A Landscape Palimpsest and a Lost Church

Before we did that superb KAP session above the amazing Debela griža hillfort near Volčji Grad, we did a pure kite archaeology session above a possible site that includes a long-lost Medieval church.

The late Bronze Age / Iron Age hillfort Debela griža

The site lies just nearby, between Komen and Gorjansko, in the heart of Slovenian Karst, and the local name for the area still evokes the saint: St. Margaret. The laconic description in the Registry of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia says that “the location of the church and the adjacent cemetery cannot be precisely determined“, and that “a Roman era settlement may be expected within the site“.

The location of the St. Margaret archaeological site on the Registry of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia map

Well, that is exactly the kind of place we are looking for! It is easy: lift a kite, put the near-infrared camera on the line, take hundreds of aerial photos of the site, analyze them – and voilà, a lost church and a Roman vicus will pop out.

One of the (non-processed) near-infrared kite aerial photos of the site

Yeah, right. Karst had other ideas.

One thing is that Karst is rather unwelcoming for near-infrared aerial remote sensing. Shallow, stony soil makes a hard environment for plants as it is, and it is difficult to distinguish a buried wall from a natural rock. The other is that one should do a NIR survey of vegetation vitality when the plants are vigorously growing, not when they are slowly setting for the long winter repose.

But the most important impediment to jolly aerial archaeologists is that Karst is a veritable palimpsest of human interference with Nature from thousands of years ago right up to the present. A drywall made of rough stones doesn’t reveal its age: was it built in the Neolithic, or put together last Tuesday afternoon?

How old is this wall?

The earliest remains of human activity on Karst date back to the Mesolithic – but back then people didn’t do big stuff yet; there are no interventions in the landscape, and all we have are some spare finds, (micro)lithic assemblages, and remains of hunters’ camps.

Humans started to really mess with Karst in the Neolithic. There are a couple of caves that they used for living in and other things – Bestažovca cave even has paintings on its walls! – and the first large-scale landscape transformations started to happen back then. With the advent of  husbandry and crop cultivation the rocky and inhospitable Karst had to be tamed. People cleared the forests transforming them into pastures, and meagre rocky fields were cleaned, with excess stones put into cairns, walls, and enclosures.

Neolithic paintings in Bestažovca cave. Photo Andrej Mihevc.

There are cairn fields and enclosures all over Karst, and at least some of them – associated with larger camps, settlements and, later, hillforts – were dated to the (late) Neolithic. We even flew a kite over one such site!

LIDAR shot of an area near the site shows cairns, enclosures, and walls all over the Karst landscape.

The burst of human activity on Karst started in the Bronze Age and intensified in the Iron Age. On many hills and even on the plain numerous hillforts sprung up built by tribes enjoying what Karst had to offer. Woodland pastures supported herds of sheep and cattle; large enclosures with complex entries helped manage the herds, and provided a space to tend and milk and shear the animals. Fields of grain and vegetable gardens were protected by high drywalls made of rough stone – just like they are today, and double-walled paths crisscrossed the landscape.

One of these Iron Age Celtic tribes that made Karst their home was the Carni. And just when the Carni thought their Iron Age culture was doing just fine – the legions came.

Tergeste – today Trst, Trieste – was established as an Illyrian settlement, later claimed by Veneti, and then by the Romans. In 52 BC the Carni of Karst attacked and destroyed it, in 46 BC Julius Caesar gave it the status of a Roman colony, and it started to flourish when the border of the Empire moved from Timavo to Rižana river. Then it was time to exact revenge on the Carni – and the Romans started to colonize Karst, imposing a Roman field division upon the ancient landscape.

Tergeste on the famous Roman map Tabula Peutingeriana (by the sea left of the word “Isteria” (Istria), marked with a white rectangle)

The Romans were magnificently oblivious to things that did not fit their worldview – and the landscape was not exempt. They did to Karst what they did to fertile plains of Italy: they covered the land with a square grid, oriented southeast-northwest (azimuth 138 degrees east), with lines spaced 20 acti – one Roman actus is just over 35 m, so 710 m – apart, with the first line starting exactly 280 acti (10 km) from the main northeastern gate of Tergeste. And on this imaginary grid the Romans built a real grid of – what else! – perfectly straight walls in a perpendicular pattern going all the way into the distance.

Roman centuriatio on Karst showing the 710 m x 710 m square grid, and the extant walls.
Brazenly stolen from Mlekuž, D. (2015): Oblike prazgodovinske poljske razdelitve na Krasu (link to the original article in Slovene).

