A Journey Through the Millennia: The Split Archaeological Museum in 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.
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.
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.
The headless sphinx has fantastic detail despite being thousands of years old. Note the hieroglyphs, a writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians.
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.
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.
Bust of Diocletian, fellow co-emperor, and assistants.
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.
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.
Roman inscriptions (left) and a mosaic depicting the god of the sea, Triton. The mosaic once adorned a governor’s palace in Salona.
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.
Intricate mosaic work.
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.
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.
Shawn looks at the headstone (stele) of Titus Fufitius and his family. The ancient family portrait dates back to the 1st Century AD.
Carvings on this headstone depict everyday objects that were important to the deceased individual’s life.
Where in the World?
- 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.