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Ghosts of Kosovo Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007
by Beth Kampschror

The ancient past haunts the future of a disputed Serbian province.


Albanians look to digs such as the Vlashnya site for evidence that their ancestors have lived in Kosovo for millennia. (Marc Schneider)

In the shadow of the Prokletije ("Cursed") Mountains that mark the eastern border of Kosovo with Albania, two archaeologists dig at a site known as Vlashnya. Excavations have shown continuous human settlement here since 5000 B.C. During a recent visit, I could see why people had lived at Vlashnya through the ages--the settlement is perched on a ridge that overlooks a long, fertile valley and a ribbon of two-lane highway that was once a part of an ancient trans-Balkan trade route.

Though Vlashnya doesn't attract much popular attention, even the site's most modest artifacts add fuel to the fight over who should control this land, Christian Serbs or Muslim Albanians. The Serbs base their claim to the province on a rich legacy of Orthodox churches and monasteries, along with evidence of Slavic occupation in Kosovo going back to the eighth century A.D. The Albanians, on the other hand, point to still older sites, including Vlashnya, that they say prove their ancestors were living in Kosovo at least two thousand years earlier.

"This is one of the most important sites in the Balkans," says Shafi Gashi, a Kosovar Albanian archaeologist from Kosovo's Institute of Archaeology who co-leads the dozen or so students digging at this ancient village. "It's the only one in Kosovo that has links to the Archaic period, the Hellenic period, Alexander the Great, and the Roman period. By now there are 13 layers of cultures here."


At one of the pits several yards from where Gashi's two blue Land Rovers are parked, several students carefully brush soil off the stone floor of a Hellenic-era house. They've also found an Early Neolithic floor and fragments of a Bronze Age one, as well as pottery, dishes, and tools. Gashi's co-director, Adem Bunguri, of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology in the Albanian capital Tirana, has the weathered face of a field archaeologist and a fringe of grayish-white hair. He shows me some artifacts from the site, including a Late Bronze Age vessel and drinking cup similar to pottery found in parts of neighboring Albania and Macedonia, and from the same cultures--the proto-Dardanians and the proto-Illyrians.

Despite the tides of humanity that have washed over the region since ancient times, Bunguri and the majority of other Albanians believe they are the direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians, a mysterious people thought to have appeared in the western Balkans around 1000 B.C. "It's true, this is Illyrian," Bunguri says, brandishing the drinking cup. Kosovo, he explains, was the central part of Dardania, an ancient kingdom that spread over northwest Macedonia, south Serbia, and northeast Albania--all areas in the Balkans that today have Albanian majorities. "It's true, it's true," two other archaeologists say in chorus.

Eight years after a NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo and the UN came in to administer the province, foreign powers are finally discussing a UN-backed plan for Kosovo's independence from Serbia. While Serbia proper offers only autonomy, ethnic Albanians here want full independence, and seem likely to get it.


Archaeologist Adem Bunguri uses a drinking cup from the site to link modern-day Kosovar Albanians and Bronze Age peoples. (Marc Schneider)

Looming large over the debate are competing claims to Kosovo's considerable heritage, which includes sites dating from the Neolithic period to the Ottoman Empire. And both sides concentrate on the eras when they believe they ran the province, largely ignoring the other's heyday.

As proof that the province is "theirs," the minority Serbs point to dozens of medieval Orthodox churches and monasteries built in the fourteenth century when the Serbian state was at its apex. For them, Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian nation. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which the Serbs lost to the Turks at Kosovo Polje, a dusty plain a few miles from today's provincial capital Pristina, paved the way for 500 years of Ottoman domination in the Balkans. During that time, the Serbian Orthodox Church was the key to Serbian identity, as the only organization keeping Serbdom alive. Kosovo itself reverted to Serbian control after the First Balkan War of 1912 in which Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek armies drove out the weakened Turks. But by the twentieth century, ethnic Albanians were the majority in Kosovo. Many of them had converted from Catholicism to Islam under the Ottomans. Many also collaborated with the Italian fascists who occupied the southern Balkans during World War II, prompting Yugoslav partisans to execute thousands of Albanians. The bad blood remained throughout Communist Yugoslavia's 45-year history. Kosovo became a province of Serbia, with the Serbs and their feared police in charge.


Albanian archaeologist Haxhi Mehmetaj is the director of the Pristina branch of Kosovo's Institute to Protect Monuments. (Marc Schneider)

Archaeology was also Serb-dominated under the Communists, but Serb and Albanian researchers reportedly worked well together until the 1980s, when ethnic rivalries resurfaced throughout Yugoslavia. In a recent interview, Edi Shukriu, an Albanian archaeologist, remembered that she brought along two Serb colleagues from the Kosovo Museum when she led an expedition in the south of the province in 1975 to excavate graves from the ninth to the eleventh century A.D. The dig went without problems and all of the artifacts were documented and placed in a local museum. But in 1981, following Albanian student riots, Shukriu turned on Belgrade television to see a news story: "How Albanians Destroyed Serbian Medieval Graves."

