Golubac castle on the Danuble
Golubac castle watches over the entrance to the famed ‘Iron Gates’ of the Danube: it has been occupied by Hungarians, Serbs, and Ottomans over its long history. Since the building of a dam in the 1980s, the narrow entrance to the gorge, guarded by this castle and another on the far – Romanian – bank, has no longer seen the stormy waters that were once the terror of river craft.

Oliver Gilkes tours the Danube, in the first of a two-part exploration of Serbia’s archaeology.

The mighty Danube runs for almost 2,000km from southern Germany to the Black Sea. It forms the backbone of central-southern Europe and was for millennia not only a trade and communications artery, but also a frontier and barrier. Last year, I had the chance to travel along the middle Danube in Serbia, and experience the river in all its glory, while sampling archaeological riches ranging from the Neolithic to the 18th century AD.

Serbia may have had some bad press in the last 30 years, entangled as it was in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. Certainly, flying into Belgrade these days is to glimpse the former Socialist Federal Republic’s brave new world gone slightly sour, with a rather subdued air hanging over ranks of grey buildings, which, considering the problems of the late 1990s, is unsurprising. But this first impression proves deceptive, as it misses the life and story of a proud country and a wonderfully engaging people whose past is central to and entwined with the creation of Europe.

A river runs through it

I began in the west, with visits to two imperial cities. Novi Sad and its looming Petrovaradin Fortress are ‘the Gibraltar of the Danube’. This is Serbia’s cultural capital, and it is very much an old Austro- Hungarian city, with its frothy architecture, fresh fish from the Danube, pastries… and an excellent archaeological museum. But it grew up in the shadow of seemingly ceaseless wars between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Turks. The response was to forge a multi-ethnic military frontier along the Danube and establish the huge fortress on its southern bank.

Square in Novi Sad, with church
Novi Sad is very much a central-European, indeed Austro-Hungarian, city. It is the cultural capital of modern Serbia.

Petrovaradin was the scene of a great victory over a Turkish army by Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1716. The fortress was never used in anger again, but successive governors carried on enlarging it, adding hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels, fire traps, minefields, and fallback positions. Fortunately, excellent guides are on hand to make sense of this staggering fortification.

The Austrians were not the first to mould the Danube into a barrier, because the river was also a Roman frontier. Rome conquered the Danubian provinces as part of its wars against the Illyrians in the 1st century BC. Augustus and then Tiberius and Drusus fought a series of desperate, but poorly understood, wars against a Celtic, Illyrian, and Pannonian alliance, as well as two kings confusingly both named Battus!

An hour to the south of Novi Sad – beyond the Fruška Gora hills, where the Batti made their stand in thick forest – lie the remains of Sirmium, below the modern town of Sremska Mitrovica. The Danubian provinces south of the river produced a great clutch of Rome’s later rulers, with Sirmium staking the impressive claim of being the hometown of more emperors than any other place in the empire. Ten men probably or certainly from Sirmium reached the top, including the major figures Trajan Decius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian (who was feted as the ‘restorer of the world’), Probus, Maximian, and Gratian; virtually all of the others at least visited. Excavations in this crucial metropolis have revealed large chunks of imperial palaces, which were – with the changing of the guard – regularly rebuilt, along with parts of the civil settlement. The Hippodrome racing circus lives on as a long hollow that the town’s modern traffic is obliged to negotiate.

Afterwards, it was time to head eastwards through the rich countryside of the Danube valley, for a rendezvous with something completely different. While the Roman archaeology is wonderful, the most important finds along the Danube come from a much earlier time. Right on the river lies Vinca, which was home to one of the most significant middle Bronze Age societies of prehistoric Europe. No less a luminary than Gordon Childe found inspiration in this place and its characteristic culture, especially the extraordinary ‘alien’ figurines that they crafted. These iconic objects are found spread along the river and even far to the south in the central Balkans.

Remains of one of the houses at Lapiski Vir, with a trapezoidal plan
Detail of one of the houses from Lepinski Vir. Its odd shape can be seen, while a fire-pit is in the centre surrounded by rocks and statuettes. The successive levels of this probably seasonal site are very clear behind the house.

Today, Vinca survives as an artificial mound or tell, one of only two dating to this period in Europe. Excavations have revealed superimposed archaeological layers over 12m deep. During the later phases of the site, from about 5700 BC to 4200 BC, it was home to an organised and well-constructed community of up to 3,000 people, who lived in substantial buildings, and used the river as a highway, while developing one of the earliest organised faming regimes in Europe. Today, Vinca is surprisingly tricky to find for such an important place, but a visit is deeply atmospheric, with the wide placid river flowing slowly past.

The inhabitants of Vinca were not the first to use the Danube for trade. To the east, and well into the Danube gorge – of which more shortly – is the even earlier site of Lepenski Vir. Here, a Mesolithic and Neolithic community grew up at the water’s edge, hidden in the bottom of the gorge. Found in the 1980s, when the river waters were raised by the Kladovo dam – a pet ‘brotherhood’ project between Marshal Tito and Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania – the site was bodily lifted up the riverbank and is now finely displayed in a brand-new glass museum.

