The Shock Discovery of the Nakovane Zodiac
The history of Dalmatia in Croatia is very important for the entire region of the Adriatic, tying in directly with the events that were crucial for both the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Sadly, the distinct landscapes of this coastal region - and much of its hinterland - are often overlooked in modern archaeology, even though they hide many historical treasures. However, one chance excavation in a remote Dalmatian region yielded a discovery that exceeded all expectations. Fragments of a Greco-Illyrian zodiac – now known as the Nakovane zodiac - stunned the world of modern archaeology and placed the history of Dalmatia on the map once more.
View of the waters along the Pelješac peninsula in Croatia. ( Jenifoto / Adobe Stock)
Nakovane Dominated the Ancient Adriatic Maritime Routes
The location of this magnificent discovery is the Pelješac Peninsula in Southern Dalmatia, Croatia. Connected to the mainland with just a narrow isthmus, Pelješac is elongated and large, measuring roughly 65 kilometers (40 miles) from bottom to top. The earliest known mentions of this peninsula are from the ancient Greeks, as its strategic position made it a very important area. Although its significance was lost with the passing of time, today we can once again understand the ancient maritime trading routes of the Adriatic which were easily guarded from the tip of the Pelješac peninsula.
Close to the very tip of this peninsula, jutting out far into the warm waters of the Adriatic, lies a prominent limestone plateau. Thanks to its distinct shape and prominence, it cannot be missed - it is like a large stone drum soaring far out into the skies. Its name is Nakovane, which comes from the Slavic word nakovanj (наковањ) which means anvil. The name is also cognate to its distinct shape.
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At the base of this large Croatian plateau is a small, somewhat abandoned, Dalmatian village with a cluster of stone houses. The inhabitants of this region call the plateau Grad (meaning “fortified town”), and not without reason. For at the top of this plateau, with a commanding view over the landscapes, lie the remnants of an ancient Illyrian fortification.
Alongside the Thracians and the Greeks, the Illyrians were one of the main inhabitants of the Balkans. For centuries, these tribes gave a lot of trouble to the Romans who waged war against them repeatedly. The fortress remains at Nakovane are an evidence of this tumultuous past: the fortress was destroyed during Octavian's Illyrian campaign which lasted eight years, from 35 to 27 BC.
In the landscapes around the plateau lie numerous stone cairns - resting places of ancient Illyrian chiefs. They are another remnant of this sad fate. However, one inconspicuous spot, so deftly hidden from the Roman eyes, survived through time virtually unharmed - only to be forgotten for many long centuries. Until now.
The archaeologists discovered an unknown cavern deep in the back of the Nakovana cave. Around what they believe to be an ancient ritual site with a stalagmite, they found artifacts which are part of the Nakovane zodiac. (Staso Forenbaher)
Ancient Ritual Site Hidden from Curious Eyes: Finding the Nakovane Zodiac
The Spila cave lies at the very base of the Nakovane plateau as a natural feature amongst large limestone formations. The entrance into the Nakovana cave is located just below the crest of a prominent 400-meter high ridge, lying on the strategically very important western end of the Pelješac peninsula. From here, one can easily observe the nearby islands of Hvar, Vis, Korčula and Mljet, and also the mouth of the River Neretva, at a distance of some 30 km (18.64 miles). Navigation routes passing through the Hvar and Pelješac channels were among the most important Adriatic sea lanes in antiquity, and this prominence distinctly points out why the Nakovane site was notable in ancient times.
When an archaeology team began excavating within this cave in 1999, they had no idea of the magnificence of the discovery they were about to make. The small frontal part of the cave seemed rather small and empty at first glance. The entrance is quite small, just 2 meters tall (6.56 ft) and some 15 meters wide (49.2 ft), and beyond it is a cave with a low ceiling, some 15 meters deep (49.2 ft).
The ceiling is sloping, growing lower gradually, and the cave seemingly ended where the ceiling touched the floor. However, a chance discovery proved this to be incorrect. At this location, the researchers discovered a large amount of debris and stones. When they were removed, a passageway appeared into the further reaches of the cavern, opening up into a spacious cave chamber with a high ceiling, and bringing the total depth of the cave to some 60 meters (~197 feet).
As the explorers discovered the new cave chamber and slowly entered into its inviting darkness, they collectively compared this moment to the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen. They were the first to enter and breathe the air of that cave after more than a millennia. A very thin limestone crust that cracked under their feet as they entered was the distinct sign that no one entered the cave in a very long time. This was confirmed through the excavations that followed: the cavern was most likely sealed off on purpose due to the Roman campaigns, some time in the first century BC. All of this made clear the importance of the cave as a major cultic site for the Illyrian tribes inhabiting this area.
Salagmite phallus and map of the Nakovana cave. ( Nakovana.com)
Phallus as the Ancient Symbol of Virility and Power
The cultic nature of this cave was at once revealed by the most prominent feature within it: a stalagmite. Protruding from the floor and pointing straight to the ceiling, the stalagmite has a distinct and incredibly real phallic shape. All around it were strewn pristine pieces of fine Hellenic pottery. It quickly became clear that the phallic-shaped stalagmite here was worshipped as a symbol of virility, fertility, abundance, and power.
The stalagmite itself sat on top of several archaeological layers, all of which were thoroughly excavated and revealed some startling discoveries. The majority of these were well preserved, luxurious and imported Greek ceramics. These include drinking cups, pitchers, and similar ceramic ware. Almost all of them were discovered in the immediate area around the stalagmite, clearly deposited there in ancient times as ritual offerings.
