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Archaeological Fieldwork in the Adriatic Islands, 2003

Lastovo town.

This summer two IPCAA students, Dan Shoup and I, joined the Korcula Archaeological Research Group (KARG), a consortium of Croatian, American, and Swiss scholars based on the island of Korcula, Croatia. The team operates out of the town of Vela Luka, conducting archaeological research on Korcula and several neighboring islands. Seen from the deck of the Jadrolinija ferry, these islands appear as distinctive piles of limestone rising out of the southern Adriatic. Their physical geography is dramatic: sheltered bays that make ideal anchorages for sailors; narrow terraces for olive trees, gleaned from the rocky hillsides by generations of manual labor; and flat, fertile fields, or polje, surrounded by rugged karst formations.

The earliest coastal evidence for habitation derives from the Palaeolithic period, as attested by the extraordinary site of Vela Spila (literally, “the big cave”), near the town of Vela Luka on Korcula. During the Neolithic period, this site was instrumental in trans-Adriatic contacts between coastal areas of modern Italy and Croatia. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, the island people built fortification walls on nearly all the most prominent hilltops. Many of these forts, gradine, and burial tumuli, gomile, are still visible as one travels across the island.

It was probably during the sixth century BC that central Dalmatia first attracted Greek colonists. Korcula, which the Greeks called Kerkyra Melaina or “Black Corcyra”—apparently the heavily wooded landscape reminded the settlers of Corcyra—hosted a Knidian colony. However, the exact location of this settlement still eludes historians and archaeologists. Likewise, a later fourth-century BC colony established on Korcula by Greeks from the island of Issa (modern Vis) continues to evade detection. The fourth-century Greek foundation of Pharos on the island of Hvar, however, represents one of the best-preserved examples of Greek land division in the Mediterranean. Hvar is also a well-known case study for the application of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software to archaeological problems. The Sanctuary of Diomedes on Palegruza, a small island group far out in the Adriatic, has yielded dedications of pottery that testify to the skill, daring, and piety of ancient navigators.

The local Illyrians fought intermittently with the Greek colonists, and later, in the third through first centuries BC, they put up a stiff resistance to Roman pacification. There are no major Roman cities in the islands to match the ruins of Salona on the mainland, but there are numerous villa rustica sites. Whether these belonged to wealthy Romans or to locals who had made their peace with Rome is an interesting question. In the turbulent third century AD, a few men from Illyria rose through the ranks of the Roman army to attain the imperial purple, among them Diocletian, who retired—a singular accomplishment for a Roman emperor—to a huge palace and fortress on the Dalmatian coast. The massive walls of his retirement home now enclose the heart of the old town of Split. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Slavs, Venetians, and Austro-Hungarians also left their marks on the Dalmatian landscape, in the form of palazzi, fortifications, and roads.

The deep waters off the coast are full of shipwrecks, many of which date to Classical antiquity. These wreck sites are marked by hundreds of amphorae that contained wine, oil, and other trade goods. Recently, the Croatian authorities have taken steps to curb illegal wreck diving to prevent looting and permanent damage to the sites.

Bryon Bass wants to know who put this wall here.

Faced with this abundance of cultural and archaeological resources, the Korcula Archaeological Research Group draws on the expertise of prehistorians, Classical archaeologists, and specialists in various other fields. Our activities include intensive and extensive archaeological field survey, excavation, and the study and publication of excavated archaeological material. This summer, the team visited and identified several important sites on Korcula itself and mounted a short but productive dig on the hitherto little-investigated island of Lastovo. Test excavations on the height of Lastovo Kastel produced impressive quantities of pottery and other cultural materials, dating from prehistory to the twentieth century. Preliminary reports on all the finds from Lastovo will soon be published in both English and Croatian. Despite these finds, most of the team members share the sense of only having scratched the island’s archaeological surface. The lokva, or natural spring, near Lastovo town, and an ancient road running to the lokva, built of impressively large stones, are especially intriguing. I am also eager to investigate some Classical wreck sites, villas, and potential locations for the Corcyrean colony on Korcula. Plans are in place to document the unique medieval architecture of Lastovo town, and of course KARG will continue to probe the mysteries of Dalmatian prehistory.

—Seth Button, IPCAA Ph.D. student

Thanks are due to the U-M’s Kelsey Museum and IPCAA for providing travel funding, to Nissan of Switzerland for furnishing the field team with a four-wheel drive vehicle, to the Abteilung für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Universität Zürich, for further financial and logistical support, and to Drs. Bryon Bass and Philippe della Casa.