Stećci Medieval Tombstone Graveyards – the Church of St. Barbara

As the UNESCO comments:

This serial property combines 28 sites, located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, western Serbia, western Montenegro and central and southern Croatia, representing these cemeteries and regionally distinctive medieval tombstones, or stećci. The cemeteries, which date from the 12th to 16th centuries CE, are laid out in rows, as was the common custom in Europe from the Middle Ages. The stećci are mostly carved from limestone. They feature a wide range of decorative motifs and inscriptions that represent iconographic continuities within medieval Europe as well as locally distinctive traditions.

In order to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten Criteria for Selection. Stećci Medieval Tombstone Graveyards meet

Criterion (iii): to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared, because an extremely large number of preserved stećci (estimated to be more than 70,000) and variety of their forms (slabs, chests, gabled roof tombstones, pillars and monumental crosses) are well represented in this part of Southeast Europe, conveying an exceptional testimony to late medieval European artistic, historical, spiritual and archaeological heritage, with traces of earlier influences (prehistoric, Roman and early medieval). Their reliefs, including decorative, symbolic, and religious motifs as well as scenes from everyday life, are an extraordinary testimony to medieval culture. Inscriptions in the selected graveyards offer an exceptional historical resource, and are associated with the cultures and histories of the medieval states in this region.

and Criterion (vi): to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance, because the stećci have been deeply embedded in historical and continual cultural traditions, and beliefs and toponyms demonstrate their historical meanings and significance. They are associated with local folk and fairy tales, superstitions and customs, and their epigraphy and reliefs have significantly influenced the contemporary literature and other forms of art in not only all four countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia, Montenegro and the Republic of Serbia), but also wider in the region.

Though more than 70,000 stećci have been preserved on approximately 3,300 locations, 28 component sites including 4,000 medieval tombstones have been selected to represent the widespread phenomena, importance and diversity of the stećci in Southeast Europe. Considering the burial grounds and stones are located far from major cities and thus not much affected by urban development, their state of conservation is generally stable. Nevertheless, maintenance and active management can be carried out to prevent natural processes of deterioration.

1. What are stećci? Why are they important?

Originating from the Late Middle Ages, stećci are tombstones silently witnessing the burial customs of inhabitants of the Western Balkans, and a poet once called them “petrified screams“. Used for burial by all three medieval Christian communities, including the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Church of Bosnia (which lasted for about three centuries until the second half of the 15th century), they are found on the territory of present day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Western Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Central and Southern Croatia. It is estimated that around 70,000 have been preserved on approximately 3,300 locations, but the number can be larger as the data mentioned above were compiled on the basis of the latest recordings of tombstones which were published in the 1980s. They originated from the end of the 12th century, but are most characteristic of the 14th and 15th centuries, a period referred to as the period of “classical art of stećci“. Their sepulchral use ended by the late-15th and early-16th centuries due to the Ottoman conquest but certain forms and motifs continued to be used. There are several types of stećci and they are mostly in the shape of a slab, chest, and rectangular “house” with a gabled roof. Sometimes they can also be cruciform or anthropomorphic (having human characteristics). The stonemasons who created these stećci referred to themselves as smiths and a dozen names have been preserved in the inscriptions. By analyzing the decorative patterns found in a particular area, various craftsman groups and workshops have also been identified.

The locations of stećci cemeteries and arrangement of the tombstones have also been analyzed and certain pattern can be found. They are commonly located in the vicinity of roads, churches, wells and ponds, on isolated mountain ranges and on sites with traces of early human presence (today’s archaeological sites). Formation of graves and cemeteries along roads is a custom which can be traced back to prehistory, antiquity and the medieval period. The roads can be viewed as a symbolic path to the other world and the graves a way of paying respect to the deceased, who were, in ancient times, regarded as guardians on the paths leading to the settlements. Since the roads were until recently primarily natural paths, the cemeteries and graves usually took the form of cairns (human-made pile of stones), Roman necropolises as well as stećci cemeteries. Water (pond, spring and well) is also an important factor for the selection of stećci cemetery sites, which is due to both spiritual and secular reasons. After all, such places used to be frequently visited in everyday life. As for the burial on various types of old archeological sites such as burying medieval graves into prehistoric mounds, we can interpret it as a desire to emphasize the link with the past and respect to tradition and previous life. Such practice is not typical only of the stećci culture. Stećci cemeteries on isolated mountain ranges are mostly linked to the way of life of particular communities in the Late Middle Ages, for example, the Vlachs, whose economy was based on animal husbandry.

