Eight thousand years of history are tumbling out of a riverbank in southern Croatia. About a decade ago, a surge of water from a hydroelectric dam scoured soil from the banks of the Cetina River. Since then, archaeologists have begun collecting a treasure trove of Iron Age and Bronze Age weapons, helmets, jewelry, and even a few stone tools from the Neolithic period, roughly 6000 B.C. Best of all, the exposed artifacts may be just a hint of what lies buried in the surrounding 30-square-mile area, which should be well preserved by the valley’s oxygen-poor, waterlogged soil.
The site lies near Klis, a narrow pass in the Dinaric Alps that was once an important trade route between Europe and the Near East. Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in England who has worked in the area since the mid-1980s, believes the artifacts recovered so far were religious offerings left by local villagers as well as by Roman and Slavic soldiers over the centuries.
But the find goes beyond military artifacts. Timbers from Bronze Age houses jut into the water, revealing fragile organic materials lying intact in the unexposed mud. Equally important, sedimentary records indicate the river’s course has barely deviated in the past 3,000 years. Gaffney is stunned by the extent of the preservation. “It appears to have a huge amount of rich metalwork,” he says, “and the remains of at least a dozen prehistoric settlements.”