A day with Macedonian archaeology – Demir Kapija

The development of the settlements and fortresses on the entrance of the Demir Kapija gorge

The geography of the Balkan Peninsula is comprised of many river valleys, ravines, uplands and passages with a great number of land routes passing through the region. One of the most important land routes traced form prehistoric times was the Transbalkanic route that leads through the valleys of the rivers Vardar and Morava. The valleys of these two rivers are spreading though the Dinaric region and they represent the shortest longitudinal land route that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Pannonian lowland. A great number of peoples with their conquests have passed through this route in the past. The importance of this section of the road can be confirmed even today with the recent migrations form the Middle East to Europe, it was chosen as the most favorable and shortest possible route by the migrants traveling to their final destination in Central Europe.

In Tabula Peutingeriana a map compiled in the 4th century AD, we can see the exact track of this section of the road. On the map, this section is marked as Via a Hammeo Usquae Ad Thessalonicam. In large part the section moves along the valley of the river Vardar. On the map the road station Stenas is located 33 Roman miles south-east from Stobi and 65 Roman miles north-west from Thessaloniki. This station was strategically placed on the entrance of the Demir Kapija gorge. The name Stenas is of Greek origin and its meaning is a strait/gorge. Although the name has changed throughout history and in the 11th century the fortress in the gorge had a Slavic name – Prosek (meaning slit or crack), and latter a Turkish name – Demir Kapu (literally Iron Gate), the same as today, all these names have a tendency to describe the area and the gorge.

This gorge is the last and longest gorge of the river Vardar to its estuary into the Aegean Sea and thus the last and most difficult obstacle on this road. The Demir Kapija gorge is in fact formed in the north by the massif Juručki Kamen, as an extension of the mountain Konečka, and the massif Krastevec from the south, as an extension of the Mariovo-Meglen Mountains (Kožuv). In the area where the massifs Jurički Kamen and Krastavec are closest to each other, a natural gap was formed in the limestone structure where the river Vardar had made its course. The limestone structure here ascends from the river up to 200 meters in height and leaves no possibility for any road communication. The gorge is a natural border between the region of the Middle Povardarie in the north and Lower Povardarie in the south.

Demir Kapija gorge from west

This position allowed the locals to have control of this road section which, in order to pass through the gorge had to climb the steep hills of Mal and Golem Krastavec or to around them. This contributed to the rise of powerful and rich settlements that could afford the luxury of the more civilized and developed south in the beginning of the 6th and 5th century BC. The entrance of the gorge was densely populated from both sides of the river, and according to some opinions with Athenian colonists. This position and the geographical configuration of the gorge itself was limiting the movement from south to north and vice versa and very early had become a border between the Macedonian Kingdom from the South and Paeonia from the North.

In the 4th century BC, for better control of the land routes through the gorge, two powerful fortresses in the opus quadratum technique were built, one of each side of the river. The archaeological findings in these fortresses indicate that they were part of the Macedonian kingdom and they existed in the period from the second half of the 4th century BC until the plundering raids of the Celts that passed through the Vardar valley in 279 BC. The Macedonian kingdom was weakened from the Wars of the Diadochi who fought for years over the rule of Alexander’s empire and could not oppose these, as Aristotle says, best warriors among the peoples.

The theory that the life in the fortress Markova kula – Korešnica has ended with these intrusions is confirmed with the layer of intense burning on the entrance corridor of the fort dated with coins form the time of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. We have the same situation in all pre-Roman settlements on the entrance of the gorge. The settlements at the sites Varnici and Manastir, as well as the necropolis in the area Bolnica-Demir Kapija, which is on the right side of the river, also at the fortresses Ramnište and Krasavec. On the left side beside the fortress Markova Kula we have the settlements in the area of ​​Crkvište, Kamen and the refugium at Markov Grad. The life in all of these settlements has ended in the first half of the 3rd century BC. In fact, there is a similar situation in a number of other sites along the Vardar River, such as the sites of Isar Marvinci in Valandovo, Gloska Čuka and Vardarski Rid near Gevgelija, Nerezi, Brazda, Varvara and Studenicani near Skopje.

After these raids, the settlements and fortresses in Demir Kapia were completely destroyed, and in the next several centuries, almost no traces of life have been confirmed at the entrance of the gorge, but also in the wider region of the Vardar valley. None of the above-mentioned settlements were restored until the Roman conquests and the reestablishment of a stable government. This situation was probably due to the terrible raids of the Celts, but also the long and exhausting three Macedonian-Roman wars, which led to almost complete depopulation of area.

