Exploring Community Heritage in Southern Slovakia

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Hosted by Lišov Museum, Slovakia, Erasmus + programme (funding agency), promoted by ARCH

By Heather James

My name is Heather James and I am a professional archaeologist who is currently working mainly on community archaeology projects in Scotland. In the past I have worked in the commercial and academic world and have been freelance since 2017. My recent projects have involved helping local communities to plan, raise funds for and then deliver community archaeology projects. I attended the weeks course based hosted at Lišov Museum between October 4th and 11th 2019 which had the theme of Exploring Community Heritage in Southern Slovakia. The project was promoted by ARCH which is based in Comrie, Perthshire and funded by Erasmus + which is an EU programme. The programme allows individuals to study, train volunteer or gain work experience abroad.

Lišov Museum.

We were based at Lišov Museum which is a charity run by Jacob Dvorsky , Adriana Patkova and Martin Clark (Grampus Heritage). Grampus Heritage promote the four ‘pillars of rural sustainability’ , environmental, social, economic and cultural sustainability (see https://www.grampusheritage.co.uk/projects/pride/).

The museum has three elements,

  • a collection of over 400 masks from round the world put together by Martin Clark,
  • a traditional house built in 1916 which displays history and artefacts dating from 1916 – 1985 and
  • a reconstructed Celtic roundhouse which was built in 2016/2017 as a presentation of Celtic life in Europe.

The mask museum included one from Hungary (Busόs) which depicts a black faced, horned, moustachioed face that which was designed to scare away the Ottoman Turks. Romanian and Bulgarian masks often depict animals, imaginary characters or real characters, used in winter to banish evil spirits and in spring to banish winter. These pagan practices have clearly continued throughout Europe after the conversion to Christianity and have even persisted through the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

I was especially interested in the ethnographic display in the museum which included some flax heckling boards. I have been working on an 18th century flax mill near Glasgow and so it was great to see how the hand heckling technique worked. One handle was for the foot and the other for one hand. The flax was then thrashed against the heckling spikes to straighten the flax fibres ready for spinning. This technique would have been used in Scotland prior to the construction of water mills. Apparently there were a couple of water mills in Lišov in the 19th century, but they have been demolished. Corn mills were often used for other purposes such as flax mills and saw mills. Flax was grown in this area in the past and according to Jacob there are old flax soaking ponds in the area.

One room contains many 19th century artefacts including carpentry tools, decorated china plates, woven beehives, leather harnesses, oil lamps, carpets, carpet beaters, weaving looms, giant wood saws. All these are excellent for showing people how people lived before modern technology and electricity. The geometric textile designs are also used as a decorative motif around the windows of the museum.

The Celtic roundhouse is an interesting structure, which has been reconstructed from a ground plan of post-holes. The roof has been designed to be a lot steeper than thatched houses in Scotland were, which perhaps reflects the steepness of the local vernacular buildings which are designed to deal with significant snow falls. The interior of the roundhouse is a great space for storytelling.

An underground cellar is being used for making wine and we sampled a newly fermented batch which is low in alcohol and still cloudy. This ‘early stages’ wine tastes sweet and strong. Winemaking was a significant economic activity until the 17th century, controlled by the elite in society and exported all over Europe. When the bug Phylloxera, came from America to Slovakia, it wiped out over 90% of the vineyards by eating their roots. It took years to find a cure and start rebuilding the vineyards. During Communist rule in the 20th century the vineyards were nationalised and quality made way for quantity. Since 1989 the vineyards have returned to private ownership and a younger generation of winemakers have implemented modern techniques ’ (https://www.vivino.com/news/wines-of-slovakia). There is a specific piece of glassware that is designed to facilitate the drawing off of the partly fermented wine from the barrel. It looks like a glass jug with a long internal rod that enables a person to place their mouth over the top of the rod, suck up the wine into the jug part, then place their finger over the hole at the top in order to transport the wine into another container or glass.

In the evening the participants gave short presentations in the village hall to a group of the local people including the mayor, the wife of the artist (František Lipták), a woman who had recently bought a house in the village and some local children. Jacob provided translation into Slovak for the audience.

Building restoration

We helped Jacob to restore some of the external daub on an old vernacular building at Lišov Museum using traditional materials. The composition of the daub was 1:1:1 clay, sand and straw with some water and well mixed. Jacob demonstrated different methods of mixing,

  • in a wheel barrow with a metal hoe,
  • with the bare feet on plastic (boots were also allowed)
  • with an electric mixer.

We all had a go. The electric mixer method was fastest but not so much fun. We then cleaned out the old daub and weeds from between the stones, sprayed water on the wall that was to be repaired and then slapped the daub onto the wall with a plasterer’s spatula. Small stones were pushed into the daub mix to fill particularly large holes.

Over the week Jacob emphasised at several sites how the use of cement for floors and wall repairs in the old traditional wooden and stone buildings had caused a great problem with rising damp which did not let the buildings breath as old traditional materials had done. Nowadays the cement is being removed and replaced with more traditional materials such as clay and straw daub. This is a conservation issue for many of the old buildings in Slovakia. One afternoon Jacob lit the round, domed, clay oven filled with wood and we loaded it with casseroles and stews for the evening meal.

Basket weaving

We were given a demonstration of basket weaving by Tatiana. Using long lengths of damp willow we each made a small basket with a cardboard base ready prepared with holes at appropriate places. I could appreciate the skill required to bend the main supports in order to change the shape of the basket as it grew. I then really noticed all the baskets of all shapes and sized around the museum used as beehives, covers for bottles and for collecting walnuts. We then spent an hour collecting walnuts from the trees in the Museum garden and managed to collect three large baskets full. These will be shelled and stored by Adriana. We noticed other villagers in the area collecting walnuts as this is very much a seasonal activity at this time of year. We also visited Jacobs honey bees. He was taught about bees by his father. The bees feed off the local crops and the honey that is collected is sold at the Museum.

We enjoyed a cultural exchange in the evening with some of Jacob and Adriana’s friends for dinner and drinks. We were entertained with Slovakian singing and we attempted to demonstrate Scottish dancing in a very limited space.


A 20minute drive west of Lisov is the village and caves of Brhlovce. The museum at Brhlovce is one of only four cave museums in Europe. One 19th century house has been restored as it would have been originally and there are plans to restore others, including the removal of cement. The caves have been carved into the soft tufa rock and provide shelter and a steady temperature to the inhabitants. The rooms are rectangular in shape and have timber doors, windows and ladders. Older caves are generally more tunnel like, probably influenced by the medieval arched cellar. The kitchen has a bread oven and a large chimney extending vertically up though the rock. This large space, like a medieval fireplace, would traditionally have been used for smoking foodstuffs. The house here used to be used by a stonemason and there is a display of his workshop with old tools and wooden forms (patterns). The kitchen and bedroom are all fitted with traditional furniture, fabrics and baskets. I was particularly impressed with an extendable wooden cot that could be adapted as a child grew. Materials used included wood, bone and ceramic (no plastic anywhere!). which would have been available locally. There was little metal except for the kitchen implement and tools. Goods that would have had to come from the city perhaps included a cookoo clock and some industrially produced fabrics.

A nearby café and toilets were restored in 2013 by a philanthropic Slovakian interior designer Miroslav Sedlàk. All proceeds from the café and shop where he sells his handmade products (in his own packaging) go back into the organisation. The style is very Nordic (white and clean surfaces) and contrasts noticeable with the ‘traditional’ 19th century Slovakian style. He was not from Brhlovce and admitted that at first he had some difficulty being accepted by the locals, some of whom were adverse to doing things differently. His work with promoting craft and rural life in a sustainable way and enabling school visits are changing attitudes towards him and he is helping the locals to value their heritage and see the economic benefits of tourism. He organises local events such as a wine tasting with a local wine producer and a ‘craft street’ in the village which allows other crafts people to sell their products. Future development includes another house with a garden where he can offer a short residency for artists, producing artworks which would benefit the organisation. He emphasised how all the cement has to be removed to allow the buildings to dry out and replaced with traditional materials.

Local landscape

The local landscape is gently undulating with no dramatic mountains. In the flatter areas there are large fields farmed with modern equipment. These are intermixed with areas of woodland where there are wild pigs and deer. The large Communist communal farm buildings are abandoned, just as the 2WW buildings in Britain were after 1945. Many of the hillsides around Lišov have cultivation terraces, which could be medieval in date, but are now left as pasture. There is the potential to restore these terraces as vineyards or other small scale agriculture that does not use a lot of mechanisation.

