Stećci - Medieval Tombstones

Date of Submission: 21/04/2011
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture
Ref.: 5617
Word File

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N 43°05.689  E 19°08.951  Grčko Groblje - Novakovići (1431 m asl)

N 43°06.456 E 19°10.087  Žugića Bare - Novakovići (1418 m asl)

N 43°20.503 E 18°51.437  Grčko Groblje - Šćepan Polje (908 m asl)

Stećci  are medieval monolithic tombstones found on the entire territory of the present Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in parts of Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. Available data suggest that they first appeared in the second half of the 12th century, with the first phase lasting throughout the 13th century. A period of the most intensive production and decoration were the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 16th century their use completely ceased.

Out of 70,000 odd tombstones recorded at 3,300 odd sites, about 60,000 monuments are located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 4,400 in Croatia, 3,500 in Montenegro and 4,100 in Serbia. Stećci fall into two main groups: recumbent and upright stone monoliths. The majority are recumbent, appearing in three types: slabs, chests and ridged tombstones. Among the upright stećci, the following types can be distinguished: steles, pillars (obelisks), crosses and nišan monuments.

The recumbent monuments represent a primary form of stećci. They are found in all of the distribution areas. Artistic shaping of stećci is expressed in their form and decoration. The basic artistic quality of stećci lays in decorations rendered in two stone-carving techniques. The most frequent is a bass relief, though engraved drawings are not uncommon.

Along with their accentuated symbolism characteristic of the mediaeval art, decoration motifs also exhibit secular and religious symbols as well as other interlaced and combined ornaments. Generally speaking, the stećci ornamentation reveals the understanding and sensibility of an entire era, both of the people who took part in their creation and of the deceased who found their final resting place under them and upon whose wishes - according to inscriptions - stećci were made. 

Apart from the regional differences manifested in the selection of shapes, ornamental motifs and quality, stećci were usually organised in groups thus forming family graveyards with only a few monuments, kin graveyards ranging from 30 to 50 monuments and/or    village graveyards, sometimes with several hundred monuments. Especially significant are representative cemeteries of noble families belonging to the highest rungs of feudal society.


The stećci (sing:stećci) are characteristic medieval tombstones located in the north and north-west of Montenegro, within the territories of the municipalities: Pljevlja, Žabljak, Šavnik, Nikšić and Cetinje. Their origin is linked to the period between 12 and 16 century. The most significant tombstone necropolis in Montenegro and individual pieces are located within the areas of medieval parishes: Onogošt, Drobnjak, Piva, Jezera and Breznice. The stećci are located both on the accessible and inaccessible mountain areas, gentle valleys, by mountain lakes and river banks, along old roads, dilapidated churches, prehistoric tumuli, or at hill forts; they are genuine  works of art, of varying size: from thin stone slates to gigantic stone blocks. Two basic groups of stećci stand out, the ones smaller in size located in the northern municipalities of Žabljak, Plužine and a part of the Pljevlja municipality, showing similarities in shape and decoration with the stećci in west Serbia and south-east Bosnia, to those monumental and composite ones (made in two parts) in the area of the municipality of Nikšić, gravitating to Hum (Eastern Herzegovina). Within the territory of Montenegro almost all types are encountered, but mostly of modest size, done in locally quarried limestone. A large number of stećci bear chiselled decorations and inscriptions, made out in shallow and deep relief, in the form of ornamental ribbons, vegetable, floral, geometrical motifs, architectural decorations, zoomorphic and figural images most often done following the Romanesque and Byzantine models. The decorative elements appearing alone or in combination with other motifs are characterised by ornamental zig-zag ribbons, spiral twigs and twisted bands in the form of a rope. As for architectural motifs, the semicircular Romanesque arcades with different types of pillars are the most common ones, mainly on stećci of the type of ridged tombstones and chests.

The decorative finishing of stećci contain numerous symbolic motifs of a circle, a cross, ankh, the moon, the sun, rosette, as well as figural decorations, such as hunting scenes, birds, snakes, individual human figures, wheel dancing, as well as heraldic signs such as sword and shield. The stećci also bear chiselled inscriptions which constitute precious sources for study of Old Slavic alphabet.

