Special Place, Interesting Times: The Island of Palagruža and Transitional Periods in Adriatic Prehistory

Stašo Forenbaher introduces his forthcoming Archaeopress publication, due Spring 2018

May you live in interesting times! While nobody knows the origin of this alleged old Chinese curse, its meaning is clear: in times of upheaval and radical change, most people’s lives are neither safe nor easy. Many archaeologists are drawn to such turbulent periods, marked by rupture and innovation which they can detect in the archaeological record, try to grasp their origin, and explain their consequences.

One might say that prehistory of the Adriatic was always in transition. Step-by-step changes continued in all ages, but their rhythm was not always the same. On several occasions, a series of changes over a relatively short time period resulted in dramatic transformations. Three crucial episodes of change marked the later Adriatic prehistory. The first one, which took place around year 6000 BC, was a transformation of subsistence strategy, transition from hunting and gathering to farming. The second one, which in the absence of a better term I prefer to call the raise of elites, was a social transformation that played out in the third millennium BC, when for the first time we can see the power of individuals clearly expressed by material culture. The third and the last episode, inclusion into the Mediterranean world system and the classic Mediterranean civilization, coincided with the end of prehistory in the Adriatic region.

During all of those episodes, travel and connectivity with distant lands played an exceptionally important role. Under the circumstances, some places gained particular importance due to their unique geographic location. Palagruža is among the most prominent such places, its importance being out of all proportion to its physical size. Adriatic prehistory cannot be told without mentioning Palagruža, and prehistory of Palagruža cannot be understood without knowing Adriatic prehistory. Due to its strategic position in the very center of the Adriatic Sea, due to the mystery born of distance and isolation, due to its wild and spectacular landscape, Palagruža indeed is a special place. A reflection of its specialty is an unexpected abundance of high-grade archaeological evidence, dating precisely from the three aforementioned periods marked by radical change.



I first came to Palagruža in May 1993 as a member of an international archaeological team, led by Branko Kirigin and Timothy Kaiser, that carried out test excavations on the island. But we were not the first archaeologists on the scene: Sir Richard Burton and Carlo Marchesetti have beaten us to it by more than a century. They paid a visit to Palagruža in 1876, only a year after the great lighthouse had been built on its rocky summit. The island’s remoteness fascinated them, and they described in some detail its geology, flora and fauna, as well as the surprisingly abundant evidence of prehistoric, Greek and Roman visitors. Thanks to Burton and Marchesetti, we knew that there were ancient remains on Palagruža waiting to be discovered.

Figure 2
Impressed Ware potsherds, early sixth millennium BC.

Beginning in 1993, many excavation seasons followed over the next fifteen years, at first with multiannual breaks, later on a regular annual basis, and sometimes even twice within the same year. During four of those seasons, I was privileged to take part in those excavations and to experience the magic of Palagruža in the company of a small Robinsonian community of archaeologists. Thanks to that, Palagruža is a special place for me at a very personal level.

Many of the ideas that I elaborate in my book about prehistory of Palagruža were conceived during frequent periods spent together with Timothy Kaiser. Our friendship, which grew out of joint fieldwork at a series of Dalmatian prehistoric sites, goes back to my beginner’s days. The way I do archaeology owes very much to Tim. But my somewhat unusual orientation of an inlander who does Adriatic prehistory I owe mostly to Branko Kirigin, the main ‘culprit’ for my first fieldwork experiences in Dalmatia. When systematic excavation began on Palagruža, Branko entrusted me with the analysis of prehistoric finds. I admit that I kept him waiting for a long while: a quarter century has passed since his first, unforgettable and decisive visit to Palagruža (as he once vividly described it to me). I hope that my book justifies his expectations.

Figure 3
Incised-and-impressed Cetina style potsherds, second half of the third millennium BC.


The first, introductory part of the book discusses geographic location, natural environment and resources of Palagruža, offers an attempted reconstruction of its appearance during Holocene, and describes archaeological investigations that preceded our own work, including the archaeological evidence recovered by the early investigators. The second part of the book provides detailed descriptions of prehistoric sites and finds accumulated during our investigations that lasted from year 1992 until 2007. Most of it is dedicated to Salamandrija, the central and most important prehistoric site on the island, which is dominated by pottery, flaked stone, and ground stone assemblages from the third millennium BC. Among other sites that follow, Jankotova njiva stands out due to its few, but very characteristic, finds from the first half of the sixth millennium BC.

The contributions written by Zlatko Perhoč and Robert H. Tykot on sources of the raw materials for the lithic artifacts from Palagruža are crucially important for our understanding of long-distance connections. Zlatko’s petrographic analyses of chert demonstrated the existence of intensive and persistent trans-Adriatic interaction, while Rob’s analyses of obsidian confirmed occasional contacts with much more distant Mediterranean islands: Lipari in the Tyrrhenian, and Melos in the Aegean Sea.

Figure 4
Archery equipment: ground stone wristguards, arrow points, and crescent microlithic armatures, third millennium BC.

The third part of the book begins with an analysis of environmental characteristics of all small and remote Adriatic islands, and of peculiar circumstances that predetermined Palagruža’s special role. Discussions follow of its role in the crucial episodes of Adriatic prehistory, eight thousand years ago during the spread of farming into the Adriatic, and five thousand years ago during the rise of the first Adriatic elites. These are accompanied by an additional chapter on Adriatic pottery styles of the third millennium BC, without which it would not have been possible to write coherently about Palagruža, or about the Adriatic, during that period. The fourth part of the book, an appendix containing summary information about more than 150 sites that yielded characteristic finds, supplements the discussion of those styles.

Header image: The author excavating at Palagruža, September 2004.


Stašo Forenbaher is Senior Research Advisor at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia. He studied archaeology at the University of Zagreb (Croatia), and received his PhD from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas (TX). His research interests cover Mediterranean Prehistory with a focus on the Adriatic, and include transition to farming, formation of early elites, archaeology of caves, and lithic analysis. He has excavated at many prehistoric stratified cave sites in the eastern Adriatic, including Pupićina Cave in Istria, Vaganačka Cave in Velebit Mountain, Grapčeva Cave on the island of Hvar, and Nakovana Cave on Pelješac Peninsula. His current fieldwork is focussed on the excavation of Vela Cave on the island of Korčula.

Forthcoming from Archaeopress, due Spring 2018:

Special Place, Interesting Times: The Island of Palagruža and Transitional Periods in Adriatic Prehistory by Stašo Forenbaher (with contributions written by Zlatko Perhoč and Robert H. Tykot). Archaeopress Archaeology, 2018. More details soon.