Salona—a city under a city from the perspective of a conservator-restorer of archaeological heritage

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A view to the west, including the former port of ancient Salona. Explore this ancient city through the Salona Virtual Tour, a 360º experience through this link: .

By Miona Miliša, IIC-Croatian Group Council Member

Only about six kilometres north of Split, the largest city on the eastern Adriatic shore and the second largest in Croatia, lies the town of Solin. For the last fifty years or so, there seems to be no boundary between the two cities because they have integrated into one single inhabited metropolis. As we drive along the fast road from Split to Solin, a portion of the monumental Roman aqueduct that once brought water from the river Jadro (Jader) to Diocletian's Palace suddenly emerges on the right, towering above the modern construction.

We continue driving along the highway towards Trogir, and to the right, just next to the traffic barrier, a view opens up to part of the archaeological site of the ancient city of Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. This city disappeared from the historical stage in the seventh century with the arrival of the Avars and Slavs who overran and partly destroyed it and settled in what is today Solin. They drove out an entire ancient civilisation which also incorporated Early Christian complexes, basilicas and tombs of the first martyrs, and as they fled, the people of Salona took with them to the Palace the ancient heritage and relics of the holy martyrs, and there they established a new city and a new metropolitan seat.

The geographical site on which Salona developed met several major prerequisites, which led to the rapid and undisturbed development of this city in Antiquity; its location in the middle of the eastern Adriatic coast, in a sheltered bay at the Jadro river delta, is protected from the northeast by a mountain range. Even before the arrival of the Romans and the founding of the city, there had been an important port here, but it was Salona that became a true administrative, commercial and political centre on the Adriatic. Its branching roads connected the civilisations on the Mediterranean shores with those in the European interior. These civilisations exerted influences in both directions, becoming inextricably intertwined and creating a singular cultural heritage that has largely been preserved to this day and which we are still discovering.

The visible and researched remains of this extinct city consist of the ancient trapezium-shaped nucleus surrounded by walls with fortified towers. The eastern part of the walls, built of large stone blocks, are remains from the oldest part of the Roman city. In the time of Emperor Augustus, the Porta Caesarea was built—a monumental three-part gate flanked by octagonal towers. This gate was the starting point of a road that ran south in one direction (connecting with Epetium, Narona and other urban centres of the time) and in the other direction led north through the mountain saddles and further inland. Among the remains of the former city we can see today—as fully presented archaeological sites together with presentation content—are the remains of the theatre and amphitheatre, parts of the walls with over 90 detected towers in greater or lesser states of preservation, a considerable number of public and private baths, necropolises with countless sarcophagi and complex architectural basilican complexes. Most of these locations were excavated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries thanks to the commitment of Frane Bulić (at that time chief conservator for Dalmatia and director of the Archaeological Museum in Split) as well as that of Francesco Carrara, Ejnar Dyggve and a number of other participants in that gargantuan venture of the then Archaeological Museum; it is also worth noting that they were, at that time, also the best international experts in Antiquity.

Today all the sites mentioned above can be viewed in situ, in vivo, just over five kilometres from the University of Split, which has been educating conservator-restorers and art historians since the 1990s (and civil engineers, architects and other professionals much longer than that). This is the pool from which experts were selected who were, for decades, directly involved in the research, evaluation, interpretation, protection, revitalisation and presentation of the rich Salonitan cultural heritage.

In 2007 a dam composed of marble sarcophagi with exceptionally well-carved relief depictions of erotica, gorgons and sphinxes was discovered. Such valuable stone archaeological finds are conserved and restored at the Department of Conservation-Restoration of Stone at the Arts Academy, University of Split, founded exactly 25 years ago, whose anniversary we are celebrating in the spirit of new joint action. The conservation-restoration study programme at the Arts Academy, a component of the University, is the only programme in Croatia for the conservation-restoration of the archaeological heritage. Various archaeological objects have passed through its workshops including those from locations in Salona.

Today's problems in the Salona-Solin area are challenging. It is an area in which life has continuously been going on for thousands of years. Not every city can boast so many remnants of the past that are still hidden in unexplored layers of history. In the twentieth century, archaeologist Frane Bulić wrote the book Pod ruševinama stare Salone (Under the Ruins of Old Salona) and managed to interest the world's professional and general public in the site, which has since then been a focus of researchers of Antiquity.

