History and Cultural Heritage
(By: Boris Olujić, D.Sc., Associate Professor, University of Zagreb Faculty of Philosophy History Department)
Ancient writers called Velebit Albion oros, Albanon oros (Αλβιον ορος, Αλβανον ορος) in Greek or Mons Albius in Latin. We may assume that the Indo-European root *alb (lat. albus, white) brings the name of this mountain in connection with its features. The first thought is that the mountain earned this name from the snow that, at altitudes above one thousand meters, remains from late autumn to well into the early summer. However, we should first take into consideration the fact that it was from the vantage point of the sea that the first sailors and travellers discovered this area. When viewed from the sea or the coastal side, the most noticeable feature of Velebit are its white rocks.
To those looking at this mountain from afar (either from the inland or the coast), it may indeed seem as a huge obstacle, a barrier or a border. Research has, however, shown that Velebit was neither a barrier nor a border, but an area which connected people who lived on the seaward side with those who lived on its inland side. Bearing witness to this are prehistoric settlements on both sides of the mountain.
Velebit Area from the Earliest Times until Roman Conquest
Relatively little information is available today about the intensity of life from the Early Stone Age to the Roman conquest. The reason for this primarily lies in the poor archaeological research of this area. Nevertheless, previous studies confirm the continuity of human habitation in this area since ancient times. A significant increase in the number of settlements can be traced during the Iron Age (1st millennium B.C.), both in the neighbouring areas and the Velebit slopes. On coastal slopes, for instance, fortified settlements were built near passages leading to the topmost regions, and were even to be found further away towards the other side of the mountain. The trails, which still today connect the foothill villages with the mountain expenses, coincide with the prehistoric roads into the mountain. The topography of the terrain allowed limited access to the mountain. Inhabitants from later periods therefore made practical use of the existing, beaten paths and they repaired, maintained and sometimes expanded them. Today, these pathways are mostly overgrown by vegetation and ruined due to decades of neglect caused by the lack of travellers and users to maintain them.
From the earliest times the inhabitants of the Velebit seaward foothills, Podgorje have depended on the mountain where they lived in snow-free periods. The foothill regions did not provide sufficient resources for sustenance. At the end of autumn and the beginning of winter they would descend from the mountain to their villages near the sea, carrying supplies of hey and food. As soon as the snow started to melt, they would again return to the embrace of the rugged, yet plentiful mountain, taking on their migration from the foothills everything they could carry with them. Inhabitants from the other, landward side of Velebit did similarly. Nevertheless, the Velebit inland regions of Lika had more arable land, pastures and water and migration to the mountain was motivated by strong competition, possibly limited access to land for cultivation and occasional dense population (notably during the prehistoric times and the Middle Ages). However, the inhabitants of the coastal (Podgorje) slopes and the inhabitants of the inland (Lika) slopes of Velebit would not have been able to survive without the exchange of goods and cooperation (salt was exchanged for various grains etc.). They were not separated by the mountain, but brought together and made dependent on each other.
One of the crown witnesses of the continuity of life and utilization of all the available resources is certainly the Inscribed Stone. It is found in the Velebit Nature Park, in the Legenac region, under the rocky Gavranuša (peak Kuk, 1282 meters above sea level), not far from the old pathway that used to connect Stinica and Jablanac on the coast with Kosinjski Bakovac on the Lika-facing side of the mountain. The Latin inscription on a large piece of broken-off cliff is telling us that under a border agreement between the Parenthine and the Orthopline communities, the Orthoplines were allowed access to a water source located in Parenthine territory. The Parenthines (presumably from the Kosinjska Dolina region) and the Orthoplines (presumably from the present-day Stinica near Jablanac, on the coast) were tribal communities of the Iapodes people. From the inscription we may infer that the coastal foothills tribe Orthoplines had control over the top regions of this part of northern Velebit and that the border was located at the strategically very sensitive entrance point to the Lika inland. Aqua viva (Live Water) - the source referred to in the inscription – is most probably the present-day source Voda Begovača, about 1200 meters farther in the direction of Kosinjski Bakovac. The inscription belongs to the time of the Roman province of Dalmatia, but is difficult to date with certainty (probably 1st century B.C., when, during the formative period of the Roman provincial system of government, activities on regulating the relationships between the indigenous communities were intensified).
This „agreement“ is closely related to the inscription discovered on a dry stone wall between Jablanac and Stinica which is ascribed to the provincial governor Publius Cornelius Dolabella and regulates the borders between the Vegi (Vegium – Karlobag) and the Orthoplines communities (1st century AD). Referred to as the „Greek Wall“ by the inhabitants of the foothills communities, this dry stone structure was believed to extend all the way to the Inscribed Stone.
