The Prehistoric period
The earliest traces of human presence on Croatian soil date back to the Palaeolithic Age. In Šandalja Cave near Pula, and in Punikve near Ivanec, flints made by pre-Neanderthal people have been found, while the remains of Neanderthal prehistoric humans have been discovered on Hušnjakovo near Krapina. Archaeological finds from the Palaeolithic Age have been discovered in other places throughout Croatia (Vindija, Veternica, etc.).
The Neolithic period (c. 6000 BC – c. 3000 BC) was characterised by the emergence of permanent, organised settlements, and by the production of earthenware and other items. In the Adriatic area, the most significant Neolithic cultures are the Impresso, Danilo and Hvar cultures, and, in the interior, the Sopot and Korenovo cultures, while the major sites where finds have been recovered are Smilčić near Zadar, Danilo near Šibenik, Markova and Grapčeva Caves on Hvar, and others.
Smilčić , near Zadar, one of the richest Neolithic sites on open ground. The settlement was surrounded by a defence moat and the dwellings were huts built above ground from interwoven branches. It has been established that the settlement developed in two stages: the earlier stage, with finds from the Impresso culture, and the later stage, characterised by the Danilo culture. Among the finds, some ceramic, richly decorated cultic vessels with four feet (rhytons) stand out, as well as various vessels decorated with paintings and engravings.
Vučedol, near Vukovar, an important prehistoric site (‘The Troy of the Danube’), after which the Vučedol culture was named, and which embraced a wider cultural complex from the Carpathians to the eastern Alps and the Dinaric Alps. It is presumed to have emerged after the arrival of Indo-European settlers around 3,000 BC and lasted until about 2,000 BC. Its characteristics include new metalwork procedures, extremely skilled ceramics, and, according to some researchers, the people used a calendar marked on ceramic vessels.
As the Stone Age moved into the Bronze Age, known as the Eneolithic period, in which the first metal – copper – began to be used, the Vučedol culture arose (c. 3000 BC – c. 2200 BC), named after the locality of Vučedol, on the bank of the Danube near Vukovar.
In the Bronze Age (c. 2500 BC – c. 800 BC), a period of great ethnic strife and migration, metalwork and techniques for producing bronze items continued to develop. Several cultural groups can be singled out (the Gradina (hillfort) culture in Istria, the Urnfield culture in northern Croatia, the Cetina culture in Dalmatia, etc.), which arose through the symbiosis of earlier cultural traditions and the various influences of strong neighbouring cultures.
In the village of Prozor near Otočac, the remains of a settlement and necropolis belonging to the Illyrians Iapodes (first millennium BC) have been discovered. The people lived there during the Roman age. They had a high level of artistic craftwork, represented by bronze ornaments with specific shapes, such as ornaments for the head (circlets), pendants, links for belts, buckles, clasps, and so on, and their jewellery was distinct for its use of amber and glass paste.
The arrival of the systematic production and use of iron tools marked the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 800 BC – early 1st century), during which the first ethnic communities appeared in the area which is present-day Croatia. Their names were recorded by Greek and Roman writers. They belonged to the Illyrian Histrians, Iapodes, Liburnians, Delmati, Ardiaei, etc., and came under the strong influence of Greek and Italic culture, and from the 4th century BC, under the influence of Celtic spiritual and material culture.
Nesactium (Vizače), northeast of Pula, was a prominent centre for the Illyrian Histrians in the first millennium BC. They continued to live there right up to late classical times, i.e. the early Christian era. In Nesactium, bronze pails decorated with figures, fragments of jewellery, weapons and ceramics have been found, along with examples of monumental stonework, representing the greatest achievements of prehistoric artistic creativity on Croatian soil.