Krešimir Raguž, graduate archaeologist and Romanist
SHORT OVERVIEW OF RESULTS
Barać Caves are a renowned archaeological locality that, among others, attracted natural scientists such as Hirtz, Kišpatić and Malez. Out of the incidental finds from this locality, some that merit special mention are, for example, the bronze bracelet from Upper Barać Cave that is kept in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, which was gifted to the Archaeology Department of the National Museum by dr. Anton Culek in 1912. With its typological characteristics, this object corresponds to the Early Iron Era, most likely the 8th or 7th century BC. At the turn of the 21st century, a human skull was also found, together with many pottery fragments. It has also been confirmed that Upper Barać Cave is home to many human remains, out of which the incidental find of the remains of a hapless German soldier who met his demise near the end of World War Two or just after it particularly distinguishes itself.
However, the first archaeological research of the caves was conducted more than a century later. In 2004, while the caves were being renovated for the purpose of opening them to tourists, a team of experts from the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb (Sanjin Mihelić, Jacqueline Balen, Ivan Radman Livaja) conducted the first preliminary research in line with the advice provided by the speleologist Hrvoje Cvitanović and the archaeologist Krešimir Raguž.
The objects found during these protective excavations mostly consist of pottery fragments, together with a few pieces of metal or stone, which are irrelevant from the perspective of archaeological attribution. The pottery appears to have been intended for everyday use, and the craftsmanship is mostly rough and sloppy. It dates back either to prehistoric times, i.e. the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, or to a more recent period, most likely mediaeval or post-mediaeval, largely made on a potter’s wheel. Preliminary analysis of the prehistoric pottery fragments also indicates dating between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, though a broader timeframe also cannot be excluded. Surface finds also include the fragment of an iron spear, which is today kept at the museum in Karlovac. This object most likely dates to a more recent period, possibly the Middle Ages.
The first protective excavations of Upper Barać Cave have confirmed its status as an interesting archaeological site with great potential for further research. Superficial inspection of the cave is enough to reach the conclusion that it was used as a dwelling place (at least temporarily) during the past three millennia. Probe research has not shown any large-scale interventions in the cave sediment (excluding, naturally, those that were part of the recent restorations), however, since the probes covered only a very small part of the surface, it is presumed that new research would be able to discover such interventions, if they existed. The stratigraphy of the cave and the well-preservedness of the bones of the Pleistocene fauna from the deeper layers indicate conditions that are favourable for preservation, which means that thorough research could yield traces of human habitation of the cave – naturally, providing that such traces existed at all.
In the early 2000s, Upper Barać Cave began to attract the attention of researchers, the speleologist Hrvoje Cvitanović and the archaeologist Krešimir Raguž, who included it in the fortified cave project of the caving club ˝Ursus spelaeus˝ from Karlovac and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, as this cave is one of about a hundred in Croatia in which the people built and adapted fortifications and in which they hid from the Ottomans (there are also dozens in other countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Lebanon…). These jewels of defensive and traditional architecture remained forgotten until recently, and were only known to a few select locals. During this project, all finds and find documentation were precisely documented, as were the fortifications in Upper Barać Cave themselves (the same was done for the other fortified caves included in the project), and the cave was included in the list of caves for archaeological excavations. In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, the University of Zagreb and the University of Wyoming (USA), systematic research of this locality commenced in 2013, involving the participation of: Krešimir Raguž, Hrvoje Cvitanović, Kazimir Miculinić, Nataša Cvitanović, Iva Perković with her colleague Boris Olujić from the History Department of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Zagreb, James Ahern from University of Wyoming (USA), Rory Becker from Eastern Oregon University (USA) and their Croatian and American students.
One of the tasks of this research was to determine the nature of the locality (i.e. whether Upper Barać Cave was used as a place of residence, or perhaps as a ritual site, graveyard, etc.).
The second task was to, by using state-of-the-art methods, gather finds and data and systematically process them in order to make comprehensive multi-year research plans.
