Prehistoric rock paintings are a true rarity in the Balkan region of southeast Europe. Of course, the region is a hotspot for all kinds of very ancient history, but oddly enough primitive rock paintings seem to be almost non-existent. This is particularly true for the region’s maritime area, in today’s Croatia and Montenegro. For this reason, it is a great thrill for every archaeologist when such ancient wall art is discovered. The prehistoric drawings at Lipci, situated in the picturesque Bay of Kotor of Montenegro, were an astounding discovery back in the 1960s. They provide a crucial glimpse into the prehistoric history of this seaside region and can help us with the puzzle of prehistoric life in this coastal area. Unfortunately, the Lipci primitive rock paintings are almost forgotten and not that easy to find either.
The most famous of the Lipci primitive rock paintings is this one showing male stag deer (and one doe) and men on horseback. ( Montenegro For Me )
The Lipci Primitive Rock Paintings: Hard to Reach and Date
Lipci’s remarkably preserved and unique prehistoric rock art has been virtually unknown for many millennia after it was created. Who painted it, and exactly when still remains a subject of debate. At present a totally accurate conclusion of the who and the when has not been reached.
The ancient Lipci Rock drawings are located close to the ancient town of Rhizonte, known today as Risan, a small seaside village and a tourist resort in Montenegro. However, its history is very rich. It was the ancient stronghold of the Illyrian tribes , and the capital of their notorious queen, Teuta.
From this stunning coastline, ancient pirates harassed the invading Romans , before being subjugated. Following this, Risan was a Roman port city, and archeological remains from this time can still be seen today. But what about the ages preceding both the Romans and the ancient Illyrians? Lipci’s primitive rock paintings provide a number of insights into the prehistoric peoples who lived in the region.
Lipci is a tiny settlement that lies less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) outside of Risan, on the regional road. The road itself is virtually on the sea edge, with steep hillsides rising above it. At first glance, Lipci seems rather ordinary. But digging deeper, one can discover curious things in its history. Local legends state that the famed Illyrian Queen Teuta , following her defeat, chose to end her life by jumping from the cliffs of Lipci’s Orjen Mountain.
Otherwise, the area is rather dry and rocky. It is nestled between the villages of Risan and Morinj. On the northern side of the bay where Lipci is situated there are several little streams, which could have attracted ancient settlers. These prospects were further confirmed in 1961, when Lipci’s prehistoric rock paintings were discovered by the scholar Pavle Mijović (1914-1996). It is possible that before him, a young boy spotted the art on the stone as early as 1955, and thus sparked the interest of the scholar.
The site lies about a half kilometer (0.3 miles) away from the seashore, where a rocky overhang rises sharply some 7 meters (23 feet) above the surrounding ground. At the very top of this overhang, a receding rock wall face clings to a narrow ledge. And it is here that the Lipci primitive rock paintings can be seen.
The other section of Lipci primitive rock paintings shows ancient swastika symbols, which were iconic sun symbols of prehistoric humans. But other scholars argue these are crude maps of the Bay of Kotor. (Kotor Municipality: Pictures / TripAdvisor)
Lipci’s Rock Art Reveals the Life of Local Hunter-Gatherers
The composition of the rock drawings at Lipci shows us a prehistoric hunting motif . Showcased are several male deer moving in a left to right direction. Each depicted animal is roughly 35 to 45 centimeters (14-18 inches) long, and painted schematically, using straight and angular lines. Besides the stags, one can see two crude depictions of horse riders brandishing spears pursuing their prey. Although crude and at first glance poorly done, upon closer inspection one can see that they are in fact men on horses. Beside the deer and horse rider “drawing” are several ancient swastika symbols , which were iconic sun symbols of prehistoric humans.
While at least two of these swastikas are iconic and accurate, the others are rather crude and disjointed. Upon closer inspection, scholars have suggested that they are in fact not swastikas at all, but crude representations of the outline of the Bay of Kotor. Truly, as one compares the linear shape of these symbols with the unique layout of the surrounding bay, a similarity is quickly seen.
Another painted symbol, full of lines and curves, has been interpreted by scholars as an outline of a ship with sails, and signifies the prevention of bad luck or fortune in an ancient “language” of ritual symbolism.
Both of these depictions bear immense importance. If the linear clusters are indeed layouts of the bay, then the Lipci site is home to some of the oldest known nautical maps in human history. Likewise, the outline of a ship is one of the oldest depictions of sailing in the Adriatic and can give immense insight into the sailing techniques of ancient man.
Determining the cultural, and above all, the chronological age of these drawings has proven to be a challenge. Based on the stylistic characteristics and comparisons to other similar drawings, scholars and the scientific community think they are from the Bronze Age (beginning in 1800 BC in the Balkan region) or the Iron Age (1100 BC – 150 AD in the Balkans).
However, recent comparisons with the iconic Val Camonica petroglyphs of the Italian Alps suggest that the most plausible age for the Lipci rock art is the 10th century BC. Curiously, the similarity with the rock art of Val Camonica is hard to overlook. As a reminder, Val Camonica is a large valley in the Italian Alps, situated within the Italian region of Lombardy . It is home to the largest collection of petroglyphs in the world: 200,000 to 300,000 unique rock drawings!
View of the Bedolina 1 rock map and its tracing from the Val Camonica area of Italy. The Lipci primitive rock paintings share a number of similarities with the ones in Val Camonica. (Ruparch / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Lipci: A Way-station for Val Camonica Alpine Hunters?
