In 2016, I went on an exploration journey to Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for one day, to explore the different Stecaks (plural: Stećci in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, often called Stecaks in English) and to make some videos for my channel (TheBIHLover). I went to three different locations, which are separated by some kilometers. The locations were Radimlja, Boljuni and Boskailo Harem. But firstly, if we are going to discuss and understand the Stecaks, we need to start with the original history – history that historians has discussed and researched for many years.
The Stecaks are located mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. It has been estimated that there are 60 000 of them in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the rest of them (10 000) are found at the borders to Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. They are found at more than 3300 sites, where over 90% of them are in a poor condition. There were probably even more of them, but many of them got destroyed by other cultures, especially Austro-Hungarian Empire were destroying them when they were building roads for transportation of different goods.
If we are going to follow the original history, then Stecaks were medieval tombstones and they started appearing in the 12th century and continued to increase until the Ottoman occupation at the beginning of the 16th century. Historians think that they were also a common tradition for the Bosnian Church, but perhaps also for some Bogomlis. At the start the historians thought that they belonged to the Bogmolis, but this theory has later been challenged. It is still discussed of who the Stecaks belonged to, however, many historians agree that it belongs to the Bosnian Church.
On some of them, you can also find the Bosnian Cyrillic, which was particularly used by the Bosnian Church, according to the historians. Although the writings started appearing later, probably in the 13th century and most of the Stecaks do not have any Bosnian Cyrillic on them at all (Wikipedia). Additionally there can be found many different symbols on them, and they are very interesting. The shape of the Stecaks are often rectangular, with a triangular shape on top. According to the original history, the triangular shape or a form of a chest, does not appear before the end of the 14th century. Additionally, many of them are placed on a plate, but also some of them are placed without any support on the ground, which is very interesting for many historians.
In addition, the Stecaks has been inscribed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it only includes 30 necropolises (a historical burial site) – of which 22 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2 from Croatia, 3 from Montenegro and 3 from Serbia (Source) The other 3270 are not included. If you want to take a look on the terrain of these 30 Stecaks, please do so here: (UNESCO Map)
Based on the historical facts that has been researched by historians in the past, for instance Nada Miletic in 1982 (Link) and Ante Milosevic in 1991 (Link), still many argue that the Stecaks still needs a lot of research, for instance Dejan Vemic states as follows at the beginning of his MA thesis: ”Although Stecci have been investigated for more than a century and thousands of them have been found many questions still arise. Many monuments have been only registered as existing, with no excavation; most of them have not been excavated archaeologically.” (Source)
In this article, I will focus on three different Stecak locations, two of them are documented by UNESCO. These locations are very interesting in my opinion. All of them are close to Stolac. Additionally, I will give my own opinion regarding the Stecaks at the end of this article.
It is a hot summer day in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I decided to visit some of the Stecak sides around Stolac. The first destination is the most known one when it comes to the Stecaks and it is Radimlja, a 40 minutes’ drive from Mostar and it is about 5 minutes from Stolac. Stolac is a very historical place and the first signs of a culture is the Badanj cave paintings, which were probably made circa 15 000 BCE. Daorson, an Illyrian acropolis is also nearby, which for many is a sign of advanced technology – many argue that the blocks are too perfect and that the tribe who made them had some kind of ancient technology. Additionally, Daorson is placed on a hill, which make them even more mysterious. Both of these important locations are only some minutes from Radimlja.
We (my grandfather and I) finally arrived to Radimlja. The first time I came here was with my parents in 2008 and at that time I was 9 years old. The ones that were looking after the Stecaks in Radimlja were charging tickets, approximately 3 US dollars. Additionally, they have made a fence that was going around the Stecaks. In 2008 there were none of these things above, just an ordinary Stecaks site – although it is one of the most researched Stecak sites in history.
The Radimlja necropolis has 133 tombstones, of which 63 of them is decorated with symbols – there are only about two Stecaks with the Bosnian Cyrillic (Source). It was even more tombstones in the area, but many of them got destroyed when the Austro-Hungarians were building the Capljina-Stolac road that is crossing the necropolis site in the middle. The building of the road started at the end of the 19th century. Today the Radimlja site is split into two sections. The form of the Stecaks is four sided (triangular), in a cross, many of them has a ‘’chest’’ on top and some totally flat. Many of them have plates under them. Some of the symbols that can be found is an anchor, grapes, flowers, spirals, circles and the most popular one; figures with a raised hand – this symbol is also placed on the Bosnian Marks (10 KM) (Link). In addition, from the Stecak site, you may see Daorson on the north-eastern hill. There is also a river nearby the Stecaks called ‘’Radimlja’’ that is running into the river ‘’Bregava.’’ This could indicate that there was an even larger river nearby in the past, but also that the site was under the sea once. This can be proved particularly by the flat terrain in the whole Radimlja-region.
