There are so many words, shaped into literary works of art and casual and academic conversations, dedicated to the subject of stećak [stetɕak]. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Scattered across Bosnian countryside and some parts of its neighboring countries, tens of thousands of these solemn enigmatically-carved witnesses quietly observe the changing of times and the world around them. In fact, we frequently encounter them on our travels, particularly on mountains, and stop and marvel.
As people of these lands, we feel a strong connection to both stećci ([stetɕtsi], the plural of stećak), and the people who carved them. Yet, for all their beauty and historical, spiritual, and religious background, there’s a fair amount of mystery surrounding these stone sleepers. Today, we share a small glimpse into this authentic Bosnian mystery that has a place on the UNESCO list of protected cultural and historical monuments. So, first things first:
What is stećak?
Stećak may be defined as a monumental medieval tombstone, but that would be an unjust oversimplification. The lack of substantiated historical data about stećci has played a role in creating a shroud of mystery over their true purpose and meaning.
Even though they were traditionally used by different people occupying this area for centuries, their original ethnic and religious affiliation is still a puzzle waiting to be solved. They are largely found in burial ground sites but stećci are not to be confused with graves, tombs or graveyards - the term refers to the monuments exclusively.
Image credit: Wikipedia
The word ‘tombstone’ in the “official” definition should be taken with a grain of salt, as it has not yet been cleared whether all the graves underneath the stećci are actually directly related to the monuments or whether the monuments mark a significant place (like the Irish and Celtic crosses). A rather minuscule number of stećci has been fully analyzed so far.
Whatsmore, they might not even be medieval. Although the common understanding is that they are monolithic tombstones created between the 13th and 16th century in the territory of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost entire Dalmatia and border parts of Montenegro and Serbia, only 300 stećci have the inscriptions to support the claim that they came into being during this time period. And just for the record, there are over 60,000 stećci within the borders of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina alone.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The beauty and the stone
If you follow our blog, you already have a pretty good idea of topics we like to cover, and more importantly - why. We write about things we love, things we care about, that inspire us. We don’t usually do this, but this time we’ll sort-of hand over the reins to an expert on the subject, just for a little bit.
You see, any scientific information about stećak is largely based on data collected after World War II. Efforts made by a team of experts from the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 50s and the 60s were critical in establishing a complete registry of all known necropolises, as well as the publishment of numerous printed works dedicated to these silent stones. The majority of scientific papers today are still heavily based on the results of that post-war investigation, and the entire scope of research is relatively small for such an iconic and almost otherworldly artifact.
Today, the legacy lives on, in part thanks to Gorčin Dizdar, who has recently published his book ‘Stećak’, an homage to these mysterious tombstones. More importantly, it is one of the quintessential modern works on the enigma that is stećak due to the high level of detail every aspect was attended to, as well as due to the lack of quantifiable knowledge and necessary attention these stones most definitely deserve.
When we say we’ll let the expert take over, we meant on treats like this:
“No two stećci are identically decorated.”
Instead, there are hundreds of variations of a fairly limited number of motifs, mostly iconographs. Imagine that: thousands of huge chunks of stone carved with similar, yet unique symbols whose meanings are often unclear.
Furthermore, did you know that only 10% of the stećci have carvings on them? From standalone symbols and simple marks to more complex forms that often include a decorative frame, decorations found on the stećci are fairly archaic, especially when compared to its contemporary counterparts. Within those carvings, the spiral and various representations of hands are two of the most frequent motifs found, which can be interpreted in different ways. There are also there different forms of stećak, although their classification is not an exact science either.
Keeping the spirit of stećak alive
Tombstones or not, their connection with burial grounds has saved many of those monuments from destruction. Whether it was out of awe or superstition, locals have mostly left the stećci alone, untouched by human hand to continue to bewilder, awe, and inspire. The stećci have immense historical significance and represent an important part of the cultural heritage of BiH. This is something that ‘Stećak’ perfectly encapsulates and illustrates in a unique and accessible way.
Because they are a purely territorial-cultural phenomenon, the original ethnic and religious affiliation of the stećci remains unclear so they cannot be tied to the modern concept of ethnicity. They belong to all of us and we chose to believe that’s what they represent: all of us.
In artistic terms, they also pose as a unique phenomenon that goes beyond the boundaries of time and space it was created in. In fact, our shop is filled with items inspired by stećci, Besides the aforementioned book, you can find anything from hand-drawn illustrations to various types of earrings (bosančica-inspired, spiral), and everything in between.
And even though sometimes many of us don’t realize it, we are fortunate to reside in an area so historically and culturally rich. It is our duty to protect this heritage and preserve it so we can one day unlock the mysteries behind the stećak. Perhaps that’s part of its undeniable charm: to be out in the open and stand the test of time, yet still hold secrets we mortals strive to learn.
“Yes, it is a stone, but it is also a word; it is earth, but it is also sky; it is substance, but it is also a spirit; it is a scream, but it is also a song; it is death, but it is also life; it is the past, but it is also the future.”
Mehmedalija “Mak” Dizdar