Hillforts - Castellieri - Gradine

Tracking the History of the Hillforts in Istria and Slovenia

Early Studies

In 1873, Richard F. Burton (1821-90), the British Consul to Trieste (1871-90), wrote a lecture on his studies on the castelllieri which he submitted to the British Anthropological Society. His lecture was not published until two years later, but his studies did get notice in Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading. Vol. IV, July to December 1873. Ticknor and Fields (Boston, 1873), Foreign Notes, p. 671:

"Professional travelers will everywhere find something that escapes attention, especially if they possess the activity of Captain Burton. For years there have been reports of a network of ruins on the cost of Istria and at Kherso Island, locally known as Castillieri. These were suppose to be Roman, but are now found to be built upon quasi "Cyclopean foundations," and to be full of pre-historic weapons, stone axes, etc., all polished. The late Professor Kandler, of Trieste, a great local authority, believes these remains to be Celtic. Mr. Tomaso Luciani of Albona, an ardent student of antiquities, exhibited fine specimens at the Congress of Bologna, and first proved them to be pre-historic. The fact is peculiarly interesting with reference to the speculation of Mr. Fertgusson. Captain Burton is at present investigating the remains and workign up the pre-historic traditions of Istria, and we doubt not that the results in his hands will be profitable to science."

Ten years later, in 1885, came the another report by Burton on the Istrian hillforts in The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts, published by the Archaeological Institute of America, with the following notes:

Before Mr. Burton's work, Notes on the Castellieri or prehistoric ruins of the Istrian Peninsula, published in 1875, no attempt had been made to account for the ancient ruins called Castellieri which cover the hills and rocks of Istria; and it was not until 1883 that the first scientific researches were begun in this field, at Vermo near Pisino, by Prof. Moser at the expense of the Viennese Academy. These researches resulted in the discovery of a necropolis which contained over a hundred tombs a combustione, consisting of square cells opened in the friable rock from 1 to 2 metres below the surface and covered with slabs. Each contained one, seldom more, cinerary urn of pottery or metal without special decoration. The contents of these tombs were extremely meagre. Further discoveries were made in the same year by Dr. Marchessetti. The objects found enrich the Museums of Vienna and Trieste.

In consequence, an historical society and a provincial museum were founded, and excavations begun on a grand scale by Dr. Amoroso in the vicinity of Vermo and at the Castellieri dei Pizzughi near Parenzo, the latter of which was productive of very important results. The 200 tombs at the Pizzughi, at a depth of between 0.50 and 1.50 met., are square and measure about a metre each way; they are built of polygonal masses and covered with large calcareous slabs. A single tomb often contained as many as five ossuaries which also were covered with a thin stone slab. Another species of tombs is formed in the shape of a small cylindrical well, also closed in by a slab: these, however, never contained more than a single cinerary urn. The great majority follow the usual type of the Italian necropoli of the first iron-age, with some local variations. The pottery is almost entirely made by hand and baked at the open fire, and in the form of a double truncated cone with reversed neck. The meagre decoration is strictly geometrical, either scratched or in relief.. Among the ornaments found the most numerous are bracelets with linear ornamentation, clasps of the " Certosa" type, and hair-pins: numerous objects found demonstrate the attention paid to the refinements of the toilet even by such a savage people as the Histri.

In 1903, Carlo Marchesetti published I castellieri preistorici di Trieste e della regione Giulia, the first book on the historical findings of the castellieri, and a year later Rev. Steven Denison Peet reported on it as follows in The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 26 (January-November, 1904), p. 298:

"As castellieri are known in Italy, [they are] walled places on heights of from 100 to 500 meters, corresponding somewhat to the German "Burgwalle" and "Burgb rge." They are particularly numerous in Istria, — of 573 castellieri known, 126 belong to Trieste, 74 to Görz, 383 to Istria, and 20 to Carniola. Of these Carlo Marchesetti has investigated 524. The results of his careful studies are given in his I castellieri preistorici di Trieste e della Regione Giulia (Trieste, 1903). These castellieri contain remains of all periods from the Neolithic Age to the time of the Romans, and the oldest are attributed to the "Illyro-Veneti." They seem to have first been built close to the sea, as on the Quarnero islands, and then to have followed the heights inland. The people who built these earliest castellieri were in the Neolithic Age, although somewhat acquainted with copper and bronze. About 1000 B.C., an invasion of Illyrians from Carniola into northern Italy took place. These immigrants were in the Bronze Age and had some knowledge of iron, lived in castellieri and burned their dead. They left behind them huge necropoli, only a few of which (Sta. Lucia, Caporetto, S. Canziano, etc.) have been explored. This Illyrian culture, according to Marchesetti, had three periods: 1, 1000-800 B.C. (Hallstatt objects); 2, 800-600 B.C. (great independent progress in native industry); 3, 600-400 B.C. (Etruscan influence) With the invasion of the Celts comes the introduction of the La Tène culture and the downfall of many old caslellieri settlements. Against the Romans the castellieri people long and stubbornly defended themselves, until in 182 B.C., the founding of Aquileia marked the final conquest of Istria. The Romans, however, made use of the sites to build new and stronger castellieri which they garrisoned with their soldiery. During the Middle Ages the castellieri were often used as places of refuse; to-day only their ruins are left, and these Marchesetti urges the people and governmental authorities to preserve, as far as possible. Lissauer, whose review (Mitt. d. Anthr. G. in Wien. 1904, p. 87) is the basis of this note, evidently considers Marchesetti's archaeological work of great importance.