Centuriation, as this Roman field division is called, went straight through the ancient landscape, ignoring sinkholes, dry valleys and hills, and hillforts, fields, and gardens of Carni, blindly following its own cold, square, stern logic. The square plot of land between the walls measuring 400 square acti or 200 iugera (just over 50 hectares) was a centuria, divided into 100 plots for 100 colonists – each getting 2 iugera (5 hectares).

Extant walls of the Roman centuriatio (white arrows) near the site (marked in blue)

The centuriation of Karst was never fully implemented; there could be many reasons for that – maybe the poor Karst soil was not really attractive to well-off Tergesteans, or the Carni successfully resisted the encroaching Romans – and it seems the aggressive colonization was not completed. But it left a layer on the palimpsest of the landscape; to the cairn fields of the Neolithic, to the enclosures of the Bronze Age, to the hillforts and box fields of the Iron Age the Romans added a totally Roman, straight, and square grid of walls.

The Empires come and go, they say, and the Roman Empire went in a blaze of … well, many things, and one can scarcely find an army that did not march through here into the Friuli plain and on to Rome; The Visi– and Ostro– and Whatnot-Goths, the hordes of Attila the Hun, the long-bearded Langobards, and finally the Slavs. In all that commotion and confusion, a somewhat stable system emerged again rather late, in the High Middle Ages.

Štanjel village, Karst. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Sporti.

The good people of Karst established a new, Medieval field division, ignoring all the previous ones, adding another subtle layer to the landscape palimpsest. And picturesque villages, mighty castles, and glorious churches from those times still adorn the area.

Well, most of them do.

The village of Gorjansko was probably established in the 11th or 12th century. The first mention of it is in the books of the Abbey of Rosazzo (Rožac) in 1252 AD. As a respectable village it had a church, dedicated to the powerful St. Margaret of Antioch, one of the Fourteen Helpers. The church was built about a kilometer out of the village, at the crossroads leading to Komen, Sveto and Volčji Grad.

Postard from 1913 of Gorjansko and the (new) church of St. Andrew

In the 15th century the villagers of Gorjansko decided they needed a bigger church, closer to the village. In 1495 a prominent church of St. Andrew was completed (it is well worth a visit, especially for the frescoes by Tone Kralj!), and the old, small church of St. Margaret slowly fell into disuse.

And then into oblivion.

Gorjansko (D. Goriansca), Komen (Kamen), Volčji grad (zu D. Wotschi Grad) and the church of St. Margaret (Sct. Margareta) on the First Military Survey of the Austro-Hungarian Empire map

The First Military Survey of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1784 above still shows the then long-abandoned church of St. Margaret. The Franciscean cadaster of 1828 below does not anymore. The local name of the area still bears the name of the saint, but the church was lost, and Sancta Margareta was reduced to a footnote: the location of the church and the adjacent cemetery cannot be precisely determined.

St. Margaret missing from the Franciscean cadaster

But then some crazy guys with a kite and a near-infrared camera showed up.

We took hundreds of near-infrared kite aerial photos of the area. We combined them and stitched them and did the NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) maps and played with all sorts of enhancements up to sharpen density and beyond …

… and in a suspiciously looking rectangular enclosure in the middle of the potential site of the church something started to show itself.

The suspicious enclosure

The tortured monochrome NDVI gradient map of the enclosure

After catching a glimpse of something inside the enclosure we fought with the photo and its NDVI map until we were sure there is more to it than just a case of pareidolia (and mind you, it was not the only one – something seemed to be lurking in that strange circular field, and something else in the field to the left of the enclosure, and it took us hours to concede defeat and say no, nothing there …)

Annotated close-up of the NDVI map

Anyway, now we can pretty surely say something is buried there, for sure. Is it the long-lost St. Margaret? Could be. The enclosure measures around 40 by 30 meters and is aligned pretty much east-west. The larger “object” (1) inside it on the right is some 12 by 6 meters, which is a very typical measure for a little Medieval church of a rather remote village. It is aligned with the east-west centreline of the enclosure. Its left – western – side appears curved; could this be an apse? On the west side? And there are other “signals” (2, 3, 4) that could correspond to a chapel, or a crypt (if there is a church, there is a cemetery), or an annex … who knows?

The real archaeologists will know. As one of them (very nicely) said: “This is a great find. Looks like we got our St. Margaret back! But now we must do some geophys … “

So, did we – actually, our kite! – find the long-lost remains of the church of St. Margaret? Maybe! And that is a fantastic feeling … Even if the shadows on the NDVI map turn out to be just that – shadows – and the church will remain lost, the kite flying, the exploration, the study, the unveiling of a thousands of years old palimpsest of the Karst landscape made it all worth it ten times over.

And if St. Margaret, the Tamer of the Lintvern, has really been found – that would be a true icing on the cake.

All near-infrared photos shot with AgroCam Geo NDVI camera on The Rokker kite by Sandro Macchi.

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