An Island of History

This amazing kite aerial photography session started … less than optimal.

The Original Blue Rokkaku ended in the Adriatic due to a really stupid mistake – somebody didn’t tie the simplest of the knots correctly and the kite flew off the end of the line. Luckily, the camera was not attached yet.

That somebody had to go into the sea (for the second time this year!) to safely recover the kite; the wet but unharmed rokkaku went to work minutes later, carrying a camera over one the most picturesque and enigmatic archaeological sites in the Northern Adriatic: the ruins of Sipar.

Kaštel peninsula with ruins of Sipar from the ground

Sipar is in northwestern Istria, on the coast between Zambratija and Umag. It lies on the western tip of a narrow peninsula called Kaštel (‘Castle’). The peninsula, more of a sand spit, is some 250 m long and up to 50 meters wide where most of the ruins are. At high tides the sea covers the spit and Sipar becomes an island.

Which is appropriate, as the enigmatic and lacunian history of Sipar begins with an island.

Tabula Peutingeriana

Tabula Peutingeriana is a famous 12th century copy of a late 4th century copy of a copy of an itnerarium of cursus publicus, public road system of Rome, compiled by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the trusted general of Augustus. His map was like those schematic maps of public transport we use today; it was designed to give a practical overview of the road network, not to reflect the realities of geography.

Istria – ‘Isteria’ – on the Tabula Peutingeriana; the red arrow points at Insula Sepomaia.

As we can see on the part of the Tabula depicting Istria, the map has some errors – Parentio is where Tergeste should be, Pola is on the Parentio’s spot etc. – but it gives a nice general view of the world as it was in Roman times. In the northwestern corner of Istria we find Silvo – Savudrija with the famous lighthouse – and just off the coast an island called Insula Sepomaia.

That’s Sipar.

Another view of Sipar ruins from the ground

Sepomaia – Sipparis, Sipar – today is just a sand spit with two sets of ruins, exposed to the Adriatic sea and to the wrath of jugo, the angry wind from the south. Its walls are slowly but surely crumbling; the waves wash out its feet, the wind the memories.

But what a kite sees from above is nothing short of spectacular:

Sipar from The Rokker – the blue speck to the left of the middle of the sand spit is the unfortunate Original Blue coming back from the sky

The story of this white settlement embraced by the vivid blue Adriatic begins more than two millennia ago, when Sipar was still an island. At least two millennia ago – the archaeological exploration of the site is far from complete, and we know of a Neolithic settlement at nearby Zambratija, and numerous Bronze Age and Iron Age hillforts were dotting the hinterland.

In 177 BCE the Roman republic fought the Illyrian tribe of Histri that lived in most of Istria, won the bloody war, and colonized the fertile land of pleasant climate, surrounded by an abundant sea.

The Romans built their colonies, settlements and villas all over Istria, some on sites of previous towns of the Histri, some new. Aegida / Capris (Koper), Pyrrhanum (Piran), Haliaetum (Izola), Silbio / Silvo (Savudrija), Humago (Umag), Parentium (Poreč) and so on … and among them one on an island: Insula Sepomaia.

The island used to be much larger than it is now; the sea level rose for about a meter and a half since Roman times, and the incessant erosion is eating it away. The Romans settled there after the Histrian wars, probably in the early 1st. century BCE – the first incarnation of Sipar was a fortified camp, a staging point for incursions on the Histri territory, and for consolidating the conquest.

Sipar – in pink are the identified remains of the first phase of the occupation, a military camp (1st century BCE – 1st century CE). The illustration is brazenly stolen from Mreže i udice: eksploatacija mora u doba Antike i ranog Srednjeg vijeka by Branka Milošević Zakić

The first incarnation of Sipar ended with the civil war between Augustus and Marc Anthony against the assassins of Caesar, and with the war of Augustus against Anthony. Augustus won, the Imperial era started in 27 CE, and Sipar got a new life as Insula Sepomaia. A civil settlement was built on the site of the military camp (that might have been destroyed during the wars), more of a fishing village with a port than a municipium or a colonia.

But besides fishing and sailing our venerable Sepomaians were busy doing something very very lucrative.

Collecting and milking – snails.

A special predatory snail living in the waters around Sipar was of interest to the Romans: Bolinus brandaris, the Murex. The Phoenicians found out thousands of years before that the snail excretes a mucus that can imbue the fabric with a brilliant and lasting colour.

The Murex snails use the secretion to sedate prey, and to defend against predators. If you poke the snail, it fights back by spewing out this organobromine compound – so it is possible to, well, milk the snails for its valuable mucus from which the dye can be produced.

However, the dye is extremely hard to make in substantial quantities. As one researcher remarked, “twelve thousand Murex snails yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment.” But on the other hand the dye was worth its weight in gold – and more.

Because it was the Imperial purple.

Remains of the basins used for collecting the Murex snails

The snails were collected in special pools so they would be fresh, they were milked for their mucus, and the mucus was then, according to Pliny the Elder, treated with salt for three days and then boiled into oblivion, the liquid being skimmed from time to time.

Murex shells from Sipar. Photo stolen from the same paper as the illustration above.

This dye was so expensive and wearing purple was such a status symbol that the Romans restricted its use by passing special Sumptuary laws: it was simply forbidden to wear purple …

… unless you were an Emperor.

Sipar – in yellow are the identified remains of the second phase of the occupation, a civil settlement (1st century – 2nd century CE)

From the early first century BCE to the late first century CE Sipar was prospering. Its strategic position on the sea route from coloniae of Pula and Poreč to Trieste and Aquileia enabled both short and long distance trade, the abundant Murex brought gold, and the sea was brimming with fish. A large horreum, a port warehouse, dates to this period, a witness of the easy and rich life at Insula Sepomaia.