However, as the excavations progressed, the team began finding a multitude of small pieces of carved ivory. Upon further observations, the team came to a stunning realization. These ivory fragments were carved with elaborate symbols of the zodiac. In total, thirty fragments of worked ivory were recovered and seemingly came from separate, finely carved plaques. These plaques all had a roughly circular outside, and formed a part of a circle.
The fragments of carved ivory discovered in the cave make up elaborately carved zodiac boards, the Nakovane zodiac. (Staso Forenbaher)
Further study revealed that the ivory fragments originate from at least seven different plaques of roughly the same size and shape. Four of these plaques could be reassembled completely or to a large degree. However, it was concluded that the remaining smaller fragments came from at least three additional plaques. This brought the total number of plaques to ten, with the possibility of there being further two, completing the signs of the zodiac.
It soon became clear that these pieces formed an ancient astrology horoscope board. Of the recovered ivory pieces, the best preserved are those showing the signs of Gemini, Pisces, Sagittarius, and Cancer. The carvings are exceptionally detailed and well preserved, with clear Hellenic influence in their style. As such, they are a spectacular discovery. However, there is much more to them that makes them even more special. And they also bring a bit of a mystery with them. It is believed that the horoscope - or Greek horoscopic astrology - was invented in Ptolemaic Egypt , around the 2nd or late 1st century BC. However, the Nakovane zodiac seems to be older than this, pushing the commonly accepted dates substantially further back in time.
The carved ivory artifacts represent different parts of the zodiac. In this example, the plaque shows two figures believed to represent Gemini in the Nakovane zodiac. (Staso Forenbaher)
Predating the Zodiacs of Ptolemaic Egypt
The first evidence to back up this idea comes from the cave itself, which experts agree was sealed roughly around 35 BC, in the wake of Roman onslaughts. Of course, this dictates that the ivory horoscope placed within it was made before that date. This was proven by accelerator mass spectrometry: these tests dated the ivory to roughly 2217 years before present. The rough time span gives us is sometime between 375 and 204 BC. All of this means that the ivory used came from an elephant that was killed in the 3rd century BC.
So where did this zodiac board originate from? There are no elephants in Dalmatia, or in Croatia. The likely answer is much more realistic, in that the ivory was probably a luxury import, most likely from Greece, and was used to create the zodiac board. But even so, it pushes the date for the earliest zodiac almost an entire century before what was originally believed.
For ancient astrologers, such as those believed to have taken part in these cavern rituals, a zodiac board was an important and very luxurious item. The observation of the natural cycles and their relationship with the celestial movements was a widespread practice in the ancient world - much more so than we know. However, this knowledge was not known to all. Only the powerful cultures, tribes and civilizations could practice it. The discovery of the Nakovane zodiac clearly shows the importance this ancient fortress once had. This was the very reason why the Romans utterly devastated it in Octavian’s campaigns : it was simply too dangerous to be left intact.
Just how an important and luxurious of an item the zodiac board was is perfectly summarized in this ancient Greek narrative dated to 3rd century BC:
“Nectanebo (Egyptian pharaoh) brought out a princely and costly board, which mere words could not describe, and put it on a chair. It was made from ivory, ebony, gold and silver and was engraved with three zones, having on the first circle the 36 decans, on the second the 12 signs of the zodiac, and on the inner one the Sun and Moon.Then he opened a small ivory box, poured out the seven stars and the horoscope made of eight artfully worked stones, and put together the miniature heaven, illuminating it in a small circle.”
Thanks to the great strategic position of the Nakovane fortress in ancient times, it wouldn’t be at all surprising that luxurious imported ivory, as well as the knowledge of the zodiac and astrology, could have reached this place in the Adriatic. However, several scholars point out the fact that the zodiac predates its believed discovery in Ptolemaic Egypt. There is a very probable chance that it originates here, in the Dalmatian hinterland and the heartlands of the Balkans, from where it spread to Greece and then to Egypt. These areas of the Balkan peninsula boasted some of the earliest advanced civilizations and technological inventions. The ancient Vinča civilization is one clear example.
The Roman wrath experienced in Dalmatia was unparalleled. (Adobe Stock / fabiomax)
Centuries Erased by Octavian’s Ruthlessness
Roman wrath during the Octavian’s campaigns in Dalmatia was unparalleled. The Illyrians had been a thorn in the side of the Romans for far too long, and Octavian decided to once and for all end their threat. During this bitter eight-year-long campaign, the Roman army massacred the native populace of nearby islands of Korčula and Mljet, and those living around the Nakovane fort most likely suffered the same fate. Field surveys indicate that the region remained uninhabited during the rest of Roman rule. Yet even so, the enigmatic cave at Nakovane remained untouched and hidden from sight, until 1999, so many centuries later.
The sheer value of the discoveries made at Nakovane is awe-inspiring, giving an awesome insight into the lives of the ancient peoples living in Dalmatia. Nakovane fort itself was one of the central points of ancient maritime trade routes in the Adriatic, providing full control over the surrounding routes. There is no doubt that due to this position the Illyrian tribes here enjoyed great wealth and even greater power - as emphasized by such a luxurious item as a zodiac board made of elephant ivory . Nevertheless, their power was not enough to withstand wrath of Rome. Their fate was sealed and their beliefs survived buried within the depths of Nakovane cave for centuries.
Top image: The researchers at the Nakovana Cave were excited to find ivory fragments of a zodiac board which has come to be known as the Nakovana Zodiac. Source: Staso Forenbaher
By Aleksa Vučković
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