Archaeology

Luxury Roman Villa and Mosaic Found on Croatian Island of Hvar

Archaeology on the Croatian island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea is proceeding at a pace likely not exceeded anywhere else in the world.

Just within the past two weeks, researchers affiliated with a number of Croatian scientific and cultural organizations have announced the discovery of separate and significant ancient ruins on opposite sides of the island. All of these ruins were left behind by the Romans, who occupied the historic island of Hvar for several centuries, running from the days of the Roman Republic in the third century BC up through the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD.

The Stari Grad street on the Croatian island of Hvar, where the Roman mosaic was found. (Vilma Matulić / Arkeonews)

The Stari Grad street on the Croatian island of Hvar, where the Roman mosaic was found. ( Vilma Matulić / Arkeonews)

Found! A Magnificent Roman Mosaic in Stari Grad

Excavating beneath a narrow paved street in the town of Stari Grad on the southern coast of Hvar, researchers recently uncovered the extensive remains of a Roman mosaic floor . The colorful and geometrically designed floor was constructed in the second century AD, and was included as part of a luxurious Roman villa built inside the confines of the ancient village.

Modern Stari Grad is a small town, home to less than 3,000 people, on an island that lies close to the Adriatic shore of the Croatian mainland. It was constructed on the edge of the Stari Grad Plain, which is the site of the island’s most productive stretch of arable land.

Despite its modest size, the village actually has quite a history. It stands on the site of the ancient settlement of Pharos, which was founded in 384 BC by Greek settlers who also referred to the island as a whole as Pharos. Known as Faria during Roman times, Stari Grad is one of the oldest towns found anywhere in Europe, having now been in existence in one form or another for more than 2,400 years.

Its impressive age has made Stari Grad a popular destination for Croatian archaeologists. The team that discovered the mosaic is headed by Croatian Institute of Archaeology research associate Marina Ugarković and includes others from the Institute plus professionals from the Stari Grad Museum and the Croatian Conservation Department of the Ministry of Culture. The recent excavations are a part of the greater “AdriaCos” archaeological research project, which began work at the site in October of 2021.

A panorama of the Croatian island of Hvar in 1571 by Giovanni Francesco Camotio (Giovanni Francesco Camotio / Public domain)

A panorama of the Croatian island of Hvar in 1571 by Giovanni Francesco Camotio (Giovanni Francesco Camotio / Public domain )

In addition to the mosaic, the scientists are currently excavating 14 other nearby sites, searching for even more remains from the urban-style Roman villa. They hope to find evidence that will reveal what the villa was used for, and about who built and occupied it.

“The research is taking place at sites that hide significant archaeological remains of the Greek Pharos and the Roman Faria, to get better insight into the degree of their preservation and distribution and new contextual data on the rich past of Stari Grad,” project leader Marina Ugarković told the Croatian news service Slobodna Dalmacija .

Interestingly, the site where the mosaic was unearthed was initially explored back in 1923. Ruins from the villa were uncovered during the construction of a canal used for rainfall drainage, but it was feared the villa might be damaged by the runoff if it was left unprotected. So, the ancient Roman living quarters were covered over with slabs and reburied to prevent any further water intrusion.

But in 2021, officials in Stari Grad approved the relaunch of excavations, in anticipation of a new water and sewer installation project that will run through the location of the hidden villa. The experts continued these exploratory investigations into this year and were delighted to find the well-preserved mosaic floor earlier this month.

The current plan is to remove the mosaic in its entirely for transportation to the Stari Grad Museum, where it can be put on display for all island residents and tourists to see.

Professor Katunarić Kirjakov's on Hvar island standing before walls built by the Romans, just inland from the underwater Roman villa her team found on the bottom of Carkvica Bay. (Mirko Crnčević / Total Croatia News)

Professor Katunarić Kirjakov’s on Hvar island standing before walls built by the Romans, just inland from the underwater Roman villa her team found on the bottom of Carkvica Bay . (Mirko Crnčević / Total Croatia News )

Also Found! A Villa and its Ruins in Carkvica Bay

Archaeologists were excited by the discovery of the Roman mosaic earlier this month. But that excitement turned to sheer delight just a few days later, when a separate team of archaeologists announced they’d discovered the ruins of another Roman villa on the bottom of Carkvica Bay near the Hvar island village of Jelsa.