Traces of life in the gorge appear again in the second half of the 2nd century AD. This period of prosperity, stability and road safety allowed a new settlement to rise at the entrance of the gorge, but this time only on the right side where the river Bošava flows into the river Vardar. The archaeological excavations indicate that a settlement built according to the urban schemes of Roman construction existed here from the second half of the 2nd century until the 4th century AD.

This settlement probably developed from the Station Stenas, marked on the Tabula Peutingeriana. This unnamed settlement was flourishing until the second half of the 3rd century when again it experienced the fate of the terrible devastation, this time from the great Gothic raids. During the great crisis in the Empire, the population withdrew to safer locations on the hills on the edge of the gorge, and some of them occupied the fortresses and refugiums that existed here in the past. After the crisis, this unnamed settlement / station Stenas continued to live for a short period with reduced intensity, before completely dying out in the first half of the 4th century, at the expense of the surrounding settlements.

After the previous events, during the 4th century AD and with the strengthening of Thessaloniki as an administrative and capital city of the Diocese of Macedonia, later elevated to the rank of the capital of the prefecture Illiricum, serious efforts were undertaken for the restoration and strengthening of the fortresses and settlements on the entrance of the gorge, and also some new fortresses were built. Taught from the great crises in the recent past, in this period, new fortresses were built hastily, transversely through the gorge, where an “inner limes” was formed that included a system of seven fortresses and one cloister, which completely blocked the passage through the gorge, that is, the transition from the Middle to the Lower Povardarie.

In this construction project, two fortresses and a refugium were built on the left side and four(?) fortresses on the right side of the river Vardar. From the left side, starting from north to south, are the fortresses: Markova Kula and Kula, as well as the refugium Markov Grad all in the vicinity of the village Korešnica. The line of fortifications transversely through the gorge continues on the sites on the right side of the river Vardar. Four fortresses and one barrier wall were recorded here. Starting from north to south, they are: the fortresses of Kula Podstralec, Ramnište and Gorni Krastevec near Demir Kapija and Kaluđerska Čuka, near the village Dren.

Markova Kula

The restored and the newly built fortresses and the refugium on the left side of the river Vardar in the 4th century, as the last defensive line of the passage from Middle to Lower Povardarie, set the foundations for the defensive system of the gorge. These, with certain reparations, modifications and additions, will comprise the defense system throughout the entire 5th and partly in the 6th century.

With the Avaro-Slavic incursions the refugium Markov Grad, although high on the mountain was the first on the line, and was not safe enough. That is why during the time of Justinian I a new refugium was built on the site Kale-Strezov Grad in the village Čelevec, secluded and well hidden in the gorge and separated from Juručki Kamen by the deep canyon of the river Čelevečka. This refugium was well protected from the incursions from the north and was more successful in the defense. In a short while the refugium grew into a fortress with a suburb and a separated acropolis. At the entrance of the fortress an early Christian church was built with an adjacent necropolis. During this period the fortresses on the sites Markova Kula and Kula-Korešnica served as a defensive line of the main fortress on the site Strezov Grad- village Čelevec.

Sterzov Grad

While the center of gravity in 6th century falls on the fortresses on the left side of the river Vardar, the fortresses on the right side offer no evidence of activity after the 4th century. The movable archaeological material from all these archaeological sites that was collected and processed so far, gives us no indication that the fortresses were used throughout the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages only the area of the site Crkvište-Demir Kapija was active, where an early Christian basilica was built in the late 4th-5th century and where there are still some traces of life until the 15th century.

From the end of the 6th until the 12th century there were no traces of activity in these fortresses and the refugium. Only in the fortress of Kale – Strezov Grad, after the last findings from the 6th century, traces of life in the 10th century were documented, with two coins of the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos. Unlike the fortresses, on the plain east of the gorge, on the left side of the river Vardar, small settlements appear on the river  terraces, with necropolises which date to the 11th and 12th century. In the middle of the 12th century these necropolises were no longer used for burial, and at the same time the activity of the fortresses on the left side of Vardar increased. This situation was also documented in the written sources from the end of the 12th-13th century and it was due to the great political, financial and military crisis that this area fell into in the 12th century, when it was under the Byzantium rule.

This was also confirmed with the archaeological material, primarily from the fortress of Kale-Strezov Grad, but also from Markova Kula, Kula and Markov Grad. The recorded archaeological material speaks of their intense activity toward the end of 12th and 13th century.