In addition, there can also be found a Stecak where there is a man on a horse, hunting a deer and it looks very beautiful. Perhaps this could indicate that those who lived in the area visited the Badanj Cave in the past and found some artefacts and decided to honor them and place them on one of the Stecaks? Of course, they perhaps did not know anything about them, but they had an idea of how they lived? It can also indicate that those who made them wanted to honor those who were often riding horses and hunting food for the people. If we are going to follow the original history, then the Stecaks with symbols started appearing later, probably in the 14th century. Those that do not have any symbols are older, but perhaps the Stecaks that have symbols on them were without them at first, but were added later? Just some thoughts that stroke me when I was there.
After I made a video and researched some of the Stecaks in Radimlja, we continued to Boljuni – which is even more interesting.
We drove for about 25 minutes from Stolac to Boljuni. The road was going up on a mountain and in an isolated area. Here there were some intense fights between the Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats in the Bosnian war – only 5-10 kilometers from Boljuni you will find the ‘’border’’ of Republic of Serbia. Nevertheless, we were following the main road, called M17.3. At first we missed the road that was going directly to Boljuni necropolis, we returned and continued to Boljuni – luckily there were two signs that instructed us where we should drive in order to arrive to the location. We finally arrived, a family – that was on holiday and lived in their cottage – welcomed us. My main objective was to investigate, take some photos and make a video regarding the Boljuni Stecaks.
The Boljuni Stecaks were split into two parts, one that was going to the south (Boljuni I) and the other north-west (Boljuni II). First I went to the southern part. There are in total 273 Stecaks there (Source: The Mystery of Boljuni Book, 2012) – one of the biggest necropolises in the region! I walked slowly. There were a lot of insects and I was scared that I would confront a snake. The first Stecak that I saw was an amazing one. It had animal-figures on it with Bosnian Cyrillic! There were even more Stecaks where humans were riding horses and hunting animals. On the Stecak with the Bosnian Cyrillic, there can be found four people on it (on the side of it). The first thoughts that I had in Radimlja – that the Stecaks had connections with the Badanj Cave, were probably wrong. Those who lived in the region at that time were connected with nature. Nature was their key for everything for instance one of the most important things in life; food. In addition, here in Boljuni there are symbols of people holding hands (also on the Stecak with the Bosnian Cyrillic, picture bellow) which could mean that every one of them were dependent on other humans, probably to survive. They could also have had a system of tasks. One person hunts, the other cooks.
However, the question if the symbols and inscriptions on the different Stecaks were added later is still open. Perhaps there were good carvers back then? And the answer is; yes. Sefik Beslagic writes in his book ‘’Stecci – Kultura i Umjetnosti’’ that there were three inscription-makers and they were experts for their time. The three of them were called Master Grubac, Master Radoje and Master Semorad (The book from 1979). Apparently they made many of these symbols on the Stecaks and formed actual schools to learn others to make the Stecak symbols. If this is true, then this means that many knew how to make great symbols on the Stecaks. The questions raises: Why are most of the Stecaks without any symbols? If they formed actual schools, then I would suspect that these symbols would have appeared on most of the Stecaks, but no, many of them do not have any symbols, especially not on the older ones. Often there are perhaps 3 or 4 Stecaks that have these kind of symbols, while the other do not. In addition, only a few Stecaks of the other thousands have Cyrillic symbols on them and we need to keep in mind that many of these ‘’texts’’ that contain Cyrillic on them have not been translated yet. I will discuss this later in this article.
I continued to investigate the Stecaks and take photographs of some of them from distance, because I did not want to go deeper into the necropolis – the grass was very high and I was scared that a snake could hide behind a Stecak. We need to keep in mind that I visited the site in the morning!
I continued to the north-eastern Stecaks and the first thing I saw was the cross, standing at the entrance to the different Stecaks. Here also we have similar symbols – humans, animals, swords, trees, Bosnian Cyrillic, crosses etc. The Stecaks are flat, like ‘’chests’’ and rectangular (Source: The Mystery of Boljuni Book, 2012). These Stecaks were even more beautiful than those in Radimlja. There is no doubt in my mind that a culture were living near this place back in time and even if we are on a mountain, some kilometers from here – to the west you have ‘’Hutovo Blato’’ and ‘’Deranjsko Jezero,’’ which are Nature Parks. Here you can find many different kinds of animals, everything from birds to fish. I am sure that it was enough to make a culture there. Additionally, there has been some investigations there, but it would be a good idea to open a research group where they are going to investigate all aspects of Boljuni Stecaks – I will give some of my thoughts later in this article.
