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On the custom of burial in hollowed - out tree trunks
; Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia
Puni tekst: hrvatski, pdf (4 MB)
Andrić, J. (1991). Slijedom pojava povezanih s običajem pogreba u lijesu od izdubena stabla. Studia ethnologica Croatica, 3(1), 43-83. Preuzeto s http://hrcak.srce.hr/75764
The author has made a study of custom that survived until recently in the village of Končani on Mount Vlašić near Travnik: the burial of the dead in coffins made from a tree trunk split down the center and hollowed out. It was abandoned some time after World War II, when tighter controls were imposed on the cutting of pine-trees. People in the region still remember the custom and there are also some older data. Milovan Gavazzi, who wrote about it, pointed out that this kind of burial was uncommon in the south Slavs; it was practiced in northern and central Europe from prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages, and, more recently, among the east Slavs, where it persisted until the early 20 th century.
The purpose of the study is to show, among other things, the extent and duration of the custom in Bosnia (and perhaps in neighboring regions) from the 14th century onwards. The material the author uses consists of accidental finds and archaeological excavations. In the late 1930s a number of archaeologists observed that there might be a connection between the custom in Končani and medieval (and perhaps later) burials in stone coffins. These were often rounded on the outside, the lower part being hollowed out like a trough, sometimes with recesses for the head and shoulders. The lid may be flat or shaped like a roof with a longitudinal ridge. Most of the evidence of such burials has been found on sites near Travnik and Sarajevo but some of the finds come from an area extending from Jajce in the north-west and Zenica in the north to Konjic in the south and Foča in the south-east. No precise information exists as to how long stone coffins were used but archaeologists date the beginning of the custom to the time when Bosnian medieval tombstones called "stećci" (singular form "stećak") were erected, ie the 14th century. Although tombstones were not found on all the tombs containing stone coffins, this dating is borne out by coins and other objects found in them as well as by cases in which stećci were found on tombs containing a stone coffin (sarcophagus). The first such tomb, that of the feudal lord Batal, was found at Turbe near Travnik (Ćiro Truhelka, 1915).
The graveyard at Pavlovac near Sarajevo, in which the graves are marked by stećci and which was explored in 1980, provides ample evidence of a custom that was known earlier from individual finds: medieval burials in a hollowed-out trunk. Such burials must have been more numerous than the material evidence would permit us to assume given the decayed state of the remains of the wood. It was at Biskup near Konjic that two graves with stećci were discovered in the same graveyard: both contained hollowed-out coffins, one made of stone and the other of wood (Marko Vego, 1957). At Pavlovac near Sarajevo ten stone coffins (sarcophagi) and five wooden coffins (in addition to three presumed ones) have been found. The site was probably used as a burial ground from the middle of the 14 th until the middle of the 15 th century (Lidija Žeravica, 1982). Wooden sarcophagi have also been found near Kalinovik ( no precise information exists as to the circumstances of the discovery), in two graveyards near Livno (individual burials among others), near Bugojno (one of them is probably a comparatively recent burial at the edge of a graveyard dating from 9 -10 c) and several such burials (among others) by the church at Arnautovići near Visoko and one near the royal castle of Bobovac. The distinguished Bosnian museum expert Vejsil Ćurčić reports that Moslems in the area of Kalinovik until recently used coffins made from hollowed - out trunks. This was published by Dimitrije Sergejevski in 1948 and the finds of such coffins from this area date from 19S2. It is interesting to note the find of a stone sarcophagus at the present - day Moslem graveyard at Alihodže near Travnik (Paola Korošec, 1952) and some analogous phenomena in other Moslem graveyards, all of which indicates that the tradition persisted long after the arrival of the Turks. It survived until most recently among the population of the village of Korićani near Travnik and seems to have been known in the not so distant past in some other villages on Mt Vlašić (Catholic population). There are indications that the tradition of burying the dead in stone coffins survived for a longer time among Catholics, at least in some regions. This can be concluded from oral evidence given by the villagers of Guča Gora near Travnik and from the find of such a coffin under a tombstone characteristic of the 17 th and 18 centuries (and later) in the graveyard in that village. In Guča Gora stone coffins had the same significance as wooden coffins. The village was reputed for its stone carvers at the turn of the century; there were quarries of soft stone in the vicinity, while forests were less abundant The villagers of Korićani and all those who speak about their customs call the hollowed-out coffin "korito" ( a trough). The same name is used in Guča Gora for a stone coffin. According to the available information, the "korito" may have a symbolic meaning. This is shown by the following customs and phenomena:
- In several places stone throughs stand, or are known to have stood, at wells and cisterns. Judging by the inscriptions on them, or by their appearance and the carvings on them, they were made at the same time as the stećci. Šefik Bešlagić gives a detailed description of phenomenon in his account of the "korito" found at Hamzići (1987).