At the time of creation of the provincial system of government, the Roman authorities acted as arbitrators in conflicts and agreements between the local communities. At the same time, trying to prevent possible conflicts, the Romans tolerated the millennia-old traditions of the local people, provided they did not interfere with the fundamental interests of the Empire. And conflicts about the use of resources (especially the vitally important drinking water, pastures, arable land, transport communications – paths across the mountain, etc.), no doubt, existed since the earliest days.
Velebit Area during the Roman Times
This area came under the Roman rule in the second half of the 1st century B.C., after Octavian’s expeditions against the Iapodes and the neighbouring peoples. This is when its gradual integration into the Roman provincial structure began. On the sites of older prehistoric settlements on the coastal slopes of Velebit important urban centres developed, such as Senija (Senia, Senj), Lopsika (Lopsica, Sveti Juraj), Ortopla (Ortopla, probably Stinica) and Vegij (Vegium, Karlobag). These towns partly owed their development to their location at the foot of mountain passes that provided good transport links with the inland regions. Soon, roads were built along older, prehistoric communications leading across the mountain to the natural interior of these towns. The roads lead to smaller or larger Roman settlements in the Lika region. Ruins of settlements dating back to the ancient period are also found in the foothills of Velebit (e.g. in Vratnik, Krasno, Kosinjska Dolina, Ličko Polje etc.). The foothill towns thus became true transport hubs where the routes from the Apennine Peninsula towards Dalmatia, Albania, Greece, Asia Minor and those leading towards the north (Noricum, Pannonia) converged and branched off. The coastal centres were important mostly for exploitation of the wood resources of the Velebit forests (and, to a lesser extent, ore resources) and their transport by sea to other parts of the province and the Empire.
Velebit during the Medieval and Early Modern Periods
All of this was gone after the fall of the Roman Empire, at the close of the ancient period and during the early Middle Ages. With the collapse of the Roman Empire these once wealthy urban centres went into decline and their once lively trade routes with the remote parts of the Empire were cut off. From this period and the time of arrival of Croats in the early Middle Ages (7th - 9th centuries) too little material or written evidence is available to allow us to reconstruct the historical processes. Here too, much room is left for future research. For now, we can only assume that the way of life had not changed significantly during this period. The towns and villages in the foothills still depended for sustenance on their links with the interior and exploitation of all the available resources of mountain pastures, arable land, pathways, water sources etc. Only the government structure has changed from the global Roman Empire to the government structure of the Croatian Kingdom, embedded in the Austro-Croatian Kingdom since the 12th century, which was fragmented into individual smaller or larger feudal estates. During different periods of the medieval times, parts of the Velebit area were ruled by the members of the noble families of Kurjakovićs (southern Velebit), Frankopans – the rulers of the island of Krk (middle and northern Velebit) and others. Exploitation of forests was one of the main activities from which these noble families derived their wealth and power. Being the ruler of the Velebit area also meant being in control of the trade routes between the coastal and inland regions, but also to be able to utilize the vast expenses of forest and other resources provided by the mountain. The immediate threat of Ottoman invasions during the 15th and the 16th centuries significantly influenced the course of history in this region. Being located at a border point, Velebit was caught in a vortex of interests of the powers of the time: Venice, Turkey (Ottoman Empire) and the Habsburg state. The vast expenses of the Velebit mountain thus became a scene of conflict, at the same time serving as a place of refuge and shelter, especially since the Ottoman invaders were never able to completely occupy and control this area. During the early modern period (15th - 18th centuries) there was a new wave of settlement in the Velebit foothills, mostly by refugees from regions that were successively falling under Ottoman domination (Dalmatia, Lika, Herzegovina, Bosnia etc.). These people, whose descendents still inhabit these areas, soon embraced the way of life found in the regions they settled (which was probably similar to the way of life they had in the home regions they fled). They brought with them their knowledge, traditions, beliefs and culture, which became interwoven with the existing traditions of the past millennia, the material legacy carved into the slopes of Velebit. It is, of course, possible that at least a minimum number of people remained as direct bearers of material and non-material heritage.
