The Cupolaed Stone Shelters and Abodes:
On the Palaeo-Mediterranean Heritage in the East-Adriatic Area

by Branko Djaković

Traditional folk architecture abounds in regional specific qualities, conditioned by the geomorphologic characteristics, the climate, the vegetation, historical and socio-cultural factors, the economic base, and the continuity of traditional expression.

In south-eastern Europe, in the part of the Balkan Peninsula that opens to the Mediterranean by the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, we can observe a specific way of constructing residential and religious objects and out-houses made of dry, stacked stone. The simplest example of such arrangements are the partition-walls erected between the cultivated plots, olive groves and vineyards‹known there as gromace, suhozidine.

In the Mediterranean karst environment such dry stone walls on terraced slopes that descend towards the sea or its closer hinterland, interlaced like the spider web, provide for the almost surreal picture of harmony of sun, sea, stone and green oases so characteristic for this climate.

Frequently, either beside these gromace or as independent objects in space, the round, cupola-domed stone houses of the entirely archaic form and construction technique can be found. On the islands and along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea such buildings are disposed from the South-East to the North-West. They extend from the Montenegrin Littoral to the outermost borders of the Istrian Peninsula, the borders of the latter abut upon the hilly tracts of the Alpine massif. Since the beginning of the 20th century several authors have drawn attention to these constructions as being characteristic of the region. Unfortunately, they have become the object of the more serious interest and research only at the time when their numbers have been severely decreasing and building has almost ceased.

The geographical extent of the archaeological finds and scanty written sources about these buildings indicate that their origins may be sought in the primitive one-room abodes of the Palaeo-Mediterranean period. From that period onwards some basic methods of the building of these edifices have been preserved, for instance the circular or unsymmetrical rectangular ground-plan, the dry-stone technique, the stone-slab cover, as well as some elements in the construction, such as the wall, the door and the vault in the form of the "irregular cupola." The designs of these buildings have mostly been conditioned by the economic status of their users in a given region or microregion, by the size and the quality of construction and their function in a space‹they have been used as temporary or seasonal shelters and as depots of small agricultural tools but, only rarely, as a residential space.

The recent dry stone buildings in the East-Adriatic area are known under different names. It is very difficult to establish the etymology of these names having in mind that this area has inherited numerous and various influences originating in different cultures and peoples. The most widespread names are the bunja (in Dalmatia) and the kazun (in Istria), while some other names have been recorded only locally: trim (the isle of Hvar), casita (Istria), hiska and koca (Slovenia), poljarica, vosik. However, regardless of their names the basic elements of these buildings are uniform in the entire area.

The wall is erected with stones laid down in bi-annular rows with the inner diameter of the circle between 1,5 m and 3 m. Gravel is used to fill a space between the two walls circa 80 cm. The door aperture faces the climatically most favourable cardinal point (South, West), its height is between 90 cm and 130 cm, and its width between 60 cm and 80 cm. The "irregular cupola" then continues over the wall: the slab-like rings are laid down in spiral rows with the smaller diameter in each row towards the top where the construction is completed by a single covering slab. In this variant the wall and the vault appear as an uninterrupted edifice and the entire object resembles a cone.

In another variant, the stone is hewn to a greater degree yet the transition from wall to cupola is much more apparent. The slabs are horizontally disposed in rows and are made narrower towards the top. There are smaller differences in the construction of the cupola and the partial filling of the empty space by the gravel as compared to the first type. Differences are also visible as regards the sharpness or distortion of the cone. If its base is rectangular the interior is nevertheless round, while one or more cones can be observed on the exterior of the building.

In the inside there are several small stone blocks used as seats and placed around the open ground level improvised hearth. The door is usually the only aperture in the building but sometimes there are one or two smaller rectangular apertures used as windows (15 cm x 20 cm).

The basic type (I), therefore, is of the round ground-plan and appears in several variants:

  1. The vault is constructed in the shape of the cone without the visible transition from the wall to the cupola
  2. The wall with the transition to the vault covered with minute materials
  3. Visible transition to the cupolaed vault made of stone slabs
  4. The vault in the form of the cone
The second type (II) has the rectangular exterior layout and the round interior layout:
  1. The rectangular ground-plan with the door (lintel) in the form of a triangle
  2. The rectangular ground-plan with the an annular cupola

As visible from the typology and the attached drawings, there are two types of construction in evidence. However, it is also necessary to pay attention to some differences in the design and the static construction of the door. Namely, along with the obvious difference in the ground-plan disposition there are also two designs of the entrance space:

  1. The lintel is a monolithic, horizontally laid stone architrave while the jambs are two vertically placed stone blocks.
  2. The lintel, as the relieving element, is made of two coarsely cut stones, aslant and triagonally leaning against each other at the top while at the bottom these stones lean against several arranged stone blocks.
Such typological innovations and designs suggest different traditions in construction that have been present in this relatively small area since prehistoric time. The cupolaed stone constructions, with similar architectural characteristics, but for a different use have been known elsewhere. They have been interpreted as remnants from the Megalithic period, partially also observed in the sacral architecture, especially sepulchral and cultic shrines outside the Mediterranean cultural complex.

This tradition was confirmed on the isles of Paxos and Antipaxos in the Ionian Sea, resembling the Mycenaean tholi. In traces it was confirmed in Sardinia under the names of the nouraghi and the tombe di giganti, and in Malta where the names are the hagia kim and la giganta. The talajot in the Balearic Islands and the baracca in the isle of Menorca also resemble the Sardinian constructions. Sporadically, they can also be found in the Pyrenean Peninsula.

In France, in the in the provinces of Provence, Perigord and Bonnieux, mostly in the wine-growing districts, a large number of the cadastrally processed and protected stone houses, called the bories, strikingly resemble the annular east-Adriatic bunje. Similar constructions were found in north-western Europe, for instance in the West of Ireland (particularly counties Kerry and Galway) where they were used as eremite shelters in the Middle Ages. There is evidence for their existence in Scotland and on the Shetland and Orkney Islands and, according to some data, in Sweden as well.

Particularly interesting are the so-called trudhi, specchie or trulli in Central and Southern Italy. In the provinces of Abruzzi, Puglia-Apulia and Calabria similar objects are used in residential purposes even today. In the town of Allborello people still persist in the preservation of the trulli that make the core of the Rione Monti settlement and represent a tourist attraction of a kind. This appreciation stands in marked contrast to how this architectural heritage on the east-Adriatic coast has been treated, where only in the last decade has attention been paid to the preservation of the remaining bunje and kazuni. Active research projects are currently registering and cataloguing these structures on the Istrian Peninsula.


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  • Stepinec-Fabijanic, Tihomira. 1988 Paleontoloska Istrazivanja Kamenih Poljskih Kucica Okruglog Tlocrta u Istri. Problemi sjevernog Jadrana. sv. 6. Rijeka

Source (edited):

  • Branko Djaković. "The cupolaed stone shelters and abodes: On the Palaeo-Mediterranean Heritage in the East-Adriatic Area", Irish Journal of Anthropology, Vol 3, 1998, p. 91-96. (Prof. Djakovic is in the Ethnology Department, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb, Croatia.) -

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