Basic information
Original title:
Poselitev jugovzhodnoalpske regije v zgodnjem srednjem veku
Researchers involved:
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1 November 2018–31 October 2021

The aim of this project is to write a synthetic study of the settlement of the south-eastern Alpine region in the early middle ages (circa 6th – 11th centuries). This will be achieved by chronological and spatial analysis of the settlement phases for the entire region and three micro-regional studies that will address selected questions on economy, society and culture. Building upon the tradition of archaeology of cemeteries (ger. Gräberfeldarchäologie) the project is based foremost also on settlements discovered in the past two decades and modern archaeological methods including digital tools. The result of this project will be the first comprehensive study of early medieval settlement of the entire south-eastern Alpine region transcending modern boundaries.

Early medieval sites in the south-eastern Alpine area: red – settlement; grey – other; blue – micro-regions (W to E) Bled, Leibnitzer feld, Dravsko-Ptujsko polje

Early medieval archaeology (circa 6th – 11th Centuries) of the south-eastern Alpine region is traditionally focused on cemeteries, hoards and settlements (see Ch. 12 bellow). This project will add to this the economic hinterland of the sites and the landscape as an artefact. The key to a better understanding of early medieval period in this region is a good overall knowledge of all types of archaeological sites. This is mostly hindered by the underrepresentation of settlement sites (Fig. 1; see details in ch. 12). The chief reason for this is poor visibility of archaeological record that has prevented systematic discovery of sites in the past. This can be traced to the scarcity of pottery on early medieval settlement sites in comparison to the sites from other periods, e.g. Roman or late medieval. In addition, metal finds and architectural remains are all but inexistent. This can be illustrated with the example of the Pristava at Bled site. At this site, intact by modern development, the early medieval settlement remains buried under the cemetery have been completely overlooked by the excavators. It was only during the meticulous post-excavation analysis that the settlement remains have been recognised. In this example the scarcity of the archaeological record was due to the building floors raised above-ground.

Above-ground building floors (Pristava na Bledu, Blek na Krvavcu) as well as surface-floor (i.e. not sunken-floor) buildings are one of the main differentiating factors between the settlement archaeology in the south-eastern Alpine region and its neighbours, e.g. contemporary settlements in Slovakia. Typical for the latter are sunken-floor buildings (ger. Grubenhäuser) that leave much better archaeological record. Some sunken-floor-buildings-like pits have been found in the eastern margins of our study area and even those are not typical and cannot be classified.

Another issue hindering the discovery of the settlements in south-eastern Alpine region is the continuity: many settlements are still inhabited until this day. This is true both for urban centres (past and present, e.g. Kranj, Ljubljana, Ptuj, Graz) and for rural areas (e.g. Bled, Virgen). Due to the modern infrastructure on such sites archaeological investigation is severely hindered and e.g. above-ground building remains are almost impossible to detect. Similarly, when high medieval castles were built on top of early medieval sites, little remain of the latter (fortunate exceptions: Ptujski grad, Schwanberg, Frauenburg/Unzmarkt). Even where early medieval settlements are slightly removed from present day settlements they have been severely damaged by ploughing (e.g. Nova Tabla). For all of those reasons early medieval settlement were impossible to discover even using modern techniques, e.g. systematic archaeological survey, geophysics, aerial imagery.

Nonetheless, in the past two decades the number of known settlement sites increased significantly (47 in Slovenia, 53 in Austria). The discovery was finally made possible by the large development projects (e.g. motorways, railways, pipelines, housing) and improved heritage management (e.g. large-scale excavations before the building of the motorways took place). However, less than one in four newly discovered settlements have been analysed and published. Vast majority was subjected only to preliminary assessment and hence not much is known. E.g., many are only dated as "early medieval period". The data accessible in preliminary reports would suffice, though, for obtaining more precise dating (using C14-based typo-chronology) and general description. In conclusion, the existing archaeological knowledge of the early Middle Ages of the Southeastern Alps is largely based on the cemeteries. The C14 based typo-chronology exists for pottery and some types of jewelry. Although settlement studies limited to smaller areas exist (see Ch. 12) the absence of synthetic settlement study can be identified as the major problem of early medieval archaeology in the south-eastern Alpine region. But for the first time sufficient data is available (see Ch. 12) to conduct a research that will remedy this situation.

Objective of the proposed research

The objective of this project is to conduct a synthetic analysis of all available data on the early medieval settlement in the south-eastern Alpine region. This will be achieved by means of regional analysis of settlement history and three purposefully selected micro-regional analyses.

The settlement history is understood in this project as changes in the state, extent and structure of settlement. Understanding these changes offers an essential spatial and temporal framework for any further research of the economy, society and ideology or religion.

The first goal of the project is analysis of early medieval settlement in the south-eastern Alpine region. It is focused primarily on detecting spatial and chronological processes, e.g. areas of the earliest settlement and settlement pattern shifts thereafter. The main data source is ZBIVA database containing all published early medieval sites; within the project this database will be supplemented with data from unpublished excavation reports in Slovenia and Austria.

The second goal is to analyse three micro-regions selected for their outstanding quality and quantity of available archaeological data. Foremost, though, each micro-region has been chosen to address selected topic relevant to the whole region:

  • Bled. Deeper understanding of župa (a Slavic territorial and legal community also connected by family ties) and testing new hypothesis and methods.
  • Leibnitzer Feld. Transformation of the settlement structures between late antiquty and early medieval period (6th and 7th c.) as well as subsequent arrivals of new groups (or at least, new manorial lords) from the 9th century onwards.
  • Dravsko-ptujsko polje. The genesis of an early medieval principality and its transition into high medieval socio-economic structure.


