Ten Not-to-be-missed Croatian archaeological destinationsA practical guide by Jonathan Bousfield
Visitors to Croatia are keenly aware that it is a country of great heritage, with significant lumps of past civilizations lying around in its major cities. Pula’s amphitheatre, Split’s Roman palace, Trogir’s cathedral and Dubrovnik’s walls are just four of the most obvious examples. What is perhaps less well known is the sheer multitude of archeological sites in the country, and the significant number of past cultures that have been discovered thanks to digs on Croatian soil. Sites such as Vela Spila in Korčula or Vučedol near Vukovar have greatly added to our knowledge of European prehistory; Vinkovci is considered to be one of the oldest continually-settled towns on the continent.
What follows is a list of archeological destinations that are both significant places of discovery and also rewarding places to visit. No list is ever complete – very often one historical site will lead you on to the discovery of an equally interesting one somewhere else – but hopefully it will provide a spur to further exploration.
Zagreb & Inland Croatia
The Zagorje market town of Krapina north of Zagreb has been closely associated with Neanderthals ever since Dragutin Gorjanović Krambeger first trowelled up their bones in 1899. These original finds are so unique that they are permanently locked up in a secure vault in Zagreb, but this doesn’t mean that you should Krapina Neanderthal Museum a miss. On the contrary, it’s arguably the finest scientific-historic day out that Croatia has to offer; a state-of-the-art museum that deploys film shows, multimedia displays and supremely lifelike Neanderthal waxworks to tell the story – not just of the Neanderthals themselves – but of human evolution in general.
Although Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago, recent research has revealed that they lived alongside Homo sapiens for a long time and interbred with them too; which means that all of us probably still carry the odd thread of Neanderthal DNA.
One of the most iconic objects in the Croatian cultural canon is the so-called Vučedol Dove, a 3000-year-old, three-legged ceramic vessel currently displayed at Zagreb’s Archeological Museum. The Dove was unearthed at the riverside locality of Vučedol, just downstream from Vukovar, a major centre of Eneolithic archeological discovery that has given its name to the Vučedol Culture – a copper-smelting civilization that stretched from the Adriatic to the Pannonian Plain. This summer will finally see the long-awaited opening of the Museum of Vučedol Culture (www.turizamvukovar.hr), which will attempt to bring these European ancestors to life with recreations of their dwellings, audiovisual displays and a wealth of artefacts.
So near to Zagreb and yet so frequently overlooked, the Andautonija Archeological Park (www.andautonia.com) displays the excavated remains of a Roman-era town in the middle of the village of Ščitarjevo, 20km southeast of the capital. Although lacking in the drama of amphitheatres or well-preserved temples, everything else you would expect from a Roman town is here, including remnants of shopping streets, bathhouse complexes and scraps of mosaic.
The Archeological Museum in Zagreb organizes a string of summer events at the park which are aimed at families and children, with displays of ancient crafts, a change to sample Roman-era recipes, and a lot of dressing up in togas.