“Since we heard about this locality from local fishers and divers, we decided to check what it is really about, map and valorize it in the right way, and determine its age and cultural value,” said underwater excavation leader Katunarić Kirjakov, who spoke to an interviewer from Slobodna Dalmacija.

What they found during their dives in Carkvica Bay exceeded expectations.

“We see a large-scale luxury Roman farm building whose walls are exceptionally well preserved, and by their construction, we can conclude that they are from an earlier time, meaning from the beginning of the Imperial period [which began in 27 BC],” Kirjakov explained. “We also have pottery fragments possibly dating back to the Roman Republic era, when sea levels were lower than they are now.”

Kirjakov confirmed that her team found “structures of walls, floors made of mosaics, terraces, plateaus, and small breakwaters that served in everyday life” during their dives, which were sponsored by the Croatian Ministry of Culture, the Jelsa Tourist Board, and the Agency for the Protection of the Stari Grad Field.

On the opposite side of Carkvica Bay, previous underwater excursions have found the remains of ancient tombs and sunken ships from the Early Roman period. The current estimate is that the area was occupied by the Romans from the first century BC up to the fourth or fifth century AD.

It is notable that Jelsa is located on the northern coast of the island, while Stari Grad, where the mosaic from the urban villa was found, is a southern port town. This geographical expansiveness shows just how extensive Roman settlement was on ancient Pharos, and how productive and profitable that occupation must have been, given how long it lasted.

Fresh water springs are still visible in the sea off the village of Jelsa, Hvar, which is near to where the underwater Roman villa was discovered. (Vedran Katavic / Total Croatia News)

Fresh water springs are still visible in the sea off the village of Jelsa, Hvar, which is near to where the underwater Roman villa was discovered. (Vedran Katavic / Total Croatia News )

The Rich History of Hvar, Croatia Revealed

In the mid-third century BC, the conquering forces of Agron, the formidable leader of the rising Ardiaean Kingdom of southeastern Europe, invaded the island of Pharos and expelled the Greeks forever.

The reign of these Illyrian people was rather brief, however, because the land and resources of modern-day Croatia and surrounding states were highly coveted by the leaders of the Roman Republic. The Romans declared war on the Ardiaean Kingdom for the first time in 229 BC, and after defeating their opponents in the Second Illyrian War of 220-219 BC they took possession of Pharos for the first time.

Pharos (it was first called Hvar by Slavic settlers in the seventh century AD) was eventually included in the larger Roman province of Dalmatia, which was created in 10th century AD after the Roman Empire split the lands of their larger Croatian possession into two separate provinces (Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south along the Adriatic Sea coast). The Roman Empire maintained control over the island in one form or another until the year 480 AD, which gave them plenty of time to Romanize every square inch of this 114 square mile (298 square kilometer) outpost.

In the final days the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Julius Nepos , actually fled to Dalmatia from Italy to try to preserve his hold over a crumbling empire from abroad. But this proved to be a fateful mistake, as Nepos was defeated by Germanic Ostrogoth invaders in 480, thus ending Roman control over the territory of Croatia and bringing the Western Roman Empire to an official end.

After approximately 50 years of rule by the Ostrogoths, Pharos would be retaken by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I , which helped restore the island’s lost connection to the culture and lifestyle of the ancient Roman world (with the Byzantine Empire having once been known as the Eastern Roman Empire).

As excavations continue in the years ahead, both underwater and above ground, it is likely that many fresher Roman ruins will be found. The island of Hvar and the Stari Grad Field, where the island’s most fertile agricultural fields lay, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008, and archaeologists have continued to uncover treasures that verify the wisdom of this placement. 

Top image: The amazing Roman mosaic unearthed beneath the streets of Stari Grad on the Croatian island of Hvar. Source: Slobadna Dalmacıja / Arkeonews

By Nathan Falde


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