I went back to the car in happiness – this was a very interesting site! Before we went back the family which greeted us when we came, offered us homemade pomegranate-juice. It turns out that the husband and father of the family were one of those who made a book on Boljuni Stecaks, called ‘’The Mystery of Boljuni.’’ I, of course, decided to buy the book from him, which I am now using as a source for this article.
After a small break we continued to Stolac and when we came there, we sat down to drink something refreshing and to relax a bit – the sun can be really exhausting, especially in the dry lands of Herzegovina.
Boskailo Harem Necropolis
After the break, we continued to Boskailo Harem. The place is not originally called Boskailo Harem, but we are calling it that in this article. ‘’Boskailo’’ is a Muslim surname, while ‘’Harem’’ means a Muslim graveyard. The Muslim graveyard is only some meters from the Stecak. I visited the Boskailo Harem Stecaks in 2014 and only a few know about them, I heard about them from my elderly friend. Because they were very interesting, I decided to visit them again this year. It was hard to find them and again we were in the middle of nowhere. There were no signs that were pointing to them and when we asked the locals about the directions; they were quite frankly very surprised that we knew about them – you could see on the look of their faces that they were not used to ‘’tourists.’’
Nevertheless, the Boskailo Harem Stecaks is between a village called ‘’Rotimlja’’ and the Radimlja Stecaks. We finally arrived there – no one was there and it was similar as in 2014, except the vegetation at the Stecaks. It covered almost all of them! Luckily I have some pictures from 2014, to compare how it looked like.
I continued slowly into the high vegetation. There are about 25-30 Stecaks there. I did not want to get any deeper than 4-5 meters from the different Stecaks, because I did feel like no one has visited the Stecaks in ages and that the place may crawl with snakes or other insects (the place was filled with ants and small flies).
On these Stecaks also we can see symbols of figures and flowers, but most of the Stecaks do not have any symbols (the pictures from 2014 helped me a lot). To the left you have the Muslim graveyard and it seems like that some Ottomans placed their graveyards next to the Stecaks – many were probably also destroyed by them, but this one in particular is nice symbolically. No matter which religion one have – one can live in harmony with other religions. Because I could not find any records of the Boskailo Stecaks, it is difficult to say why these Stecaks are here, at this place. Perhaps there were ancient farmers who produced grapes for wine or something else? Some of these Stecaks are small, some of them are big – with the ‘’chest’’ shape, triangular and flat – just like other Stecaks that can be found. There is no doubt in my mind that they are connected with other Stecaks, because they have the same design and symbols, perhaps there was a culture living in the Rotimlja village and decided to bury the dead at that place?
It was too hot, the vegetation was too big and the flies were all over. It was time to abandon the site after I spent some minutes researching it and making a video. We returned back to Mostar.
The next week I decided to go to Mogorjelo villa, to make another video and to research some of the Stecaks that can be found some meters from it. I will not get deeper into this, but Morgorjelo was an ancient Roman Villa that was used by many different cultures. Some meters from the villa, one can find several Stecaks. It only shows that wherever there has been a settlement, there are also some kind of Stecaks.
Thoughts about the Stecaks
It was a very interesting exploration journey, back home I started researching the Stacaks even more and it only raised more questions for me. Why are there so many Stecaks in such a ‘’small’’ region? There could be a logical explanation; the Black Death (Source). The Black Death killed millions of people and I am sure that it did hit the Balkan region pretty hard when it came from Turkey. Balkan region was one of the first regions to get the Black Death and I am sure that it killed thousands in only some months. That could be one of the reasons of why there are so many Stecaks that got created in some centuries. But that raises another question; how did they get all the time to build and carry those blocks to the different locations? Even though there has been some research, it is still mysterious in my opinion. Yes, there could have been masters that built these, but over 60 000 in such a short time? There would especially have been lack of time to build all these in 4 centuries. The Black Death killed many people and for many countries in Europe it had terrible effects for the infrastructure, the governmental system etc. The original history is claiming that the Stecaks began to appear in the middle of 12th century, but is it possible that some of them are older than that if we are going to take into consideration that the Black Death had devastating effects on the region? In fact, the first Stecak was created – according to the original history – was Grdesa (Link). Like Dejan Vemic states in his MA thesis; that most of the Stecaks are recorded, but many of them have not been archaeologically excavated – how can we be so sure that the Stecaks started appearing in the 12th century?
