A Journey Through the Millennia: The Split Archaeological Museum in Croatia

Headless-Sphinx-at-Split-Archaeological-Museum-Croatia

As we perused the holdings at the Split Archaeological Museum along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, I found myself most drawn to the stone headstones bearing family portraits of citizens from the Roman Empire – some more than 2,000 years-old. Though the subjects’ faces were often weathered and lacking facial extremities, I enjoyed pondering how the family’s likenesses came to be carved out of stone. Had they sat for the sculptor for hours? Had they worn their best apparel, or had the sculptor depicted them in an idealized fashion? Could they ever guess that visitors would size them up thousands of years later?

Built in 1914, the Museum of Archaeology is the oldest museum in Croatia. It’s a delight to explore, especially combined with a visit to the ancient city of Salona, because that is where many of the museum’s headstones, sarcophagi, mosaics, coins and other everyday objects were discovered. Salona is about 5 km (3 miles) from Split, and at the time of Roman Emperor Diocletian, the city had a population of 60,000.

Some of the museum’s items, including a headless Egyptian sphinx statue, also came from nearby Diocletian’s Palace, where the emperor retired at the beginning of the 4th Century AD. Roman artifacts are displayed along with Greek ones, attesting to the area’s rich history.

(Photography isn’t generally allowed inside the building, so this set of images solely focuses upon the museum’s fascinating holdings in the atrium outside.)

***

Are you an archaeology enthusiast? What archaeological museums do you highly recommend? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Exterior of Split Archaeology Museum and a Greek Artifact

Just inside the museum grounds, you’ll notice ancient Greek and Roman headstones, such as the one on the right, as well as sarcophagi. The bulk of the stone items are located outdoors in a sheltered area that wraps around the grounds. Inside the museum there’s an impressive collection of everyday items such as kitchen tools, as well as intricate jewelry and weapons.

Man standing behind Egyptian Sphinx Statue Split Archaeological Museum

Emperor Diocletian imported numerous sphinx sculptures from ancient Egypt to then-Spalatum (Split). Most of the sculptures, such as this one at the museum, were later decapitated by Christians taking revenge for Diocletian having persecuted them. There is an intact sphinx statue in Split’s Peristyle, next to the St. Duje Cathedral.

Egyptian headless sphinx decorated in hieroglyphics

The headless sphinx has fantastic detail despite being thousands of years old. Note the hieroglyphs, a writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians.

Roman Mosaics at Split Archaeological Museum

A Roman mosaic from the ancient city of Salona, which is about 5 km. (3 miles) from Split. The mosaic was found in the section of Salona known as the Manastirine and dates back to the 3rd Century AD. We spent an afternoon exploring Salona’s ruins, it was especially enjoyable since we’d seen the ancient community’s sarcophagi, headstones and every-day objects that are housed in Split’s Museum of Archaeology.

Ceramic amphoras at Split Archaeological Museum

A section devoted to ceramic amphoras, containers that transported both liquid and dry goods. During our time in Split, we saw amphoras in businesses and antique shops; the owners said they were found under the sea, most likely due to shipwrecks. Incredibly the amphoras are often so well preserved that their original contents have remained intact for thousands of years.

The courtyard of the Split Archaeological Museum

Split Archaeological Museum co-emperor bust

Bust of Diocletian, fellow co-emperor, and assistants.

Diocletian Sarcophagus Fragment Split Archaeological Museum

Historians think this purple granite fragment might have been part of Diocletian’s sarcophagus since purple was the color worn by Roman Emperors. Diocletian’s sarcophagus was housed in his mausoleum, the present-day St. Duje Cathedral. After his death in 313 AD, the mausoleum was converted into a church. Christians retaliated against the Diocletianic Persecutions by destroying symbols of the former Roman emperor.