The motifs present in stećci in Montenegro fit into the known ornamental system present in a wider area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, west Serbia, Croatia, but some specific versions and distinct quality of work are also discernible which make them authentic in the whole body of stećci. The necropolis of stećci in Maoče, hamlet of Potkrajci - Grčko groblje (Greek Cemetery) and Stolovi site, having the characteristic decorations in deep relief in the form of zig-zag lines as well as architectural motifs, deserves particular mention. Then, the stećci from the Molika site and the stećak from Vrulje (transferred to the Pljevlja Park), then the hunting scene from Žugića Luka in Lever Tara stand out by their exceptional visual artistic expression.

The necropolis Grčko groblje (Greek Cemetery) is located within the National Park Durmitor, some 200 m northwest from the Riblje Lake (Fish Lake) in the hamlet of Novakovići, within the Municipality of Žabljak. The Grčko groblje (Greek Cemetery) necropolis makes an inseparable part of the Durmitor and Jezera plateau landscape, and is an example of ideal harmony of cultural and natural heritage. The necropolis was formed on a gentle grassy high ground, of elongated ellipsoid shape covering the area of some 500 m2. There is the total of 49 stećci registered on this whole area placed on the east-west line, out of which: 10 slabs, 27 chests, 12 ridged tombstones. The total of 22 pieces are decorated (12 chests and 10 ridged tombstones). The most frequent decorative motifs are: arcades, twisted brands, friezes, frames or trimmings with oblique parallels, twining vine with spirals, or trefoil or just garlands, palmettes. There are a few rosettes, crescents and circles. There are also the motifs of simple stylised crosses, ankh, shield, images of a man with a sword and a shield, and hunting scenes. The original motifs are: frieze made of arcs with garlands and a meander made of intertwined and twining vines with acanthus leaves, as well as the architectural decorations in the form of arcades.

The Žugića Bare necropolis is located within the National Park Durmitor in the hamlet of Novakovići, the municipality of Žabljak. The necropolis is some 2,230 m to the northeast of the Grčko groblje (Greek Cemetery) necropolis. On the southern side there stretches the local road Novakovići - Njegovođe, and across the road there is a church with the local cemetery. The necropolis was formed on a gentle high ground and is physically separated from the surrounding area. It comprises 300 stećci, including: 10 slabs, 50 chests, 10 ridged tombstones and 230 amorphous blocks. The finely finished stećci are located in the northern and the central part of the necropolis, while most of the amorphous ones are located in the southern and south-eastern part. All stećci follow the line east-west in rows. The total of 23 pieces are decorated: 1 slab, 16 chests and 6 ridged tombstones. The most common motifs include: ribbons, frames and bordures of oblique parallels, common and twisted bands, common and stylised crosses and bows with arrows. To a lesser degree there are arcades, twining vines with trefoils, three concentric circles connected with a ribbon, rosettes, crescents, sword, and shield. There are also horizontal decorations in zig-zag lines, floral stylisation, and apple. One depicts the scenes of wheel dancing, a dog with a deer, and the original wheel dancing with mounted deer.

The Grčko groblje (Greek Cemetery) necropolis is located in the hamlet of Zagrađe, within the territory of the Municipality of Plužine in the northwest part of Montenegro. It is formed to the east of Town of Soko, in its suburb. Town of Soko was the capital of Kosač and is mentioned in known charters dating from 1444, 1448 and 1454. The necropolis contains 14 stećci. They are made in local stone, with finer finishing, but mostly undecorated. All stećci belong to the type of case or plate. The largest stećak, made of whitish sandstone in the form of a large and massive cube with oblique sides somewhat narrowing towards the base, contains an inscription mentioning the Christian Petko, who lived in Town of Soko at the time of the Duke Stjepan Kosača. The content of the inscription is very important due to historic data it provides. It is dated by the mention of the Duke Stjepan, meaning that it was inscribed between October 1435, when the Headman Stjepan Vukčić Kosača was granted the title of a Duke, and the first half of October 1448, when he was granted by the Emperor Friedrich III the title of Herzeg. Since that time, the area of Zahumlje he ruled over changed its name into Herzegovina. 

