The Foundation of the Serbian Archaeological Society

Photo of Mihailo Valtrovic
Mihailo Valtrović

Serbian Archaeological Society was founded on July 1st, 1883 in Belgrade. The first president was Mihailo Valtrović, an architect by education, an archaeologist by vocation, the first professor of archaeology at the Grande école in Belgrade (since 1881), and a curator of the National Museum in Belgrade. Beside him, the founders were Dragutin S. Milutinović, professor at the Grande école in Belgrade, Jovan Bošković, professor at the Grande école in Belgrade, Jovan Dragašević, colonel, Jovan Žujović, professor at the Grande école in Belgrade, Ljubomir Kovačević, headmaster of the Teacher’s College, Nićifor Dučić, a librarian, and Svetomir Nikolajević, professor at the Grande école in Belgrade.

The Development of archaeology in Serbia before the foundation of the Serbian Archaeological Society

Foundation of the Serbian Archaeological Society was preceded by a period of the development of consciousness about the preservation of antiquities among the Serbs. One of the first moments of archaeology among the Serbs was the call of Zaharije Orfelin from 1798 in which he, in his “Slavenoserbski magazin”, called on the Serbs in Austria-Hungary to collect artifacts of ancient cultures and to protect them from oblivion and destruction. Tradition, history, and myths of medieval Serb state were the foundation on which the desire to preserve and study the past was built. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the first half of the 19th century Lukijan Mušicki passionately described medieval antiquities, and based on many similar expeditions in insufficiently known regions undertaken by foreign travelers, he himself traveled in Srem, Banat, Bačka, and Slavonija in 1810. On these travels, he collected much information on monasteries, ruins of medieval towns and fortresses, and remains of Roman settlements. Somewhat later, Georgije Magarašević, a learned man of his time, followed in his footsteps. Through “Serbski letopis” from 1827, and then through “Srbske novine” he began collecting information on our past. Later, in 1847 Teodor Pavlović made the initiative to collect archaeological, numismatic, and historical artifacts for the future museum of Matica Srpska. This was actually the first organized attempt to collect artifacts for a museum among the Serbs north of Sava and Danube rivers. Only in 1908, museum primarily oriented toward collecting of archaeological finds from southern Banat was founded in Vršac.

In 1826, Joakim Vujić was working for Prince Miloš on collecting the data on Serbian antiquities (Putešestvija po Serbiji). A few years later Jovan Sterija Popović began his important task. The period between 1830 and 1845 marked the beginning of institutionalization of studying of antiquities, which ended in 1844 with the foundation of the National Museum in Belgrade. It was preceded by some important events that took place under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and “Društvo srpske slovesnosti” and which in 1843 led to the formation of the first draft of the Law on antiquities, one of the few in Europe of that time.

The advanced members of Serbian Learned Society in 1867 founded the Fellowship of Archaeology and Ethnography on Balkan tropolje, the forerunner of the Serbian Archaeological Society. The Fellowship sent Scientific-patriotic call to the Serbian people in order to “raise awareness of antiquities among the people… to raise the notion that those antiquities are sanctity… which one should respect, collect and study”, to “collect and present the faithful recording of different pottery from a bygone era, to collect and show to the world all kinds of jewelry and ornaments from the past”, to “study old churches and buildings” etc. Program of the Fellowship can be considered as a foundation on which Statute and Program of Serbian Archaeological Society were built 15 years later, and which will get its place in programs of Serbian Learned Society, Serbian Royal Academy of Sciences, Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, and the National Museum.

A few years later, in 1869, the Serbs in Austria-Hungary formed the Archeological Society “Sirmium” in Sremska Mitrovica. Its spiritual father was Felix Kanitz, correspondent, and illustrator of the Leipzig newspapers, who informed readers across Austria-Hungary about developments in the Balkans for almost 40 years, with minor or major interruptions. In the area of Vršac archaeological excavations began in 1882 which led to the foundation of the museum in this city. The same year the excavations in Subotica and Sremska Mitrovica also began, thus that year could be regarded as the beginning of archaeology in this area.

Cabinet of Archaeology at the Grande école in Belgrade was founded in 1882, and, a year earlier, in 1881, Mihailo Valtrović was appointed Professor of archaeology by the decree of Prince Milan Obrenović. That laid the foundations of archeological studies at the University, marked the beginning of a new stage in the history of the National Museum, and enabled the organization of the Serbian Archaeological Society.

