We wake up early to a lot of noisy movement going on round the ship. We are back in the Iron Gate Lock - the upper system where (going upstream) the ship is lifted a full 40 feet while the mountain suddenly close in all round, the Carpathians on the Romanian side to the north, the Balkans to the south. This right bank is now Serbia, as I find having had a text message to say that I have left my mobile phone’s roaming switched on and have incurred unintended internet costs. I hastily turn it off where it will stay until we renter a friendly EU country.
It is overcast but the scenery all round is magnificent - grander than I remember it a week ago when we were sailing downstream. I imagine we are gliding along a Norwegian fjord, the surface of the water calm and deep and still, unruffled save for our vessel that cuts its path cleanly through the mirror leaving behind two beautiful hyperbolas of glassy waves that curl their way to the shore on either side. Providence arranges that I am on the correct side of the ship when I suddenly notice the famous Roman tablet, the “Tabula Traiana” set into the cliffs just above the surface of the water. I had missed this completely on the way down. It commemorates the Emperor Trajan (one of the good ones, Hadrian’s predecessor and champion) who built his road along the side of the canyon so that traffic could avoid navigating the river on this deadly stretch of rapids, whirlpools and cataracts. Just a little further up, Decabolos grabs everyone’s attention once again, together with the beautiful little monastery at the water’s edge, its petite towers setting off this marvellously dramatic stretch of the Danube to perfection.
Our expedition today is the Mesolithic site of Lepenski Vir. It would be nice to think that everyone who reads this blog has heard of this remarkable place. I certainly hadn’t. Yet it can claim to be one of the most important Stone Age sites in the world. Dating from 9000-6000 BCE, just after the glaciers had started to retreat, Lepenski Vir is possibly the earliest city in the world, not only in terms of its social and economic organisation but its traditions of art and sculpture.
The 600 metre red porphyric rock called Treskavac rears up dramatically above the original site on the left bank. It dominates this stretch of the river, glowing spectacularly when the summer sun is setting on it. This seems explain why this part of the Danube was settled by nomads who decided to adopt the settled life of hunter-gatherers. It no doubt carried religious and totemic significance as it guarded the settlement as well as providing a navigational point of reference and, not least, acting as a lightning conductor due to the strong iron content of the rock. It’s also suggested that this stretch of the river was especially rich in nutrients and therefore fish because of how the water was stirred up by the rapids and whirlpools of the Iron Gate Gorge.
All this is in the past tense, because the original archaeological site no longer exists. Along with others in the gorge, it was flooded in the 1970s following the construction of the hydro-electric Iron Gate Barrage through which we have passed today. The dam has been blamed for the destruction of so much that was unique to the gorge, not just the natural river conditions but the towns and villages that had been established in the shelter beneath the crags since antiquity. The loss to archaeology was incalculable. I’ve already mentioned Trajan’s road, now under several metres of water. But paradoxically, Lepenski Vir might never have been discovered had it not been for the extensive archaeological surveys that the construction of the dam precipitated between 1965 and 1970. Of the middle Stone Age sites, LV was reckoned to be the most important and the best preserved.
Removed to a higher level upstream, but still in clear sight of the rock, LV is now contained in a striking iron-framed glass structure a bit like a vast greenhouse. It’s a distant cousin of the Sage, Gateshead, also on the south bank looking north across a great river. The foundations of the trapezoidal houses are laid out on concrete foundations (yes, concrete! - we forget how ancient this material is, and how the Romans exploited it in the construction of some of their greatest buildings such as the Pantheon). Outside the museum is a model of how one might have looked with thatched roof, a low entrance and an opening above to release smoke from the fire burning inside. Round the foundations of some of these houses are triangular designs, now established as representing the numbers of generations that have lived in each house. One has no fewer than nine of them.
The highlight of this memorable museum is the gallery where excavated artefacts are displayed. A human skeleton shows the height to which the men at LV grew - up to six feet, which contradicts the oft-quoted assumption that in prehistory, people did not grow very tall because they were not as well nourished as in historical times. Our guide speculates on the role a healthy diet may have played in this. It’s clear that the people of LV only ate fish, nuts and vegetables, probably not meat (or not much) and remarkably, not fruit or berries, thus subsisting on a diet free of both animal fats and sugars, yet still high in proteins. Maybe we should imitate them?
But best of all in the gallery are the sculptures. Some are purely decorative, geometric lattice patterns carved into the stone and bringing it to life by imparting depth and texture. Others are busts of human beings. I’m not sure if their significance has been fully understood yet. They may depict heads of families or communities. They may represent ancestors to be honoured. They may have religious significance symbolising the gods. Whatever the meaning, they are highly evocative, among the most beautiful artefacts we’ve seen on this extraordinary journey.
A final reflection strikes me as we leave the site. When we arrived we were shown a short film made in the late 1960s chronicling the discoveries at Lepenski Vir. The quality is terrible and you have to wonder why a presentation on a site of this importance isn’t graced by something a lot slicker and better. Yet it’s done with a lightness of touch that’s endearing. To begin with, we see archaeologists shunning the camera crew as if to say, we are experts here, not entertainers. By the end, having uncovered their marvellous finds, they are filmed laughing and dancing in satisfaction for a project that’s proved so rewarding. Many of this talented team of Serbian archaeologists of more than half a century ago will now be dead. They have joined the people of Lepenski Vir as those who are remembered but gone from us into the shadowlands of death. I’m sobered by that thought about my own mortality triggered a yellowing grainy film whose prehistoric stars still speak to us so long after they have left the stage for good.
On getting back we wander round the village where we are berthed. The whole of it was built to replace its flooded forebear, but it’s been done with charm and with a thought to preserving a sense of scale. Pretty pantile roofs everywhere, shops, cafes and leafy streets where children are playing. In the church, paintings retrieved from the old building on the riverbed are now displayed among the icons. A rusting steam engine from the nineteenth century stands in front of the town hall - its wheels are without flanges and it has a huge flywheel attached to its smoke box so was it a stationary engine that used to haul ships by ropes up the canyon in this dangerous gorge? There’s a market happening alongside it where beautiful fabrics are for sale at ridiculous (to us) prices. I buy J a coral-red silk scarf, but it’s the lace that catches everyone’s eye. I think of my high church friends in the UK who would die for this.
Our impression is that Serbian villages are in better shape than the Bulgarian villages we have seen downstream. Is this a consequence of the different political history of Tito’s Yugoslavia that bravely stood outside the bleak mainstream of Eastern European communism? Our guide, like her two predecessors in Serbia, is keen to talk up her country. “Tourism is very important to us n that we are recovering from the difficult times of the 1990s.” Yet she allows no time for questions that might probe this enigmatic statement. “Difficult times” is a euphemism for a brutal war in which Serbia played a central part and whose nationalistic leaders brought untold suffering through their policies of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.
It’s a deeply unhappy story, but Serbia seems not to be able to speak about it in the way that, say, Germany is able to acknowledge its role in the last war in a mature and reflective way. The ethnic fault lines that lay across the Balkans in the 1990s still exist, just as the geological fault lines do in this earthquake zone. Maybe EU membership on the part of some or all of the Balkan nation’s May bring about a lasting peace. We haven’t heard about that either, here in Serbia. Tomorrow we are in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city. Who knows what we’ll learn there in a place that experienced severe NATO bombing in an attempt to deter the bellicose Serbs from their hostile activity against their neighbours?