More recently, in his book, The Illyrians (1995), p. 63-4, John Wilkes wrote:

"The tract of hilly country extending southwest from Lower Carniola towards Istria, known today as Notranjska (Inner Carniola), has produced several important sites of the Iron Age, notably the cave shrine of Škocjan (St. Kanzian, it. San Canziano, now in Slovenia), though no single place has zet furnished evidence for a continuous occupation from Hallstatt (Early Irion Age) to La Tène (Late Iron Age) times. The metal hoard and flat cemetery at Škocjan have produced brooches, bowls, helmets and spears that in some respects resemble those from the Dolensko area and from St. Lucia. Similar material has also been found in cemeteries at Socerb and Štanjel.

The hillltop settlement at Šmihel [in Novo Mesto, Slovenia] has three associated flat cemeteries, one of the 8th-7th centuries, the others containing mainly 4th century graves. The material from the cemetery at Križna gora of the 8th - 6th centuries is different from that in the rest of Notranjska and has similarities with the Lika group, while the fact that a third of the graves contain skeletons seems another indication of links with communities further south. It has been suggested that the interruption of cemeteries in this area after the 7th century was caused by the domination of the Dolensko (Lower Carniola) group. Similarly a recovery of local independence, following a decline of the latter's power, may be signified by the reappearance of major cemeteries in the 4th century. [...]

The Iron Age communities of the Istrian peninsula at the head of the Adriatic are known from several sites, where the finds suggest that a single cultural group had formed by the 8th century. Their typical fortified settlements on hilltops had begun to be occupied already in Bronze Age times. These castellieri, as they are known in Istria, often enclose two or three crests, with a single or multiple ramparts on the naturally unprotected sides. They vary greatly in situation and in physical character, from just above sea level to around 700 metres, and from an area of a few hundred square metres to vast complexes of several square kilometres. They contained rectangular timber and clay houses. Burial was in flat cremation cemeteries, sometimes without but mainly with urns, in a stone-lined grave that was sometimes covered. Boundary wall of a dry-stone construction defined family burial plots. The dead were cremated wearing their clothes and their jewellery. Skeleton burials are rare. A particular feature of the Istrian material culture are the carved stones from Nesactium on the east coast. Here a princely tomb suggests that predecessors of the kinds who reigned there in the third and 2nd centuries were already wielding power in the 5th. There is much yet to be understood about the Istrian culture of the Iron Age, and publication of some of the major collections of evidence will assist in this regard. There seems little doublt that what was basically the product of local evolution over several centuries was from the 6th to 4th centuries much altered by Italic influences. The origins of some elements may lie in the impact of the Pannonian Urnfield Culture on local Bronze Age groups, form which several straits, including grave-construction, pottery ornament and the lack of brooches, continued down to the first appearance of teh Italian influences. As a result of these, Istria became part of a more uniform, Italic-dominated complex around the Adriatic, which included Liburnia and the Lika." [John Wilkes, The Illyrians, p. 63-4.]

Current Status

Since the early findings, some 400 fortified settlements have been identified on the Istrian peninsula dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages, which bear witness to the population density on the peninsula at the time. They were mostly circular, ellipsoidal and surrounded by defensive walls. Larger hillforts were even encompassed by several rings of walls. A special building technique was used where large stone blocks were laid without a bonding agent (dry wall). Today most of the hillfort settlements are recognized as circular towns which later developed on their foundations. Today's toponyms – gradina, gradinje, gradište, gračišće, kaštelir (after the Italian term castelliere), are pinpoints for some of these remnants.

