The river that hides a thousand secrets

A river winds its way through Ljubljana and the surrounding villages. A river that hides Slovenia’s most threatened cultural heritage. Now thousand-year-old jewelry, swords, pitchers and boats are being laboriously hauled out of the river mud, restored and exhibited. 

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An earring from the first century, a five-thousand-year-old wheel, a sword from Roman times. For thousands of years, different artifacts have mysteriously ended up in the Ljubljanica River.

"Historical treasures have been hidden on the riverbed under several layers of mud," says project leader Irena Sinkovec, whose full-time job is to be a curator at the City Museum of Ljubljana.  

The green Ljubljanica River is a wonder of the world. But it is an endangered wonder; the riverbank is collapsing and cultural treasures are in danger of disappearing forever. 

This is something the cultural project 'The Ljubljanica River Experience and Exhibition' wants to prevent. 

"We want to save the unique historical artefacts and show them to the public. With support from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, this has become possible," says Irena.

See the video on YouTube.

A surprising discovery

The fragile wooden structure is barely visible from the riverbank. An extremely rare 15 meter long log boat from Roman times is half-buried in the river mud outside Ljubljana. The boat is one of the most important artifacts the project will restore and exhibit. But during the excavation, the archaeologists present a surprising discovery: 

The divers made an unexpected archaeological discovery when restoring the log boat from Roman times. Photo credit: David Badovinac/Museum of Ljubljana

"The divers found another boat, a 30 meter long cargo ship from the first century A.D. It is quite unique. We’ve protected and preserved the most vulnerable parts, as the ship was about to be damaged by erosion. Now we have two boats to exhibit," says Irena. 

The project is part of the Slovenian 'Conservation and Revitalisation of Cultural and Natural Heritage' programme. The aim is to safeguard and conserve cultural and natural heritage for future generations and make it publicly accessible.  

The 30 meter long Roman boat is extremely rare, and is considered to be an archaeological sensation. The boat is undergoing restoration, and will be featured at the Ljubljanica River Exhibition when it's ready. Photo credit: David Badovinac/Museum of Ljubljana

So far, 8 000 historical artifacts have been found in the Ljubljanica River. Forty original pitchers, weapons and keys have been restored and exhibited.  

"We want to make our cultural heritage accessible, along with the natural attractions the river has to offer. As part of the project, we built an interactive museum exhibition to increase knowledge about what is actually hidden beneath the calm surface of the river," explains Irena.

The permanent museum exhibition - Ljubljanica River Exhibition - is part of the City Museum of Ljubljana and opened in 2016. It features more than 400 original historical objects, found by archaeologists in the Ljubljanica riverbed. 

Interested in ancient history? In the centre of Sofia in Bulgaria, ancient ruins are being uncovered by a team of archaeologists. Through exhibition kiosks and quizzes on the digging sites, the goal is to make the inhabitants of Sofia curios about their history.

See the video on YouTube.

"The museum is designed using the materials from the river as a starting point, and is inspired by the historical artefacts. Brick, wood, copper and plastic – everything is built of materials that represent the different epochs," Irena explains. 

Combatting looting and illicit sale of antiquities is a common challenge that requires joint efforts. Read about a conference dedicated to the topic that was held in Sofia in September 2015 – jointly organised by Norway and Bulgaria in partnership with UNESCO.

River Thieves

Boat trips, a dip in the river, concerts and festivals. The Ljubljanica River isn’t just attractive for historians and natural and cultural conservationists. The river banks are attractive for different activities and events. The archaeologists aren’t equally keen on all activities.

"The river should be used, but it’s also important that people feel that they have a responsibility to protect the historical treasures. To our great despair, it became a thing to dive for prehistoric artifacts and sell them on the black market," says Irena. 

The sieve is close to 2 000 years old and was found hiding in the river mud. It is now exhibited at the newly opened River Museum in Ljubljana. Photo credit: Maria Knoph Vigsnaes/FMO

Thanks to mass mobilisation, Slovenians have become much more aware of the cultural and historical value of the river. There are fewer thefts than before. 

"Now people call the police if they find an artifact or see something suspicious," explains Irena.

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