"You know who claimed it? My colleagues from the museum," says Shukriu. "That's when I said, 'Something is going wrong.'"

Serbian nationalism reached a fever pitch during the run up to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In 1987, at the site of the Battle of Kosovo (which Serbs revere as sacred, despite their crushing defeat there) Serbian president Slobodan Miloevi gave a speech promising Kosovo Serbs that, "No one should dare to beat you." The speech sealed his power grab as head of all of the Serbs, and most Western and non-Serb observers view that moment as the beginning of the end of a multiethnic Yugoslavia.

As the Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia broke away in the '90s, their Serb minorities revolted. The ensuing wars left at least 200,000 dead and more than 2 million homeless. The situation in Kosovo also worsened. Albanians were fired from their state jobs and there were widespread human rights violations. Some young ethnic Albanians eschewed the nonviolent resistance movement and formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1996, which led attacks on Serbian police stations. When the Serbs cracked down on both the KLA and civilians, killing some 10,000 people, the West, fed up with Serb ethnic cleansing on the nightly news, intervened with a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that drove out the Serb military and police.

The Albanians now make up some 90 percent of the province's population, and nearly all of them want independence from Serbia. To the Albanians, NATO liberated them from the pre-1999 Serb-dominated dark ages, and the Orthodox churches are remnants of a Serb occupation that stretches back all the way to the eighth century A.D. when the Slavic tribes first arrived in the Balkans. During three days of Albanian rioting in March 2004, some 34 Orthodox churches were destroyed or damaged.


A Roman gravestone marks the burial of a 19-year-old girl at the Roman town of Ulpiana, founded in the 2nd century A.D. by Emperor Trajan. Once the capital of the Roman province of Dardania, Ulpiana is some eight miles south of the modern capital Pristina. (Marc Schneider)

On a recent spring day I visited the Museum of Kosovo in Pristina, a brightly painted Austrian-designed barracks that dates from 1896. Banners outside advertised two exhibits: one was the Kosovo heritage exhibit, the other, the history of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Inside the darkened museum, archaeologist Kemajl Luci showed me a half-completed archaeological map of Kosovo on one wall, noting that the heritage exhibit is in Albanian, English, and Serbian. "Culture is for all people who live here," he said. In his late fifties, the thickly moustached Luci doesn't flinch--as younger generations do--from speaking Serbian.

But that doesn't mean he feels differently from his fellow Kosovar Albanians about history. "This was built before the Slavs came here," he said as he showed me some photographs of one of the fifth-century basilicas that dot the province. "This is our church, this is an Illyrian church, built by the native population here. It's our Byzantine church, from the fourth to sixth centuries A.D. We were the first Christians in Europe--when St. Paul went out on missions, his first station was here in Dardania."

Later that afternoon, in the outdoor garden of a restaurant in new Pristina, where Serb riot police have been replaced by white UN jeeps, I asked Luci and his fellow Albanian archaeologist Haxhi Mehmetaj about the claim that Albanians descend from the Illyrians. "Science is created by facts," Mehmetaj said. "There is continuity between the Illyrians and the culture of Albanians, the way they were organizing funerals, burials, tools, and decorations. There have been crosses, little ones, found from the fifth century. We were the first Christians in Europe. You can't say today that we don't have our origins here. You see the basilica, that was built by Christians before the Slavs came--who built it then?"

Luci nodded over his glass of dry south Kosovo red. "In Bosnia, Croatia, and the Adriatic, Iron Age culture is Illyrian culture. What happened in the Middle Ages--did the sky open and we fell out of it?"

While Kosovar and Albanian archaeologists, historians, and even laymen continue to expound on the Illyrian connection, most foreign historians are reluctant to make a direct link between modern Albanians and a Bronze Age people. "Archaeology can be interpreted in so many ways," said Birte Brugmann, a German archaeologist who's worked in Kosovo since 2004. "The emotional side of the thing is not very well thought through and has resulted in this origins myth."



The 14th-century Romanesque Decani Monastery is the most important Serbian site in Kosovo and is famous for its Byzantine-era frescoes (Marc Schneider)

In the cool foothills of the Prokletije Mountains some 50 miles west of Pristina lies Visoki Decani Monastery, one of the region's main touchstones of Serbian cultural identity. Finished in 1335, the marble Romanesque building is larger than any other medieval Balkan church. It survived the Ottomans and the upheaval after the Ottoman retreat from the Balkans in 1912. It has seen five wars in the twentieth century alone. Today it's guarded by troops belonging to an international NATO-led contingent known as the Kosovo Force (KFOR). To get there, I had to drive a serpentine route between concrete barriers before reaching a military guardhouse manned by automatic-rifle-toting Sicilian KFOR soldiers who didn't speak a word of English, German, Albanian, or Serbian. After exhausting my repertoire of pantomime I showed my press card and eventually was waved through. Several more soldiers and two UN policemen lounged in the parking lot. Security was tight. Three weeks earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade had hit an outer wall of the fourteenth-century church. It damaged only the roof tiles, and no one was hurt, but it was the fourth such attack on the monastery complex since 1999.