In the Bronze Age (1800-1000 B.C.), a new type of settlement appeared - the so-called gradine [Istrian: kaštelir], i.e. castles on top of hills - that were fortified and controlled the surrounding plains. More than 400 points on which this kind of settlement existed have been recorded in Istria, a figure which clearly shows the population density. These ruins differ in size and shape, the bigger ones having two or three rings of protective walls, while the smaller ones were not continuously inhabited. However, from time to time they were used as refugee camps (e.g. the Kastel in Medulin that was fortified from the land side only as the remaining three sides were defended by the sea). 

A special technique was used in wall building. Huge stone blocks were extracted on the very site, so that on the terraces thus formed houses could be built. House walls were of stone and mortar-free up to the height of one metre, above that the construction being of timber and having a straw roof. Plateaus on top of hills were often built on as well. The houses having a rounded ground plan may have had their roofs made of stone slabs, which is similar in appearance to today's shepherds' field houses (kažun - casite;). It is this similarity in appearance that enhances the possibility of an existing continuity in the building tradition of rural Istria, from the Bronze Age to the 20th century. Rounded houses were found on Pulac above Rijeka, and oblong ones on Kas near Bale and on Makadanj near Rovinj.

The structure on the ridge between Mordele and Sv. Anđelo near Poreč, that was probably used for religious rites, has a rounded ground plan as well, with walls built of big stone blocks vertically placed. Similar structures are visible on Karastak near Rovinjsko Selo and on Kas near Bale

Beside these mostly well-preserved house and fortification walls, the entrances to the main gradine [kaštelir] terraces merit special attention. Such entrances were completely or partially excavated on Kunci near Labin, on Makadanj (Macadonia) near Rovinj, on Vrčin and on the gradina [kaštelir] on Brioni Island. Entrances were at first wide and simple but later on were narrowed and generally made harder to penetrate, so as to make the approach to the centre of the settlement more difficult.

As far as population density of these Bronze Age sites is concerned, a certain pattern can be noted, namely, one fortification being in the middle of a group of other ones, and serving as a centre, and not necessarily being the highest or biggest one. This pattern suggests the idea that some kind of tribal communes existed, in which the surrounding sites served as a shield to the central one.

Finds of metal objects from this period are scarce and they very rarely appear in graves (daggers, knives, simple jewellery), or on settlement sites (bronze axes, spear heads). Towards the end of the Bronze Age bracelets with double spiral discs began to appear, as well as bronze spiral pendants. In contrast with the small number of metal objects found, many bone objects were found on the gradina [kašteli] near Brioni Island, on Vrčin, in Nesactium and in Pula (tools for smoothing, for drilling, sewing needles). Many bone, stone or clay weights used in the manufacture of textile were found on Bronze Age sites in Istria.

The inhabitants of Istria buried their dead under heaps of stone, either in a sitting position or lying on their sides. Graves were built of big and thin stone slabs, surrounded by low walls which appears to be an imitation of the way houses were built. The circle with the grave in the middle was then covered with stones. Such examples from Žamnjak, Maklavun and Paravija are shown are shown in an exhibition at the Archeaological Museum of Istria. Burial stone heaps are usually situated on top of hills individually, or in groups scattered over the whole hill in Žamnjak, Krmedski Novi Grad, and Šego near Rovinj. They appear mostly near Rovinj and Labin but are also known to appear in the northern parts of Istria, around the river Mirna.

According to the finds from graves some can be dated to the beginning of the Bronze Age. During the Middle Bronze Age a new type of graveyard appears - that with a group of plain graves enclosed within a square low stone wall. Such graveyards, and also one containing but family graves in an enclosure, are on the gradina [Istrijanski: kaštelir] on Brioni Island (1400- 1300 B.C.), and the necropolis Vrčin near Vodnjan (1300-1200 B.C.).

Pottery fragments were found in many fireplaces in houses on Makadanj, and with them many pots and cups were reconstructed. In another house many stone mills were found - proof that agriculture was very much present in every day life of the Bronze Age man. 

The character of Bronze Age sites in Istria puts the peninsula into a larger framework of Mediterranean cultures, having links with the lands around the Danube. The inhabitants of Istria in theBronze Age are called Proto Illyrians.


  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillfort
  • John Wilkes, The Illyrians, Blackwell Publishing, 1995
  • http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Hillfort
  • The Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, Guide III (Pula 1986) Pula 3000, Libar od Grozda (Pula 1997)
  • Trsat - http://www.grad-rijeka.hr/default.asp?ru=304&sid=&akcija=&jezik=22

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Created: Monday, November 06, 2006; Last Updated: Sunday, 21 February 2016
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