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risan bay kotor


Oldest settlement


Risan is mentioned in the 3rd century AD as a fortified Illyrian town


By Vilma Kovačević, archaeologist

The Town of Risan, situated in the inner section of Boka Kotorska Bay and surrounded by high mountains always constituted a strategically well positioned place for urban development. The abundance of fresh water and good spot for the docking of ships had also been particularly conducive to this.

Already Classical authors mention Risan as related to the myth on the legendary founders of Boeotian Thebes, Cadmos and his wife Harmonia, who had come to the area inhabited by the Illyrian tribe of the Enchele. Thus, in Pseudo-Scylax’s “Periplus” from the 4th century BC, Risan is mentioned together with the Enchele tribe that inhabited the Illyria around “Rhizon and the Rhizon River“ where there were the rocks of Cadmus and Harmonia.[1]

Strabo calls Boka Kotorska Bay “Sinus Risonicus” which name had been retained until the Middle ages.[2]

Polybius gives important information about this town in his work “The Histories”. He talks about the Queen Teuta taking shelter in Risan, a small town suitable for its invincibility, located away from the sea and lying on the very Rhizon River.[3] In Roman times Risan is mentioned by Pliny as “oppida civium Romanorum”, which would mean that the town had at least enjoyed the status of a municipium.

[1] Pseudo- Scylax, Periplus, cap. 24, entitled “Rhizinium”.

[2] Strabo, Geography, VII, 5, 7.

[3] Polybius, The Histories II, 16.

Archaeological research

Risan is one of the richest, but concurrently one of the least explored finding sites in Montenegro. The interest for this site appeared very early. One of the first explorers was Sir A. Evans who, while touring this region as a “Manchester Guardian“ correspondent during the uprising in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was doing exploration activites in Risan and wrote several treatises on the results of the research in which his findings were dated back to the Hellenist period. The findings originate from the site called “Carine”, where in one tomb he found pottery of Hellenist character.[1]

Another explorer, H. Richly in 1898 speaks in his article “Archaeological material from Boka Kotorska Bay” about the findings from “Carine” site according to the layout dividing this site into nine (9) sections. He lists two golden coins, fragments of pottery, polished marble tiles, glass fragments, as well as 12 m long Cyclopean walls.[2] In between two

world wars, Dušan Vuksan, former director of the National Museum in Cetinje was carrying out the first organized research activities in Risan. In the southern part of the town he uncovered the foundations of five rooms belonging to a Roman “villa urbana.” The floors in three rooms were covered in mosaics with geometric and vegetal ornaments, while in the centre of the vegetal motifs of the fourth room there is a circular medallion with the image of Hypnos, a Greek god, a personified daemon of sleep, depicted as a sleeping boy with the folded wings. The complex of the villa was built according to the Roman principle, with the rooms arranged around the inner square courtyard – atrium.

[1] J.A.Evans, Antiquarian researches in Illiricum, Westminster, 1883.

[2] H.Richly, Archaeologische Funde aus dem Bocce di Cattaro, Mitt.der.Centr.Comm.fur Erforschung u. Erhaltung der Kunst und historischen Denkmale, N.F.XXIV, Wien,1898.

After World War II, in 1950, the excavations at “Carine” site were being carried out by the students of Herceg Novi Art School. On that occasion the remains were found of a larger sacral edifice – a temple, great marble blocks and pieces of architectural decorations that once belonged to various edifices. These have been put on display in the area of the villa with mosaics.

In 1968, a team from the National Cultural Heritage Protection Institute from Cetinje did the excavations in the northern section of the “Carine” site. On that occasion the remains were discovered of large unidentified edifices, the remains of a fresh water well, fragments of marble statues, as well as a multitude of ceramic fragments.

After the disastrous earthquake in 1979 and the reconstruction of the earthquake hit area, lots of indicative material was found during the earthworks. Particularly valuable are the findings of sepulchral character: conical cippi, Roman urns with inscriptions and numerous embalming fluid bottles and lacrymatories. All of these were mostly kept as private property.

