Exploring Iron Age burial mounds on the Trail of Princes

Patrick Skinner sets out from the country’s capital on a voyage of archaeological discovery.

The Iron Age Cemetery at the Budinjak Archaeological Park

The Iron Age Cemetery at the Budinjak Archaeological Park

Croatia boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites (six of which are cultural monuments), and a human past that goes back 900,000 years, so the country wears its heritage with justifiable pride. A stumpy-legged, bird-shaped ceramic vessel dating to the 3rd millennium BC appears on one of its banknotes. This same 19cm-tall (7.5in) pot (see above), discovered at Vučedol in eastern Croatia, is on display in the neo-Renaissance building that is home to the National Archaeological Museum in Zagreb.

The museum was built in 1879, and was taken over by the Automobile and Officers Club in the 1920s and 1930s, before being occupied by the Germans during WWII. Finally, in 1945, it became the Archaeological Museum under the directorship of Mirko Šeper. Its yellow faÁade matches its contemporaries: the Croatian National Theatre, the Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Art Pavilion. Inside, the marble-lined floors and walls provide a grand backdrop for the beautiful, modern, well-lit displays. Look out for the lift: it was installed during WWI and is the oldest working lift in Zagreb. This was where I met Dr Tomislav Bilić, the museum’s curator, who had agreed to show me around.

We headed first to the third floor, where the exhibits tell the story of Croatia’s past from about 900,000 BC to the Iron Age. Though the Palaeolithic is my area of interest – and the museum has a fine collection of stone tools – it was a Middle Bronze Age display that took my breath away. It showed a hoard recovered from the village of Lovas in 1939 made up of nearly 500 items – bronze bracelets, rings, pendants, tweezers, a dagger, an axe, and 22 coils of gold wire – that were deposited in a clay amphora. Why they were left, and by whom, remains a mystery.

But perhaps the most poignant exhibit was neither a weapon, nor jewellery. It was a bronze razor from the 10th to 9th century BC, found in the grave of a Bronze Age warrior at Velika Gorica (Zagreb). This humble implement was a vivid reminder to me that behind every archaeological find is an actual person, and they were probably not so very different from ourselves that we cannot relate to them in some way.

Iron Age cemetery

This 3rd millennium BC ceramic pot is featured on the Croatia’s 20 kuna banknote.

This 3rd millennium BC ceramic pot is featured on the Croatia’s 20 kuna banknote.

My appetite whetted, I was keen to explore Croatia’s archaeological heritage beyond the capital. I had heard of a recent discovery: an Early Iron Age cemetery on the so-called ‘Trail of Princes’ within Budinjak Archaeological Park. It lies about 50km (30 miles) west of Zagreb in the forested region of Žumberak. Morena Želle, the park’s archaeologist and director of the Budinjak Eco-centre, met me there, and we set off on a wooded pathway that led to an adjacent plateau and the Iron Age cemetery itself.

The cemetery is associated with a hillfort – probably the most important Early Iron Age settlement in the region – just a few hundred metres to the south. The 141 circular burial mounds, 5-20m (16-65ft) in diameter and 0.5-2.2m (18in-7ft) high, create lumps and bumps that were once part of a sacred landscape shaped by the beliefs and behaviour of  its people. Grave goods such as torcs, brooches, bracelets, belt buckles, anklets, glass and amber beads, spears, knives, axes, and pottery have been recovered during the last 30 years of excavation. These burials, which included cremation and inhumation, included all members of the community: men, women, and children.

The finds demonstrate not only the social importance of burial to the community, but also the hierarchical nature of this Iron Age society. During the summer of 1994, a bowl-shaped metal helmet dated to about 730-660 BC (now in the museum in Zagreb) was recovered from Tomb 139. Like many of the metal artefacts here, it had suffered serious deterioration due to the acidic nature of the soil, but chemical analysis shows it is an alloy made up of mainly copper, with tin, lead, antimony, and traces of silver. The helmet probably belonged to a member of the elite that emerged during the period of significant social change that followed the arrival of this new metal technology – and the economic, military, and political power that came with it.

After excavation, the tombs are accurately reconstructed. This, Morena explained, is because the archaeological team is determined that future visitors will experience the same sense-of-place as that enjoyed by people in the past. The act of burial for Early Iron Age societies in Budinjak was as much about reshaping the landscape through the creation of burial mounds of different size and shape as it was about depositing valuable or personal grave goods to accompany the dead. Maintaining the topographic layout and allowing people to walk through the site gives visitors some understanding of how the physical characteristics of the cemetery helped their ancestors remember their dead.

Though we eventually journeyed on along the Trail of Princes to a sacred pond, around the Iron Age hillfort, and on to a Roman burial ground, it was the extraordinarily haunting landscape of the cemetery that was the highlight of my trip. As we headed back to the Eco-centre visitors’ building, the only person we encountered in this lush, unspoilt countryside was a local farmer: an elderly man on his way home from the fields, his farm tools balanced on one shoulder. Once again, I was reminded that our lives today are often not so very different from those who once walked the same path, but who now lie beneath the ‘lumps and bumps’ I had just visited.

A local farmer on his way home from the fields is the only traffic we meet all day.

A local farmer on his way home from the fields is the only traffic we meet all day.

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