Taking all this into consideration, the Stecaks could easily have started appearing in the 9th or 10th century. As far as I know, there are no secure records that have recorded how many people were living in the region at the time period when the Stecaks were built. And we need to remember that many of those who lived there, were not buried at the Stecaks, but somewhere else. Yes, there has been some archaeological excavation and it has revealed skeletons of humans under the Stecak, but often there is not one person buried there, but two or three (Source, from page 44). Instead of one Stecak for every person, they buried others under it too, probably friends or family. And if the situation is like this at almost all the Stecaks, then this means that there were probably over 100 000 people living in the area at that time – which makes the hypothesis that the Stecaks were built earlier than 12th century plausible.
In addition, even if there were masters making these symbols and Stecaks, it would probably have taken a longer time to make 60 000 of them, than the original history is claiming. Furthermore, what is very interesting is that almost every Stecak is built in the same way and with the same material. This means that there was a great culture living there that had communication with each other. And I believe that Sefik Beslagic is very right that the masters that made the symbols on the Stecaks, created schools, because the inscriptions and the Stecaks are too similar in the region. However, not only schools that were educating in how to make the best symbols and Stecaks, but also other things, for instance religion, philosophy, mathematics etc. Yes, it was a dark time for culture of antiquity in medieval times, but we need to remember that this region was not in the hands of Catholic or the Orthodox Church. Both of the churches were respecting the Bosnian Church and it means that it was perhaps some room for philosophy for example, plus the region was close to Greece, which is the center of antiquity. It could even have been different texts of what they thought and what they did, but it perhaps got destroyed when the Ottomans occupied the region and demanded that people followed the Islamic religion and of course, some even fled to other countries and went to be a Catholic or Orthodox. With the Ottomans, the Bosnian Kingdom also disappeared and the Stecaks were now history.
Taking into consideration that there were schools that were for instance teaching in how to make the best Stecaks, many of the Stecaks do not have any symbols and why they do not, is a tough question to answer. In Boskailo Harem, you had 2 or 3 that had some symbols and the others without. If those without symbols are older (like some historian state), then it would be a different and perhaps an older texture on the material. Perhaps those Stecaks who had symbols on them were burials for ‘’special’’ people that were important for the people in that area? It certainly needs more research.
Now, I do not want to get into the meanings of the different symbols, because I am not a historian or archaeologist yet, and I trust people like Marian Wenzel, which has made a book in 1965 called ‘’Ornamental motifs on tombstones from medieval Bosnia.” (The book by Marian Wenzel, 1965). However, we need to remember that this books was made in 1965 and even if there has been some research on the symbols, it is still not enough and the history needs to be updated because we always have new hypothesis and new discoveries. When I made the article ”The Mysterious Bosnian Obelisk,” I claimed that the spirals were perhaps some kind of galaxies. Now I can say that I disagree with myself. However, the spirals could mean something else, for instance infinity; it can mean different things. For example that the universe is infinite or that it is aimed on the humans. First you get born, then you live, then you die and after your death your will live as an ”angel” with God and you will be there for eternity. Just some thoughts.
Now, the spirals on the Stecaks are not special at all. There are many cultures in the world that are using spirals as their symbols – from California to New Zealand. Of course, we need to keep in mind that cultures have different languages and different understandings of the symbols. The meaning of the spirals on the Stecaks, can mean something different in other places. So we may never know what the spirals actually mean and we can hypothesize about it as long as we want, because that is the amazing thing with science.
In my opinion, it would be a very good idea to establish a research group that will only focus and research the different Stecaks in the region. Everything from archaeologists, geologists, anthropologists, engineers etc. They may choose 10-30 necropolises that they will study and make archaeological excavations, anthropological studies and perhaps energy investigations – no research is too much research, we will only get smarter of it. After they have researched everything, then they may make a big report so that everyone can read it. It would have been an excellent idea to understand the Stecaks in a better way, even if we know some elements about them.
Now, I end this article with humbleness. Because these Stecaks – those people who made them and those who are buried under them – needs our attention and our research, because they really deserve it after they have been forgotten and destroyed for many centuries. They are a clear example that people – with differences – can live in harmony and that 2 or 3 people can be buried under the same tombstone. The Stecaks are probably the most important artefact from medieval times for the region and the Bosnian Church that has for long time been forgotten in history.
* * *
Djani Behram is a researcher of ancient places around the world, mostly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is also the ambassador of the Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation and has volunteered at the Bosnian pyramids for five years now. He also has good experiences with the Bosnian pyramids and archaeological sites in the region. In addition, he owns the biggest site about the Bosnian pyramids, which is posting news and pictures almost every day. He also owns a YouTube site, called TheBIHLover, which is posting a video almost every Wednesday.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DrSemirOsmanagich/
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBIHLover