Hijacking an archaeological heritage

Article published on 16 May 2011

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Of the many distressing aspects of the Bosnian ‘pyramids’ affair, surely, one of the most painful in the eyes of those who cherish and study Bosnian historical and archaeological heritage, must be the way in which the Osmanagic foundation (and its subsidiaries) regularly hijack parts of this heritage in an attempt to ram them willy-nilly into the chimera of the pseudo-pyramids. 


The first unfortunate ‘victims’ of this form of abuse were stecci, medieval tombstones found throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina either on their own or, more frequently, grouped together in cemeteries; although less numerous, they are also to be found in neighbouring countries (Serbia, Croatia ...). There are now over 60,000 listed, but it is likely that the real number was at one time much higher, although many have unfortunately now disappeared following the ravages of years of war and neglect. They were erected between the eleventh and the sixteenth century, and can take quite different forms: chests or coffins, stelae, simple standing obelisks. While most lack any ornamentation, several thousand display extraordinary geometric friezes, rosettes and spirals, crosses, human or animal figures, and sometimes an inscription expressing regret, sadness, or the hope of another world. 

Stecak à Radimlja
Stecak at Radimlja - Source

A few links to more information about stecci, and their importance in the context of Bosnian heritage [1]:

-  a digital catalog of stecci kept at the National Museum of Sarajevo;

-  a page on stecci with numerous photos and a catalogue of decorative motifs; 

-  a French site entirely devoted to stecci (fr), with many photos from dozens of sites;

-  some translations of stecci epitaphs;

- a Council of Europe document about the necropolis of Radimlja;

- the website of the public Agency J.U. Radimlja Stolac, which preserves and studies Radimlja necropolis and the other local heritage;

-  an article on stecci iconography, with a bibliography;

- a link to a book download (bs) by the Bosnian archaeologist Nada Miletic, Stećci - umetnost na tlu Jugoslavije , 1982;

- a book (bs) by Alojz Benac, Stecci , 1967 (to download, first register on Scribd.com, and upload a file);

- a book (bs + en) by Marian Wenzel, Ukrasni motivi na steccima - Ornamental motifs on tombstones from medieval Bosnia , 1965;

-  a list of pages about stecci on the Commission for the Protection of National Monuments in Bosnia and Herzegovina website;

- a catalog (en+bs) of stecci in Montenegro, STEĆCI, mramori, bilizi, belezi, kami... , made for the EUROPEAN HERITAGE DAYS 2012;

- a book (bs) by Ante Milosevic, Stećci i Vlasi , 1991, on the archaeological excavations of medieval necropoles in Croatia;

- a book (bs) by Dubravko Lovrenovic, Bosansko i humsko mramorje Srednjeg Vijeka , 2009;

- a MA Thesis (en) by Dejan Vemic, Late Mediaval Tombstones , 2011, on the stecci in Montenegro;

-  and, most importantly, even if now getting somewhat outdated, a book of over 600 pages (bs) by Sefik Beslagic, Stecci - Kultura i Umjetnost , published in 1979, which, in addition to an extensive bibliography, contains a complete catalogue of all decorations found on, and all forms adopted by, stecci (PDF file of 167 MB) ... You can also find on Scribd.com, by the same author, the full 1971 catalogue of the stecci in Yugoslavia, Stecci - Katalosko-topografski pregled (http://www.scribd.com/doc/45651467/STECCI-SEFIK-BESLAGIC-1, PDF file, 13 MB, 508 pages), as well as another, more recent, book, Leksikon Stecaka or Encyclopaedia of Stecci, 2004 (http://www.scribd.com/doc/34709027/%C5%A0efik-Be%C5%A1lagi%C4%87-Leksikon-ste%C4%87aka, PDF file, 53 MB, 287 pages - with a preface by the archaeologist Lidija Fekeza [2]). Let me quote a few words from her preface: “However, when we had already reached that degree of knowledge, in these areas at the end of the twentieth century occurred another time in which appeared new ideological theses on the stecci, but now for new purposes. Therefore the decision of IP "Svjetlost" to publish the Encyclopaedia of Stecci is to be welcomed. The Encyclopaedia is a concise personal choice of the author among his entire work. The book appears at a time when the era of myths is returning, and when the achieved results are ’forgotten’.”