Talking about the artistic and cultural heritage stećci possess, the greatest attention has been paid to deciphering their decorations, that is to say, the interpretation of the symbols, the use of which is characteristic of medieval art. Various secular and religious representations as well as geometrical and vegetative ornaments functioning as bordures can be seen on the stones, and in some segments, Early Slavic, ancient and prehistoric traditions can be traced. A great influence of coastal towns can also be spotted, meaning the reflection of urban art on rural areas in the hinterlands. The emergence of various inscriptions further contributes to the universal value of stećci, turning them into remarkable monuments of medieval literature, which provide historical resources to the study of various cultural and social traditions.

Most disagreements regarding stećci were caused by the question of who are buried under them. Various attempts have been made to determine the religious or ethnic affiliation of the people underneath and the most popular theory, which has unfortunately been prove erroneous, believes that they are solely related to Bogomil heretics of the medieval Bosnian Church. According to another influential theory, which has been proven correct, stećci are of Vlach origin, but only as far as certain areas are concerned. Therefore, in conclusion, similar to Romanesque and Gothic art, stećci can’t be linked exclusively with certain religion or ethnic group. Instead, they must be viewed under the unique cultural context of each area.

In conclusion, the vast number of preserved monuments, the diversity and richness of their forms, decorations (ornamental beauty) and epigraphs (symbols of life and death), and the rich intangible cultural heritage (history of our ancestors) that they carry distinguish stećci from the overall corpus of Europe’s medieval heritage and sepulchral art.

2. The Church of St. Barbara, Dubravka

On the territory of Dubrovnik-Neretva County, there are 115 locations with a total of 1428 stećci tombstones. They are concentrated in the Croatian part of the Lower Neretva Basin (48 locations), Dubrovnik littoral area (29 locations), Župa dubrovačka – a valley, a group of towns and a municipality (4 locations) and Konavle (24 locations) and around the city of Dubrovnik (10 locations). It is necessary to emphasize that these stones are never found in cemeteries in urban centers such as Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, etc., but always in rural areas, which to a large extent contributed to their successful preservation. Around the Church of St. Barbara in Dubravka, one of the two sites in Croatia inscribed by the UNESCO can be found and in this chapter, I’ll introduce it to you in detail.

First of all, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Lucija from the tourism office of Cavtat and her colleague from the tourism office of Konavle for driving me to the church, showing me around, and introducing to me the historical and cultural significance of the site and surroundings. Unfortunately, the cemetery can not be reached easily because there’s no public transport going there and it’s located in the mountains quite far from major cities. The only way to visit it is by car, which take around 40 mins from Cavtat. On the way, Lucijia introduced to me the Konavle region at the borders of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro including its large plain, mountain ranges, historical monuments such as the Sokol Castle, archaeological sites, agriculture, and unique towns with centuries-old traditions. The center of this region is Cavtat but I’ll introduce it in detail in my series of posts about Dubrovnik because the Dubrovnik Card provides free transfer between the two cities as well as free and discounted admissions to Cavtat’s major attractions. The protagonist of this post is the cemetery around the Church of St. Barbara with its stećci, but at the end, I’ll also mention some other graveyards with stećci which are not inscribed by the UNESCO but equally important and impressive, the Sokol Castle and some small towns with rich cultural heritage in the region.

For information about this particular site, you can obtain a brochure from the tourism office of Cavtat, read the info board located at the entrance to the cemetery or click here to visit the official website dedicated to the property. These resources form the basis of my introduction below.

The necropolis is located near the village of Dubravka in Konavle in the vicinity of the borders of Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from the graveyard with stećci, this site includes the Church of St. Barbara, which was built in 1889 at the site of an older church. It is enclosed by a dry-stone wall with a prehistoric cairn (tumulus) next to it, which can partially be seen after you cross the yard and climb up to an abandoned military facility. There are two entrances to the graveyard, both of which are formed by the medieval tombstones. It is possible they were put there after Konavle came under the rule of the Republic of Dubrovnik, when this cemetery along with others in this region was renovated.