Inside the church, the dim light was just enough that I could make out the frescoes that cover every inch of the interior. They depict Bible stories and the lives of saints, and are the largest and best-preserved Byzantine-era frescoes in the Balkans. "It's like an encyclopedia," said one monk who wanted to remain anonymous. I asked him why very little archaeological work has been done here. Albanian archaeologists I spoke with in Pristina complained that they were not allowed to conduct excavations in the Serb-dominated north, or even just visit medieval sites.

"It is unacceptable for us to have archaeologists dig at these living sites," said the monk. "These are not archaeological sites. It would disrupt the life of the monastery. The [Albanian] obsession with archaeology is amazing. If the Italians had the same obsession, there would be nothing left of Rome." Of the cultural ministry in Pristina, he said "we don't trust their intentions. There are no Serbs there, and some of their publications have shown that they are interested in Albanizing sites."

Visoki Decani, along with seven other churches and the Battle of Kosovo monument outside Pristina, have been designated for special protection in UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan for an independent Kosovo. Under the plan, the Church is the sole owner of its properties, and the Kosovo authorities will need the Church's consent to access the properties. Security for all nine places will be provided by whichever international military presence replaces KFOR. Forty-five sites, including churches, the historic center of the city of Prizren, and the medieval town of Novo Brdo, are covered by so-called Protective Zones which means no new buildings or infrastructure can be built around them.

While Albanians grumble that Ahtisaari's plan focuses too much on protecting Serbian churches and granting Serb-majority municipalities a large degree of self-government, Serbian politicians and churchmen in Belgrade have rejected the plan altogether. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, condemned it in an Easter speech, calling the U.S. and the European countries that support it "darkened minds who take the liberty to violate laws" by redrawing Serbia's borders. The hardline political stance is often mirrored by Serbian archaeologists. "Albanians cannot show a single archaeological trace of their presence in Kosovo and Metohija," wrote medieval archaeologist Djordje Jankovic in 1999, using the traditional Serbian name for the province. Nor do many Serbs advocate the return of the more than 1,000 artifacts whisked from Pristina's Museum of Kosovo to Belgrade in 1997 and 1998. During the NATO bombing campaign the Belgrade museum put the artifacts on display in a special exhibit of the treasures of Kosovo. The Albanians want all the artifacts back.



Serb conservator Boban Todorovic, top, and Albanian archaeologist Kemajl Luci, bottom, work together to protect the Roman ruins at Ulpiana. Luci has arranged foreign logistical support for Todorovic's work at the site. (Marc Schneider)

"Why return the artifacts? The state took those artifacts that belonged to the state and put them in a safer place," said Zoran Garic, an architect with the Commission to Protect Cultural Heritage in northern Kosovo, where the Serbs are the majority. He sees a grim future in Kosovo for Serbs. "If independence comes, in five years there'll be no Serbs there except as caretakers of the monuments," he said.

Everyone I spoke with in Kosovo agreed that archaeology and cultural heritage are political minefields that will be the source of controversy long after Kosovo's likely independence. But in a few cases heritage has proven to be a way to bring the two sides together. Albanian construction companies have begun to help rebuild some Orthodox churches. And I had a chance to see another example of Serb-Albanian cooperation myself.

When I visited Kemajl Luci, the chain-smoking Albanian museum archaeologist, I asked him about the photographs of Roman ruins in his office. "You must see Ulpiana," he said. Two days later I found myself with Luci in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, three miles from Pristina, greeting a tall man with a dark ponytail--Serb conservator Boban Todorovic. Together we made our way to the nearby Roman city of Ulpiana, where the ruins of a sixth-century Roman basilica and a lichen-covered aqueduct are surrounded by tilled fields so thick with ceramic sherds that it looked like the local Serb farmers were sowing pottery rather than seed corn.

Sharing a passion for the neglected Roman site, any Serb-Albanian divide evaporated as Luci and Todorovic strolled the fields and chatted in Serbian about keeping the basilica clear of the weedy thicket that encroaches every several weeks. "We could spray them," suggested Luci, who has secured funding for conservation work at the site. "No chance," said Todorovic. "I'll get my guys to come and pull everything up by hand."

They caught up on the local archaeological gossip, one minute complaining about an annoying colleague, the next discussing the 8,000 euros Switzerland has pledged to help preserve the site. Both men share the same frustration of scrambling for money to save Ulpiana and annoyance at the local farmers who swipe stones from the basilica. They are prone to swapping naughty anecdotes that Luci calls "archaeological jokes."

"The Gracanica monastery has received a pile of money for the walls, restoration, and everything else, while Ulpiana has gotten almost nothing," Todorovic told me. "If this were in another place--if this were in Italy, for God's sake--no one would begrudge any money for it." Todorovic nodded at the cleared site. "But what has been done is thanks to Kemajl. If it weren't for him, none of this would have been done, and all you'd see here is grass."

Beth Kampschror is a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America