era. They were almost totally disinterested in the sea. But with Iron Age, specifically the late Iron Age in the 5th - 4th century, when Greek colonization began, hill forts began to rise on the coast. The main reason was trade, and controlling trade.

Meg: Given your interest in caves as archaeological sites, have you explored any since moving back to Dubrovnik?

Domagoj: Of course! As part of my work for the Archaeological Museum in Dubrovnik, we excavated a cave in the area associated with Illyrian tribes called Plereji. 

Vilina Špilja, or the Fairy Cave, is located in steep cliffs above the source of the River Ombla in Rijeka Dubrovačka, in the suburbs of the city of Dubrovnik. The archaeological site is just a small part of the Fairy Cave, a cave system, which has, to date, been found to be 3063 meters in length and 192 meters deep. Given its dimensions, this could be the longest cave in Dalmatia. The entrance to the archaeological site of the Fairy Cave is located 137m above sea level--to reach it from the foot of the hill and the Ombla river requires great physical and technical skill. Two-thirds of the access route consists of a climb up steep slopes, while the final third, immediately under the cave entrance, requires the use of proper speleological equipment and climbing technique. For the most part, the last third of the route consists of scaling nearly vertical cliffs.

Climbing to the entrance of Vilina Špilja

Climbing to the entrance of Vilina Špilja

The Archaeological Museum of the Dubrovnik Museums conducted an investigation of the cave during two excavation campaigns, in 2014 and 2015. Several hall and channels were explored, with finds from ranging from the early Neolithic to Hellenism periods.

For the time being, the archaeological site at the Fairy Cave can be viewed in two different archaeological contexts. The first originates from the earliest prehistoric periods, between the early Neolithic and the middle Bronze Age, when the cave was used as an occasional dwelling. The next time the Fairy Cave was used was in the period of the late Iron Age, when the advanced Greek civilization reached this area. A local Illyrian sanctuary dating from the 4th and 3rd century BC has been found in the Fairy Cave.

The interpretation of the cave’s use as a sanctuary is supported by the discovery of the finest and most precious vessels of the period, which were used exclusively for wine drinking and were of Greek provenance, originating from the workshops of Attica, southern Italy, and Alto Adriatico. Some of these had secondary holes drilled in their bottoms and could hardly have served a utilitarian purpose: they probably had a votive function. Vessels of this kind were not used in the everyday life of Illyrians. Furthermore, within the context of the sanctuary, small glasses of local Illyrian provenance have also been found; these miniature Illyrian vessels can be seen as votive gifts used in the framework of a religious ritual and cult. In any case, it was always the most precious objects that were left in sanctuaries, as a vow or gift, or in supplication of peace or divine mercy.

At this moment we cannot say with certainty who the sanctuary was dedicated to, or what rituals were conducted in the cave. However, all the pottery finds are linked to wine drinking, leading to the assumption that wine played an important role within the cult. 

This archaeological site undoubtedly deserves further systematic archaeological exploration with a view to gaining new insight into the identity, religion and material culture of the Illyrians, and the way in which they participated in the Mediterranean world, at first within the Greek and Hellenistic civilizations, and later also the Roman.

Underwater Excavation 

Underwater Excavation 

Meg: You left the Conservation Department in Karlovac to become a senior inspector for protection of cultural heritage. What led you to this role, and what does that involve?

Domagoj: In the 2001, the Ministry of culture founded Office for Cultural Heritage Protection Inspection Activities, and one area that department had responsibility for supervising was protecting underwater sites. The chief in that Office for Cultural Heritage Protection Inspection knew me when he was the chief of underwater excavations in which I participated. He asked me would I change my job from the Karlovac Conservation Department to become the supervisor of underwater excavations department in Zagreb. My job would be diving underwater for archaeology. I said “Of course, why not"?

There were some good and some bad things about the opportunity. Good because diving has been my hobby my whole life and this new job meant diving onto archaeological sites to see if everything was okay with them. So, it was a good opportunity to go back to the sea and diving, and I thought it might maybe an opportunity to find a job at home in the Dubrovnik area, which later happened. At the time, it was just a hope that my diving and working in archaeology would enable me to fulfill my dreams to get back home. That was a good thing.

The bad thing was supervising. To be chief inspector you have to supervise other people. It’s not so fun. My job was to supervise the divers in the protected areas of under water cultural heritage. I had to dive with them to make sure everything is okay with the site, that nothing is being damaged and so forth.