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Made as a work of art, as a sculpture, with an intention to make a memory of the deceased immortal, as well as an organic component of the European funerary practice, medieval tombstones - stećci represent a specific phenomenon and a specific synthesis of language and script, religion and custom, history and chronology, culture, art and aesthetics. Their primary interpretative context is Central and South-Eastern Europe as a transitional area of the European culture, marked by intertwining and blending of cultural influences of Eastern and Western Christianity, placed between the medieval West and East.   

An outstanding value and European dimension of stećci as medieval tombstones and a specific expression of the medieval sepulchral art is determined by their threefold historic context: West European, Byzantine and South Slavic.  

Bridging confessional, political, ethnic and geographical divisions within the wider South Slavic region and reconciling two, otherwise sharply detached, concepts of medieval culture - aristocratic (court and clerical) and popular concepts - and by making the notion of the end of human existence universal through the combination of the pagan and Christian motifs and art, the complex art of stećci exhibit the most profound artistic expression of a truth of one world. It is verbally accompanied by inscriptions - epitaphs.

Comprehensiveness, universality and applicability of a complex phenomenon such as stećci are a reflection of reflected in the universal nature of what they depicted and visualised artistically: death.

Criterion ii - Medieval tombstones - stećci represent an original artistic expression originating in a specific context of the fusion of different cultural influences. 

Criterion iii -   Stećci are a unique phenomenon in the medieval European artistic and archaeological heritage in terms of their typological diversity, number, variety of ornamental motifs, inscriptions as well as historic context.

Criterion vi -   Stećci have been deeply rooted in various customs and beliefs from the time when they first appeared to the present day. Stećci-related phenomena (superstitions, folk traditions and tales) exhibit several similar patterns encountered in the entire distribution area. The epigraphy and symbols displayed on stećci have influenced a modern literature and other forms of art.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The nominated graveyards are integral part of a unique cultural phenomenon and representative examples of stećci which together merit equal treatment.  

Due to systematic archaeological excavations into the graveyards with                    stećci, conducted within the scope of research projects, and numerous publications and exhibitions on stećci, those graveyards have been included in various protection and presentation programs for more than six decades. This all has raised public awareness on the significance of stećci, thus preserving their authenticity and integrity. An investigative work of Šefik Bešlagić made a particular contribution in his book Stećci - kultura i umjetnost (Mediaeval Tombstones - Culture and Art), in 1982.

  On the other hand, inaccessibility of many of the graveyards, remote from roads and settlements, has been a key factor in preserving the authenticity of both graveyards and their natural surroundings as well as in minimising any human impact.

 Notwithstanding, the graveyards with stećci have been occasionally at risk due to public and private works. Stone blocks have sometimes been unsystematically removed from the graves they marked, taken to new locations, thus diminishing the authenticity and integrity of certain sites.

The nominated graveyards with stećci, their archaeological context and diversity of their types, decorations and inscriptions represent all embracing aspects of phenomenon and study of stećci.

The graveyards in this serial nomination have preserved the highest level of authenticity and integrity amongst all other graveyards with stećci. The nominated graveyards are protected cultural properties in all four countries, and are all subject to statutory protection.

Comparison with other similar properties

In certain details, particularly decorative motifs, stećci may be compared to other medieval tombstones in Europe, and even in their area of distribution. This primarily includes slabs located at medieval graveyards or in churches. Decorations on slabs vary from simple to elaborately decorated depictions of the deceased (priests, nobles and other relatively wealthy figures). Stećci and slabs share their shape (thick or thin slabs) and certain ornamental motifs and inscriptions.   

Some of the motifs or scenes depicted on stećci are also to be found in other works of art (paintings, reliefs) or artefacts (jewellery, tapestry) of that period. In terms of their number and monumentality, stećci can be to a certain degree compared to the Irish and British high crosses which are also covered with various ornaments. However, they appeared during the Early Middle Ages, and disappeared as late as the 12th century. Furthermore, these crosses were not used solely as grave marks. The same applies to Armenian khachkars - tombstones and memorial monuments created in Armenia in the period between the 9th and 17th centuries, reaching a peak in the 14th century.