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The historical-town planning ensemble of Ston regarded as integrated cultural heritage (cultural property and cultural landscape) comprises Ston and Mali Ston, the connecting walls, the nature reserve of Mali Ston Bay, Stonsko Polje and the salt pans. The area of this cultural property includes urban ensembles developed in accordance with the configuration of the ground and the preserved parts of the outstanding natural environment. Its development and structuring reflects the successive historical stages, and provides a clear overview of its historical, strategic and economic role notwithstanding modern interference in the environment.
The area of Ston at the beginning of the peninsula of Pelješac with its fertile fields and large protected bays favoured settlement. Thus, material finds unearthed by partial archaeological excavations bear witness to the variety of cultural layers with traces of human living since prehistory through antiquity, the Middle Ages to the present day.
The earliest trace of human presence in the area was found in the Gudnja cave on the sun-exposed slope of Mount Poraca, southwest of Cesvinica. Gudnja stands out among Neolithic sites not only in comparison with similar sites along the Adriatic coast but also within the context of European sites from Hispanic and Ligurian shores to the eastern Mediterranean. The early Iron Age Illyrian culture was quite widespread and connected with Mediterranean influences. Material traces have been found on the knolls surrounding Stonsko Polje (Humac Gradac: hillforts, tumuli) and are related to the Illyrian tribe of Plereia. According to Strabo, the tribe lived in the area stretching from the river Neretva to Risan, and ruled it until the first half of the first century B.C.
Substantial heritage dates from the period of Roman domination spanning more than half a millennium. Life at the time was based and planned after the model of the advanced Roman civilization. The name of Ston, Stagnum (marshland) in Latin, dates from this period. Varied and numerous traces of antiquity include fortifications (Stari Grad) as well as villae rusticae. However, the most important ancient find is the limitation of Stonsko Polje, still observed in parcelling and roads. The main limitation routes – decumanus maximus and cardo maximus – are visible already from smaller rises. The decumanus maximus stretches east-west, and cardo maximus north-south. Late antiquity monuments include Early Christian churches, vestiges of which are found in the south-eastern part of Stonsko Polje: Sv. Magdalena-Gorica (St.Magdalene), Sv. Ivan (St. John), Sv. Petar (St. Peter), Sv. Stjepan-Bare (St. Stephen). As the Slavs settled in the area in the seventh century Ston became one of the principal settlements in Zahumlje. Monuments related to the early Middle Ages include the churches of Sv. Mihajlo (St. Michael), Gospa (Our Lady) od Lužina and Sv. Martin along with the adapted, already existing Early Christian sacral buildings (Sv. Kuzma i Damjan /SS. Cosmas and Damian/, Sv. Andrija (St. Andrew) and Sv. Matija-Ðura| (St. Matthew). Among them the church of Sv. Mihajlo (St. Michael) stands out on a hill, formerly the site of an ancient castellum and a mediaeval castle of a local ruler; the church has recently been researched and is still being renovated. The small church is a typical and truly outstanding example of Early Romanesque architecture in southern Dalmatia, with late eleventh century frescoes in its interior (it was built in two stages – in the ninth/tenth century and in the eleventh century). The preserved frescoes make up an iconographically complete and highly valuable cycle of Benedictine painting.
The late Middle Ages were distinguished by periodical clashes between Zahumlje and Dubrovnik, which reached a climax in the early fourteenth century. In 1333 the Dubrovnik Republic acquired Ston and the entire Pelješac peninsula. This brought about major changes in the development of the area.
Scattered settlement and small units were abandoned. Instead, urban centres – Ston and Mali Ston – were developed north of Stonsko Polje for strategic, political and economic reasons. In order to protect its boundaries the Dubrovnik Republic first built the Great Wall (about 1200 m long) separating Pelješac from its Zahumlje hinterland, with three main defence forts – Koruna, Podzvizd and Veliki Kaštio. The town which developed on the other side of the wall consisted of three zones: the central zone, Ston, was the administrative and economic centre; the northern zone, Mali Ston, was important as a traffic and storage point; the eastern zone, Broce, served exclusively defence purposes.
In terms of its site, development and growth present-day Ston dates from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, in which it acquired its specific forms and very singular structures. The ideas behind the major regulatory thirteenth century developments in Dubrovnik are also apparent in the provisions on the construction of Ston in the fourteenth century, in which time the latter was the second most important town in the Dubrovnik Republic. Significantly enough, certain structures built according to the statutory decisions of the time still exist. In spite of the distance, seven centuries, of such careful planning, the town has retained the spatial layout, the street grid and the buildings planned by fourteenth century Dubrovnik architects.