Salona is the largest archaeological site from Antiquity in Croatia, covering a huge explored and protected area (approximately 75 ha) in the wider environs of Solin, just a few kilometres from Split. However, there is also a huge area of ​​the ancient city lying under, or among, various densely built urban and architectural structures in the modern town of Solin, which today has just under 30,000 inhabitants.

Salona is also one of the most important medieval sites in the Republic of Croatia. Beside the eastern walls of the Roman city, remains were found of royal Benedictine monasteries, a mausoleum of Croatian rulers and the coronation basilica of Croatian King Zvonimir of the medieval Croatian kingdom, which bordered on the then Byzantine city of Split. Along with the other major coastal cities, Split was part of the last Byzantine administration in the eastern Mediterranean. The importance of the diverse archaeological material in Salona—at the local, national and international levels—has been interpreted and emphasized as a basis of Croatian national cultural heritage and one of the backbones of its identity. The protected area, placed under the jurisdiction of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act, is divided into zone A (in which no construction is allowed) and zone B (in which construction is permitted subject to research and archaeological work). Every intervention in the ground, even the smallest, in order to build and repurpose the content of a site, must be approved by the competent Conservation Departments of the Ministry of Culture and Media.

There is quite a library of professional reviews and books about the importance of this former Roman provincial capital, as well as about the importance of today's largest archaeological site in Croatia. In the last century, the site was unfortunately struck by the proverbial arrow straight in the heart when the Adriatic Motor Road was built over it. Even today, whenever any digging is done to satisfy new building plans in which archaeological research is mandatory, sensational discoveries are made of extremely well-preserved sequences from the as yet unknown whole of the extinct capital of the Roman province.

In order to protect cultural values including immovable cultural goods, individuals and communities have, since the earliest times, undertaken various measures, interventions and procedures to preserve and restore historic structures and artwork. With social development, these actions became more and more organised and intensive, and today the protection of cultural property is an organised social concern in all countries in the world, including Croatia.

Despite intensive construction and urbanisation that is present everywhere in the world, we also have positive examples of coexistence with archaeological sites throughout time. Natural disasters cannot be prevented, industrial life cannot be stopped, but damage can be kept to a minimum, and that is what we believe our time can achieve.

We have devoted one part of our professional work to processes that will prolong the life of the archaeological heritage by minimising the causes of deterioration; often this requires considerable effort because of the overall limitation of resources. Equally, we are devoted to the education of new generations that have decided to follow the same vocation.

At this point in time, people’s world view is layered, as are the needs of the average visitor in the new digital era. Museums today boast quality digital and virtual content, but the challenge is not only to use this content in the service of documentation, education and presentation, but also in service of the monuments themselves, which must always remain paramount in our interest. When we talk about branding and the power of storytelling in today’s society, how we convey the history of a location—which is, in this case, truly multi-layered—can shape its future and can also attract visitors in innovative ways.

The project Salona virtual tour by the Archaeological Museum in Split uses such technology and is a good example of the use of augmented reality (AR) technologies in the tourism, in the interpretation and in the presentation of sites.

In 2020 the Archaeological Museum in Split marked 200 years of existence, making it the oldest museum institution in this part of Europe. During this time, the Museum has kept the original documentation from the first archaeological excavations in Salona, ​​as well as the first archaeological treasures found at that time. Incomplete and fragmented, our records of Salonitan heritage still lack many undiscovered puzzle pieces that will surely be discovered by future generations. Each fragment carries within it part of the whole and some new, as yet untold stories.


Miona Miliša graduated from the University of Split Conservation-Restoration Department in 2005 and received her PhD in 2012 at the University of Zadar, Archaeology Department. In 2012 she passed the professional exam and gained the professional title of conservator-restorer of the archaeological heritage at the Ministry of Culture, Republic of Croatia. She is employed at the University of Split, as an assistant professor in the Department of Conservation-Restoration at the Arts Academy.

(Read the article and access the 360 virtual tours of ancient Salona in the February-March 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 88, p. 30-34)

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As we drive along the fast road from Split to Solin, a portion of the monumental Roman aqueduct that once brought water from the river Jadro (Jader) to Diocletian's Palace suddenly emerges on the right, towering above the modern construction.
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