At the very start of this pseudo-archaeological enterprise, Mr. Osmanagic began by denying the existence of stecci that were near the ‘pyramids’. The existence of a medieval cemetery, on the ‘plateau’ to the west of Visocica, is, however, a known fact, mentioned for example in the work of Pavao Andelic, Visoko i Okolina kroz Istoriju

Pavao Andelic
Visoko i Okolina kroz Istoriju, 1984, p.160

“Traces of a medieval cemetery near the site can be found on the ridge between the town and the fortress of Grad. A (damaged) stecak can still be seen there today, and we know that there were once more.” (Andelic, p.160) 

Given Mr. Osmanagic‘s argument that the medieval occupation of Visocica was confined to a small fortress at the top of the hill of which nothing now remained, which meant that there was nothing to prevent him from ‘excavating’ on Visocica, the stecci were something of a thorn in his side … unless of course the stones could actually be pieces from the ‘pyramid’ itself! This point was made in 2006 by the blogger Stultitia in an article ridiculing Mr. Osmanagic’s interpretation of a stecak as “one huge block that rolled from the top of the pyramid”)... 

Photo de Stultitia
Photo: Stultitia 


This photo taken by Stultitia shows: 

A: the spot where the Osmanagic team unearthed a partial skeleton, which then mysteriously disappeared;
B: the ruins of a building, probably medieval; 
C: the base of a medieval tombstone; 
and D: the stecak considered by Osmanagic to be “a megalith that rolled from the top of the pyramid”. 

In the same article, Stultitia is also equally withering about other cases of fanciful stecci interpretations by Mr. Osmanagic - for example, in his book Bosanska Piramida Sunca , he suggests that they were fragments from an “astronomic/energy temple” (bs) - and also slams his distortion of ancient folk traditions. Osmanagic endeavours to construct a link between healing rituals associated with the stecci, for example, and the stone spheres, which he tries to claim form elements in a “network of global energy”. 

Stecci and the world of “alternative archaeology”

This “alternative archaeology” interpretation of stecci, of which Mr. Osmanagic’s “astronomic/energy temple” is one example, has been pushed even further by others in his circle. Indeed, the Foundation website is forever publishing more or less preposterous articles on the subject of stecci. Some of these articles are not altogether serious, like the ones by “Doctor Amer Kovacevic”, aka Izmo, who gets a kick out of turning out absurd parodies that Mr. Osmanagic and his crew swallow unhesitatingly! Others, however, consist of - quite sober - interpretations of stecci that are, to say the least, startling in their novelty. One such suggestion comes from the Egyptian mineralogist, Aly Barakat. The fact that it appears that Mr. Barakat has not actually read any of the available literature on stecci does not prevent him from using a resemblance in shape between a stecak and the hill of Visocica as a basis for establishing a connection between stecci and pyramids, and considering stecci as “evidence of the existence of such civilization” (a “civilization dealing with megalith in the territory of Bosnia”).

Do the tombstones in Bosnia reflect the pyramidal shape of Visocica Hill?
Texte communiqué par son auteur, Aly Barakat - Paper sent by author, Aly Barakat 

(The above paper, sent to me by its author, is also available on the Foundation website, although heavily edited, possibly so that some of the references are no longer in evidence!) 

For Davorin Vrbancic (bs), the pyramids are steam engines, and these tombstones their operating manuals. For Fatih Hodzic (bs), on the other hand, the stecci are the remains of monuments from Atlantis scattered by a falling asteroid and a subsequent tsunami... 

Perhaps not quite as ‘wacky’, although just as pseudo-scientific, is the ‘SB Research Group’, whose turn it is to now get their hands on the poor defenceless stecci. For a long time now, Nenad Djurdjevic, the Group’s “historian” (!) [3], has been trying to argue that either the ‘pyramid’ builders themselves were directly responsible for the stecci; or that, although post-dating the ‘pyramids’, the stecci nevertheless display recurring designs and symbols that are an indication of the legacy left by those mysterious builders. This blog article, for example, entitled Sacrifice  or  In the name of the Sun, and the Moon, and the Stars  (direct link to the PDF), tries to make stecci into sacrificial stone altars of unknown date, although certainly much earlier than the medieval period. The location near Gorani discussed in the article, which, according to Djurdjevic, was “discovered in 2008” by an architect named Faris Licina [4], is very probably Sarcevina in the commune of Gorani, listed by the Commission for Protection of National Monuments (bs).

Mr. Djurdjevic explains that the first visit to the site with the “experts”, the Egyptians Aly Barakat (mineralogist) and Abu Bakr Moussa (wall paintings expert) drew a blank. A second visit, however, saw the discovery of at least one stone “sacrificial altar”, and perhaps more, as well as cup-marks on some of the stone blocks, which Djurdjevic interprets as grooves for ritual purposes. Merrily jumbling together indiscriminate references to the Cretans, the Yoruba, the Aztecs and Mayans, and various European Neolithic civilizations, the article, although lacking any evidence other than a vague stylistic resemblance, nevertheless seeks to link all these elements to a pre-Christian civilization practising human or animal sacrifice. 