As early as 1335 Ston was divided into 15 basic parts called desens (=tenth parts), later subdivided into smaller units separated by straight street sections. The residential nucleus was surrounded by public buildings. Over the centuries the town spread southwards. The Franciscan monastery was built in 1349. The width of the streets was regulated in 1358, and the boundaries of the desens were resurveyed in 1394.
In the fifteenth century a pentagonal defensive wall was built round the town with several gates (Vrata od Zamirja, Poljska Vrata and Morska/Lucka Vrata). Within the sophisticated fortification system these walls gave the final contour to the urban nucleus of Ston.
Ston was the seat of the diocese from the tenth century to its abolition in 1828.
In town-planning terms, Ston was developed in blocks with residential buildings and noblemen’s mansions within the nucleus. The system of straight orthogonal streets and its strict regularity reflected the residents’ understanding of their community and of the various segments of urban life.
Mali Ston, the fortified point at the western end of the Great Wall across the isthmus, was developed with the same attention in terms of town planning and construction as confirmed by the identical parcelling into tenth parts and the planned construction of the harbour, arsenal, shipyard and defensive complex.
The construction of both towns was the first spatial planning project implemented by the Dubrovnik Republic outside the centre of the small state, built to human measure.
The planned construction of Ston and Mali Ston is an example of meaningful mediaeval planning and the outcome of planning in a greater area. In the area under consideration, greater spatial planning was also related to economic activities – in this case to the enlargement of the salt pans and the higher production of salt, the most important and most profitable export item of the Dubrovnik Republic.
The historical complex of the Ston salt pans is situated southwest of the town on an area of 4500 square metres, and includes the salt fields and pans, access and communication facilities, and salt warehouses. The boundaries of the zone follow the road by the main fields, the stream of Brijeja in the north, skirt the fields and storage facilities to the church Gospa (Our Lady) od Lužina in the west, the stream of Palada to the fortress Bata south and southeast, and the Ston Channel in the east.
Presumably the Ston salt pans were used already in prehistoric times, judging by the abundant finds in the early Iron Age graves on the isthmus. Salt was certainly a source of wealth and as condition for the survival of many coastal Illyrian communities, principally livestock breeders, such as the Plereians. The limitation of Stonsko Polje confirms the importance given by the Romans to this fertile valley, its bay and the salt pans. The importance of salt increased particularly during Ragusan rule as the Republic, after acquiring Ston and the entire area in the fourteenth century, rearranged the old salt pans and reaped high profits from their operation.
The salt fields stretch from the north to the south, divided into rectangular pans. Some of them produce white salt, others salt of a darker colour. The first two rows with eight rectangular pans each, many preserved in the original (Ragusan) condition, carry carved Biblical names. The long-standing continuity of salt production in Ston indicates the value and importance of this resource. Salt was an article in high demand and the most profitable commodity in the Republic, which controlled its distribution very rigorously. Large quantities were exported to Bosnia and other Balkan areas, mainly across the Neretva to Drijeva, where the Republic was able to secure major privileges and a salt sale monopoly from the Turkish authorities. Salt was also exported by ships. The highest salt output was recorded in the seventeenth century.
The Ston salt pans still produce salt at the average rate of 1500 tons a year.
The region of Ston developed in accordance with the given landscape distinguished by the outstanding universal value of the natural sites and the environment, and specific geographical and physiographical formations, which controlled and shaped human activities and the “cultural landscape”. The region also boasts a special natural property – the bay of Mali Ston – a special marine reserve with defined boundaries and a preserved environmental system.
The bay of Mali Ston abounds in plant and animal life because of the great natural advantages, topographical and climatological ones in particular. It is suitable for the intensive development of mariculture (fish and shellfish). The oysters of Ston are particularly famous.
The potential marine breeding areas in the bay of Mali Ston have all the characteristics of the south Adriatic oligotrophic environmental system, they are well-aired, possess the necessary depth and current intensity, and are protected from waves. The bottom flora and fauna, and the plankton, are also typical of the south Adriatic. There are no sources of pollution from either land or sea.
The described sites of the Ston region with their variety and diversity, blended inseparably with the natural framework, make up a universal civilizational value and link between Nature and Man, and assert the regions and the two thousand years of its history.