Archaeology in Contemporary Arts: A Case of Stecci

Meliha Handzic, International Burch University

Keywords: Archaeology; Arts; Knowledge Discovery; Network Analysis; Visualisation
One important question asked recently by Lauzikas et al. (2018) is: why and how do contemporary people engage with archaeological heritage objects, artefacts, information or knowledge outside the realm of a professional, academically-based archaeology. The purpose of the current paper is to address this question in the context of contemporary arts.
Artists often find stimulation and subject matter in archaeological objects, sites and procedures. Russell and Cochrane (2014) suggest that contemporary artists can create new and enriched ways of perceiving material remains and provide new interpretive models for archaeologists to explain the past. They argue that conversations and collaborations between artists (as makers of new worlds) and archaeologists (as makers of past worlds) are necessary to encourage the creative interplay between different approaches and to contribute to how we understand the world.
According to Lauzikas et al. (2018), archaeology and material cultural heritage enjoy a special status in public as a place for the expression and negotiation of cultural identities. Cultural knowledge rooted in heritage can be communicated through arts. While capturing artists’ imagination, heritage can become an instrument for conveying knowledge of the most important aspects of a specific culture.

Study Objective
In view of the above, the main objective of this study is to examine how contemporary Bosnian artists engage with stecci (archaeological artefacts) in order to interpret their national cultural identity. Stecci (“standing stones”) are monumental tombstones found in necropolises spread across the territory of the medieval Bosnian Kingdom. Today, there are over 3000 known necropolises with over 70 thousand tombstones. Out of these, 28 are listed on the UNESCO world heritage list (Nomination 1504, 2016).

Research Method
For the purpose of this study, an extensive search was carried out to identify contemporary artists whose artworks were influenced directly or indirectly by stecci materiality, iconography, epigraphy, surrounding oral myths and legends, or other artists inspired by these monuments. A total of 42 “pure” artists were identified representing literary, visual and performing arts.
The collected data were analysed using a combination of two knowledge discovery methods (network analysis and graphical visualisation) to identify, present and interpret the prevailing relationships between stecci and artists under study. These methods have been proven effective in facilitating discovery, presentation and interpretation of novel patterns in archaeological data (Handzic and Dizdar, 2017).

Main Findings
The analyses and visualisation of collected data was performed using Palladio software ( that was especially developed to support research in digital humanities. The results indicate that different artists were inspired by different aspects of stecci. Collectively, these artists expressed Bosnian cultural identity through works of literary, visual and performing arts.
In literature, poetry inspired by stecci epigraphy holds the crucial position for understanding Bosnian identity. According to Buturovic (2002), it unfolds a gradual and fragmentary recovery of memory and a piecemeal unmasking of the enigma surrounding the artefact. Through conversation with the dead, a poet recovers lost memory and history and, more importantly, restores the sense of spatial and temporal belonging.
With respect to visual arts, the study reveals that stecci materiality was a major inspiration for contemporary sculptors. Thus, some of them set their vision of homeland as a sacred multicultural place “in stone” (Fejzic, 2014). For various painters, stecci provided a rich source of visual signs from which they could weave their own imagery of homeland (Handzic and Ismajloska, 2019).
Many performing artists focused on symbols of evil, such as dragons and devils that abound in Bosnian mythology. These artists created plays and films where legends were enacted and folk wisdom was narrated. Besides, a motive of kolo (“circle dance”) inspired some composers to represent musical answers in which their authors expressed Bosnian folk musical heritage and spirit (Handzic et al., 2019).
Interestingly, sometimes visual and performing artists included poetry in their artworks. Written and spoken words were incorporated in paintings/sculptures and musical scores to enhance the artistic expression of meaning of Bosnia.

Overall, this study reveals that the main reason for artistic engagement with stecci lied in artists’ wish to express the meaning of Bosnia. They achieved this by recuperating the wisdom of a medieval past and identifying and refining its constitutive elements through their own artistic imagination. While these findings may be of wider interest, they cannot generalise to other archaeological artefacts, artists and contexts. Artists’ motives may not always be to celebrate, but to simply document or even mock the past (Russell and Cochrane, 2014). Therefore, future research is recommended that would replicate current study in different contexts, as well as to extend it to other research questions that would provide new insights on the relationship between archaeology and arts.

Buturovic, A. (2002). Stone Speaker: Medieval Tombs, Landscape, and Bosnian Identity in the Poetry of Mak Dizdar. Palgrave Macmillan, US.
Fejzic, A. (2014). Stecak: A(dis)continuity or resurrection of the art of stecak. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Culture of Remembrance, Sarajevo, 12-13 April 2014, pp. 19-28.
Handzic, M. & Dizdar, S. (2017). Picturing the Past: A Case of Knowledge Management Application in Archaeology. In Proceedings of the 12th International Forum on Knowledge Asset Dynamics – Knowledge Management in the 21st Century: Resilience, Creativity and Co-creation (IFKAD 2017), 7-9 June, St. Petersburg, Russia, pp. 1251-1261.
Handzic, M. & Ismajloska, M. (2019).Transferring Cultural Knowledge through Arts: Two Digital Stories. In Handzic, M. & Carlucci, D. (eds), Knowledge Management, Arts and Humanities: Interdisciplinary Approaches and the Benefits of Collaboration. Springer-Nature, Switzerland.
Handzic, M., Zulic, H. & Guja, Z. (2019). Knowledge Discovery from Arts Data: A Case of Distant Listening. In Proceedings of the 14th International Forum on Knowledge Asset Dynamics – Knowledge Ecosystems and Growth (IFKAD 2019), 5-7 June, Matera, Italy, (forthcoming).
Lauzikas, R., Dallas, C., Thomas, S., Kelpslene I., Huvila, I., Luengo, P., Nobre, H., Toumpouri, M. & Vaitkevicius, V. (2018). Archaeological Knowledge Production and Global Communities: Boundaries and Structure of the Field. Open Archaeology, 4, pp. 350–364.
Nomination 1504 (2016). Stecci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards, available at URL: .
Russell, I. A. & Cochrane, A. (eds) (2014). Art and Archaeology: Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms. Springer, Germany.