But a look at the book by Sefik Beslagic, Stecci - Kultura i Umjetnost (bs), would have shown Djurdjevic, first, the many variations of shape adopted by the stecci, including blocks consisting of several parts, as in Djurdjevic‘s “altar” (see, for example, pages 88 and 92 of the book - pages 81 and 85 of the PDF file). Second, Djurdjevic would have discovered that it is not uncommon to find stecci with ‘cup marks’, small round or rectangular holes, along with traces of fire and the remains of animal bones nearby, although such elements are much more likely to form part of recognized burial traditions practised in the Middle Ages and even beyond. These would include traditions such as graveside funerary feasts, or the custom of reburial after a few years (see the chapter on funeral traditions from page 55 of the book - page 48 of the PDF). 

Another article entitled Bosnian Stone Spheres Revisited (direct link to the PDF), sees Mr. Djurdjevic this time engaged in trying to link together the pyramids, stone spheres (which are in fact naturally occuring stone concretions), and stecci, with particular reference to one obelisk-shaped stecak in Bakici (commune of Olovo), at a place called Vlaskovac. 

Obélisque de Vlaskovac
Obelisk in Vlaskovac - Source

In local tradition, this stecak is sometimes known as “the obelisk of King Tvrtko” [5]. Although relatively unusual, its shape is nevertheless not unknown (Sefik Beslagic, in the work mentioned above, lists more than 2,800 pillar stecci, some topped by a pyramid, some by a sphere or hemisphere, as at Sokolac or Rogatica; see p. 104 of the book - page 97 of the PDF; for different types of pillars, see also p. 106 - p. 99 of the PDF). This particular obelisk is very richly decorated, and also displays an astonishing use of many traditional stecci motifs (rosettes, spirals, twisted cords, and grapes). It is therefore astonishing that the Commission for the Protection of National Monuments, which devotes a page to the obelisk and its surrounding area (bs), could describe it as “unusual and impossible to figure out”, as claimed by Nenad Djurdjevic. However, a closer look reveals that, although this sentence is clearly present on the page in question, it most certainly is not in reference to the obelisk. Instead, it appears in a general paragraph on stecci, in which it is explained that, besides the usual easily identifiable motifs, certain stelae also display motifs that are “unusual and whose significance it is impossible to understand”. As we have seen here, this is not the first time that Mr. Djurdjevic has reorganized sources to suit his own agenda ... 

Mr. Djurdjevic has obviously, however, fallen completely under the spell of this magnificent stecak, which combines the motifs of sphere, pyramid, and spiral; besides the article already mentioned, he also devotes several articles and videos (bs) on his blog to the subject. Likewise, Mr. Debertolis [6] has also been captivated by the obelisk, for he mentions it several times, especially in this article (it) [6], devoted to stone spheres; on various forums (it); and most especially in a series of three papers (1 (it), 2 (it), and 3 (it) [6]), entitled Le sfere, il Sole e le pietre taumaturgiche nella Civiltà di Visoko in Bosnia  (“The spheres, the sun and the magic-working stones of the Visoko Civilization in Bosnia”). 

Among the aspects that our ‘researchers’ find so fascinating is, first of all, the animal found on each of the four sides. 

Tête de sanglier
Boar’s head - Source Nadia Miletic

Mr. Djurdjevic correctly identifies this as the head of a boar, but insists on interpreting the stylized body as a snake: in which case, it would then be a dragon (p. 16) that he links, for example, to the Chinese dragons of the Hongshan Culture. One item not mentioned by Mr. Djurdjevic, however, is the shield that, on all four sides of the obelisk, appears beneath the body of the boar. It was on the basis of this shield that Sefik Beslagic (p. 280 - p. 273, PDF), and other experts who have studied this particular stecak (Ćiro Truhelka, Alojz Benac, Nada Miletic) interpreted the composition as an heraldic symbol, an explanation that fits within the medieval Bosnian context, and does not depend on any links to Chinese dragons or the Egyptian goddess Nut! [7]

Something else that never fails to get the pseudo-scientists going is the shape of the stecak. As previously stated, although it doesn’t occur all that often, and even if obelisks-stecci are generally smaller than this, the form of this particular obelisk is nevertheless not unique. 