Of special interest for this comparison is the so-called “Bedolina map” of Val Camonica. This is considered to be one of the world’s oldest topographic maps , showing rivers, roads, villages, mountains and plots of land.
The Val Camonica linear carvings are strikingly similar to the ones at Lipci. Were the authors of the Lipci paintings nomadic hunter-gatherers descended from the peoples of Val Camonica? If one considers the migration patterns of the European red deer, which could be depicted on the Lipci drawings, this theory is a likely possibility. In Europe, red deer usually spend their winters in lower altitudes, in terrains that are more wooded. But in the summer, they migrate to higher elevations in search of more abundant food supplies.
The Lipci drawings were executed in a rather odd style. While they show a detailed and correct anatomy of the animals, the style is nevertheless crude and angular, using only straight lines. The art was painted straight onto the surface of the rock, using local lime mixed with a red iron oxide pigment , giving the drawings an unmistakable pinkish hue.
Pavle Mijović (1914-1996), the author of the first substantial research on Lipci’s primitive rock paintings, concluded that the paint used was likely a mixture of kaolin clay with casein (a mammalian milk protein) used as a binder. Furthermore, he wrote that the brush strokes were 0.8 centimeters (0.3 inches) wide, and the layer of paint is 1.5 millimeters (0.6 inches) thick. It is likely that the thickness of the paint was even thicker originally, and this gives the art a look of relief, even though it is a painting. Mijović described the art style as a “framework,” remarking that the animals were presented as an outline with one continuous stroke of either a brush or a wooden spatula.
The Lipci paintings depict a total of seven heavy-antlered stags and one doe. Scholars all agree that this is an accurate depiction of a prehistoric hunting scene. It has been noted that the ancient artist showed a good knowledge of natural deer behavior, especially their migratory movements in which the dominant stag leads the herd, with the doe and other stags in the rear. Comparisons can be drawn to the slightly less impressive prehistoric art in Montenegro’s Grebaje Valley, which also has a prehistoric hunting painting. Also comparable are the rock art compositions from Žlijeb near Višegrad in Bosnia, or from Srndalje on Serbia’s Jastrebac Mountain.
Curiously enough, the Lipci site is quite close to a ritual site that was actively used by the local populace for the “badnjak” or the Christmas log ritual. This image is from Trogir, Croatia, 300 km north of Lipci, Montenegro, where the badnjak tradition is still a big thing. (Nhscare0 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Invoking the Hunt and Bountiful Herds of Deer
Certain scholars have suggested that, like most prehistoric art, the main Lipci painting is not a simple hunting scene. They argue that the art had a magical, ritualistic symbolism, perhaps in order to invoke a successful hunt or plentiful game. Leading scholars have also suggested that the Lipci overhang could have been a sanctuary for regional hunters, as well as an “altar” for their rituals and ceremonies focused on successful hunts.
It is also possible that the site at Lipci was one of the primitive hunter-gatherer’s key “stops” or “way-stations” on their established hunting routes. This can further confirm the theory that the art was the work of Alpine hunter-gatherers that traversed lengthy routes in pursuit of migratory deer.
Other historians and scholars have suggested that Lipci was throughout history a known sanctuary and a cult place. Renowned Serbian archeologists Milutin and Draga Garašanin, suggested that the site was a cult place of a fertility deity, which was later connected by the Illyrian tribes to the Greek Pan or Sylvanus.
Curiously enough, a site quite close to the paintings was actively used by the local populace for the ritual “badnjak” Christmas log lighting ceremony and this is also true today. Because of this, the path to the paintings remain somewhat traversable, and not reclaimed by the woods and the natural growth. That locals continue to visit the area for the badnjak ceremony shows that this area had special significance long ago. It is no accident that Lipci’s prehistoric art is painted on this very spot.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Lipci prehistoric rock paintings are of major importance for the history of the Bay of Kotor and the Adriatic coast as a whole. It is a crucial missing link and supportive evidence for Lipci’s close cultural ties with Italy’s Alpine region, which was a hotspot of human activity in ancient times. As such, it can be proof that the prehistoric peoples of northern Italy had a good knowledge of the Adriatic, as far back as the Bronze Age.
Likewise, the possible depiction of a boat is also important, showing that sailing was not altogether unknown in prehistory.
A likely way-station of migratory hunter-gatherers, the Lipci rock overhang is a prehistoric sanctuary that carries a lot of archeological promise.
A simple sign points in the direction of the Lipci primitive rock painting overhang, which is not easy to find. ( Montenegro For Me )
An Ancient Heritage that Faces Oblivion
Sadly, the site today is largely neglected and unknown. A government sign on the regional road clearly points towards the site, but the path to it is somewhat overgrown and hard to navigate. A few plaques mark the way, but many tourists find it hard to find the paintings. Others, however, find them easily enough, but not without a couple of minutes of solid hiking. Either way, Lipci’s prehistoric art is a thrilling sight.
Sadly, it is in need of serious conservation, a more accessible pathway, and a wider presentation in the world. This is especially crucial if we consider that prehistoric art on the Adriatic coast is somewhat of a rarity. And, as the second oldest prehistoric art on the Balkans, and one of the most extensive ones, the Lipci paintings are incredibly important. And that deserves an official preservation effort! Hopefully it will be properly preserved for posterity.
Top image: A closeup of a stag deer painted with crude straight lines, which is the signature style of the Lipci primitive rock paintings of Montenegro. Source: Montenegro For Me
By Aleksa Vučković