Developing almost continually since prehistoric time, this area is an archaeological site with several development stages. During the prehistoric time (Bronze Age), several tumuli (mounds) were created, one of which is preserved within this site. A road, which was in use from prehistoric times to the late Middle Ages, used to pass right next to the graveyard. As the east road of two major roads linking the coast and Konavle with the hinterland and Herzegovina, it played a major role in the site’s emergence and development. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the largest Konavle cemetery with stećci was built along the road. The graves were primarily arranged in northeast-southwest and east-west directions on the slopes of the hill. In the period between 1419 and 1426, the Dubrovnik Republic bought Konavle, piece by piece, from the Sandalj Hranić family and the Pavlovićes and the area became an integral part to the Republic. The original Church of St. Barbara had probably been built in the Middle Ages whereas the existing church dates from 1899, which still makes it one of the oldest churches in the region. Burials on the site continued in later periods, especially from the end of the 19th to the second half of the 20th century. However, they did not have a significant impact on the older (mediaeval) part of the cemetery and to some extent there were even adjustments in terms of choice of materials and decorations on the tombstones. Besides stećci, some burial vaults are found covered with other tombstones, which indicates that some stećci might have been removed and replaced.

The last research on site established a total of 104 stećci, 94 of which are intact while the other 10 are in fragments. According to the established typology, 69 of them are slabs and the other 35 are chests. A total of 13 whole slabs, 2 slab fragments and 16 chests are decorated. As for bordures, decorations include motifs of stylized vine, cross rosette, spiral track and plaited cord, while as central motifs, we find a wreath in a hollow, a wreath in relief, rosettes, crosses, round recesses connected by grooves, a bow and arrow connected to a stretched arm, a bow and arrow connected to a hand, a bow and arrow alone, a shield and sword, etc. However, no inscriptions have been recorded. Pay attention to the stone fragment on the ground in front of the north-east entrance, on which an animal seems to have been carved, and to the stone that you can see in the second picture above, on which a large hand imprint has been left. My guide told me that the hand is associated with local legends and is often used by parents to scare and discipline their children. I made a comparison between the “giant’s hand” and my own hand and the conclusion is it’s indeed much larger than a normal human’s hand. A puzzle which has been drawing archaeologists’ attention and raising their curiosity is the identity of the deceased buried under the stones. In the mid-20th century, minor archaeological research was carried out at the site, when three graves beneath the tombstones north of the church were explored. Except for skeletons, nothing was found, but researchers did notice that some graves had been used repeatedly over a long period of time.

By exiting the graveyard from the south-west entrance, you should see an uphill path leading to the abandoned and partially collapsed military facility at the southern edge of the buffer zone of the World Heritage site. Considering the strategic importance of the road which used to pass right next to the cemetery, it is assumed that there probably had been an even earlier military facility before the 19th-century one that we see nowadays was constructed. Chosen for monitoring purpose, the hill top provides an amazing view of the Konavle region including the plain, the small towns scattered on the large slopes, the winding passes and the mountains ranges. As you can see in the 3rd picture above, from here several cairns (human-made pile of stones) can be spotted, which are graves of our ancestors and date back to the prehistoric era. As I mentioned above, they are usually found next to ancient roads, which can be viewed as a symbolic path to the other world and the deceased buried underneath were regarded by the pedestrians as guardians of the paths leading to their settlements. My guide told me that when one traveller passed by, he/she would put a stone on the pile to show respect, which is why the cairns are so huge nowadays. Also in the 3rd picture above, you can with some effort see a fortress on the right. Built on the site of an earlier Illyrian and Roman fortification, which can be proven by the Roman remains including the bricks in its walls, Fortress Sokol was the main military base of Konavle and an exceptionally important fort during the period of Dubrovnik Republic. It got its final appearance in the 15th century, which was adjusted to the shape of the more-than-25-meter-high cliff it was built on. After a long restoration, which took more than 50 years, it is now open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Besides the cemetery around the Church of St. Barbara in Dubravka, there are some other burial places with stećci in Konavle. For example, a necropolis next to the Church of St. Petar in Karasovići is found with about 90 slabs and chests, few of which are decorated; around the Church of St. Luka in Brotnice, in the fence wall and at the entrance to the cemetery, 22 chests, 9 slabs and one gabled tombstone are found. The gabled tombstone with rich decorations (hunt, kolo dance, fantastic animals, a female figure, a cross, deer, beautiful bordures) and an inscription in Bosnia Cyrillic dates back to the end of the 14th century or the beginning of the 15th and is regarded as the most beautiful in the Dubrovnik-Neretva County; around the Early-Romanesque Church of St. Dmitar in Gabrile, there are 16 slabs, 7 chests and a large headstone with interesting representations; at the archaeological site in Petrača, 10 slabs, 1 chest and 2 headstones can be spotted. All of them are decorated and have been used as construction material for the Church of St. Durde, as base of the communion table and as slab marker for new graves.