Oil Production and Shop

Olej Hont Oil is a new business set up in 2014. It employs a small number of people and presses cooking oils for sale in the shop. A wide variety of local plants can produce seeds that are pressed for their oil, such as mustard, rapeseed, sunflower, poppy, hemp, pumpkin and walnut. Rapeseed and sunflower produce the most oil. After the oil squeezed out of the seeds, the pulp is made into pellets which are sold as a snack and the sediment in the oil is sold for horse and dog food, so all the seed is utilised. Flavoured oils are produced with the addition of dry herbs. The shop also produces speciality mustard and jams for sale. Visitors are given a talk, a tour of the production rooms followed by a tasting and a visit to the shop. There is even a composting toilet. Joint events are organised with Lišov Museum.

Dudince Spa

Hot water springs here have led to the creation of a spa town. Prior to the 20th century it was little known and round pools (known locally as the Roman Baths, although they are probably not) were used for flax retting. The Communists turned it into a spa town with big hotels and blocks of flats. The spa and pool is still popular with Slovakians.

Down the Mine

Banska Stiavnica is famous for its gold and silver mines. It is a medieval town located inside a volcanic caldera that was created over 20 million years ago. The original settlement was on Glanzenberg hill where there are now woods and where there has been some archaeological investigation. The ‘Old’ castle was originally a church turned into a fortress against the Ottomans and the ‘New’ castle was built in the 16th century. Mining meant that this town became one of the richest in Europe. There are about 2000km of mines in this town alone.

When the mining began to decline in the 19th century and the town declined and by the 20th century was becoming deserted. It is now a UNESCO town because of its historic past. A mining school was founded in the 18th century with support from Queen Maria Theresa and became the Academy of Mining. A Forestry Institute was established there in the early 19th century when it was realised that all the trees had been removed for mining. Combined they became the Academy of Mining and Forestry in 1848. There is a plaque to Christian Andreas Doppler (1803- 1853), who was Professor of mathematics and who discovered the Doppler effect.

We visited one of the mines that is open to the public. This is one of the shallower mines that can be entered horizontally from the mountain side. Much deeper ones are reached by lifts. We were given the warning ‘If you get lost, don’t shout…..no one can hear you’. The mine does not feel too claustrophobic as it well ventilated and opens out often into bigger spaces. The ventilation of this part of the mine is produced by having a vertical channel upwards from the mine to the surface and the difference in pressure (and probably temperature) from the mine entrance causes a draft through the mine. They have had 37,000 visitors last year and hope for 50,000 this year. There is a hint of the ‘Sleeping beauty and the Seven dwarves’ theme, however, the main emphasis of the display boards is on the reality of mining underground, the health dangers, the heat and the mining technology and water management system which involved creating artificial lakes around the town. The lakes are now used mainly for recreation. The waste from the mines is apparently a ‘public secret’.

The town itself is built on a steep slope and the main street is lined with shops. There is an amazing wall sculpture by Vladimir Oravec which depicts the mining history and heritage of the area from its origins to its illustrious past. The origin story is that a shepherd noticed two lizards one dusted a gold colour and another dusted with a silver colour. When he investigated further he saw that there was gold and silver near to the surface that could be collected without mining.

Banska Stiavnica is marketed as a tourist destination with shops, hotels and restaurants. In the centre of the caldera is a hill on top of which is the ‘Calvery’ depicting the Christian stations of the cross. It is very picturesque and will attract the non-religious as well as the pilgrims.

We were told an old story about a chateau with 365 windows on the inside, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, 4 blocks, but 366 windows on the outside. One adventurer long ago discovered where the secret room was and found a book inside, the opening of which released supernatural beasts. With help he captured the beasts back into the book and sealed up the room again. The location of the room is not now known.

Lišov cave houses

The cave houses in Lišov are reached up a lovely woodland walk, a short distance up the hill from the museum. The woods have oak, ash, sycamore, beech and birch among others I could not identify. This would be a great site for tree and plant identification walks. They could also talk about the geology and geomorphology that has created this landscape. Some access routes to the caves are close to an area of old septic tanks that once belonged to the cooperative farm, which would need to be cleared first.