All along Croatia’s coast are diving centers that lead tourists onto underwater archaeological sites. According to Croatian law, only diving centers--which are commercial organizations--that have a license from the Ministry of Culture can take tourists on the archaeological site. You can't dive on an archaeological site without a license. I supervise licensed diving centers to ensure they operate according to the laws.

For example, one of the biggest underwater shipwrecks from Roman times is in the front of Cavtat, 15 kilometers south of Dubrovnik and known in ancient times as Epidaurum. With its peninsulas stretching into the sea Cavtat has long been a convenient settlement site, where life can be traced from the Bronze and Iron Ages till the present day. The first records of the name Epidaurum goes back to the year 47 B.C. In the political upheavals between Caesar and Pompey. The city, which belonged to the Romans, took Caesar’s side. This later proved to be a useful decision because, after Caesar’s victory, Epidaurus was granted the highest rank: that of a colony.

In the area of Cavtat, including both peninsulas and bays, numerous remains of the former Illyrian and Roman city have been found. The most interesting are the submarine archaeological finds. When the Romans gained control over antique Epidaurum it became one of the major cities in the region. The reason was trade. As a safe harbor conveniently connected with the hinterlands Epidaurum developed into a trade centre. At that time trade was predominantly sea-oriented. The reasons are cheaper sea transport and poor land communications, which developed only at the time of the Roman Empire. Some research showed that it was cheaper to transport merchandise by boat from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than by land for only 75 miles. Apart from several cases of coastal findings and pieces of architecture, the Cavtat maritime zone comprises the remains of three antique shipwrecks with their cargoes and one more recent shipwreck from the time of Napoleon.

The entire zone in front of Cavtat harbor was used as anchorage, so that separate artifacts were also found in the wider area. Due to such a concentration of submarine findings the archaeological zone in front of Cavtat is protected by a Ministry of Culture decree, so that diving activities are possible only with the permission of the Ministry of Culture. For the time being only the Epidaurum Diving Centre from Cavtat owned by Boris Obradović has been granted such permission. He was the one who gave reports on the majority of the sites in the Cavtat submarine area, after which archaeological investigations were carried out, and both the site and entire zone were protected in physical as well as in legal sense.

The site is protected by an iron cage, so tourists can look around and take pictures, but nobody can take anything from the site. It is kind of a museum in the sea. The site includes the largest and best preserved antique shipwreck on the Eastern Adriatic with a cargo of amphora, at a depth of 22 – 28 meters. More than 600 undamaged amphoras from North Africa and the Aegean region have been documented on the surface layer, whereas the three site layers are assumed to contain more than 1800 pieces. According to the amphora type the locality dates back to the 4th century A.D. 

Checking the amorpha site

Checking the amorpha site

The loose amphora site is situated westward from the entrance to Cavtat Harbour at a depth of 25 – 27 meters. This is the oldest shipwreck in the area, which dates back to the 1st century B.C. according to the remains of the amphora type. A small number of undamaged amphoras has been removed, but numerous broken pieces still lie on the sea bottom in a petrified pile.

Meg: Has anyone ever attempted to steal artifacts from an underwater site?

Domagoj: Yes. In 2002, we found on the Internet that some people from Austria had organized illegal excavations on an underwater archaeological site with a late Middle Age shipwreck; on the surface you can see the iron guns, some pottery, small wooden  parts of ship and many, many pearls in the sand bottom. The site is situated on the peak of Istria peninsula, near the town of Pula. The Austrian excavation was commercial, but commercial for themselves. According the Croatia laws, you can dive on underwater archaeological sites only with licensed diving centers, and there are no commercial excavations. Treasures hunting is forbidden. We let them continue with their dive in order to catch them in the field to get the proof that they were doing something illegal.

With the police special diving forces, we organized an ambush of them and arrived at the site on speedboats. We dove down to the site and the policemen showed their badges and signaled “Police! Go up!” It was like a scene from a movie. People who were there, they didn't know they worked for an illegal operation, just the organizer, who wanted to take money. He knew what he was doing was illegal.

Preparing for the ambush

Preparing for the ambush

The others did not know it was illegal, and when we arrived, they were drawing the map of the site, they did not start to take the artifacts. The organizer went on trial and he had to pay punishment for illegal activities. Other people lost their diving equipment, because all equipment which used for illegal activities can be confiscated, but they did not receive any punishment.