Stecak au monastère de Dokmir en Serbie
Stecak in the Dokmir monastery in Serbia - Source

More than one historian maintains that stecci in the form of pillars (rectangular or not), with a sphere or hemisphere on the top, appear to exemplify a transitional form between the original stecak and the nisan (“nichan”), a form of Ottoman tombstone that began appearing in Bosnia during the second half of the fifteenth century: 

Nisani à Bakici Donji
Nisan in Bakici Donji - Source

Indeed, from the mid-fifteenth century to the late sixteenth century, we find a whole range of intermediate forms that suggest a combination of influences: stecci topped by a ball as nisaninisani displaying motifs found on stecci (half- moons, rosettes, spirals), found mainly in central and eastern Bosnia, scene of the earliest Ottoman incursion. Sefik Beslagic has a detailed discussion of the relationship between stecci and nisani in Chapter 8 of his book, from page 529 onwards (p. 521 of the PDF). On the basis of these elements (the shape of the stecak; the heraldic symbol), the author suggests that the Bakici obelisk could have been erected for a feudal lord of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, a Christian and an officer of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps a member of the Bakic family after whom the village of Bakici is named. Of course this is only a hypothesis, but it has the advantage – which those proposed by MM. Djurdjevic and Debertolis lack - of fitting perfectly into the context of mediaeval Bosnia, without having to resort to vague stylistic resemblances to cultures distant in time and space! 

The last motifs on the Bakic obelisk to attract the attention of the ‘SB Research Group’ are spirals and double spirals. In fact, these spirals have really taken hold of Mr. Djurdjevic’s imagination, for he devotes pages to the spira solaris (“cosmic spiral”, Fibonacci series, galaxies, DNA, the whole panjandrum!). Discussion of the same motif (it) [6] is also to be found on Mr. Debertolis’ site; he makes it the cornerstone of his “Visoko civilization symbology” (“Non sono decorazioni, ma hanno un preciso significato nella cosmogonia della Civiltà di Visoko.” - “La spirale (Spira Solaris) rappresenta l’energia costante dell’universo e la sua struttura la ritroviamo in ogni cosa animata e inanimata, dal DNA alla galassia, passando persino per le conchiglie e l’organo dell’udito. In questo caso rappresenta la connessione energetica tra la terra e il cielo, inteso come eternità.”). Like so many pseudo-archaeologists, Mr. Debertolis falls into the temptation of ignoring such factors as era and distance, and seeks comparisons here, there and everywhere - having no hesitation in relating (it) the Bakici spirals to the painted spirals of the Nuragic civilization in Sardinia! And, on the basis of these “similarities” of decorative motif, he has also announced (it) that he intends to focus his research on Sardinia:

Tomba della Scacchiera
(Chequered Tomb) - Source

Abacus has already wondered whether Professor Debertolis might want to look more closely at the spirals of Newgrange. Might I myself respectfully suggest further destinations for the itinerary of the ‘SB Research Group’ in the coming years? The Gavrinis spirals must not be overlooked, nor those of Mont Bego (fr) or Scotland. Nor would it do to neglect the American continent: the spirals of Nazca, Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, California or Alaska. And could I suggest that the return journey be routed through the Pacific: New Caledonia (fr), New Zealand (fr) ... ?

Joking apart, the spiral is one of the decorative motifs used most widely by humans of all eras and all continents. In the case of stecci, the spirals, in addition to their purely decorative aspect, are often associated with clusters of grapes (as in the case of the Bakici obelisk), evoking representations of vines. To want to link a monument to a civilization separated by several hundred miles in distance, and probably several thousand years in time, on the sole basis of the presence of spirals that look similar to other spirals is, with all due respect to Professor Debertolis’ odontological skills, a completely ludicrous undertaking. And it is no less unwise to use the same motifs as a basis for challenging the accepted dating of this monument, and for claiming that it dates to the distant past and a hypothetical civilization for which we have no archaeological evidence (as has already been suggested earlier, if somewhat more diplomatically, by Abacus). 

What is even more incomprehensible is that this claim to revolutionize the understanding and interpretationof the stecci goes hand-in-hand with apparent blissful ignorance – whether deliberate or not – of the existence of stecci records. Instead, Professor Debertolis proffers numerous examples of incorrect non-facts about the stecci

- He says here (it) and here (it) [6], for instance, that stecci were not designed as tombstones, and that human remains were never found with them. He concedes only a possible "reuse" in cemetery contexts at a later date (“Sono state considerate delle lapidi, ma nei numerosi scavi non sono mai state trovate delle ossa al di sotto o in vicinanza di esse, se non quando queste pseudo necropoli, poste in cima alle colline, sono state riutilizzate in epoche successive come cimitero.”). Yet nothing could be further from the truth. All stecci excavations to date have yielded human remains, frequently more than one corpse to a grave [8]. Chapter 2 of the previously mentioned work by Sefik Beslagic contains examples of excavations and observations of the skeletons and objects found in tombs; see in particular from page 44 (p. 37 of the PDF) onwards. 

