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Macedonian Archaeology’s Potential: A Visit with Pasko Kuzman in Ohrid

April 19, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

For those lucky visitors to Ohrid who get the opportunity to spend time with one of Macedonia’s pre-eminent archaeologists, Pasko Kuzman (a white-bearded, scuba-diving combination of Indiana Jones and jolly old St. Nick), a world of ancient relics and remarkable stories awaits. Ensconced in his element, the wonderful repository of antiquities he carefully oversees at the city’s museum, the archaeologist is glad to spread his infectious enthusiasm for the great potential of Macedonian archaeology- according to him, a resource still largely untapped.

Some of Mr. Kuzman’s notable achievements include the discovery of the priceless Ancient Macedonian golden mask of Ohrid, similar to four previously found at the necropolis of Trebenista, the faithful reconstruction of the Byzantine church of Plaosnik, and the ongoing excavation of a 3,000 year-old settlement now submerged deep under water near the village of Gradiste, tucked halfway down Ohrid’s southeastern shore.

In July, more excavations in the central fortress of the medieval Tsar Samuel unearthed remains of what is believed to be the first fortress of King Philip II of Macedon, dating back to the fourth century B.C.

Kuzman also began the excavation works in Vevchani, where the ruins of a mysterious church were discovered last fall. With the warm spring weather now returning to Macedonia, excavations will resume and hopefully the church will divulge its secrets soon enough (though he recently told us that they have not yet resumed).

The museum in Ohrid is housed in a grand and stately old building. The cozy laboratory where Kuzman and his assistants work is located several floors up a narrow stairway. On a long worktable illuminated by white lights, penciled index cards and drawings of artifacts overlay ancient finds in the process of documentation. Neatly assembled along the shelf behind are rows of ancient Macedonian battle helmets, swords, jewelry and pots.

As Kuzman merrily works away on cataloguing the enormous backlog of little treasures on the table, he points out the presence of the Star of Vergina, the symbol of the ancient House of Macedon, found on rounded drinking vessels among other objects. He points to this fact with satisfaction: “it indicates that this was an Ancient Macedonian, and not some other civilization that lived in Ohrid’s ancestor, Lychnidos.” The decoration is shaded in red and yellow pencil on a worn old booklet suited for the purpose.

The shelves are lined with spears and arrowheads, daggers and necklaces and curving vessels. There are rusted, narrow-fitting helmets, and round-topped ones with almost a sort of metal visor brimming out. But the most beautiful among them is a shone bronze helmet, adorned with wreath and ram’s head with curving horn over the ear piece. Relics like these conjure up both the glorious civilizations that created them and the bloody battles in which they were used.

Another item pointing to the Ancient Macedonian legacy in Ohrid, tucked safely away in its own special container, is the more famous golden mask of Trebenista. One of the biggest discoveries to have taken place in the modern-day Republic of Macedonia, it caused a sensation when dug up on September 30, 2002.

The mask also means a lot to the Macedonians because the four other similar ones previously found were spirited away by foreign occupiers, probably never to return; two by the Bulgarians upon being discovered in 1918, and the other two by the Serbs in 1934. Now in museums in Sofia and Belgrade, the masks were thought to be the only ones for a long time. Yet further excavations a the Gorna Porta of Ohrid’s old town yielded a fifth mask and accompanying golden glove with gold ring on it. They were found in a tomb together with several rings and sandals woven with silver.

According to Kuzman, this discovery among others indicates that Lychnidos was at some stage a city for the Ancient Macedonian aristocracy, rather than an Illyrian town as he had learned in university. He maintains that the funereal masks can teach modern researchers much about the prevailing social relationships of Antiquity and, romantically, that the delicate gold mask meant to cover the face of the dead person helped that person to communicate in some way with the living from the afterlife.

2005 was a good year for discoveries from the medieval period in Ohrid. In the vicinity of Tsar Samoil’s castle, Kuzman’s crew found many coins from the 13th century. According to him, minting coinage was “very intensive” during this prosperous period.

While the golden mask and glove are priceless, from the point of view of Macedonian archaeology and history, they do have a value- Kuzman estimates they could fetch $3 million abroad. A major problem in Macedonia is antiquity theft and smuggling. No one knows how many vital national treasures have been taken illegally out of the country, but it is clear that the police don’t yet have the means to stop it.

In Macedonia, another thing that inevitably comes into play is politics. The amiable archaeologist has been periodically criticized by partisan detractors, perhaps out of jealousy. His biggest project, reconstructing the ancient church of Plaosnik, was executed during the previous government of VMRO-DPMNE. The Trebenista mask was also found shortly after the government changed; the incoming Minister of Culture – SDSM’s Blagoja Stefanovski, a former theater director – memorably stated that his ministry’s new focus would be on “living” culture rather than “dead”- a slap in the face to the archaeology community of Macedonia.

As in many countries, whichever Macedonian party is in power has influence over the budgets for work. Private funding from the likes of Skopje mayor Trifun Kostovski, who helped restore the magnificent Sveti Jovan Bigorski church near Debar and has now built a new church on the Vardar riverbank in Skopje, has been essential during the relatively lean times of the past four years.

The most recent politicization of the past occurred when a 10 meter x 1 meter section of the outer medieval castle walls of Ohrid collapsed due to heavy rain. When Kuzman attempted to bring attention to the problem, critics claimed he was exaggerating the extent of the damage and insinuated he hadn’t done enough to prevent it. Others suspected partisan, pre-election motives. Unfortunately, it seems that despite the near-universal sentiment of having been oppressed culturally and historically by their Balkan neighbors, Macedonians apparently still haven’t fostered a spirit of trust and cooperation when it comes to the important things that unite them.

Nevertheless, Pasko Kuzman remains optimistic about the opportunities for further archaeological work in Macedonia. Ohrid is an especially rich area, he says, and he alludes to ambitious future projects that are expected to vindicate this prognosis. Certainly the many discoveries made over the past year all over Macedonia indicate as much. To be sure, there’s a lot to look forward to.

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