If you want to dive on the underwater culture heritage in Croatia, you can do it only with licensed diving center. To be a member of archaeological team  on excavations, it does not matter land or underwater excavations, you have to check who is organizer of excavation. In the Croatia, organizer of archaeological excavation can be only Croatian institution, like Museum, University, Conservation department, or a contracted archaeologist firm, but again, only from Croatia. There are possibility of cooperation between Croatian institutions and some foreign institutions, but a Croatian institution has to be included into archaeological excavation. 

Meg: Your career has included work both on Croatia’s coast and in the hinterlands, such as the Karlovac region. Not surprisingly, you are a member of a research project examining communications and connections between the Adriatic and Croatia’s interior. Can you talk about that project and your role?

Domagoj: If you want trade, you need proven communications. In Roman Times, Middle Age, until 50 years ago, the nature of communications was very important. If you want trade, you need roads. In Prehistoric and Roman times and the Middle Age, until almost 50 years ago, all roads wee natural routes.

For the last 50 years, there has been communications industries and highways; you don't need to follow natural communications routes. But before that, during the thousands of years of trade between the coastline and the hinterlands; there were natural communication routes discovered and used. Trade existed all over the Mediterranean between different regions on the coastline and the hinterlands, because in the hinterlands you have silver, gold, iron, cattle, and crops like cereals. At the time, the main trading routes were by sea, because it is much cheaper and easier but to get to the hinterlands, you have to pass through big mountains.

In this area, for example, the Dubrovnik region, the first trading was between Greeks and Illyrian tribes from the hinterlands. Because of the opportunities presented by trading, the Greeks founded colonies here in the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries B.C.

On the Croatian coast there were a few Greek colonies. Possibly as early as the 6th century B.C. there was the colony Corkyra Melaina, somewhere on the today island of Korčula--we know of that colony from some historical sources, but we have not found that site. Later, between 397-390 B.C., Dionysius the Elder founded colony Issa (today the island Vis) and after that, between 385 – 384 a colony called Pharos was founded on what is today the town of Starigrad on the island of Hvar.

Dionysius was a Greek tyrant from Syracuse, in what is now Sicily, southern Italy.  He conquered several cities in Sicily and southern Italy, and opposed Carthage´s influence in Sicily and made Syracuse the most powerful of the Western Greek  colonies. He was regarded by the ancients as an example of the worst kind of despot—cruel, suspicious and vindictive. Later, in 3rd century B.C., Greek colonists from Issa and Pharos founded new colonies on the coast: Tragurion (today the town of Trogir) and Epetion (today the  town of Stobreč), both of which are near Split. Also, we know from historical sources and from archaeological excavation of colonies in Lumbarda (today the island of Korčula) and Sikuli (today Resnik at Kaštela Bay between Trogir and Split).

Meg: And the relationships between the Greeks and Illyrian tribes were friendly relations whereas the relationship between the Romans and Illyrians were not…?

Domagoj: It depends. Relationships are different. We can't say any relationship is always good or always bad. But if trade is our main point of reference, we should find some common language, because trade is good for you and for me. But during trading, sometimes you can be angry and then we shall fight. Like today. There are no differences between ancient times and today when we talk about trade.

With the beginning of Iron Age in 8th century, but specially at 5th century BC, social differentiation at Illyrian tribes is much more pronounced. Some communities became stronger, especially because trade. From that time we can talk about Illyrian tribes in full sense. In the Greek area, there is much more advanced civilization, it’s the beginning of classical and, later, Hellenistic civilization. In the Illyrian tribes, some tribal chiefs became much stronger and more important, and they wanted to have some nice and expensive things from the Greek area. Because if the chief wanted to show his people that he is boss, he had to have the most expensive pottery, for example, or some other objects that are a matter of prestige, such as helmets, weapon,  and armor.  So, the implication is 'I have the items of most prestige , so everybody can see I am the chief.' Very often the Greek colonists brought the most expensive pottery to this area and they brought some other things to trade with the tribes here.

For trade with the Illyrians, the Greeks had to find a way to go over the hills because you can't go over the hills wherever you want; you have to find the easiest ways. On the communication routes that were established, settlements were founded. For example, during the prehistoric times and Roman times, from late Bronze Age, 1000 B.C. until the 5th or 6th century A.D., the main trade center was Epidaurum. Today it’s Cavtat, about 15 kilometers to the east of Dubrovnik in Župa Bay. It’s a quite nice small town. Why was it a base for such a long time? Because there were communications to the hinterlands. It was the main center for trade during Greek times and, later, Roman times.