- Debertolis also states here (it) [6], for example, that there is no information available on the quarries from which the stecci were probably extracted (“Invece, non esiste alcuna documentazione di una cava dalla quale queste pietre siano state estratte o quale laboratorio artigiano le abbia scolpite. Per questo motivo è possibile che siano state solo riutilizzate nel Medio Evo, risalendo in realtà a epoche molto precedenti.”). Yet again, this is completely false. There are numerous examples of burial grounds for which the original quarry has been identified; in many instances, the quarry is also found near the necropolis, a few hundred metres away (see also from page 37, the chapter on quarries, in the book by Sefik Beslagic): Mokra Gora, Boljuni, Gvozno, Bitunja ... In the case of Radimlja, we even have an example of an unfinished stecak left in the quarry. 

- In the same article, Professor Debertolis also claims that there is no information about the artisans who carved the stecci (“non esiste alcuna documentazione [...] o quale laboratorio artigiano le abbia scolpite”): yet another piece of entirely incorrect information. While many stecci are unsigned, as is often the case with medieval artefacts, we do still have a relatively detailed list of the names of sculptors and scribes (the carving of the stecak, and the carving of the inscriptions, was generally carried out by different people). Sefic Beslagic devotes an entire chapter (starting on page 457 (452 ​​of the PDF)) to these master craftsmen. Some were obviously quite well known: they travelled to various parts of the country, and formed actual "schools". Somehow, the names of Master Grubac, Master Radoje and Master Semorad survived the centuries of ravages wrought by time and man. A sad fate, then, for them to be finally erased from the pages of history by an Italian odontologist and a Croatian car salesman ... 

To follow in a few days: Part II, the Butmir Culture

Notes :

[1But it would surely be preferable if they weren’t ‘rediscovered’ by the school of Bosnian ultra-nationalism: http://www.piramidasunca.ba/en/index.php/bosnia-what-a-great-feeling.html. “When I read them, I get the feeling that they were written as warnings and prayers for us, their descendants, as they wish to tell us; ‘don’t let go of this noble country’. They fought for one idea ; one ruler, one nation, one Bosnia”, said one visitor to the Osmanagic Foundation site on the subject of stecci. “One ruler, one nation, one Bosnia”: that reminds me of something. I wonder what … ??

[2Lidija Fekeza, specialist of Middle Ages archaeology, is one of the few professional archaeologists in Bosnia, and one who fought to preserve the Bosnian heritage at Zemaljski Museum during the war, at a time when Mr. Osmanagic was travelling as a tourist in Central America...

[3Although Mr. Djurdjević was initially a member of the SBRG, a brief notice dated 18th April 2011 on the group’s website stated that, because of differing views on investigative methodology, it had been agreed that he would withdraw from the group.

[4The same who, in 2007, together with some veterinarian friends, wrote (bs) triumphantly to Semir Osmanagic to announce the discovery of what they called "formations" of concrete blocks which he linked to the pyramids, and which were perhaps stecci all the time ... The same Faris Licina also seemed to believe (bs) that the Necronomicon was a real book, as authentic as the Quran and the Bible!

[5That is nothing more than a legend, though, and recognized as such by serious Bosnian historians, contrary to the assertions of Professor Paolo Debertolis, who claims (it) (see note 6) that this legend (an obelisk erected at the site where King Tvrtko was wounded) “is the explanation accepted by most historians of Bosnia, and formally accepted by the scientific community” (“C’è, pertanto, una leggenda che narra che in quel luogo il re Tvrtko della Bosnia, nel 14° secolo, è stato ferito durante una battuta di caccia ed in memoria del fatto fu eretto l’obelisco a perenne ricordo. Questa è anche la spiegazione accettata dalla maggioranza degli storici bosniaci e accolta ufficialmente dalla comunità scientifica”) ...

[6A day or two after the first appearance of the article that you are reading, Professor Debertolis removed all the articles to which I am referring here. However, readers anxious to learn more can find versions of the papers as captured in Google cache by following this link.

[7Mr. Djurdjevic also devotes a whole paragraph to the “alchemical symbol” represented by the “swordhandle” which he sees across the boar’s mouth; personally speaking, it seems to me rather more reminiscent of a slightly exaggerated representation of a lower canine ... 

[8On the other hand, examples of stecci graves that were looted or destroyed before they could be properly excavated are regrettably only too plentiful.

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