There are about 55 cave houses in Lišov and not all have been mapped. The traditional houses back onto the cliff side and each has its own tunnel back into the tufa. Each generation made them bigger and more regular so it would be difficult to know when they were originally used as they will have been expanded so often. (There does not seem to be a tradition of burial in caves as there is in Turkey for instance). The caves were originally used for living in, but as they expanded, structures were also built out in front of the entrance. The caves were then more used as cellars. Governments in the past have been disapproving of cave dwellings and discouraged them. The communists suggested that living in a cave was not a good life.

The cave houses in Lišov were used by poorer people such as miners and when mining declined they were utilised as cellars for the wine industry and for animals. The last cave house in Lišov to be lived in was by an elderly woman (Philicopa?). She lived closely connected to nature, kept a goat and was thought to be a witch by the local people. Although she died only about 20 years ago there are no photographs of her. Jacob has done a dig in front of cave house and found 20th century coins, post-holes and water gullys.

Jacob recognises that the caves are vulnerable as they are made of soft tufa. The roots of trees above penetrate the tufa and break it apart if the caves are not maintained. He would like to develop the cave house as a tourist attraction for community benefit. This would offer some accommodation to visitors and bring income into the area. Currently they are ‘maintained’ by the village and seem generally free of the rubbish one would see in the UK.

Place names for the caves are interesting , one is ‘Porsazcnski pivnice’ = cellars under the planting area and another ‘Drienouski pivnice’ = cellar that belongs to the bushes.

Striebornica Archaeological site near Lišov

An area near the village called ‘Striebornica’ = ‘silver field’ was first discovered by Andrej Kmet who came to Lišov in 1894 and in 1905 and found Bronze Age pottery on the site. It has recently been investigated by a British geophysicist who found an anomaly that suggests the presence of a feature such as a kiln or furnace. Some prehistoric and medieval pottery has been found in the ploughsoil here and we picked up more from the surface on the day we visited. Jacob would like to have a dig here in the future to investigate the anomaly.

History of Lišov

Written charters indicate that there was a village here by 1286 and there was possibly a castle shown on old maps as (Kernye), although the location of this is not now known. It was possibly burnt by the Ottomans in 1456. The contemporary layout of Lišov consists of a number of thin strips of land on either side of the central stream and roads, which seems to be maintaining an original medieval layout. The traditional houses occupy half of the frontage and the long axis extends back towards the ‘backlands’. A plan of 1784 shows that the village may have increased in size but the main layout has not changed much since then.

The traditional houses of probable 19th century construction are built of stone with steeply pitched roofs. The gable ends of barns are made of timber slats which would have provided ventilation.

Slovakia was converted to Christianty by two brothers Cyril and Metodius who came from Byzantium in the 9th century. They introduced a form of writing called Cyrillic. It is probable that Lišov had a church by the 12th/13th centuries perhaps surrounded by an oval-shaped graveyard. It would be interesting to know which saint this church was dedicated to. There are apparently some chapels/churches with origins in the 9th/10th century in the area but these were not visited.

The current Protestant church was built in 1590, a tower added in 1869 and has been renovated several times. What would have been the graveyard surrounding it is now a children’s play park. The church is locked, but there are services every second Sunday.

A recent project, called Engaging Volunteers in European Heritage Discovery (EVEHD), involved an investigation of different European heritage themes. As a result Jacob has written an article on the Slavic stories about the old pagan gods such as Belboh (power and light) and Černoboh (night, black and evil) thus bringing the old stories back into more common knowledge. By investigating such stories people feel more connected with and value more, their heritage and the past.

I found that my inability to communicate with the locals was a bit of a drawback as I could not ask the locals what they thought about the recent developments and more tourists coming to their quiet village. I did have a few mimed conversations with adults and the few children I came across were keen to try their English. But this was all very superficial. There is a limit to what can be achieved in a week. It highlighted for me the advantage of being able to talk to the locals, to understand the subtle social undercurrents which can make or break a community project. It would be difficult, as a British archaeologist, to become part of the local scene without translators, or learning the language. However this was an excellent introduction to the potential for cultural heritage in Slovakia when people with different skills work together.

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