Later in the early and especially the late Middle Ages, Epidaurum declined, as all civilizations peak and then decline for different reasons. At the beginning of 7th century, tribes of Slavs and Avars came in several waves to this area, and generally to the Adriatic coast and adjoining hinterland, and there were Croatian tribes who stayed in this wider area. Between them, they destroyed Epidaurum and many of the Roman towns and settlements. But we can not talk about the end of life in these towns and or the local populations disappearing. After the first attacks and destruction,  there was some kind of the coexistence between the Byzantine towns and newcomers Slavs.

Oton Iveković painting The Croats' arrival at the Adriatic Sea - Photo from Wikimedia

Oton Iveković painting The Croats' arrival at the Adriatic Sea - Photo from Wikimedia

But also, while the 7th century is the end of Epidaurum, its is start of the rise of Ragusa or Dubrovnik town. According some legends, refugees from Epidaurum came to the Dubrovnik and founded a new town. We know that the certain kind of settlement already existed, so we can not say that they founded a new town, but its very possible a new population came and the town started to fortify.

The town of Dubrovnik was founded on a place where the Illyrian tribes had a hill fort before. When you read about Dubrovnik’s history, you will read that it was founded in the 7th century. That’s not true, because on a hill where the Old Town of Dubrovnik now is was an Iron Age Illyrian settlement. There were some excavations and we found finds from the 2nd century B.C. and forward. That told us the harbor was used in Roman and pre-Roman times, so the settlement was much earlier than the 7th century. In the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik grew up and the fortified walls were built. The reason for a settlement being located here for different people through the ages is that the spot is defensible, and there is natural communication routes inland. For almost 1,000 years, the same communication route was used from Dubrovnik to the hinterlands.

Meg: What is that communication?

Domagoj: Very often rivers are used, sometimes it’s a valley. The Neretva  River is the main communication. The canyons can also be communications, an area far away from the canyon.

The main power of Dubrovnik was trade. The Dubrovnik Republic had many ships and traded all over the Mediterranean. Trade was also all over the hinterlands in what today would be Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro. In the 15th century, the Ottomans came to this area, surrounded it and occupied it. The Dubrovnik Republic was free and unoccupied, and paid for a license to trade with the hinterlands during the Ottoman occupation of the area. The Republic had a monopoly to trade with the hinterlands, which is one of the reasons they were very rich and powerful and could build.

Painting of Ragusa from 1667 prior to earthquake, kept today in Dubrovnik archives; arms in upper corner. Credit: Wikimedia

Painting of Ragusa from 1667 prior to earthquake, kept today in Dubrovnik archives; arms in upper corner. Credit: Wikimedia

Meg: Why did the Ottomans agree to that?

Domagoj: First, the Dubrovnik Republic paid for the license. Second, the Ottomans needed someone locally to continue the trade, and they used the Dubrovnik Republic to continue it. It was just business. The Dubrovnik Republic was clever. For example, Venice tried to take the trade route of Dubrovnik from the Ottomans, but they couldn’t do it. Just like today, to get a monopoly is the most important thing.

Meg: So, there was some diplomatic skill by the Dubrovnik Republic?

Domagoj: Yes, diplomatic skill. Talking, not fighting, was one of the main reasons for the growth of the Republic.

Meg: Austria also had a presence in what is now Croatia. Did any of the sites you worked show evidence of the Austrian presence?

Domagoj: Yes. Generally speaking, the town of Karlovac was in a good communications location. There were many ways from Karlovac inland and to the coastline. The highway route I worked on was very near an old route. We excavated a house with a restaurant and a waystation that had disappeared more than 100 years ago. It was kind of a traveling station during the 18th and 19th centuries,  like a tavern and place for the horses. We didn't know the site had been a station. But I was out walking near the river on some hills and I saw that the top of one hill was a little flat. It didn't look like a naturally flat hill. So, I went there and on the surface I found some pottery. We made some trenches to see what was below in the ground, and we found the walls. Later we continued to excavate, and we found many, many chambers, halls, pottery, places where they had worked with iron, repairing horseshoes for the horses.

