When the Summer turns the air into molasses and brains into mush, kite aerial photography is not uppermost in mind (nothing is); standing on a meadow millions of insects call home (and are ready to defend it) under a blistering sun is very bad for your health, regardless of holding the kite line being so therapeutic and nice and zen (and regardless of having some cold beers in the cooler nearby).
But, a few months ago, something was built in the heart of the Ljubljana Marshes (where building is virtually prohibited and one can’t even place a beehive there, let alone something with four walls and a roof), the first architectural endeavour there in thousands of years. Even more, what was constructed is an attempt to replicate that very concept from thousands of years ago.
A pile dwelling.
Ljubljana Marshes landscape park boasts many wonders of Nature, some in plain sight like peat bogs, wet meadows, and storks; some reclusive and rare like Corn Crakes, Scarce Large Blue butterflies, and Golden Jackals. Yet under the thick blanket of marshy sediments something else is hiding, a testimony of the resourcefulness and perseverance of Homo sapiens: a unique type of late Neolithic to Bronze Age settlements called pile dwellings.
In the fifth millennium BCE Ljubljana Marshes were a shallow and swampy lake (the experts still disagree if there really was a large lake, or a series of lakes and swamps, or just a semi-permanently submerged floodplain). It would be unappealing to us, but to the Neolithic and early Bronze Age humans the watery landscape offered pretty much everything they needed: abundant resources and protection. And thus emerged a distinct pile-dwelling culture.
The idea of a pile dwelling is simple – stick some piles into the soft marl on the bottom of the wetland, make a platform on top of the piles, and construct a dwelling on that platform. A safe, hard to reach and easy to defend place to live, above waters that quench thirst and feed hunger.
The idea – first executed over 6.000 years ago – caught on and became popular; over 40 distinct pile dwellings were found all across Ljubljana Marshes, and there are surely more waiting patiently deep in the soggy ground. It was an idea truly long-lasting; the oldest pile dwelling so far discovered in the Marshes is from 4.600 BCE, the youngest from 2.500 BCE. That’s over two millennia of people living and dying – dwelling – on piles driven in the clay bottom of the swampy lakes.
The lake(s) eventually dried up and the neighbourhood went down (the incredible find of a wooden wheel and axle – preserved courtesy of anoxic, wet soil – that was dated to 3.100 BCE heralds a slow decline of the pile-dwelling culture); the pile dwellings were not so cool anymore, the resources were dwindling, and new people were coming from the east: the era of farming, culture, trade and conquest has begun, and our humble pile-dwellers stood no chance. Adapt or perish, they say – while the people surely adapted, the pile dwellings perished, sunk into the soft ground, covered with peat and wet black soil.
In the middle of the 19th century the peat cutters started to find strange things deep in the ground. Soon the antiquarians and later the archaeologists came snooping around, first looking for the shiny pieces, statuettes and bronze trinkets, then for the dwellings themselves, for the long-gone culture, the lost way of life, for understanding the pile-dwellers. The experts joined hands with their colleagues abroad – there are over 100 pile-dwelling archaeological sites around the Alps – and made UNESCO recognise this fascinating cultural marriage of people and water as an integral part of our common heritage.
It’s funny to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of pile dwellings on Ljubljana Marshes – as there is literally nothing to see. All the remains that were not taken to various museums are resting deep underground. The reason for that is quite logical: the remains are basically a jumble of soggy wood, disturbed and flattened under the pressure of time and sediments. The luckily preserved five-thousand-and-more years old wooden objects – only deserts, glaciers, and swamps can hold the secrets of wood for so long – would be instantly destroyed if they were suddenly awoken from their anoxic bed and exposed to air.
While logical, the idea of preservation of these unique archaeological remains underground is clashing with our innate desire to see and touch things that fascinate us. A tourism slogan: “Come to our UNESCO World Heritage site and see … absolutely nothing!” does not work; a visit to a boring meadow (it’s not boring, of course, the meadows of Ljubljana Marshes are incredible!) while listening to the teacher droning about some imaginary things that might once be here (they are not droning, of course, the stories about pile dwellings are incredible!) turn inquisitive schoolchildren into restless, bored, indifferent adults. So … what can be done? Can anything be done to make pile dwellings tangible, not just imaginary and virtual, but real?
What can be done is to construct a pile dwelling exactly like they used to do back then. One just needs a shallow marshy pond, hundreds of piles driven into the soft bottom, a platform built upon those piles, and dwellings erected upon the platform. And voilà! – a real pile dwelling that can be seen and touched, with platforms that can be walked upon, and huts that can be dwelled in!
Experts and enthusiasts from the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ministry of Culture of Slovenia, the Municipality of Ig, Ljubljana Marshes landscape park, and European Regional Development Fund all came together, had an idea and secured funding for it, and in the very heart of Ljubljana Marshes re-created something that hasn’t been seen there for thousands of years: a real pile dwelling.
Morostig – a portemanteau of Morost, an old Slovene word for marsh, and Ig, the nearest settlement – is basically a skansen, an open-air museum built pretty much on the spot of Resnik canal pile dwelling from 4.500 BCE. A shallow pond was made by damming a nearby stream, and a platform with five huts erected on its edge. For added authenticity a replica of a dugout canoe found nearby – 9 meters long and made of a single oak tree – is floating in the pond. A long raised path leads to the pile dwelling, and numerous info tables along it explain and portray the living on the Marshes six millennia ago.
It’s a serene and intriguing place, where the past and the present touch. Together with the museum in the centre of Ig – the Morostig House – it makes a great visit, a pleasant afternoon, a chance to learn and contemplate.
And, of course, it makes a great kite aerial photography target!
Ljubljana Marshes are a landscape park, yet the protective regime is really strict – its ecosystems are rare and fragile, the flora and fauna exquisite and endangered. It’s not really an easy place to photograph from above; a drone would spook the birds, disturb the otters and the voles, massacre the butterflies and scare the jackals away.
But a kite, son of Aeolus (or maybe Shu, the Ancient Egyptian god of winds, to be closer in time to our pile-dwellers), cousin of birds and bats, does no such thing. It flies silently and slowly, resting on the winds high above, sharing the air amicably with the creatures of Nature. A camera suspended from the kite line is almost unseen, quietly observing with its all-seeing eye. A perfect, unintrusive, non-invasive contraption to see and admire from the perspective of birds and gods the delicate world below.
Something the pile-dwellers would love.
Kite aerial photos shot with Insta360 on The Old Blue Rokakku, and with Nikon P330 on the New Blue Rokkaku; both kites made by master Janez Vizjak of Dr.Agon kites.