Published: January 2007, National Geographic Magazine
A River’s Gifts
Why did Romans, Celts, and even prehistoric settlers submerge their personal belongings, from swords to dishes, in a shallow river in Slovenia?
By Carol Kaufmann
Archaeologist Andrej Gaspari is haunted by pieces of the past. His hometown river, the Ljubljanica, has yielded thousands of them—Celtic coins, Roman luxuries, medieval swords—all from a shallow 12-mile stretch. Those who lived near and traveled along the stream that winds through Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana considered it sacred, Gaspari believes. That would explain why generations of Celts, Romans, and earlier inhabitants offered treasures—far too many to be accidental—to the river during rites of passage, in mourning, or as thanksgiving for battles won.
But Gaspari may never be able to explain for certain why the Ljubljanica holds one of Europe’s richest stores of river treasures, many of them remarkably preserved by the soft sediments and gentle waters. Too many pieces of the puzzle have already disappeared.
During the past two decades, sport divers have made the river their playground, removing most of some 10,000 to 13,000 objects found so far. Even though removing artifacts from the Ljubljanica has long been illegal, professional archaeologists have been forced to compete with private collectors. Some divers sold their loot to museums; others to the highest bidder. Some kept their treasures private. Many artifacts have left the country, untraceable. Gaspari’s greatest torment comes from the knowledge that few maverick collectors know—or care—where exactly their prizes were found. For an archaeologist, an object’s meaning comes as much from its context—location, association with other objects—as from the prize itself. Without context, there is no story.
Mladen Mück is one of Gaspari’s tormentors. Now in his 40s, the Bosnian-born architectbegan diving in the river in 1985 and has brought up about a thousand pieces. In his kitchen in Ljubljana, a plastic box contains prehistoric tools. Upstairs, dusty cases hold other rare artifacts, including deer antler axes. Mück says he has no intention of selling what he has found. Like many collectors, he babies his goods and claims they are better off with him than with the authorities.
“More people see these artifacts in my house than if I gave them to a museum,” he says with a dismissive wave. “There they would sit in a basement.”
Gaspari disagrees. A team at the National Museum of Slovenia is preparing an exhibit of the river’s treasures that will tour Europe in 2008, he says. Still, he hopes that someday Mück will hand over his items. “My heart is strong,” quips the 33-year-old archaeologist. If Mück is obstinate, “I will outlive him.”
As for artifacts still in the Ljubljanica, Gaspari believes they should be left untouched until they can be properly conserved. He searches for new objects only when he believes they are threatened—as is the case on one blistering July afternoon. Struggling into a wet suit on the riverbank, Gaspari gets ready for a dive. Water visibility is unusually good, he says, though you might not think so looking at all the algae and bits of trash.
He and his team have been hired by the town of Vrhnika to search for artifacts that could be lost when a sewage plant is built on the river. The need for a treatment plant is obvious from the stench of sulfur, and worse.
Gaspari doesn’t expect to ﬁnd much here, perhaps some medieval potsherds, not rare in an Old World river. But less than an hour after the divers begin their survey, one member of his team, Miran Erič-Pac, surfaces and hands him an ax made from deer antlers more than 5,000 years ago.
“We’ve never found an artifact so old this far upstream,” Gaspari says. “It’s probably from a nearby prehistoric settlement.”
Then from the murk comes a 16th-century water pitcher painted with an aqua bird and yellow flowers that resembles a thousand replicas in local souvenir shops. Another diver hands him a chunk of stone with a decorative edge—a fragment of an ancient plate. Gaspari strokes its flat side, as familiar with its shape as with his morning coffee cup. “It’s early Roman,” he says, “around 10 b.c.”
Throughout the day, more pieces of Slovenia’s early story are found. Like other objects from the riverbed, they hint at a mysterious connection between distant generations and waters they revered. Somewhere, perhaps in the trove of artifacts in private hands—or perhaps in the river’s murky depths—is the clue that could unlock the mystery.
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Writer Carol Kaufmann’s approach to covering a story about ancient artifacts is to “find the living person who’s passionate about them,” which wasn’t hard to do in Slovenia. “People are absolutely crazy about what comes out of the Ljubljanica River,” she says. “The treasures excavated from that little river could make curators of many American museums cry.”
What was your best experience during this assignment?
The water was exceptionally clear the day I dived into the Ljubljanica River. While the archaeology team surveyed part of the riverbed, photographer and dive master Arne Hodalič showed me around the river he’s been photographing for the past three years. We could see sherds from medieval pots and bits of Roman glass popping out of the mud. Rivers in the United States may have their share of Coke cans and hubcaps, but rarely anything older than, say, 1986. So I was like a kid in a chocolate factory, all wide-eyed and impressed. But the glimpses of riches that stunned this American gal were no big deal to the Old World Slovenians. Medieval? To them, that’s so yesterday.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
I’d had a baby ten months before the Slovenia trip, so I haven’t quite returned to the former me and, uh, severely underestimated my wet suit size. When we arrived on the river around noon on that blistering July day, I tried to stuff myself into the hot, miserable neoprene by jumping up and down. But the skintight material never budged past my knees. In the end, I couldn’t dress myself. The photographer held the sides of the suit together, and the archaeologist inched the zipper upward as I sucked in. Horrific. Thank God it was hot! Sweat helped.
What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?
Photographer Arne Hodalič and I were invited to the home of a collector who’d been diving into the treasure-laden Ljubljanica River for about 20 years. He’d been down to the bottom of the river maybe 200 times, more than any archaeologist, and had become quite skilled at finding and recognizing artifacts. His home was a museum, minus the good lighting and fancy displays. Up in a dusty attic-like room crowded with magazines, religious symbols, portraits, scuba equipment, and yoga mats were boxes of priceless archaeological artifacts. A crate full of deer-antler axes looked old—about 6,000 years to be precise. He pulled out his laptop and showed us similar objects for sale on an auction house’s website. Each ax was worth 500 euros ($650) apiece. Bronze swords, the pride of his collection, would net a cool 3,000 euros ($3,950), at least.