The highway route would be going over the site. It is very hard to change the highway route. But we were lucky because in this area, the highway plan called for a bridge over this area, and the site of the way station wasn’t destroyed. They just put some pylons near the station and a bridge went over the site. So we excavated the site, and learned something about the town and station. Later we put the ground back over the walls and everything, so the highway didn't damage that site.

Meg: Was the pottery locally made?

Domagoj: There was local pottery, but there was also some pottery from Hungary and Austria, because it was a traveling station and they had lots of pottery from different places in the world from that period. According to some motifs on some of the pottery we know that it’s from Hungary.

Meg: It makes a statement that at that moment in time Croatia was a crossroads and in an everyday place you have pottery from Hungary. Back to the highway project,  you found about 25 archaeological sites along the route. Did any of them merit moving the highway route?

Domagoj: In one case we did it, because the highway route was planned to go across a settlement from Roman times, which was a very important archaeological site. It was Prehistoric and later Roman town called Arupium. It was impossible to make an archaeological excavation and remove the whole town, so we succeeded in moving the highway route in one example.

But another time, we found and excavated a village from the Middle Ages with evidence of where food was prepared and pottery was made, and some small houses. When we finished with the excavations, we conserved the finds and the highway just went over the site. Because after our excavations, it was not an archaeological site anymore. For example, very often we say that archaeology is a book you can read only once because after excavations, in many cases you don't have an archaeological site anymore.

Remains of the storage pits 

Remains of the storage pits 

Meg: How do you personally feel about that?

Domagoj: It depends. In that case, when we finished with the excavations there were no more archaeological finds on the site. We removed everything. We made the documentation. We took all the finds. So on that spot there is no more archaeological site, so I don't have bad feelings about it because there is nothing there anymore.

Meg: I'm just thinking for all purposes those people are erased now. But in a way, by the remains of their society having been found and presumably preserved and catalogued, the community is now actually memorialized. What was done with the finds?

Domagoj: All the finds are now in a local museum. We wrote some articles about the excavation so people can get some new information about the area’s history and life here in the 15th century, and how people lived.

On the highway route, we excavated many gravestones. Usually it’s very hard to get the money for excavations of gravestones, because while in some cases, you can find a lot--pottery, tools, weapons. But in other cases, you may find just a few bits of pottery in a grave. For example, you need 20,000 euro or more for excavating a gravestone or tumuli, and at the end of the excavations you might have two pieces of pottery. It is very hard to explain to anybody that you’ve spent a lot of money for a few pieces of pottery.

Before excavating, you don't know what you'll find. In cases where there is a relationship between a highway and a graveyard, after excavations, there are no more gravestones/tombs on that spot but all the graves/tombs are given markers. The tombs were located where they were for some reason.

Meg: What would some of those reasons be?

Domagoj: Usually they are near the communication route to the settlement, so the spirit of our ancestors can protect us. In another sense, it is a marker for owners of that area. For example, you have two tribes living nearby and with gravestones/tumuli they marked their ownership. In some other cases, they are on top of the field because it is a cemetery, but it is also a sanctuary and so they want it to be near heir gods who live in the sky. There are many different rules, but there are always rules and reasons why graves are in a certain position.

In the cases where we can get funding to excavate a grave site, my feelings are good and bad. Good because we have occasion to get some money to do some excavations, but on the other hand, that site is no more. Like in life, you always have some good and bad aspects to something.

Meg: You observed that at the end of the day there’s always a reason people do things. Do you ever think what that says about human nature, that humans always construct beliefs or reasons around things like life and death? Do you speculate on the human need to make sense of something?

Domagoj: People always need to make some sense about something. But the main problem with archaeologists, and people generally, is we think about the ancient people and their way of thinking through our heads, which is usually impossible. That’s the reason why we make mistakes, because it is not possible with our heads to think about their way of thinking. We can only try. We have to try instead to think with their way of thinking, but we don't have enough parameters. We have some facts, some parameters, and we try to explain but it is always like something like from the sky.

Meg: I appreciate that you can't presume to know how someone thinks when they’ve had very different experiences. Could I ask what your experience was during the war here?

Domagoj: I was in the war, and, like other people, I had a bad experience. I finished high school in 1990 when I was 19 years old. At that time Yugoslavia still existed. After high school, boys had to go into the Yugoslav Army. I had been in the army for one year when the war began. 