Architecture of the ancient settlement and the town

While researching the elements of architecture found in Risan we were able to determine the existence of three construction stages belonging to various periods of urban settlements. The oldest stage would be the so called pre-urban stage, with the Illyrian habitation on the Risan Gradina belonging to the same. The habitation was subjected to the well thought-of defence conditions. Because of that, the mount rising from the plateau on the seashore with its steep slopes was a right place for the construction of the fortress. There were two defensive rings around the fortress.[1] Ceramic objects found there during the archaeological excavations confirm that humans lived there in the Illyrian and then also in the Illyrian-Hellenistic period. It is exactly because of the good strategic position of the “Gradina” that it had uninterrupted continuity in all historical periods.

At the foot of the “Gradina”, where there had been an ancient pier, along the Spila River itself, a settlement started being formed resembling a fortified town.

The next stage is transitory and it is called the proto-urban stage. During that stage the settlement acquired certain elements – centre and other basic preconditions for its development into a proper urban formation. This stage gave Risan a Hellenistic appearance which was a direct consequence of the Hellenistic influence. The layout of the “Gradina” becomes “Acropolis”, where according to some assumptions there could have been the temple dedicated to Medaurus, an Illyrian god.[2] Commercial part of the polis is developed on the flat ground along the seashore and the Spila River, with all its facilities. During the archaeological campaign in 2006 the Southern Town Gate was uncovered, which would be entered from the side of the river, as well as the inner face of the rampart. The Town would be accessed via a wide, stone-paved street passing through this gate. On the western side, a side street branched off with the buildings positioned along both sides probably belonging to the commercial part of the Town, as it was in the vicinity of the possible Spila River vessel mooring area. Numerous ceramic amphora lids decorated in different symbols and names of wine and oil producers and merchants support this assertion.

The third development stage is the period of a developed town with all its functions: administrative-political, organizational, economic and social, which is all reflected in the new quality of the material realization and organization of the settlement. This stage is called the urban stage[3] and by its appearance it would correspond to the period of the Roman rule and domination.

The Town retains its inherited location, which is expanded towards the sea in particular. In that part of the “Carine” site, during the excavations undertaken in 1968, the foundations were discovered of large buildings that had belonged to the centre of the Roman town-Forum. One of these buildings had a niche with the floor paved in mosaic. In its interior, a place was discovered for a pedestal on which there had been a statue of one of the Roman deities. In the excavation in front of this building, big columns were discovered which had been supporting the stylobate at the entrance to this edifice. In this section of the site the foundations of some large edifices were discovered, which tells us that the Roman centre of the Town had been located there with a square and public buildings.

As regards public infrastructure, alongside the main Town street the traces of the water supply system were discovered. It is likely that the entire Town had been supplied with water by the aqueduct system moving water through gravity from the Spila River source.

The Town had its commercial and artisan centre, possibly even in several locations. Big concentration of ceramic material in different locations testifies to intensive trading activities and distribution of products to the hinterland. Amphorae were being filled there most often with wine and olive oil. A large quantity of numismatic material, King Balaios and Roman emperors’ coins in particular supports such assertion.

Larger residential edifices were discovered in the Town, too. They had had the usual scheme of a Roman urban house, i.e. rooms concentrated around the inner courtyard. These edifices had bathrooms installed in the chambers, too. During the excavations, fragmented ceramic children’s bathtubs were found, as well as a smaller pool for adults to bathe in.


Following the example of Greek-Hellenistic cities, it is possible that Risan too had its own theatre. Such a hypothetical location has already been noticed in the immediate vicinity of the ancient settlement, outside the town walls. Natural semi-circular terraced terrain to the east of one entrance to the town towards the Spila River was an ideal location for a theatre. The area was sufficient for the auditorium to be constructed on the sloping ground for the inhabitants of the Town and for the stage to be mounted on the lowest platform. The find of a comedy mask, made of finely refined whitish earth, testifies to the role of theatre and performances with different contents, comedy being dominant in the everyday life of the population. The mask depicting a young man with smiling face and joyful expression conjures up comedy and joyfulness. Such masks were also being used in Greece as tickets for theatrical performances.

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