According to the data we have for the existence of the fortresses and settlements in the gorge, the activity in the fortresses was significantly increased during the turbulent periods. Such is the case at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd century BC, the second half of the 3rd and the first half of the 4th century AD, which also continued in the 5th and especially in the 6th century AD. Lastly, the fortresses were again in function in the late 12th and 13th century, and few of them remained active until the 15th century. The placement of the fortresses and their orientation towards the Middle Povardarie opposite, the area in the gorge, indicates that they were intended for protection against the danger that comes from the west, i.e. the north. Such increased activity in these periods points to the significance of the gorge and the fortresses built at the entrance for control and safety of the roads and the passage to Lower Povardarie.

Ordance Petrov, MA, assistant-researcher

Institute for Old Slavic culture


Diversity in Archaeological Work: One Archaeologist’s Journey

The mission of the Day of Archaeology project has been to show the diversity of work done by archaeologists around the world as a group, and what a success it has been!

In this post, I want to demonstrate that a single archaeologist can have diversity in work throughout their career too, and to emphasise that there is (paid) work to be found in this field. I started my career with a focus on the archaeology of the Byzantine and Islamic periods in the country of Jordan. While I am still on this chosen path of mine and continue to be active in both excavation and research, I spent the actual Day of Archaeology this year writing a conservation management plan for a cemetery founded at the end of the 19th century in Australia!

I write this post especially for those younger people who might be interested in pursuing their interest in archaeology as a career but who may be discouraged (either by themselves or through the warnings of elders and peers) by the myth that there is no work in archaeology. The skills one develops as an archaeologist are transferrable. I don’t necessarily mean to jobs in the mainstream, though that is also true (but you just might have to try extra hard to convince employers of that!) – I mean in the field itself, and in related fields. With hard work and effort, supported by flexibility, a dedication to networking, a little bit of entrepreneurship, and of course (as with anything else), luck, an archaeologist can find work across a range of interesting projects and disciplines while getting paid.


Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi – 2017

The Anglo-Georgian Expedition first excavated at the stunning, multi-period site of Nokalakevi (in Samegrelo, western Georgia) in 2001, when a handful of British students travelled to a relatively unknown corner of Europe and were taught archaeological skills by an equally small number of British and Georgian professionals. Going from strength to strength – helped, it must be said, by the huge improvement in the stability of Georgia and its economy since 2001 – the expedition is now the longest-running international collaboration in Georgian archaeology, with a team this year of about 30.

The site itself is most well known for the surviving fortifications, dating to the 4th to 6th centuries AD, which still dominate the landscape. The eastern fortifications add to the impressive natural defences provided by a steep hill to the north, and a deep limestone gorge carved by the Tekhuri river which meanders in a loop around the west and south of the site.

The site of Nokalakevi at the base of the steep hill (left) where the Tekhuri emerges from the gorge onto the Colchian Plain

Since 2001, the Anglo-Georgian Expedition has worked in six trenches. Complete sequences from Trenches A-C have revealed 3.5m of stratified deposits, with settlement at the site having begun at the latest by the 8th century BC, and some evidence that it was even earlier.

This season we are working in Trenches F and G. The first is revealing a large Hellenistic-period building, terraced into the lower slope of the hill where it begins to level out onto what we refer to as the ‘lower town’ area. Constructed in clay and timber, the bases of the walls consist of lines of unbonded limestone blocks – presumably providing a waterproof sill to prevent groundwater in this very wet and humid part of Georgia limiting the lifespan of the buildings. Having found fragmentary remains of Hellenistic-period structures in Trench A in 2007, this is the first time we have been fortunate enough to find an apparently complete structure. In the last few days a burial was found close to the structure, complete with ear-rings and a large number of intricate glass beads.

A large Hellenistic-period building being revealed in Trench F


Work beginning in Trench G towards the start of the 2017 season

Trench G was only opened this season, and so far it has taken a great deal of effort to remove 1980s conservation deposits; overlying a large quantity of limestone blocks that fell from the fortifications once they ceased to be properly maintained. Having excavated through these deposits we have revealed post-medieval features, including part of a ‘qvevri’ – a distinctive variety of large ceramic vessel in which Georgian wine has been made for thousands of years, in a process now on the Intangible World Heritage list.

Remains of the large qvevri in Trench G, perhaps once full of wine

Trench G had one last surprise for us, however. Just as we were cleaning up ready to draw our sections in the middle of the last week, a coin fell out of the section and was spotted by Giles, one of our trench supervisors. Although it needs to be properly cleaned by our colleague Nino at the Janshia Museum laboratory in Tbilisi, it appears to be a 30 nummi coin of the late 6th century AD, probably dating to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Tiberius (578-582).