The work of the Society since its foundation

Objectives of the Serbian Archaeological Society and its tasks are clearly formulated in the “Access”, “Call for enrollment in the Society”, and the Statute of Serbian Archaeological Society. The “Call for enrollment” stressed the richness of Serbia in archaeological remains from prehistoric to the times of “the Serbian and Turkish rule” and pointed out that “the people who now live in these countries and after whom they are named, should preserve those traces of the past, collect them, and enable their use in science. In the “Access”, it is particularly emphasized that the Society, by launching its journal “Starinar”, achieved one of its main tasks: informing the professional and scientific public about archaeological monuments-antiquities of Serbia. Practically, the Serbian Archaeological Society has worked through its Administration and membership, whose scope of work and responsibilities are also defined by the Statute. Professional and scientific policy is led by the Administration of the Society, which appoints the editors of Society’s documents (publications), decides where the archaeological excavations should be undertaken or which movable objects (“antiquities”) should be purchased, and, finally, provides expertise (“its expert opinion”) to the authorities or individuals. At the Society’s meetings, annual (“main”) or emergency, the Administration gives reports on these works. The Assembly actively participates in the creation of that kind of work programme: at the Assembly, each member of the Society can make proposals for archaeological works, and the Assembly decides on these proposals and their realization.

The cooperation of the Society with the National Museum is proclaimed in the Statute since its inception. All collected finds had to be delivered to the National Museum as a “Collection of the Archaeological Society”, and in case that Society is no longer operational all of its assets would belong to the National Museum.

For a few years during the Great War, the Society ceased its activities. It had not recovered from this blow for a long time. In the period between two world wars, the Society did not develop the intensive, diverse and productive activity, proclaimed by Mihailo Valtrović as its primary task, and stressed in its Statute. Collecting of archaeological finds and the interest in the preservation of antiquities and monuments almost died out, although the opportunities in the new state of Yugoslavia did not substantially change. Still, there was no specialized institution for the protection of cultural monuments, nor did the opportunities and working conditions for archaeology in the interior of the country got better. Administration of the Society was taken over by Nikola Vulić at first, and Vladimir Petković later, and the only proof of the work and activities of the Society was the regular issue of “Starinar”, as the only completely archaeological magazine in Serbia.

In 1941, the Society ceased its activities again due to the outbreak of the WWII. Since the beginning of the postwar period in the new Yugoslavia the conditions for the development of archaeology improved considerably, but also the aspects of the work substantially changed. Therefore the Serbian Archaeological Society and its activities had not been renewed immediately. In Serbia, the Archaeological Institute was founded, at first as the part of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, which later became an independent scientific institution and took upon itself the task of gathering all the archaeologists from various institutions in the country, as well as, the coordination of the work on the basic problems of archaeology in Serbia. In this context, the Institute also took upon itself the issuing of “Strainer” as well as the organization of the annual meetings of Serbian archaeologists. Thereby a great part of the tasks of the old Society was transferred to the Archaeological Institute.

At the symposium of Yugoslavian archaeologists which was held in Niška Banja in 1950, the Coordinating Committee of Archaeologists of Yugoslavia was founded, which later grew into the Archaeological Council, and finally into the Archaeological Society of Yugoslavia. In such circumstances, there was no feeling of necessity at first to renew the activities of the Serbian Archaeological Society. Circumstances have changed with the rapid increase in the number of professional archaeologists actively engaged in the activities of a series of newly founded institutions, especially museums. In June 1964 in Serbia, the initiative was taken to organize the republican archeological society, at first in the form of republican branch of the Archaeological Society of Yugoslavia. The constituent assembly of the branch for Serbia was held at the symposium of archaeologists in Belgrade. In 1970 the Archaeological Society of Serbia was founded. The initiative for that was made at the assembly in Boor in 1969, but the Society itself was founded at the assembly on 23rd May 1970 in Belgrade. The last president of the branch was Lazlo Seekerš. Since 1978 the Society has regularly held annual meetings of Serbian archaeologists, where the results of all the research undertaken in the last year are being communicated.

The old name, the Serbian Archaeological Society, was restored in 1983 and, in 1984 a new journal was initiated – the Journal of the Serbian Archaeological Society, which is published annually. In addition to the regular publication of the Journal, the Society’s activities take place on regular annual professional-scientific meetings that are organized in a different city in Serbia every time. The Society periodically publishes monographs as well.

(Information about the history of the Society are taken from the works of Nikola Tasić “Archaeology in Serbia from the foundation of Serbian Archaeological Society in 1883” (in Serbian) and Milutin Garašanin “Serbian Archaeological Society between 1883 and 1983” (in Serbian) published in the book “Memorial of the Serbian Archaeological Society: 1883 – 1983”, Belgrade 1983 (in Serbian))