Early Middle Ages

The Early Medieval period was a time of intense social turbulence leading to mass impoverishment and complete collapse of urban culture in the territory of the Early Byzantine Empire. This was happening in the middle of the VI century, and its most important and undeniable part took place in the Roman province of Macedonia and the current territory of the Republic of Macedonia. This period was partly developing within the framework of Early Byzantine culture, which thus contributed to its later development, deeply entrenched in the layers of the darkest segment of history from the VII to the IX century.

Our exhibit begins with several outstanding early examples of this culture, specifically with a massive bronze cross that was probably put upon a stone furnishing in an Early Byzantine church and with a partly preserved ceremonial bronze cross, both from Polog and dating from the VI century.
The main characteristic of this period is shown in the migrations that started back in the Late Roman Imperial period, with accent on the Huns and Goths or the Ostrogothic migrations of the IV and V centuries, which are relevant for the late ancient collection. They were followed by the Slavic and Avar incursions and in the last Early Byzantine period by migrations of various Asian tribes, whose traces are almost impossible to identify in the field. A very important part of the exhibit consists of pieces of military apparel, such as buckles and applications for belts and fibulae/brooches, intended for members of the Byzantine army but also for federate allies; these are presented in the second half of the showcase. Here are represented a series of rare examples of Slovenian fibulae and of jewelry based on the most common type of earring – bangles with additional decoration, all from the VI to the IX century. The stoup from Bresto near the village of Viničani, Veles, is a typical ceramic product of this time, as well as the representation of the Slavic god Svevid, depicted on a deer horn from the site of Davina Kula near the village of Čučer, IX century. Showcase 151.

With the settlement of the Slavs, an event documented and confirmed by modern science over the past 150 years, came a time of reorganization of social relations in the territory of Byzantium, followed by the integration of the newcomers and their gradual assimilation into the existing social structure. At the same time, the gradual strengthening of the Byzantine Empire already from the late VII and VIII centuries contributed to the continuing renewal of its position in the Balkans, as in other regions. As a result, from the IX century the empire experienced new cultural progress, most clearly represented by the renewal of Christianity and the establishment of the foundations of Slavic literacy, a process completed at the turning point of the new millennium in the year 1000. This period is represented in two showcases.

Showcase 152 presents the dark Middle Age, called dark because of the absence of written sources and mostly unknown on the greater part of the territory of the Republic of Macedonia. It may best be followed through the traces of the Komani-Kruja cultural group, known by eponymous sites on the territory of the Republic of Albania. This culture stretched in many branches around the middle and western Balkans, marking a part of the aspects of social life in the VII and VIII centuries. As the power of the old empire declined, already at the end of the VI century attempts were made to provide defense, first to the large coastal cities like Durrës/Dyrrachium and Salona near Split, but also to several other cities and to the main strategic routes both on the coast and deeply inland.

This defense was provided by the settlement of colonists from the interior of the continent, maybe partly by choice, and by the newly arrived Slavic hordes, given that their Slavic origin has been confirmed through studies of anthropological remains from graves. It is characteristic that this so-called ground army, which took up residence near well defended and fortified positions, settled down with their families. Land was allocated to them in order that they might maintain themselves, and a typical inheritance of the defensive function followed, which often resulted in the occurrence of military insignia in female graves. The most striking sites connected to this culture on our territory are St. Erasmo near Ohrid and Ciganski Grobishta at the village of Radolishta in Struga; individual finds associated with this culture may be found all over the country. The two sites are presented separately within this showcase, in order to display the full range of items found in the graves, which include mainly pieces of male military equipment: torques or neck bands, massive bronze or iron fibula-buttons for heavy woolen cloaks, and pendants for the belt that can also mark a certain rank. In female graves may be found a torque or pendant for the belt, regularly accompanied by a pair of large round or lunate earrings, multiple strands of glass pearls and beads, pendants and almost as a rule a knife hooked on the belt. Typically this population was Christianized and as such settled across the empire.

Showcase 153. The complexity of the social aspects of these centuries of turmoil resulted in emancipation of the local leaders and a tendency toward physical independence. The stabilization within the wider Mediterranean region internationalized the historical-political conflicts and led first to elevation of the Byzantine Empire and then to its heightened ambition for re-conquest of the old territories. Its influence was clearly reflected in the quality of domestic culture and decoration, as well as in the circulation of coinage, especially in the last decades of the X century. One of the most remarkable sites that illustrate this time is the fortress at Vinica, which after centuries of abandonment, was intensively renovated in the VI century. According to partly known facts, the Early Medieval settlement on the fortress began to develop in the IX century and lasted until the XI century, probably replacing an earlier military establishment. The settlement had a clear hierarchical structure with a separate central urban area, with a managerial role, and a neighborhood that developed along the slopes of the hill. The artifacts exhibited in this showcase have a useful function, e.g., a small jug, a spool for weaving, flint & steel, a key, and also pieces of jewelry, such as a grape cluster earring, rings, and bracelets typical of this period.

In the second part of the showcase are presented objects that are characteristic of the developing trends in this period and, above all, of Christianization, which on the territory of Macedonia had never withered, but with a surge of political ambition gained strong new momentum. In addition, a series of cross-pendants and encolpia or reliquary crosses began to occur intensively in this period; some of them show well-worn traces as a result of being worn for four or five or more generations. Equally important for the marking process is the sensitivity of some parts of the jewelry, e.g., the characteristic grape cluster earrings, which occur in a wide variety of forms at this early stage, with an extended development during the Middle Ages, and even later in the Ottoman period, as a reflection of their popularity in the territory of Byzantium.

Proportionally, the most numerous material discovered on archaeological sites is kitchen pottery. Unfortunately, because of its small quantity, we are forced to demonstrate this material with a series of vessel fragments from the site of Hipodrom, Skopje, from the VII-VIII centuries (showcase 151); fragments from Bargala of the same period (showcase 152); a few very well preserved ceramic vessels from the fortress at Vinica from the IX-X centuries, a pot from Demir Kapija from the VIII-IX centuries, and a pot and jug from the church of St. Sofia in Ohrid from the X-XI centuries, where they were fitted as heat insulators and acoustic elements in the vaulted construction of the apse of the church at the beginning of the XI century (showcase 153).

Due to the extended continuity of the Byzantine reign and the survival of Byzantine culture from the early Byzantine period, it is difficult to separate the developing processes and to correlate them with historical events. This developed phase, which gradually began to disappear in the XI century, as a germ of the mature Byzantine culture, is presented in its entirety, and the extensions will reflect its evolution into more developed forms and times.

M.A. Ljubinka Dzhidrova, custodian advisоr.