Mosaic tiles sarcophagus Split Archaeology Museum

On the left, mosaic detail. On the right is the marble Sarcophagus of the Good Shepherd, which dates back to the early 4th Century AD. In the middle of the design is a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders.

mosaic Split Archaeology Museum

Roman inscriptions (left) and a mosaic depicting the god of the sea, Triton. The mosaic once adorned a governor’s palace in Salona.

Roman sarcophagus Split Archaeological Museum

Shawn looks at a marble sarcophagus dating back to the 3rd Century AD. The winged gods associated with love and sex, known as erotes, are harvesting grapes. The sarcophagus was discovered at Salona in the 1980s.

Roman statues Split Archaeology Museum

Mosaic work Split Archaeological Museum

Intricate mosaic work.

Salona relief woman with crown Split Archaeology Museum

On the left is the headstone, known as a stele, of Aurelius Valerinus. His style of dress shows that he belonged to a high social class. The text explains that he was the secretary for the governor of Dalmatia. On the right is the Tyche Salonitan and Corinthian columns.

An ancient decoration of a woman wearing a crown

The Tyche Salonitan, a stone relief depicting the patron of the ancient town of Salona; her crown is shaped like town walls. The relief originally adorned Salona’s town gate, the Porta Caesarea. It’s believed that the relief dates back to the mid-4th Century AD.

Roman headstone couple Split Archaeological Museum

Roman couple headstone Split Archaeology Museum

Roman headstone family Split Archaeological Museum

Shawn looks at the headstone (stele) of Titus Fufitius and his family. The ancient family portrait dates back to the 1st Century AD.

Roman headstone and mosaic work Split Archaeology Museum

Roman headstone Split Archaeological Museum

Roman headstone Split Archaeological Museum

Carvings on this headstone depict everyday objects that were important to the deceased individual’s life.

Split Archaeological Museum

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Split’s Archaeological Museum is located at Zrinjsko-Frankopanska 25. It’s about a ten-minute walk from Diocletian’s Palace. Visit the Split Archaeology Museum Website for opening hours and more details. This website includes more details about the museum’s collections.
  • Both times we visited the museum in early 2014, there was no entrance fee. The first time we were guided by our art historian friend, Maria, during Croatia’s annual Night of the Museum event and the second time, we went to the museum on a Thursday afternoon, perhaps another promotional day.
  • We’ve spent two winters in Split, finding accommodation in apartments that would be packed during the summer months, but are practically empty during winter. During our first 2.5 months there, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link) which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) featured much character, including Roman brickwork, and views of Old Town Split below. Owners Novica and Negri were thoughtful citizen ambassadors too. Two years later, we returned to Split, staying in the charming Varoš neighborhood, characterized by stone homes with hunter-green shutters. For those 2 months, we stayed in quaint studio apartments at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed our tiny terrace and the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, which previously belonged to Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.
  • If you’ll be staying in Split for a few days, you might be interested in the Split Card, which gives you free entry to certain museums and galleries, and reduced rates to others. Back in 2014, people staying in Split for 3 days or more could pick up the Split Card for free, but as of 2016, there is a fee to purchase the card. The link above details the current cost, as well as the participating museums and businesses.
  • If you’re interested in old Roman routes and history, be sure to explore the following websites, which allow you to plot out a route and glimpse what Roman sites are along the way: OmnesViae: Roman Routeplanner and Vici
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Croatia.

Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

27 Comments on “A Journey Through the Millennia: The Split Archaeological Museum in Croatia

  1. That’s so cool! I’m used to seeing busts of Emperors, mythical figures etc. but a regular family – presumably they were wealthy and important – just makes it seem more relatable to our way of life where family is important too.

    • Nylonliving, you make a good point. Though I’m sure, as you pointed out, that this family was in a higher class and still idealized, having the chance to look at these relics does make the period of history more relatable. I think the stone portraits were my favorites for that reason, but I also enjoyed seeing the jewelry, the everyday cooking items, and the coins. Incredibly, many of the people that we met in this area shared tales of themselves or friends finding Roman coins in their backyards.
      Many thanks for sharing your thoughtful comment and for reblogging. :)

  2. Beautiful photos, wonderful history – a stamp that confirms Croatia was always a part of European civilisation :D

    • Absolutely, Ina. Our first time in Split, we had so little time that we didn’t get to visit the city’s museums or Salona. But when had our three-month return visit earlier this year, we were amazed by the archaeological treasures in the area – Salona especially. (Another post is in production for Salona.)