The Recent Past of Velebit
At the beginning of the 18th century, the immediate Turkish threat was removed. The liberation of the regions of Lika and Dalmatia from Ottoman domination gave a new impetus for integration of the Velebit area into the new socio-economic environment. The Velebit area largely fell within the boundaries of the newly created Military Frontier, until its dissolution at the end of the 19th century. This created the preconditions for renewed settlement of the foothill areas, resulting in greater activity in the peak regions. Seeking to develop its trade, the Habsburg Empire was looking for access to the Adriatic and a tighter integration of its regional constituents. This was a period (end of the 18th century and notably during the 19th century) of intensified road construction, with transport connections across the Velebit passes linking the coastal slopes of Velebit with their immediate and farther interior (e.g. the roads Senj – Karlovac, Stinica – Kosinj and Krasno, Stinica – Pazarišta, Karlobag – Gospić – ...), and longitudinal connections between foothill towns and villages. All this had a vital impact on the life of people inhabiting the slopes of Velebit. It is owing to good road communications with the inland that some of the towns began to develop more intensively (Senj, Karlobag), while others never regained the intensity of life they had during the prehistoric, Roman or the mediaeval periods (Sveti Juraj, Stinica – Jablanac).
Nevertheless, during this period the inhabitants of the foothill areas of Velebit continued their millennium-old tradition of life in the mountain, building and maintaining their mountain dwellings, mowing the hey meadows, grazing the cattle, farming every available piece of land, exchanging among each other what they had with what they needed. They migrated from one place to another as the environment would let them. If there were podi (plateaus lying at about 800-900 meters above sea level) above their winter settlements, they were able to migrate earlier and stay longer. On some of the plateaus it was even possible to set up permanent settlement. As the snow in the mountain melted down, so were they able to gradually move to higher regions. They would first migrate to lower altitudes, and after the snow melted would slowly move upwards, thus providing the cattle with more varied and richer grazing for longer periods.
In autumn, with the first frost and snow, they would start preparations for descending from the mountain to their coastal homes (which were mostly not lying directly on the coast, but along paths leading to the mountain, close to water sources or the little farming land they had available). From the mountain they brought the food supplies accumulated over the late spring, summer and autumn (hey, garden and field produce, honey etc.). Preparations for the return to the mountain would start already in late winter. Migration back to the mountain would start as soon as the snow began to melt with people taking with them any produce yielded by their modest gardens, and carrying manure in cloth bags. This migration was accompanied by special ceremonies which were believed to help avert diseases in people and livestock, and prevent barren yields, long periods of snow etc. People’s survival on the mountain depended on such good start of the migration. Today, seen from the perspective of urban comforts and technological advances, this way of life may seem harsh and difficult. However, for the inhabitants of Velebit it was the only way to survive, and for this they were well equipped with strength, knowledge and endurance. They found almost everything they needed in and below the mountain, and whatever extra produce they had they exchanged for items they didn’t have. This is why Velebit must be seen as a unique space that connects people.
Witnesses of the Past
In the wide expanses of the Northern Velebit National Park, visitors today can see many traces left by those who lived here. Over the past millennia and centuries the size of shepherd’s huts, building methods, stone, metal and wood processing techniques changed. How much the way of earning a living (and thus the life itself) has changed in essence over the time is a question that still remains unanswered.
Ruins of human and animal stone dwellings, water cisterns, stone water pans, ponds, terraces with gardens and small fields can be encountered in almost every valley, doline or small depression. The roads and pathways leading to these areas are often very well built. Each new generation of Velebit inhabitants added something new, and yet everything had essentially remained the same. The migration cycle depended on the vagaries of mountain environment, weather, vegetation, location of dolines and depressions, water sources etc. Naturally, in this interaction and coexistence of man and the environment, different traces remain in the environment. These traces must be taken good care of, they must be preserved, but also explored. This is why research of Velebit’s cultural heritage is still continued by experts in different fields: anthropologists, ethnologists, historians, archaeologists, art historians. This research has a long tradition, especially dating back to the time of the so-called “scientific mountaineering” during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Other researchers continued along the paved way, discovering little by little the wealth that still lies hidden in Velebit.
Velebit is thus unique not only for its natural values, but also for the immensely rich cultural heritage, parts of which still remain to be discovered. This unity of nature and cultural heritage requires a unified multidisciplinary approach to research and conservation. For instance, preservation of Velebit grasslands is important for the survival of numerous animal and plant communities that live there, but also as a memorial of human presence in the topmost parts of the mountain. It is our responsibility to ensure that human traces engraved in the mountain are not lost and that they continue teaching us about man’s coexistence with nature, but also about the hard, everyday struggle for survival.
The cultural heritage of the Northern Velebit National Park is still being researched. For more information on the Park’s cultural heritage, refer to the Cultural Heritage Protection and Conservation Background (in Croatian) , prepared for purposes of developing the physical plan of the Northern Velebit National Park.