3. Other destinations in Konavle

If you like hiking or cycling, you can get a leaflet called “Konavle Pathways” from the tourism office in Cavtat in which you can see various hiking and cycling trails. Based on my guide’s recommendation and the information I gathered from a book called “Konavle”, below I will introduce briefly some highlights in this region, which hopefully can help you plan your trip here.

  • Cavtat – the heart of Konavle famous for its centuries-old history and traditions. The old town with its harmonious architecture, the promenade and the beach will surely make you linger. Three sites are particularly popular among tourists. The mausoleum of the famous Cavtat ship­building family, Račić, was built in 1921 on site of the 15th-century Chapel of St. Rocco. Except for the door, bell and angel, which are made of bronze, the whole construction is built of white stone from Brač. On the bell created according to Ivan Meštrović’s design, an engraving of his most wonderful thought can be found: “Discover the secret of love and you will solve the secret of death and believe that life is eternal.” The birth-house of Vlaho Bukovac, the foremost Croatian painter at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, is a typical Dalmatian 19th-century bourgeois house and exhibits many of the artist’s works. Particularly interesting are the newly discovered frescoes covering the old walls in the eastern part of the house, which were painted by the young Bukovac before leaving for Paris. The third site is the Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows, which was built in the 15th century and remodeled from the 18th to 20th century.
  • Čilipi – the best place to meet the traditions of Konavle. The stairs, which slightly descend from the Church of St. Nicholas to the main square, became an ideal stage for numerous visitors of folklore events that have been organized in Čilipi each Sunday from Easter to the end of October for over three decades. If you are interested in folklore, don’t miss the nearby Ethnographic Museum of Konavle, which exhibits about 500 items including male and female traditional costumes of the highest quality, embroidery and other textile handcrafts, jewelries, musical instruments and items of daily use. Particularly noteworthy is that the Konavle embroidery is protected as intangible cultural heritage of the Republic of Croatia.
  • Fortress Sokol – the main military base of Konavle and an exceptionally important fort during the period of Dubrovnik Republic. Built on the site of an earlier Illyrian and Roman fortification, the fortress got its final layout in the 15th century, which was adjusted to the shape of the more-than-25-meter-high cliff it was built on. After a long restoration, which took more than 50 years, it is now open to the public.

In this post, the protagonist is the medieval tombstones called stećci, which are of significant cultural, historical, spiritual, archaeological and artistic values. In total, more than 70,000 pieces have been found and 4,000 of them in 28 locations have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list to represent their widespread phenomena, importance and diversity in Southeast Europe. At the beginning I gave a rather detailed introduction to stećci as a whole and then I focused on one of the 28 sites, thats is to say the graveyard around the Church of St. Barbara in Dubravka, Konavle, Croatia, which I visited thanks to the company of Lucija from the tourism office of Cavtat and her colleague from the tourism office of Konavle. On the way, I was really impressed by the region and following the advice of my guides and information on the brochures I obtained, I listed some highlights that you might be interested in. Whether for World Heritage, folk tradition, natural landscape, or adventure, I recommend Konavle to you.

Stećci Medieval Tombstone Graveyards – the Church of St. Barbara was last modified: May 6th, 2020 by Dong

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