Pile dwellings and wetland sites in Macedonia

There was not a peculiar interest in wetland sites in the Republic of Macedonia until two decades ago. The tell settlements and palafittes were regarded as regular archaeological sites without consideration of their specific features related to wetlands and landscape. Some of them were comprehensively excavated, while majority were only documented by reconnaissance and small trenches which provided modest knowledge of their establishment, architecture, economy, rituals and social life. Still, the basic data indicated employment of marshes, riverbeds and lakesides as thorough ground for launching prehistoric settlements and for provision of steady subsistence. The diverse geography of Macedonia enabled such variety of environments and potentials for consistent building of settlements through prehistory. Therefore, three basic categories of wetland sites could be determined, particularly one belonging to those built next to rivers, another on lakeshore and third within marshes made by river floods, changes of lake occupation and snow melting.

In regard to marshes in prehistory, one of the most distinct regions is Pelagonia. In this elongated valley more than 120 Neolithic sites are documented with majority disposed on wetlands made by Crna river and by the melting snow from surrounding mountains. Most of the sites are tells, established in the Early Neolithic, some of them occupied until Bronze Age. The latest research indicate high density of tells close to riverbed of Crna and especially around marshy lakes present since the Neolithic. This is the most fertile valley in the Republic of Macedonia that provides the largest amount of cereals in the state and which had the same agricultural potentials in prehistory. Consequently, it was attractive for numerous communities to establish their settlements in spite of the marshy ground and frequent river floods. This was confirmed by the latest excavation on tells where geological layers were covering the periphery of sites and thus engaged inhabitants in constructing wooden piled structures. The recent discovery of such construction, as well as numerous house models in Pelagonia indicate frequent use of piled structures in regard to wetland environment.

Of particular interest are the pile dwellings on lakes and their vicinity. There are three significant lake basins in Macedonia named Dojran, Prespa and Ohrid Lakes. The pile dwellings are recorded in all of them with largest number in Lake Ohrid. Lake Ohrid is the biggest lake in Republic of Macedonia with occupation area of 358 km2 and 289 m depth. It is considered as the oldest lake in Europe (more than 1 million years) that contains various endemic species belonging to Pliocene age. In 1979 this lake and its surrounding were included in UNESCO World Heritage list as an important part of the world cultural and natural heritage, due to the geographic isolation, geological age, unique ecosystem, rich endemic flora and fauna, as well as the exceptional historical and cultural values. The earliest settlements in Lake Ohrid basin are dated in the Neolithic, but Palaeolithic and Mesolithic ones should be expected due to a number of caves, rock shelters and valleys surrounding the lake. The Neolithic in Lake Ohrid basin is far better understood, as there are four lakeside settlements (of which one in a cave), few on the alluvial valley surrounding rivers and number of them on hills north-east of the lake. Those belonging to Early Neolithic are consisted of pit houses or wattle and daub dwellings. The settlements bears apparent indications of social identity and dynamic relationship with the tell sites in Pelagonia as evidenced by the white painted pottery, tablets and anthropomorphic house models unearthed in these two regions. The other excavated sites are pile dwellings dated in Late Neolithic which preserved elements of synchronous sites in Pelagonia. They were occupied in the Chalcolithic, Bronze and Iron Age as well and consisted of individual buildings on piles or wattle and daub houses built on wide wooden platforms.

The number of wetland sites and pile dwellings in other lakes of Macedonia is much smaller. The first description of one such pile dwelling settlement in Lake Dojran is mentioned by Herodotus as Lake Prasiad. In 2013, the first excavation on wetland site started at the location named Mrdaja where Late Bronze Age pile dwelling was detected. Unfortunately, there are no excavations of pile dwellings at Lake Prespa, although the piles close to Nakolec indicate probable prehistoric settlement. Though still modest, the survey and excavation of wetland sites in the Republic of Macedonia indicated variety of settlements and dynamic social life from Neolithic to Iron Age, some of which were used in Medieval times and even nowadays as fishing huts.

Goce Naumov and Valentina Todoroska
Center for Prehistoric Research