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Croatia's burden of buried treasure

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

I was careful not to slip on the cobblestones, which had been worn slick with age. The long stretch of dwellings on either side of the narrow alley once stood upright and sure, but after centuries, they now sloped in toward each other, as if conspiring to block the sun.

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At the end of the alley I turned right, hoping it would lead me back toward the town center. I soon entered a small, sunlit square.

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On the far side, four archaeologists were picking at the ground with tools.

“Is it OK if I walk here?” I called out.

One of the diggers looked up and nodded, so I made my way across, trying not to disturb what turned out to be unearthed 12th-century graves.

Croatia is chockablock with ancient relics. Even private yards are steeped in the stuff – Roman military medallions, engraved medieval rings, carved Grecian stones – and it’s not unheard-of for farmers to accidentally disinter age-old skeletons while tilling fields.

The nation is at once proud of the artifacts and hindered by them. Hundreds of excavations are conducted each year, many of them financed by unwitting private investors.

“When a company comes to build a highway or install a parking garage and hits ruins, they are forced to finance an excavation,” says Ivica Plestina, of the Croatia Conservation Institute, and supervisor of the archaeologists I happened upon.

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“The people who live here are always grumbling at us to leave,” says Mr. Plestina. “They say there are enough ruins already without having to dig up more.”