- Stećci, which are a block of stone, were frequently, it seems, subsequently hollowed out and placed near a body of water. This is confirmed by finds in many parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and western Serbia. Parts of ancient sarcophagi were used unchanged for the same purpose (Dalmatia,Macedonia,Serbia).
- Interesting tombstones (stečci) resembling troughs have been found. They have a large hollow varying in depth at the upper end and have been found in graveyards among other stećci near Sarajevo, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- In legends there are occasional references to troughs standing in certain places. There are also legends about definite stećci, which are called by the narrators "korito" (the area of Visoko) or petrified "korito" (south-westerns Slavonia, Croatia). In the latter case, the actual stećak was not trough-shaped (the shape was not checked in the case of the Visoko legend). In Bosnia and Serbia, the bottom parts of ancient sarcophagi are also called "korito" by the local population.
- Some places in which there are graveyards with stećci are called Korita.
The villagers of Korićani (and people from neighboring villages) say that the custom of burials in a "korito" originated in the distant past when "some animals" dug out the bodies of the deceased and ate them.Only rarely is there a specific reference to the possibility of the animal being a bear. In Guča Gora near Travnik "an animal" was, as legend has it, the reason for burials in stone troughs. Identical legends about the origin of the placing of stećci on tombs are still alive not only in Bosnia but also in parts of Serbia and Montenegro. The custom began with the appearance of "an animal" ("a big animal"). According to a legend in central Bosnia, graves were opened by one-eyed people; in Herzegovina two stories have been recorded in which these perpetrators were "dogheads" ("psoglavci"). In Montenegro, a dogheads' graveyard with stećci is said to have existed; at Takovo in Serbia, such a graveyard is said to have belonged to "giants". One legend has it that these "giants" opened graves and dug out the dead.
Although there is evidence of new graves being protected by branches with thorns (rarely with rocks), stories about "an animal" which appeared in ancient times or even about dogheads or similar beings seem to indicate something else. We may quote here the description of the onslaught of the Mongols by the Split chronicler Archdeacon Thomas (13 th a). At that time Mongols were said to break into graves. It was also believed that they might be the people about whom it was prophesied that they would appear before doomsday. Such "unclean", "pagan" peoples, among them Gog and Magog and the dogheads, were shut up behind a brass door somewhere in the north by Alexander of Macedonia (according to the medieval novel The Alexandrides). There are detailed descriptions of their perverse customs, including their reputed eating "unclean" and dead animals and human corpses in "Slovo Metodija Palarskog", which also contains the prophecy about their appearing before doomsday. The book spread through copying and though there are no manuscripts from Bosnia and the neighboring regions, stories about animals may be linked with its content.
The fear of animals breaking graves is mentioned in two older manuscripts as well. In 1613 the Jesuit Bartol Kašić, traveling in regions under Turkish rule, saw a graveyard near Valpovo in Slavonia (in a place where the village of Križevci was located at that time) in which the dead were buried very deep and the graves were covered with rocks or with a heavy tree trunk. Kašić mentions the danger of wolves or dogs. The Dominican monk Serafino Razzi visited in 1577 a group of Slavs, who had fled before the Turks and settled in the region of Vasto in Italy, where they stayed for a time. Razzi mentions their church and a graveyard with graves covered with large rocks protecting them from "greedy animals".
