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Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island

Traces of buildings erected by refugees from Dalmatia - one of the provinces of the Roman Empire - to protect themselves from invading Germanic tribes have been discovered by archaeologists on the island of Rab in Croatia. Discoveries attesting to population movements at such an early period are rare in archaeology.

Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island
Exploration of a makeshift settlement dating back to the 7th century AD
within an early Roman villa [Credit: F. Welc]

The find was made as part of a joint venture between the UKSW Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeology in Zagreb.

"This year's season has brought surprising and extremely important discoveries in the context of the entire eastern Adriatic region," Professor Fabian Welc, who is leading the research from the Polish side, told PAP. The coordinator from the Croatian side is Dr Ana Konestra.

This year, archaeologists conducted excavations within an early Roman rural villa complex, which was located several years ago thanks to GPR surveys in Podsilo bay in the north of the island. Until now, researchers believed that the discovered buildings dated only from the 1st - 3rd centuries AD.

Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island
Dr. Konestra presents a large fragment of a vessel imported from Africa, found in the 6th century
 occupation layer within the earlier Roman buildings [Credit: F. Welc]

"It turned out that the area of the settlement we studied was also inhabited later, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. A makeshift wooden structure was then erected in the remains of an already ruined villa. This came as a complete surprise to us", said Professor Welc.

Who created the new but rather primitive structures? "We tentatively assume that they were built by Roman settler-migrants coming from the parts of the Dalmatian province threatened by Ostrogoth invasions, covering the area of today's northern Croatia", Professor Welc explained. 

"By the end of the 6th century, Emperor Justinian partially recaptured the territory of this province from the Germanic barbarian tribes, including the island of Rab," he added.

Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island
Exploration of the northern section of a Roman villa within which late antique
occupation layers have been certified  [Credit: F. Welc]

According to Prof. Welc, this hypothesis on the origin of the new settlers is confirmed by the findings of Byzantine and Ostrogothic coins from that time discovered during the excavations. He added that the new settlers had already adapted a partly ruined villa for their needs and had only made necessary repairs by erecting wooden walls and roofs supported by wooden posts. Only numerous post holes have survived to the present day.

"Despite the rather primitive conditions they maintained a relatively high standard of living. Among the remains of the makeshift rooms we found only imported African vessels for oil and wine, glass and numerous bronze objects, including numerous coins" the archaeologist explained. In his opinion, all this testifies to the intensive contacts of the then inhabitants of the island of Rab with the Roman African provinces and with other parts of the Mediterranean.

It is possible that the island, which was a kind of refugium, witnessed another great migration. "In the 7th century a very makeshift repair of the villa complex was again carried out. Everything indicates that once again we are dealing here with another wave of reugees - this time settlers - migrants perhaps seeking refuge on the island from the wave of Slavs or Avars encroaching on the Balkans at the time," the researcher speculates.

Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island
Photogrammetic documentation of late antique archaeological contexts
[Credit: F. Welc]

According to Professor Welc, the 7th century settlement phase on the island of Rab is something unique in the world of archaeology: "It is the first find of its kind in the north-eastern Adriatic region. It gives an insight into the migration processes occurring at the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages, which is unique in archaeological material."

This is not the only important finding made by researchers of the past on the island of Rab this year. Thanks to radar scans, another monumental building was found in the western bay area. It was most likely lined with mosaics, as evidenced by the findings of numerous tesserae (small cubes forming mosaics) found on the ground surface.

"The plan of this foundation indicates that it had thermal functions, which we will try to confirm during next year's excavations," the professor announced.

Makeshift camp for refugees fleeing invading Germanic tribes discovered on Croatian island
Prof. Welc shows a brown applique from the 7th century [Credit: F. Welc]

The island of Rab was located in a strategic place on the map of Roman routes. For this reason, Emperor Octavian Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) built a port and a town on the island fortified with walls, remains of which have survived to the present day around the modern town of Rab. The main exports from the island were ceramics and probably olive oil and wine, possibly also fish. In return, glass products, good quality wine and high-quality terra sigillata vessels were imported, mainly from Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, from the Middle East, according to several years of research by an international team.

Author: Szymon Zdziebłowski | Source: PAP - Science in Poland [trsl. TANN; November 01, 2021]


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