Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century
Forum UNESCO - University and Heritage 10th International Seminar
An Inter-Congress of the World Archaeological Congress
International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (ICCHS), University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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The last days of a Mediterranean wet landscape. Human impact on and draining of shallow lake Arsa, Istria, Croatia

Mr Andrea Luca Balbo
University of Cambridge

The Slavonic word polje literally translates into field or plane. In karstic geomorphology it indicates a tectono-karstic depression typically found in Dalmatia and often occupied by karstic lakes (Jennings, 1971, Jennings, 1985, O'Sullivan, 2004). As part of the wetland-reclamation policy promoted by Arrigo Serpieri under the Fascist regime, in 1932 the Italian government achieved the drying of Lago d'Arsa (Polje Čepić), the only karstic lake of Istria Peninsula, Croatia. Lago d'Arsa had been the largest natural basin of freshwater in the region. By draining the lake, this reclamation project was meant to bring new arable land and increase the overall regional agricultural production. As a matter of fact, since the desiccation of the lake, and because of the highly permeable karstic geological background, the lack of freshwater has been a recurrent issue in dry summers. Not even the construction of a dam and the creation of an artificial basin upstream in the 1960s were sufficient to overcome the increased agricultural need for freshwater, and the large new farms built on the polje floor were soon abandoned.

After briefly presenting the morphological characteristics of poljes and the origins of Polje Čepić, I report two contrasting views on the lake from the period of its reclamation. I then explore how the drying of the lake affected the way of living, the knowledge, and the culture of its people. Drawing from collected geoarchaeological (archaeological and palaeoenvironmental) evidence I show how a wet landscape had characterized the area and influenced its people for millennia, leading to specific cultural and land-use adaptations previous to its extinction. I suggest that the lowering of the water table is threatening the rich cultural and environmental heritage preserved within Mediterranean wet landscapes, preventing us from understanding the past of these landscapes and their people. Presently, a gas pipeline is being constructed through the polje. It is suggested that the development of such projects should involve the financing of scientific research in culturally sensitive regions. I finish by shortly assessing the potential of the geoarchaeological approach to cultural landscapes. Such an approach can inform on the processes underlying the development of peculiar adaptive strategies, as well as help managing the material and immaterial heritage including cultural identity, archaeological and environmental remains in rapidly changing environments.

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