Selected micro-regions

Selected micro-regional analyses will be based on site-catchment analysis (ger. Einzugsgebietanalyse). This approach will enable us to contextualize archaeological data in their physical environment, which conveys a new perspective of the physical landscape. Instead of being treated as dots on a blank map archaeological sites are embedded in contemporary landscape filled with path-networks, field system and natural features. To this end the methodology will be focused on airborne LiDAR data analysis and retrograde analysis of the land-cadastre (ger. Genetische Flurformenforschung).

Airborne LiDAR data processing


Project steps

WP 1. ZBIVA web application

Duration: M1 – M3
Leader: Belak (P1)
Participants: All


1.1. Training
1.2. Grey literature analysis
1.3. ZBIVA maintenance


The feasibility of entire project is based foremost on the data already collected in ZBIVA, i.e. data on 3368 sites; within WP1 this data will be supplemented with grey literature (e.g. unpublished excavation reports, professional publications).

ZBIVA database, actively developed since 1987, has been designed to compile archaeological scientific data (published in peer-reviewed journals and books) on South-eastern Alpine and surrounding area in the Early Middle Ages. It is focused on the sites in Slovenia, Austria, on the NW Croatian coast, and in the NE regions in Italy. Since 2016 it is available as a full-blown GIS web application. Focusing on peer-reviewed publications gradually became a limitation since in the past two decades ever-larger portion of archaeological excavations is published exclusively as grey literature (e.g. unpublished excavation reports, non-scientific books).

WP 2. Airborne LiDAR data interpretation

Duration: M1 – M30
Leader: Lozić (P3)
Participants: All


2.1. Data analysis
2.2. Ground truthing and archaeological interpretation


Airborne Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR), also known as airborne laser scanning (ALS) data (henceforth LiDAR), is being used in archaeology for just over a decade. Typically, LiDAR data at least doubles the amount of archaeological information in forested areas and new archaeological information has been extracted in every single reported example. In this project archaeological interpretation of LiDAR data will be primarily used as an aid to contextualize archaeological data in their physical environment, i.e. to convey a new perspective of the physical landscape.

Until recently only small areas (e.g. 15 km2) have been the focus of research and only a limited number of archaeologists have had the skills, software and hardware to harness the full data potential. However, since 2015 Slovenia and Austria offer LiDAR datasets for entire countries that are free or low cost respectively. LiDAR data therefore has a huge potential for creating new archaeological data in south-eastern Alpine region. But this potential is "locked" until the data is appropriately processed and interpreted (Fig. 2).

Therefore, in this project a specialist in LiDAR applications in archaeology will be employed and equipped. The work will be closely coordinated with other project members in all stages from case-study area selection to the final archaeological interpretation. According to the research nature of this project the focus is on in-depth analysis rather than on covering the largest possible area, i.e. less effort is devoted to to data analysis (WP2.1) and more to interpretation and ground-truthing (WP2.2). Nevertheless, minimum 50 km2 will be analysed in each micro-region and minimum 200 km2 in total.

WP 3. South-eastern Alpine region analysis

Duration: M13 – M30
Leader: Štular (P1)
Participants: Koch (P3), Gutjahr (P3), Magdič (P2), Modrijan (P1), Rihter (P1), Pleterski (P1), Karl (P3)


3.1. Settlement pattern analysis
3.2. Advanced landscape analysis
3.3. Synthesis, Interpretation


The objectives of WP3 are to detect spatial and chronological processes, in particular (1) areas of the earliest settlement and (2) settlement pattern shifts thereafter. Analysis will source the data compiled in WP1. ZBIVA web application acts both as a database and as an analysis tool. In addition, advanced analyses will be conducted in GIS (geographic information systems). Results will be compiled in a scientific synthesis and interpreted.

WP 4. Micro-regional analyses

Duration: M7 – M30
Leader: Lehner (P3)
Participants: Karl (P3), Gutjahr (P3), Magdič (P2), Modrijan (P1), Rihter (P1), Štular (P1), Pleterski (P1), Koch (P3), Lozić (P3).


4. Micro-regional analysis 4.1. Bled (SI) 4.2. Leibnitzer feld (A) 4.3. Dravsko-ptujsko polje (SI)


Micro-regional analysis' by definition studies the smallest possible area that includes all relevant site-types, e.g. central settlement with all depending peripheral settlements, cemeteries, hoards. One can say that a micro-region is to the archaeology what a laboratory is to natural sciences: a place where hypothesys is built, developed and tested.

In this project the focus within each micro-region will be on settlements with their respective site-catchment or hinterland areas (ger. Einzugsgebietanalyse), e.g. field systems, path networks and landscape but also cemeteries and hoards. This is made possible by the use of LiDAR data (WP2), retrograde land-cadastre analysis (ger. Genetische Flurformenforschung) and GIS tools will be employed as appropriate. Each of the three micro-regions was selected for a particular reason relevant to the entire region:

WP 5. Synthesis and interpretation

Duration: M30 – M36
Leaders: Pleterski (P1), Lehner (P2)
Participants: All


he objective is the scientific synthesis "Settlement of the Southeastern Alpine Area in the Early Middle Ages" based on the results on all other WPs and in particular WP3 and WP4. One can understand the results of WP3 and WP4 as chapters in the final monograph publication whereas WP5 is the conclusive chapter of the book.

It is the objective of this WP to arrive at meaningful scientific interpretation with combined effort of all researchers involved in the project.




Project manager

Project manager at ZRC

WP managers at ZRC

Funded by

Slovenian Research Agency (Agencija za raziskovalno dejavnost Republike Slovenije) and Fonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftliche Forschung (Republic of Austria)


Early Middle Ages • settlement • south-eastern Alpine region • chronological analysis • spatial analysis