The obverse and reverse of a 6th century 30 nummi coin

This year’s ‘Day of Archaeology’ falls on our last full day in Nokalakevi before we head back to Tbilisi tomorrow after a month’s excavating. Today we will be tying up loose ends, and protecting the archaeological remains with sheeting and backfill so that we can return to it next year.

Digital Archaeology Across Disciplines

I’m spending this year’s Day of Archaeology in LEADR, which is Michigan State University’s Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research. One of the lab’s primary initiatives is to help professors incorporate digital methods into history and anthropology courses, including archaeology. Students learn a variety of skills and tools, from data visualization and mapping, to multi-media dissemination of research. I recently started as the lab’s Assistant Director and have been gearing my skills training toward 3D modeling with the goal of teaching workshops to students and the wider Digital Humanities community at MSU.


Taking drone footage of a Campus Archaeology dig at MSU. Photo: courtesy of the Campus Archaeology Program

Earlier this summer, graduate assistant Brian Geyer taught me how to fly a drone over a Campus Archaeology Program trench to record video of the dig, as you can see in the photo at left, and he’s been helping me brush up on photogrammetry techniques, digitally combining photographs to create 3D models. The modeling is also useful in my academic research, which is on Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey where there are hundreds of rock-cut structures with wall paintings that date from the medieval Byzantine period. I’ve been learning Photoscan and SketchUp in order to find more nuanced ways than photographs to represent architectural spaces in the classroom and in publications.

My afternoon in the lab will be spent cleaning a dataset that I collected for my recently-defended art history dissertation. To collect the data, I spent two research trips hiking in Turkey, taking pictures and recording descriptions of ceiling decoration in monuments throughout several valleys. Over the last few years I also spent time in libraries and photo archives finding other published examples. One of my favorites is Eğritaş Kilisesi (which roughly translates to “Crooked Stone Church”) in the Ihlara Valley, the monument shown in the featured image (above). It is an enormous rock-cut space from the Middle Byzantine period that has been damaged by rock falls. There are remnants of paintings on the walls, ceiling, and apse, which are visible here because the west wall has collapsed. It was originally two stories tall, and decorated tombs are still visible at ground level. The result of documenting monuments like this one will be an interactive catalog of monuments in Cappadocia where monumental crosses adorn the ceilings and influenced viewers’ use of the spaces beneath. This research will become part of Open Context, a repository and publisher of archaeology data, and is also part of my capstone project for the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method & Practice that will convene next month.

As you can see, my work is a convergence of several threads—pedagogy, history, archaeology, art history, and design. The unifying factor in all of them is a goal to use technology to convey the past—its people, philosophies, and practices—in order to better understand ourselves. Doing this encourages empathy for people (both ancient and contemporary), whether they’re from across town or in a distant place, and contributes to wider understanding of the importance of cultural heritage monuments.

A.L. McMichael
Find me on Twitter (@ByzCapp) or check out @LEADR_MSU for more about our work in the lab.

From legacy data to drones

While my archaeological journey began in Italy and I still hang out with the Etruscans of Poggio Civitate, my day job is with the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis as the Publications Data Manager, a brand new position which I began in March of 2014, and FINALLY I’ve made it to site after messing with their data, images, documentation, and all things print and digital. Most of the time I’m in Cambridge (Somerville to be exact) cleaning up data, digitizing images, archivally storing those images, copy editing, website developing, and answering questions from scholars and fans of the Lydians and those who came after at Sardis.

My first day on site began with a ride in a land rover far older than I, crammed into the back with six conservators and equipment, to watch them take photos and take care of business on some newly exposed floor levels. The thing sounds like a swarm of bees, but looks like a good time to play with.  It’s less fun to have it flying right above you as you sweep a floor.  I got to hold a newly-lifted vessel in a box on its way back in the Land Rover to the compound.

Now I’m becoming accustomed to this depot, and after an hour it feels like home. I finally have the chance to weigh and measure a set of Byzantine glass weights that a scholar asked about a couple months ago for a new publication on this object type. Feels good to finally hold in my hands the objects I’ve only longingly gazed at in the images I archived.  Here at Sardis I’ve seen over 50 years of excavation, from paper tags to photogrammetry, shovels and drones, ancient past, less ancient past, recent past, present, and future.  So happy to be a part of it all.

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year's excavation units

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year’s excavation units

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts