Prespa, that is to say the region around the Lake of Prespa, is not mentioned in the written sources of the Ancient Period. The modern historiography, which is also dealing with issues connected with the ancient times in the Balkans, also places this region in the margins of the events. If we start considering the ancient sources, we will perhaps find some indirect data associated with this geographic space only with Strabon. Namely, when this author speaks of “salting fish at the lakes of Lihnis”, he also adds that they, the lakes, are situated on the Via Egnatia, which draws to the conclusion that he was also referring to the Lake Prespa and not only to the Lake Ohrid. There are no other lakes in the surroundings, except Lake Malic, which was farther from the Via Egnatia road. We must definitely not forget that even today the fish is dried as winter food only at Prespa.
Modern authors, in the attempt to draw borders among the regions of the tribes inhabiting the so-called Upper Macedonia in the ancient meaning, or Mountainous Macedonia mentioned by Herodotus and Thucydides also touch Prespa. It became particularly clear, after the discovery of the two inscriptions in the region of Resen, where two names have been noted on the Macedonian calendar (apelaios and dios), that the Prespa region belonged to Ancient Macedonia. The extension of the upper-Macedonian region Orestia, near the Prespa region, has been accepted in science with the interpretation of the two inscriptions that are supplementary and discovered near Vineni (Pili) and the Island of St. Achille in Mala (Small, trans.) Prespa, where an ancient town of the name Lyke was identified. In the immediate vicinity, in the north-west of the island, at about 4-5 kilometers, in the Big Lake Prespa, there is the island Golem Grad (Big City, trans,) which is today within the borders of the Republic of Macedonia, and it is obviously an Orestian settlement. (Fig. 1)
The first researches are associated with the expedition of the Russian scientist Miliukov, who visited the island in 1898 and left notes about the two churches, without roofs, but with preserved frescoes on the walls. He then noticed the two inscriptions on the rocks with Christian contents, the one in Greek, the other in the Old Slavic language.
Golem Grad attracts the attention of the researchers also because the island Isle , situated in Small Lake Prespa, Ventrok, is in the vicinity, at about 7 kilometers, which is also known as the seat of King Samoil and its Cathedral Church St. Achilles.
After the visit to the island in 1967, archaeological excavations started and they are still going on. This unusual site, far from communications, showed a long chronology of human presence and life in this area starting from the first millennium B.C. up to the Middle Age. The cultural layers cannot be always monitored vertically, but the horizontal stratigraphy marks a long continuity of life on the island.
The oldest findings, which were incidentally discovered, are related to the Neolithic epoch, only in the shape of stone arms used by the fishermen living on the coast of the Lake and travelling to the island only for the sake of fishing. From the first half of the first millennium vessels of ceramics have been discovered with characteristics of the Iron Age, which indicates that there was life on the Island, that is to say attempts for inhabiting it; further researches may produce more results concerning the remains of the settlement from this period.
More intensive traces of life in the settlement are discovered from the 4th century B. C. In this context, we would like to indicate the defensive walls on the southern part of the Island, made of roughly processed stone blocks that protect the access to the coast of the Island, and therefore the settlement itself. The Island itself, with an area of 18 hectares, 600 meters long, 350 meters wide, is a naturally protected area, because the height of the rocks from the level of the lake to the plateau is 30 meters. The fortification, made in dry wall, had to be placed only on the southern steep access that led from the Lake to the settlement situated on the plateau.
The settlement started to live in the 4th century B. C. and this conclusion has been drawn, for now, because of the discovered necropolis on the southern part of the Island. Many years of hard work were needed to discover the oldest necropolis where the ritual of burning was practiced for burials. This burial ritual was frequent with other Macedonian tribes as well. This is a sign of some changes in the Macedonian society, especially in the upper-Macedonian regions. We first find analogies with the closest neighbors, for instance: in Lincestida and Pelagonia, like Petilep and Beranci, in Elimeja, in Dasaretija, connected with the rich graves in Lychnidos (Upper Door). However, we must not exclude the ritual of cremation in rich graves in lower Macedonia, either in burials in cists (Derveni, Pidna, Aineia) or in the “Macedonian type” of graves, as the ones in Aigai.
The modest grave “architecture” on Grad, the remains of the cremation left in the holes of the rocks, which resemble the burials in Lychnidos near Upper Door, are accompanied with rich contributions of gold and silver jewelry (pendants, fibulas), arms of soldiers, ceramic vessels, but also coins, as a didrahma of the city of Tanagra, bronze of Halkidic league, drachma of Philip II of Macedon, posthumous, all from the middle of the 4th century up to the end of the century. The excellent commercial connections of this modest settlement with far away regions were confirmed with the discovery of silver coins from Isthiaia on Eubeia, coins from Adriatic Appolonia, from Dyrrachion, of the Epirus ruler Pirus, and so on.
I would like to point out the interesting finding, the gold pendant from grave 160. Namely, the lion proteome of this minutia jewelry is made with the precision of a master-connoisseur of the gold technique. It has been probably bought from an important goldsmith center at the time of the middle 4th century. This was the time of fashion of incorporating lion proteome on the jewelry, but also the “Macedonian star” that was made on the back side of the pendant. Why the star? And why the star on the back side? Perhaps it was the brand of a goldsmith shop, as one of the most favorite motifs of the 4th century that are linked with the ruling signs of the Argheads.
Two Hellenistic houses have been discovered in the settlement, which can be dated in conformity with the discovered ceramics and coins. The ihtis are the most often, because the fish was very important food for the population. There are also engraved luxurious glasses with floral and figural decorations, vessels were grain food was kept, craters, and other vessels. One of the houses has been abandoned after a fire. On the floor, coins of Antigonos Gonatos, of the Adriatic Appolonia, and Amphipolis were found.
At that time, the houses were built of wood, of foya (a kind of a pine-tree), whose branches are easily interwoven around poles of juniper, and then the walls were paved with clay mixed with straw. It is possible to make a reconstruction of the houses by the same system of construction that is seen in the examples of the neighboring village of Konjsko on the coast of the Lake, which is today within the territory of the Republic of Macedonia. This construction technique has been maintained nearly until the 1950s of the 20th century in the construction of the region, until which period people lived in such houses. Today, there are remains of such houses in Konjsko and in Stenje and they are used as storehouses.
The house on fire (N. 2) on Grad (Sector 1) was covered with straw, but also with roof tiles, which were discovered during the excavations. There are names written on them in Greek letters КРІТОΛAОУ, ПРЕУРАТО, probably as the names of the masters, a Macedonian (Kritolaos), another Illyrian (Preuratos). The appearance of the names with different ethnic background is not unusual in border regions. Equal teguli with inscriptions have been discovered during the excavations on the Island of Isle by Moucopoulos, on the surface of which other names of Macedonian origin have been engraved. Normally, it is the same production, the same ceramic center that operated in the 2nd century B. C. in some of the near-by settlements in Orestia.
Following the tracks of life in the settlement on Grad, it seems that burials with cremation lasted until the 1st century, which is indicated by a grave, with a supplement of a simpulum, spoon, with a typical Roman form. With the breakthrough of the Roman expansion, as if the life had come to a standstill on the Island. There is a hiatus from the first centuries of the new millennium when the Hellenistic settlement had been forsaken. From the 4th century onwards, a late ancient and Middle Age necropolis was placed over the old settlement. Burials took place on several locations near the Hellenistic settlement, as well as near the church facilities. In this phase, graves from the 4th to the 14th century have been registered.
The settlement was revived some time in the 4th century A. D. and traces from this period are more numerous. So far two houses built of stone and plaster have been discovered, with floors of stamped down earth and stone, with in-built system of water drain. Normally, the most interesting discovery is the cistern, located in the rocks, high over the water, in the south of the Island (Fig. 2). It is clear that the new civilization achievements had been accepted by the local population.
In spite of the vicinity of the water, the construction of the cistern by using the cavity in the rock and with the complex technique of overarching with tegula and hydraulic plaster made life in the settlement easier. Some of the houses are erected closer to the cistern that is built near the plateau. It is clear that rainwater collection know-how was used, with incorporation of tubes on the northern wall that is leaning on the rock via which the water drained in the basin. In the Middle Age, when this construction had lost its role and remained without its roof, but with still well preserved walls, it was roofed again and transformed into a church. This might have happened in as early as the 13th century. The monks painted the church in the 14th century, which is indicated by the remains of the frescoes.
In the late ancient age the population accepted Christianity. The pagan customs were slowly abandoned, as was for instance the cremation. The burial is skeleton-like, with the application of the “roof over two waters” architecture, but with the inscription of Christian symbols on the grave tegulas. At that time the early Christian one-nave church with modest dimensions, with narthex and auxiliary rooms, was erected (Fig. 3).
Only on the floor, in front of the altar, a believer-donor placed only one piece of ground mosaic that reminds of the decoration of the rich mosaics in the basilicas in the urban centers. The Christianized population started to be buried near this church.
The entire Roman epoch was monitored with the discovery of numerous coins, over 100 pieces, as well as gold and silver jewelry, more intensively from the period between the 4th and 6th century.
The existence of this modest settlement is owed to some economy, which was definitely based on fishing, some agriculture, but also hunting in the woods on the land. The numerous teeth of boars discovered in the cultural layers confirm the hunting of this animal. We can add to the already mentioned coins from the remote cities of the early ancient times those of the Roman epoch, especially from the 4th to the 6th century, from Constantine to Justinian. This late Roman epoch and the beginning of the early Byzantine period, as one of the phases in which the settlement existed, was confirmed with the discovery of the necropolis, with findings of pack-saddle pads, jewelry, and coins dating from the 7th century.
The settlement was not reconstructed in the Middle Age. This period was characterized by monastic life and intensified construction of churches, and so far three have been registered, including the two early Christian churches. The burials continued to take place around St. Demetrius Church, a holy place for the population from the surrounding settlement on the land.
Vera Bitrakova-Grozdanova, Ph.D. is an eminent Macedonian archaeologist and professor of ancient archaeology of the Balkans. She won the award for scholarly achievement of the Republic of Macedonia “Goce Delcev” in 1988 and was presented the prestigious Herder Prize in 1999. She is a researcher of the region of Prespa, Ohrid and Struga.