The depth of graves, mentioned by Bartol Kašić, is also mentioned by the villagers of Končani. They say that the soil there does not permit deep digging, which makes it necessary to use the "korito". The information about most of the finds of hollowed - out wooden coffins at Pavlovac near Sarajevo speaks of deeper graves than is the case in stone sarcophagi, but even in the former some shallower graves have been found (e. g. also near Bugojno). Nevertheless, the available data seem to indicate that despoliation of graves, real or imaginary, was an important consideration in the Middle Ages. The villagers of Korićani also point out the importance of the greater durability of the coffins made from a tree trunk. If durability is measured in hundreds of years, archaeological excavations do not confirm it, but that is irrelevant here. Stone coffins are certainly more durable than wooden ones. Stećci too are supposed to be durable than wooden ones.
Stećci too are supposed to be durable monuments, although their life is limited due to natural factors and frequent human intervention. Both stećci and coffins were intended to protect the grave not only immediately after the burial but permanently. Protection from despoliation by people may also have been the reason for their use, but how well they served this purpose is another matter. Tombstones were so conspicuous that they could only attract persons intent on despoiling tombs.
The wish to have durable monuments is a characteristic of megalithic civilizations. These phenomena in the South Slavs, including some burial customs in Bosnia, have been studied by the well-known ethnologist Milovan Gavazzi. But in addition to traditional cultural influences, the way in which tombs and coffins were designed was also influenced by the high European civilization: this can be observed in carved inscriptions and ornaments on tombstones, stone coffins (known in western Europe a few centuries earlier) and at least one of the forms of stećci, ie those resembling a sarcophagus. The meaning of the term "sarcophagus" must have been known among educated people in the Middle Ages. Both stone coffins and wooden hollowed-out coffins are sarchophagi; heavy wooden chests looking like real sarcophagi (ie with a roof -shaped lid) were found on two sites. One was excavated at Pavlovac near Sarajevo; another was found a few years earlier in front of the chapel next to the royal castle of Bobovac (Pavao Andelić", 1973).
The "korito" is also mentioned in a special role in Glagolitic and Macedonian -Bulgarian manuscripts recording the apocryphal story of the deeds of the Apostles Andrew and Matthew in the town of cannibals. When people have to be killed or when their bodies are cut up, it says, they are led or carried towards a trough. In the Greek original and some Slav manuscripts, the trough is not mentioned in that place. The reference is to an oven (Biserka Grabar).
The custom of burial in a "trough" may be related to the notion of doomsday as well as to "uncleanliness" in terms of food and even debauchery (attributed to peoples who will come before that day). We have shown that it was most probably practiced in some form from the Middle Ages until recently and have analyzed some of its meanings. We have not studied the more distant origin of burial in coffins made from a hollowed - out tree trunk in Bosnia; in archaeological finds of this kind there is an interruption of several centuries, the earlier finds dating from the migration of peoples. It would be interesting to compare the custom as practiced in this country with similar practices in Russians, White Russians and Ukrainians when there is enough detailed information about it.
This comparative and analytical study is being published in Croatian with a summary in English and the list of works used as sources, ie ethnologic and other material and writings. The sources relating to "Crkva bosanska" were used only when this was indispensable. We have not presented any opinions or discussed them, bringing only the facts and letting them speak for themselves. It should be said, however, that anthropological interpretations and analyses would be very useful, including a definitive interpretation of the skeleton of the feudal lord Batal found in a stone coffin in a very conspicuous tomb (Turbe near Travnik). Some descriptions exist, but it has not been ascertained whether the person could have been an important statesman (Jozo Petrović, 1923; Srboljub Živanović).
burial customs; hollowed-out tree trunk; coffin; trough; tombstones
Hrčak ID: 75764
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