Viminacium – Roman town and military camp

Viminacium, Roman archeological site in Serbia, has been the object of interest of various explorers for centuries. At the end of the 17th century it was visited by Count Marsigli, who published his observations in his work Danubius Pannonicomysicus in 1726. In the 19th century Felix Kanitz visited Viminacium on several occasions and left record of what he saw in several of his books. Several other foreign and Serbian authors also wrote about Viminacium (Ladek, Premerstein, Momsen, Brunschmidt, Vulić and others). The first excavations were undertaken by Mihailo Valtrović and they yielded good results. These explorations were continued at the beginning of the past century by Miloje Vasić, a professor of the High School in Belgrade, who uncovered a number of buildings and tombs, as well as a street five meters wide with the remains of water supply and sewage systems.

The exploration of the cemeteries of the town of Viminacium was undertaken at the time of the construction of the thermoelectric power plant “Kostolac” and the opening of the strip mine “Drmno”. They were directed by Ljubica Zotović from the Archaeological Institute in Belgrade and they lasted from 1977 to 1997. The Republican Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments and the National Museum of Požarevac also participated in these explorations.

A new impetus to the exploration of Viminacium was given by the multi-disciplinary team of young research workers headed by Dr. Miomir Korać from the Archaeological Institute in Belgrade.

This team, which explores the Roman town and the legionary camp, includes experts for remote detection, geomorphologists, mathematicians, electrical engineers and petrologists from a number of institutions (the Mathematical Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Mathematical Faculty, the Faculty of Mining and Geology, the Faculty of Electrical Engineering).

In 2002 collaboration with the State University of New York at Albany was established, so that the Viminacium project has an international character now. Each summer 10 to 15 American students participate in the work on the site as members of the Field School.

The Baths

The baths (thermae) are typical Roman buildings. As public establishments, they appear in the time of the Empire both in Rome and in the provinces. They served not only for personal hygiene, but also for relaxation and various social activities. Their architectural form varied from town to town. The baths of Viminacium are distinguished not only by their luxury but also by their architectural design. The long period during which they remained in use (1st-4th century) makes it possible to trace the individual stages in their construction.

The archaeological explorations have shown that there were five conchs, four of which were the so-called tepidaria (warm rooms) and the fifth one was a frigidarium (cold room). The baths have been preserved to the level of the hypocaust, which shows evidence of several stages of construction. The remains of fresco paintings testify to the luxury of the establishment. The floor of the earlier baths, which rested on short brick-built pillars, was covered with a mosaic. The large number of oil lamps found on the premises shows that the baths were used also at night.

Lead Sarcophagi

Burial in lead sarcophagi is comparatively rare in the Upper Moesia in the Roman times. The greatest number of such sarcophagi has been found precisely in the cemeteries of Viminacium. In addition to the exceptionally richly decorated examples found in the family tombs (memoriae), there are some plain ones, which were laid in a simple pit. So far, thirteen lead sarcophagi have been excavated, and seven of them are decorated, . A very common form of ornament on the lead sarcophagi from Viminacium are applied bands that divide the surface of the sarcophagus into triangles and rhombs, which is a feature characteristic of the Jerusalem workshop. Although the decoration of the lead sarcophagi found in the cemeteries of Viminacium is very similar to that on the sarcophagi from Syria, they are probably the products of local artisans.

These artisans were no doubt influenced by the population of Oriental origin. This might imply the use of imported patterns as an expression of a widely adopted fashion in a given period, in this case in the period from the 2nd to the 4th century. Although the greatest number of lead sarcophagi, particularly the ornamented ones, has been found in Viminacium, none of them features Christian symbols. The percentage of burials in lead sarcophagi is comparatively small in relation to the other forms of burials in the cemeteries of Viminacium, which seems to indicate that the persons buried in them enjoyed a special social status. The greatest number of lead sarcophagi discovered so far contained remains of children.

The Art

The numerous and typologically varied forms of glassware found in Viminacium testify to the quality and craftsmanship of the Roman glassworkers. Their richness and inventiveness are particularly evident on the vessels worked in the millefiore technique and the vessels which imitate the polychromatic effects of marble. The rich range of toilet bottles, primarily balsamaria, testifies to the use of various aromatic oils and medicaments, which were for the Romans a sign of cleanliness of the body and purity of the spirit. The finds show that luxurious and elegant glass tableware was used in addition to the more general ordinary pottery.

Numerous beakers, glasses, bowls, bottles and jugs testify to their use in everyday life. Besides the simpler forms, there are some special glass vessels made by casting, pressing or blowing, either into a mold or shaped completely free-form. Particularly noteworthy are the so-called Mercury bottles and the narrow-necked vessels (guti), the use of which has not been ascertained. The wealth of forms and the simplicity of style are suggestive of serial production, which may well have originated in Viminacium itself, while the more luxurious examples were products of the Cologne, Gallic and Syrian workshops. The glass vessels from Viminacium date from the period from the 1st to the 4th/5th centuries A.D. and give us a good idea of the glass working production in the Roman Empire.

The jewelry of Viminacium is very varied and a study of it enables us to trace the individual stages in its development and to learn something of the changes of fashion in personal adornment and in the taste of its owners. Some autochthonous forms of jewelry make their appearance already in the pre-Roman period. After the arrival of the legions and merchants and the beginning of gradual Romanization, the native traditions merged with the new elements, and this combination found expression in the objects of adornment, too. They were made of various materials: metal (gold, silver, bronze, iron), bone, glass paste and various minerals, which were used to add colorist effects. Many examples conform to the general trends of provincial jewelry making, but some finds display certain specific traits that might be associated with the style of local workshops.

Mammoth Cemetary

In early June 2012, archaeologists first found the bones of a mammoth that apparently comes from the Ice Age (Late Pleistocene). The mammoth, named Nosko (Nosy), is younger than Vika, the female mammoth whose bones were discovered in 2009 two kilometers farther. In addition to being younger, the newly found mammoth is bigger than Vika, as evidenced by the 1.3 m long leg bone that has been unearthed, which means that the leg of the prehistoric animal reached or even exceeded the length of 2.5 meters.

In the vicinity of this site, very soon were discovered new bones, assumed to be part of the skeletons of five or six mammoths, also younger than Vika. Based on the sediments where the bones were found, paleontologists from the Natural History Museum, assume that these are woolly mammoths, which died out 10,000 years ago (Late Pleistocene). The body of these mammoths was covered with long, thick layer of shaggy hair , which, along with a thick layer of fat under the skin, protected them from the harsh climate. They reached height exceeding 3 meters, and had characteristic, up to 5 meters long spiral tusks. It is quite possible that during the excavation of skeletal remains, more bones will be found, which will enable archaeologists to find out whether the mammoths came there to die, just as elephants do today, or if they were victims of a natural disaster. As for the mammoth Vika, it was determined that it drowned and died in the swamp mud.

The new discovery of mammoths attracted much attention of foreign scientists. The Paris Museum of Natural History, one of the largest and most famous in the world, has invited archaeologists from Viminacium to participate in the global conference “The World of Mammoths and Their Relatives”, in Anchorage, Alaska, in May 2013 and present this extraordinary discovery to their colleagues. In addition, the top Chinese experts in the geology of loess announced a late summer visit, for more comprehensive studies of the soil. It has been already suggested to open a paleontological park on this site, and talks with the U.S. experts have commenced.