Then Marcomanni invaded.

The Marcomanni crossed the Danube around 170 CE, ravaged Pannonia and Noricum, and even besieged Aquileia. People from Sipar simply fled before the barbaric invaders, and the place was abandoned. For almost four centuries.

When Sipar reincarnated for the third time, it was very different.

The third phase of Sipar is marked in blue and green- Late antique town with a fort (6th century)

Now we are in Late Classical antiquity. Rome is gone, sacked by the invading tribes; the Western Roman empire has collapsed. But the ambitious Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman empire wanted to resurrect the past glory of Rome, to make the Empire whole again.

In 535 Justinian sent Bellisarius, fresh from his victory against the Vandals in Africa, to take the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths, and Mundus to destroy the Visigoths and conquer Dalmatia. They both had successes and setbacks (Mundus was killed near Salona); in general the campaign went well and in the middle of the 6th century the Byzantines were in control of Italy and Dalmatia, including Istria.

The pentagonal fort

And during this campaign Sipar’s position on that island at the northwestern corner of Istria became strategically important again.

The settlement was rebuilt pretty much on the foundations of the previous, with one important addition: they built a fort at the narrowest part of the isthmus – they probably even created that isthmus, connecting the island of Sipar with land for good. Insula Sepomaia became Sipparis.

As the Byzantine fleet ruled the seas, the only true threat to Sipar was from land. The fort consisted of a pentagonal tower with huge walls and ramparts extending on both sides along the coast of the peninsula.

Behind the fort a Late antiquity Sipparis grew and prospered.

Fourth phase – the Golden age of Sipar (in green; 7th – 8th century)

It really prospered. The peak of Sipparis was in the late 7th century; most of the fine archaeological finds are from that time; expensive ceramic vessels from North Africa and the Middle East, glass from Italy, pearl beads from who knows where … Sipparis was rich and cool.

But alas, it wouldn’t last. The geopolitical situation was complicated to say the least, and one day a large army appeared before Sipparis, breached the fort and sacked the town. Was it the Langobards? Maybe the Avars and the Slavs? We don’t know. But Sipar was thoroughly destroyed at the turn of the 7th century …

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the destruction of their town did not destroy the spirit of the Sipparians. They returned once more and rebuilt Sippar sometime in the early 8th century, though the venerable town never again achieved its past glory. The finds from the 8th and the 9th century are cruder and sparser, and it seems that Sipparis was mortally wounded, struggling in vain, its inhabitants leaving it for greener pastures elsewhere.

The coup de grâce came in 876. From the sea.

It was a Croat duke, Domagoj, who brought the final demise to the peninsula. He fought with Venice, won, and his fleet destroyed most of the towns on the western coast of Istria unopposed. Sipparis was gone yet again – but this time forever.

The last thing anyone had done on the peninsula were the Venetians a hundred years later, who renovated and expanded the Late antiquity fort, and called it Castello di Sipar – the last in the series of toponyms that started with Insula Sepomaia nine hundred years before.

Later La Serenissima lost Istria to the Habsburgs, the geopolitics changed, the ways of waging wars changed, and the castle of Sipar was left to its own devices. It slowly fell into disrepair, crumbling, falling apart. The Nazis shot off its top during World War II for some stupid reason, and a storm of 1966 took most of what was left.

Sipar went under the tide of history, patiently waiting for the archaeologists …

Progress of archaeological exploration of Sipar through the years – via Geoportal of Cultural Property of Croatia

And surely they came. The first sounding of the site was in 1963, and archaeologists were excavating there until the storm of 1966. In 2013 the City Museum of Umag took over the site and the explorations are ongoing.

We learned so much about Sipar and its history – and so much remains to be discovered, examined, explained, and put together into a coherent story stretching for over ten centuries, from the purple-bearing snails of Insula Sepomaia to the blood-stained sails of Domagoj.

Most of the mystery of Sipar now lies beneath the waves …

The clear waters of the Adriatic allowed our kite to catch a glimpse of the sea bed around Sipar from above – and it’s full of suspiciously straight lines. Port structures that were lost to the sea are visible, but the whole picture is still a mess.

How large the settlement of Sipar really was? Was it inhabited before the wars with the Histri? Did the port structures extend all the way to the opposite shore, leaving a small entrance for the ships, protecting Sipar from the southern and southwestern winds? Are there any remains on the coast, an emporium or something like a vicus? And what is that strange rectangular feature in the middle of the bay? The foundations of a lighthouse? A sunken boat?

The rectangular underwater feature in the middle of the bay; the red lines are parallel to the grid of the excavated settlement

We don’t know, yet – the sea only whispered to our kites, talking in riddles, showing undeciphered signs.

But no worries, the archaeologists are on it! The day when Sipar finally sits down, lights a pipe, and tells us the whole tale from the beginning to the end is fast approaching.

Until then!

Big thanks to Štefan Mlakar, Branko Marušić, Vesna Girardi Jurkić, Ida Kocani Uhač, Branka Milošević Zakić, Robert Matijašić, Maja Čuka, Vedran Bileta, Zoran Čučković, and the rest of intrepid archaeologists and historians whose hard and meticulous work we’ve shamelessly plundered for our and your amusement. All errors, omissions, mixups and misunderstandings are exclusively on our behalf.

Kite aerial photos shot with Insta360 on The Rokker kite by Sandro Macchi, and with Nikon P330 on The Original Blue Rokkaku by Dr.Agon kites.

The Rokker on the left, The Original Blue on the right

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