The belly of Hvar
Stari Grad Plain is the best-preserved ancient Greek landscape in the Mediterranean. Plantations on the field, known as the island’s belly, haven’t changed since the first colonisation of Greeks in the 4th century BC. It’s proof of the geometric parcelling of fertile land practised in ancient times, an innovative way of ensuring fresh produce. Since 2008, Stari Grad Plain has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The oldest document mentioning Stari Grad Plain is Hvar Statute from the early 14th century. Back then it was referred to as the Plain of St. Stephan, named after Hvar’s patron saint. The document mentions the dimensions and paths that go through the Plain, marking the age when they were constructed.
Greeks from the island of Paros colonised Hvar (Greek: Pharos), hence the name, in the 4th century BC as a trading stronghold of the Adriatic Sea.
Upon arrival, Greeks started designing the landscape of the fertile land of the island. The most significant piece of land known as Stari Grad Plain takes up around 1200 hectares. To save the land from erosion and maximise fertility, Greeks used an ancient parcelling system using dry stone walls.
The main structure of the Plain has remained intact for the past 2400 years and is considered to be the masterpiece of Greek culture in the Mediterranean.
In the Middle Ages, the Plain was partially planted with grain, while fig trees covered the edges of lots and less fertile areas. Almonds grew closer to settlements in gardens. Olive trees, as we see them today, covered the slopes, with carob trees in between. The most famous are stone drywall terraces filled with lavender and rosemary. Special attention was given to vines. They mainly grew on smaller lots, and even today people cultivate the soil using the manual technique with a pitchfork. The wine produced here is the famous Zinfandel, an authentic wine of Dalmatia.
Two main paths divide the Plain at straight angles. The point where the paths cross is omphalos (meaning: the centre of something), the belly of the Plain, near the only pond in the field, called Dračevica. This was the starting point of the measurements, which were taken using an instrument called groma.
The Plain is divided into rectangular lots of 1 x 5 stadia (meaning: Ancient Greek unit of length), approximately 180 x 900 metres, bounded by stone drywalls. Boundary stones marked lot ownership. Only one owner’s name is known today, Mathios (son of) Pytheos, and the stone is kept in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb.
Illyrians, Greeks and Romans
New ownership was not welcomed by Illyrians that lived on nearby islands and the mainland. This started a war, from which the Greeks came out as victors.
This allowed them to control the whole Plain, and lot owners could begin constructing auxiliary buildings and dwellings. Greeks referred to the Plain as Hora Faru (meaning: territory under the administration of a Greek city). They worshipped gods of fertility, Dionysus and Persephone. This belief that supreme force protects the Plain remained until today, as it still feeds the island and it maintains its original agricultural purpose.
Greeks planted mostly olives and vines that are still growing today, and in the field, still visible are layers of all cultures that grew here for the past 2400 years.
During Roman times, the Plain became a well-managed system of estates. The Romans divided lots furthermore but maintained the original Greek boundaries. Every division was done in the same way, using stone drywalls but of differing dimensions. Some acted like a simple fence, dividing lots, while others formed a grid and were wide enough to be used as paths.
A Roman landlord and municipal council member, Caius Cornificius Carus, constructed an estate near Kupinovik, which suggests that prominent Romans populated the Plain during Roman times. Today, ruins of ancient Villa Rustica (Translation: Roman villa in a countryside) remain in the Plain, where olive and wine presses reveal active life until the 6th century.
Archaeological research of Stari Grad Plain began in the 19th century when Šime Ljubić pointed out that the famous Stari Grad Plain is a Roman ager colonicus (meaning: public land in colonised territory).
This is when teams of archaeologists began exploring the area, especially around manors and villa rusticas from the Roman period. They concluded that Stari Grad Plain is so well preserved simply because it has been used since the day it was parcelled.
In the 1980s, Marin Zaninović developed a theory that drywalls are part of the Greek parcelling system, and his theory was officially confirmed in 1993 as it became a protected archaeological site.
This attracted the attention of UNESCO, and in July of 2008, they included Stari Grad Plain in the World Heritage list, along with the historic core of Stari Grad.
It is described as a unique geometrical parcelling Greek system preserved in its original state. Since then, the Plain is managed by the Agency of Stari Grad Plain Management. The agency’s goal is to preserve and promote Stari Grad Plain as part of the historical and cultural heritage of Hvar island.
Reference & source: Starogradsko polje Hvar, Arheologija mediteranskog krajolika