After WWII, Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of six republics, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines. According to the Yugoslav Constitution, beginning in 1974 each republic could decide to separate from Yugoslavia. But the possibility of separating from the federation was just in theory, in practice it was quite different. Because the Serbs had prepared themselves since the late eighties for Great Serbia, a new state which would include Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina and almost the whole of Croatia, except some western parts of Croatia. On the other side, Croatian people wanted to separate from Yugoslavia, to have their own state. So, it was quite a “good” reason for conflict. The first conflicts between Serbs and Croats happened at Easter 1991.

Theoretically, the Yugoslav army was neutral in conflicts between Croats and Serbs, but in practice and in the reality, when the conflict started, the Yugoslav Army basically became the Serbian Army.

I was in the north of Serbia. At the beginning of June, the commander of platoon took my gun, without any explanations. From that time I wasn’t soldier for real, but I couldn’t leave the army base. I couldn’t go anywhere, especially I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t in prison, but it was almost the same. I was painting the prison walls and some other small objects in military base. Nobody talked to me about anything because I was Croatian.

I was on the opposite side but I couldn’t escape. Some guys tried to escape and some succeeded, some got killed. So it was very hard to decide what to do, to escape or not.

I didn't know what was happening in Croatia because we didn't have information. I could only watch Serbian television. I was in the Yugoslav Army, but because I was Croatian I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t leave the army base. I couldn’t write letters to my family. I couldn’t make phone calls. So I was quite insulated because I was Croatian .

One year later, at the beginning of September 1991, a Serbian officer helped me get away from the military base. Did he do it because he didn't want a Croatian to be there because it was dangerous for me and dangerous for them? I believe he was just a good guy. He wanted to help me get away because he understood the situation much better than me. I didn't know about the things happening in Croatia but he knew. So, he helped me go through the gate of the military zone. He said, “I will give you the papers to get out of the base, but you have to go alone and nobody can know.” I said thanks.

Meg: Did he approach you?

Domagoj: Yes.  I had asked to go home because you have to stay in the Army one year and that amount of time had passed but they just said to me “You can't go home.” It was a command. Then ten days later that officer came and asked, “Do you want to go home?” I said, “Yes, of course, I want to go home.” He gave me the permit to go outside the military base, but I didn’t know if he gave me that permit with or without the knowledge of other officers in higher positions. He did it, I think, without the knowledge of other people from the military base. He helped me., and I had to be careful not to be captured later in Serbia by other officers because he did it I think without the knowledge of other people from the military station. He helped me.

Meg: Did you know him? Were you in contact with him?

Domagoj: He was my chief officer so I saw him very often. But I didn't have conversations with him specially because he was chief and usually soldiers have conversations only with others on their level and he was on the top level, so I didn’t have conversations with him.

Meg: Were there other Croatian people at the base?

Domagoj: Just two of us.

Meg: When you passed through the gate, did you feel free?

Domagoj: In one way, I felt free, finally free. But I wasn’t so sure my exit was quite legal from their point of view. So, I was afraid, wondering if the military police would catch me and bring me back to the military base. I was trying to act normally, without much talking; there are some differences between Croatian and Serbian language, so I was afraid if I talked, everybody would see that I am Croatian. I just took a bus from the small town the military base was in, later changed to another bus, and then I came to Belgrade. 

Meg: You must have been terrified.

Domagoj: Of course. [laughs] Of course, of course.

When I got to Belgrade, which at the time was the capital town of Yugoslavia and later Serbia, I saw on a timetable that at five in the morning there was a bus from Belgrade to Dubrovnik. I asked the girl who worked there, “Please, one ticket for Dubrovnik.” She told me, “There? To Dubrovnik? Are you crazy? Buses don’t go to Dubrovnik. The Croatians have an army!” I said, “Oh my god, I didn't mean Dubrovnik. I mean one ticket to Trebinje and not to Dubrovnik, of course!” I didn't know what the situation was.

I went by bus to Trebinje. My travel from Belgrade to Trebinje was very strange. Now, it looks very funny to me, but at that time,  I was terrified. The bus traveled almost across the whole of Serbia and parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina  where Serbs were living. We stopped  in many cafe bars to take a rest, and there was Serbian music about strikes on Croatia,  the café bars were full of Serbian “heroes” who were leading the war against Croatia, everybody were talking about war and preparing new actions against Croatia. I was among them, trying to look normal…. and not too different from the others.  

