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Bos/Hrv/Srp 25 Jul 12

Treasures Stay Buried in Serbia’s Riverbeds

The legacy of centuries lies unexplored and neglected at the bottom of rivers all over Serbia – and is all too often a target for thieves.

Dimitrije Bukvic
BIRN Belgrade

An archive photo of paddle steam tug „Slovenac”, built in 1913, sank in 1944 near Sremska Mitrovica, Vojvodina | Photo Courtesy of Yugoslav River Shipping

For a country that doesn't have a coast, Serbia has a lot of valuable objects lying underneath the surface of its waters.

Shipwrecks, ruins of ancient buildings, coins and medieval weapons are just some of the items of cultural heritage hidden in Serbian riverbeds.

Most of these artefacts, dating from Roman times to World War II, and scattered all over Danube, Sava, Morava and other rivers, are known to archaeologists only through history books.

After Serbia missed its chance to obtain UNESCO funds to explore its riverbeds, no serious underwater archaeological investigations are taking place.

Because of this, most of the potentially valuable artefacts that sank to the bottom along the 2,000 kilometres of Serbia’s river routes lie undetected.

The only way for these objects to emerge is by chance, mostly during construction work on riverbanks, or by workers at building sites located close to rivers.

These so-called finders often keep their discoveries to themselves, instead of handing them over to the authorities, which is their obligation by law.

Recently, various groups of treasure hunters have been spotted following the trails of construction works, searching the riverbeds for artefacts, usually to sell them illegally.

Gordana Karovic, Serbia’s only expert in underwater archaeology says a national register of underwater archaeological sites would improve this situation.

The authorities could then insist on archaeologists being present during riverside construction works, and they could oblige investors to finance archaeological research.

But for now, “Those who find items in riverbeds usually know very well what they’ve discovered, so they keep them,” Karovic explained.

Legacies of armies and migrations:

Numerous armies and migrating peoples have crossed Serbia throughout the ages, often following the courses of the Danube and the Sava, and leaving behind swords, pottery, money, ships and much more.

At the bottom of Danube, near Prahovo, close to the border between Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, there are still 150 German naval boats sunk in 1944 for example.

In autumn 1944, according to witnesses, two German ships sank near the confluence of Sava and Danube in Belgrade after hitting British mines. Their wrecks probably also still lie where they sank.

Back near Prahovo, meanwhile, thanks to the falling water levels in warm weather, the ruins of an ancient Roman port have become partly visible.

Historians and archaeologists also believe that Serbian rivers probably contain fully preserved traditional sailing vessels, called šajke, which were used in the Danube basin back in the 15th century.

Among other things, at the bottom of the Belgrade rivers thereare three Turkish galleys sunk in 1456 during the Ottoman siege of Belgrade, a merchant ship sank in 1792, and a Hungarian ship, Alkotmany, sunk in 1914 due to the collapse of a mined bridge on the Sava river.

Unintentional archaeologists:

In the absence of the national database and organised expeditions, artefacts tend to be found by chance during work on rivers, such as construction or dredging for sand and gravel.

Various shipwrecks have emerged in that way in recent years, in the Sava near Hrtkovci in Vojvodina and in the Danube, near the Petrovaradin fortress.

Dredgers drag up remains of extinct animals as well, such as bones of mammoths and bison.

These were found during construction work in the Sava near Ruma in Vojvodina and at Bosut, near the border between Serbia and Croatia.

But, in the absence of systemic controls, these finds frequently get destroyed by accident, instead of ending up museums and private collections.

Moreover, locals often find out about these discoveries and form groups of divers to seek out the items in order to sell them if they are valuable.

In that way, Serbia’s Law on Cultural Heritage, [adopted in 1994] which treats all such discoveries as state property that must be surrendered to the authorities, is often violated.

Wasted opportunity:

The first attempt to draw up an international, comprehensive map of underwater cultural heritage took place in 2001.

In that year, the UN’s culture wing, UNESCO, formed the Convention on Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The convention, ratified that year by several countries, envisaged each member country forming a working group to compile a national database of locations of underwater heritage. 

But Serbia has never ratified the UNESCO convention. According to the Culture Ministry, there was no need, because “only a few countries that have no sea ratified this document”.

The ministry also claimed that other ministries “have competences in this sector”.

Gordana Karovic, who was delegated to represent Serbia at an international conference on the UNESCO Convention in 2009, says a national database would be the first step towards researching what lies at the bottom of Serbia’s rivers.

“If you exactly know where your underwater heritage is hidden, you can protect it until the archaeologists begin digging,” Karovic said.

“For a start, it is important to collect knowledge about treasure hidden on the bottom of rivers. Excavations are the final task, organised only if the archaeological site is endangered,” she added.

Karovic also said that if Serbia had ratified the convention, UNESCO might have provided the funds to cover the cost of hiring staff to explore its riverbeds.

This is an important point because of the high cost of exploring and excavating riverbeds.

On her return from the conference in 2009, Karovic sent a written report to the Culture Ministry in which she explained the importance of signing this convention. But the report clearly did not gain the attention of decision makers.

“This UNESCO convention is the only international document on archaeology that Serbia has not signed,” she noted.

The Serbian Ministry of Culture says that ratification of international conventions such as UNESCO’s one is under the competence of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, the ministry says it has no authority over the activities related to underwater and river affairs.

„The Interior Ministry and the ministries of space planning, defence, local government are the ones that have   jurisdiction over underwater and river affairs,“ reads the  response of the Ministry of Culture.

Researching the War Well at Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad | Photo Courtesy of Aqua et Archaeologia

No state support:

Ten years ago Karovic led the only underwater exploration organized in Serbia.

In 2003 the Culture Ministry appointed her to explore the remains of the Emperor Trajan’s monumental bridge in the Danube, near the Serbia-Romania border in Kladovo.

“The bridge, which was 1,158 metres long, was the largest in the Ancient world,” she explained.

Although the scanning of the collapsed structure finished in 2004 and the supporting pillars of the bridge were located in the riverbed, there was no further state investment in the project after this. The project halted in 2005.

Because of this Karovic and her colleagues formed a citizens association, “Aqua et Archaelogia”, the first and only one of its kind, to collect information on Serbia’s underwater heritage.

Soon after, the group submitted an application to the Culture Ministry for about 20,000 euros to explore some 20 locations.

The ministry turned them down. “The ministry answered that, by law, only state institutions, not NGOs, can excavate archaeological artefacts,” she recalled.

“But we did not want to excavate, only to swim underwater [and explore]”, Karovic added.

The purpose of the project was to purely obtain more complete information on possible archaeological sites, and take videos of river bottoms.

However, their intention was partly realised in 2010, when Aqua et Archaelogia published a map, “Shipwrecks in Belgrade Aquatorium”, based mostly on historical literature.

This document presented various locations where ships from different periods lie at the bottom of the Sava and the Danube near Belgrade.

Two years after publishing the map, Karovic mulls giving up the battle to preserve Serbia’s underwater cultural heritage.

“I have tried almost everything I could to alert the authorities. I see no reason to go on with my initiatives,” she concludes.

Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry states that underwater archaeology projects form a part of the open competition for projects dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage.

“All those interested in this can submit their projects,” a response from the ministry reads.

Having in mind the quantity of armies, caravans and expeditions that crossed Serbia over two millennia, it is clear that the task before those attempting to explore their remains is challenging.

In the meantime, these little known or unknown treasures appear destined to remain where they are, sleeping with the fish.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.




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