Carved stone sculpture of the fish god Dagon
Lepenski Vir has also produced extraordinary sculptures, such as this fish god ‘Dagon’. Up to 80cm in height, these are the first monumental sculptures in the round known in Europe.

Lepenski Vir was occupied between 9500 BC and 6000 BC, probably on a seasonal basis, by a people who hunted the huge beluga fish (sadly no more since the dam) and, it is clear, also established themselves at other points along the river. In the very last phase of activity, during the 7th millennium, they took to building trapezoidal houses, of stone, wattle, and thatch, which were apparently arranged in a hierarchy around a larger building, although whether this was a shrine or seat of power remains unclear. These houses each had a hearth, and were enhanced by carefully placed stones, as well as the eerie sculptures of this era. Indeed, the wonderful humaniform and fish ‘gods’ they carved are Europe’s first monumental sculpture. Debate still rages about what they – and the occasional burials found within the houses – might mean. The river and the fish passing on their way to spawn and die may well have influenced the life- and belief-cycle of the inhabitants. These are some of the most extraordinary things to be seen in Serbia and worth the journey on their own.

Garrison towns

But I am getting ahead of myself, as the Danube also boasts a series of major Roman cities, which were also legionary fortresses. In Belgrade (Singidunum), fragments of the fortress of the IV Flavia Felix legion, as well as the associated town and capital of Upper Moesia, can still be glimpsed below the impressive Turkish, Austrian, and Serbian fortress of Kalemegdan.

The amphitheatre at Viminacium, partially reconstructed in wood
The amphitheatre at Viminacium. Located just outside the walls of the legionary castrum, it has been partly reconstructed as the wooden structure it originally was.

Eastwards lies Viminacium, which is dominated by a vast thermal power station and well known as the findspot of a series of impressive mammoth skeletons. These include Vika, the million-year-old mammoth, one of the oldest known. Almost incidental is the very impressive sweep of the Roman city and legionary fortress, which once housed the VII Claudia and was perhaps also used as a muster point for campaigns along the Danube. A series of excavations have exposed the baths, walls, an impressive tomb (perhaps of the emperor Hostilian, who died of the plague while campaigning here in the 3rd century AD), and an amphitheatre, which has been nicely reconstructed. The fields are littered with tiles, ceramics, and building stone, leaving no doubt about the extent of what remains to be investigated.

To the east, lies the mouth of the Danube gorge. A mighty medieval fortress at Golubac acts as the guardian of the Iron Gates and, to reach it, I faced a memorable drive along narrow roads clinging to the steep riverbank or sliced into the living rock. Building the dam has tamed the river, quietening the clashing waters that once terrified mariners at the threshold of the Iron Gates. This formidable terrain made large forts unnecessary and there are only a few Roman watchtowers – one above Lepinski Vir – until the land widens out again near Kladovo.

Traversing this gorge was just as necessary in the ancient world, and it was here that Trajan had his troops cut an extraordinary roadway into the rockface, although thanks to the dam it is now mostly underwater. Beyond these narrows, forts make their presence felt again, with one example being the Fort of Diana at Kladovo. This housed an auxiliary cohort tasked with guarding the river, a posting that would have been no sinecure, given that the kingdom of the powerful and warlike Dacians lay on the far side.

In the last decade, a Romanian businessman has celebrated his Dacian ancestors and their ruler Decebalus by commissioning a carving on the rocky crags at the gorge’s most dramatic point. The result is a likeness of the Dacian king, frowning southwards over the river. Certainly, it was the clashing ambitions of Decebalus and the emperor Domitian that later prompted Trajan to undertake his great war of conquest north of the Danube. After a series of defeats, the Romans decided enough was enough, and launched a counter-attack on a sufficient scale to conquer Dacia.

Sculpture of Decebalus carved into rocks by the river
The sculpture of Decebalus, the Dacian king, carved into the rocks on the Romanian side of the river after a design by Mario Galeotti. It is opposite the famous Tabula Trainana, recording Trajan’s building of a road cut into the gorge side, and the Romanian businessman who paid for it asked for his own inscription Decebales Rex – Dragan Fecit (‘King Decebalus – made by Dragan’).

I came face to face with these imperial ambitions at the very last destination on the first leg of my journey, just to the east of Kladovo and its dam. Here, a wide calm stretch of the river was sufficiently placid to be bridgeable, and in AD 105 Trajan ordered his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, to construct an enormous bridge across the river, linking the new provinces to Rome. With a span of 1,140m, it was the longest bridge built for centuries, and comprised a wooden carriageway carried on 20 massive masonry piers, which were set into the riverbed using wooden caissons. Forts guarded both ends, while the wooden planking could be removed in an emergency. It was probably decorated with statues of Trajan and his family, as a fine bust of the emperor’s father was found nearby and can now be seen in the National Museum in Belgrade.

A number of bridge piers still stand, leading out over the river towards barbaricum. Trajan’s invasion route can also be traced today, winding up into the forested hills around Sarmezigethusa Regia. I, however, turned southwards, where the second leg of my journey (see next issue of CWA) would take me into the heart of the Balkans, for an encounter with the architectural ego-trips of Serbia’s clutch of mighty emperors.

This article appeared in issue 102 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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