      In what part of Croatia did you grow up? I’m curious if school-children regularly visit these spots on field trips? I used to take ‘new world’ history for granted on field trips when I was growing up in the American Midwest, but I would think that children would be fascinated by this.

      Finally, thank you for sharing this piece with your readers. I hope it might encourage others to combine a museum visit or two with their hop over to Croatia’s beautiful islands. :)

      • I believe school children do visit the Museum. And yes Salona is also a place of special significance for there the inscriptions were found to contain the name Croats – 9th century … I spent my childhood or much of it on the island of Korcula near the town of Korcula – another beauty of this world :D

      • Interesting, Ina – I just learned a new tidbit about Salona. :)

        And you grew up on Korčula? We’d hoped to make it there during our most recent visit, but the weather just wouldn’t have been cooperative for the hop from Hvar to there. It sounds like a magical place, and one I look forward to someday soon seeing.

    • We thought so as well, Barb. It was especially nice touring the museum during the Night of the Museums event. So many people of all ages out and about appreciating the region’s archaeological & cultural heritage. As always, lovely to hear from you, and a hello to your in-laws!

  3. Great walk through history…again, I just admire the feelings that you have in your posts (especially looking back into time). The Roman mosaics are incredible, my favorites as I have not seen any before :-) The art that goes into the sculptures perhaps resonate most deeply, because I can’t help but imagine them being created and in their prime. Wonderful series.

    Archaeological museums are treasures, and it is great to find them around the world. The Shaanxi provincial museum in Xi’an was the first one I remember that really blew me away…as a young kid who wasn’t too thrilled to be visiting a museum, I was last to leave and then made it a one of my favorite places to visit/relax during my time in Xi’an.

    • Randall, sorry for responding in such an escargot-paced fashion – just found this comment. Archaeological museums do have a way of bringing out the inner child in us, I think. You mentioned going to the Shaanxi Provincial Museum as a young kid. Did you grow up in China? I bet its holdings are fascinating!

      • I grew up in a small town in Eastern Oregon, and I think that is what made the Shaanxi museum so fascinating (a new world laid out in front of me). Seeing 1000 year old city wall cannot help but take me back in time…felt just like a kid again :-)

    • Split is fascinating, Gerard. When I first heard of the former Roman emperor’s palace there, I imagined it to be roped off and inaccessible. What makes Split remarkable is that a city grew up among the old palace walls. And not far away from Split is the ancient city of Salona – which was the source of many of the archaeological treasures pictured here. Since much of Salona hasn’t yet been excavated, it’ll be fascinating to hear what they uncover there in the future.

    • Cris, that’s why we couldn’t resist visiting this museum twice. At nearby Salona, the archaeological site where many of the museum’s relics were found, they’ve only excavated a fraction of the area. This makes one imagine what other treasures haven’t yet been found.

  4. Thanks Tricia for wonderful images about this small but so important museum. I’m so proud of my native town and its glorious history, but unfortunately sometimes, we local people, pay less attention then tourists do, on inestimable treasures of Split history.

    • Croato, thoughtful words coming from a native – thank you! We only lived in Split for about 3 months, but I was surprised that more international visitors don’t seem to visit the museum. We found it fascinating – so much so that we went twice. The exterior pieces were my favorites, particularly the headstones, which were like ancient family portraits. I suppose the “grass is greener concept” is prevalent among many in the world, causing people to overlook interesting spots in their neighborhoods or hometown. During the Night of the Museums event last year, we saw a lot of locals out and about in Split though.

Join the conversation.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: