Mysterious pile-dwellers, a revelation about prehistoric people in the Ljubljansko barje

April 2011

Rudolp-August Bachelin, 1867 (oil painting). Photo: Darinka Mladenovič

While pharaohs commissioned the building of huge pyramids for their afterlife and ruthlessly exploited their people to this end, some European tribes were much wiser.  They are called pile-dwellers or lake-dwellers and in Slovene koliščarji, mostiščarji or jezerci.  For centuries, pile-dwellers inhabited the largest marshes in Slovenia, which are today termed the Ljubljansko barje. The first pile-dwellings were erected there as early as the first half of the fifth century BC. By the middle of the second century, the lake had turned into marshes and moors, which signalled the end of pile-dwelling construction.

A model of pile dwelling. Permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana. Photo: Darinka Mladenovič

Dr Anton Velušček, an archaeologist from the Institute of Archaeology, Scientific Research Centre of the Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana, and an acknowledged expert who has been researching the history of life in the Ljubljansko barje for more than 15 years, believes that, 6,600 years ago, the first pile-dwellers inhabited the marshes for less than ten years. This was followed by intermittent periods of settlement in the area. They lived in groups of five or seven in wood houses with a surface area of 20 to 30 square metres. The houses were raised on wooden piles hammered into the lake bed, which is similar to the practice of modern people living in the Ljubljansko barje, the only difference being that the houses are not now elevated and modern piles have replaced the wood.

The oldest archaeological remains in the Ljubljansko barje date back to the Middle Palaeolithic or ice period. There are finds of Hallstatt and La Tène origin. Wood traps with metal frames found in deep peat in the south and east of the marshes tell stories of hunting in those ancient times. The Ljubljanica runs through this area and has always been useful for navigation, although the height difference between Vrhnika and Ljubljana is no more than a metre. The port of Nauportus, situated in present-day Vrhnika, flourished in Roman times and has yielded interesting clay vessels and numerous weapons. This is also manifested in the famous find of a Roman barge, unearthed in 1890 at one of the properties in the Ljubljansko barje. It had a flat bottom suitable for shallow rivers.

Discovery of the oldest wheel in the world

An even more exciting discovery followed in April 2002 when Slovene archaeologists found the remains of a two-wheel wood cart of between 5,350 and 5,100 years old. This is the oldest wheel ever found in Europe or the world. This area was settled by the Slavs in the sixth century, as shown by finds of typical clay vessels with a recognisable ornamental wavy line and a pottery sign at the bottom of the jug. Most of the weapons found by the archaeologists in this area can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries, when Franks marched against Avars and Hungarian insurgents.

Text by Juš Turk, Sinfo, April 2011