In 2013, 4 sites within the cave itself were researched: two probes in the first cave (Guana hall). In this part, probe S1 discovered an open campfire site right behind the wall which was preliminarily, according to stratigraphic relations, carefully dated to the Middle Ages or the New Era, while analysis C-14 confirmed such dating to the second half of the 17th or to the 18th century. The other probe yielded no finds of greater importance, with the exception of several pottery fragments from approximately the similar period.
A lot of human remains were discovered in the rear part of the cave that is not open to tourists. Knowledge of these remains already existed, but on this occasion they were precisely recorded, and systematic archaeological excavation commenced (in probe S3). With the use of the C-14 method, the human remains were dated approximately to the period between the second half of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century. The same applies to Barać Avenue, the second rear tunnel behind the collapsed ceiling where, in addition to human remains, prehistoric pottery which can roughly be dated to the Late Bronze Era or Early Iron Era was discovered at the very end of the tunnel.
The analysis of human remains and folk tales confirmed that this was a case of the tragic destinies of the Croats of this region – a mass grave from the era of Ottoman invasions.
In the central part of the cave, i.e. the Dragon’s Throat, an exceptional number of valuable paleontological finds was discovered. To begin with, let us note only a few of the most important ones: numerous finds of Pleistocene animals, i.e. the cave lion, cave bear, Pleistocene wolf, hairy rhinoceros… as well as the exceptional find of one part of a wooden bow (the only one of its kind in Croatia and an iron spur, which are currently undergoing restoration at the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb owing to the efforts of the museum’s management board. The analysis of the human remains was entrusted to James Ahern from the University of Wyoming (USA).
Therefore, in 2013, systematic research of the entire cave commenced with the use of the ˝Paleolithic˝ method – in which each find or fragment, whether pottery, bone or something else, was drawn separately. Geophysical research was also conducted, as was paleontological research.
In 2015, the second international Croatian-American campaign (caving club ˝Ursus spelaeus˝ from Karlovac, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, University of Wyoming and University of Zagreb) of systematic research was conducted under the leadership of archaeologists Krešimir Raguž, Rick Weathermon (University of Wyoming, USA) and Iva Perković, paleontologist Kazimir Miculinić, speleologists Hrvoje Cvitanović and Nataša Cvitanović and geologists Neven Šuica. The campaign built upon the research and, in addition to previous analyses on this locality, also introduced the analysis of stable isotopes, which can be used to determine the spatial origin and movement and diet of the inhabitants that met their untimely demise in Upper Barać Cave.
In June and August 2017, the third Croatian-American campaign (caving club ˝Ursus spelaeus˝ from Karlovac, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, University of Wyoming and University of Zagreb, with the help of the Public Institution Barać Caves – Protected Areas Management In the Municipality of Rakovica) of systematic research was conducted under the leadership of archaeologists Krešimir Raguž, Rick Weathermon (University of Wyoming, USA) and Iva Perković, paleontologist Kazimir Miculinić, speleologists Hrvoje Cvitanović and Nataša Cvitanović and geologist Neven Šuica. As part of this campaign, field classes for American students were held within the scope of the Croatian-American field school in which 7 students and one doctoral student participated. The campaign built upon existing research, in addition to previous analyses on this locality, also introduced the analysis of stable isotopes, which can be used to determine the spatial origin and movement and diet of the inhabitants that met their untimely demise in Upper Barać Cave. After many years of research and spatial analysis of the remains, it seems likely that a hypothesis on the deaths of a greater number of people inside the cave can be made. Was this due to a tragedy caused by the lighting of a fire, as the finds in the front part of the cave suggest? Were these people locals (analysis of radioactive isotopes), and were they related by blood (DNA analyses)? This is yet to be shown by future research and analysis.
As the research conducted so far has shown that the folk legends that tell the tale someone called Barać who defeated an burly Ottoman soldier in front of Barać Caves are not just ˝smoke without fire˝ and represent an important piece of information for historical analysis, it is the hope of researchers that modern methods can be used to shed as much light as possible both on scientific data and the Ottoman tyranny that the Croats suffered during their gruelling and bloody history.