Trebinje is small town in Bosnia and Hercegovinia, near to the border with Croatia. Before the war,  Serbs, Muslims and Croatians lived there, but Serbs were the majority. Just before the war and during the war, Trebinje was one of the main centers for attacks on the Dubrovnik area.

So after coming by bus to Trebinje, I walked for a few hours and crossed over the border and I came home. Nobody knew anything about me and nobody expected me at home. First I saw my grandmother.  She was in front of the house and almost fell down and started to cry. Then my mother and father came out, and nobody could believe I was at home. We felt lucky and were crying, hugging, smiling and kissing. Finally, I felt free for real.  

One month later, on October 1, 1991, the war started for real with guns and everything. This time I was in the Croatian Army as a volunteer soldier when they attacked us and I protected my home. But unfortunately we didn't have enough guns in those first few months. The Serbians and Montenegro people and the people from Trebinje in Bosnia, they were much stronger and we had to move to Dubrovnik. Our home stayed under the occupation of the Yugoslav Army and Serbians and Montenegrans, and was burned. Seven months later the Croatian Army took back the area, but my car was destroyed and my small boat was destroyed. My house was burned. Some friends died. Of course, it wasn’t a good experience.

Vukovar, Croatia 1991 - Photo from Wikimedia

Vukovar, Croatia 1991 - Photo from Wikimedia

When I was here in the war as a soldier it was terrible but it wasn’t so terrible because this is my side, my people, my homeland. But when I was in the Yugoslav army a few months earlier, I knew it was not my side but I couldn’t escape. I was in prison. The people who were with me in that platoon at that military station attacked the Croatians.

But like I said in the beginning, I believe the Serbian guy helped me. He was Serbian but he helped me to escape from the military station. You, me or whoever can't say that everybody isn't the same. On all sides there are good and bad people. But today I don't want to go to Montenegro and Serbia.  I believe there are some good people and if they come here I will not do anything against them, but I don't want to go there.

Meg: Did you always want to be an archeologist?

Domagoj: Yes, when I went into the Yugoslav Army I took a preparation book for the archaeology exam, but I couldn’t go to the exam because I was being held captive in the base in Serbia then. When I came back in September 1991, there was one month before the war started for real. In that month I went to the University of Zagreb, passed the exam for archaeology, came back to Dubrovnik, then the war started and I joined the Croatian Army here.

Meg: The war ended in 1995 so for that whole time were you in the army?

Domagoj: No, I was in the army from the beginning of the war, which started October 1, 1991. In 1992, I went to Zagreb. I missed one semester at the university because I was here in Dubrovnik in the war. Between 1992 and 1995 I was in Zagreb at University.

Meg: Was Zagreb affected by the war?

Domagoj: Zagreb was affected by the war generally and directly two times. The first was October 7th 1991 when Serbians sent rockets on a government building trying to kill the first Croatian president Franjo Tuđman. The second time was the 2nd and 3rd of May 1995 when the Croatian army retook an area in western Slavonia, and Serbians got revenge by sending rockets to Zagreb.

Meg: You already wanted to be an archaeologist and were interested in history. Did your war experience make you feel it was more important or did it have no bearing at all?

Domagoj: There was some influence of the war on my interest in archaeology because all the bad things you try to forget. The war is one part of my life and usually I don't talk about it. You asked so I answered you but usually I don't want to talk about it and I don't want to think about it. It is one part of my life, a bad side of life. There are other good things and I am trying to live with the positive things.

Meg: In all the topics we've covered, you’ve repeatedly said there are good things and bad things. Has that always been a philosophy of yours, a choice to be detached?

Domagoj: Yes, it is a kind of philosophy but usually I want to enjoy the good things in every moment. I like to be aware that now is a good and I have to enjoy the good things, because I had some bad experiences and I want to put them far away. At that time, I was 19 years old, a boy, and at that age you don't know a lot about life. When you are a teenager you think you know everything and you are the most important person in the world and in that situation, when you experience some bad things, everything collapses. But I learned that I have to enjoy the good things and enjoy life generally speaking. From that time on, I have been enjoying life every day.

Meg: A lot of people who have been through trauma get very stuck.

Domagoj: I know I didn't feel so lucky at that time, but that was a crossroads. Then I realized I'm happy. I had to be happy because there is no reason to be unhappy.