From BIRN (hat tip to David Beard)

The decision of the UN heritage body UNESCO to add a Roman palace near Zajecar in eastern Serbia to its list of listed sites has boosted local pride - as well as hopes that Serbia will undertake a more responsible attitude to its cultural heritage.

At its annual meeting, held in early July in Wellington, New Zealand, UNESCO added the complex located 11km east of Zajecar to the world list of the protected sites under the name "Gamzigrad -Romuliana, Palace Of Galerius".

In a country still struggling to preserve its historical and cultural heritage, badly mauled by decades of mismanagement, the imperial palace now has a chance to outgrow its local significance and become a key site on the wider Serbian and Balkan tourist map.

The former residence of the Emperor Caius Valerius Galerius Maximianus, ruler from 297-311 and son-in-law of the Emperor Diocletian, takes its place in the region alongside Diocletian's better known former residence and resting place in Split, Croatia.

Galerius was born in the then Romanian province of Dacia Aureliana to a mother named Romula, after whom the palace was named.

The complex at Romuliana sprawls over six-and-a-half hectares, surrounded by a defensive system of 20 towers, within which lie the remains of vestibules, atriums, hot baths, multi-coloured floor mosaics, marble panels and objects and sculptures made of purple granite and green porphyry from the Peloponnese.

Most of the credit for the discovery of the true nature of the complex goes to Dragoslav Srejovic, the late archaeologist who from the 1970s spent two decades trying to convince the world that Romuliana was not a "castrum" or army encampment, as had been assumed, but an imperial palace.

The breakthrough came in 1984 when Srejovic discovered an inscription at the site bearing the palace's name, reading Felix Romuliana. In 1993, a carving of the emperor's head was also discovered, made from costly Egyptian purple porphyry.

Srejovic died a decade ago, leaving subsequent generations to continue his work. With UNESCO recognition, Serbia now has to apply new international rules for the protection, reconstruction and preservation of the palace.

Branislava Stojkovic Pavelka, head of conservation and reconstruction of Romuliana, at Serbia's Institute for Protection of Cultural Monuments, says the most important thing is for the municipality of Zajecar to act on its plan, concerning management of the site.

Among other things, the plan includes buying up around 100 hectares around the site to form a "Zone of Protection" and shield the site from the attention of treasure hunters and diggers.

German experts from the Archaeological Institute in Frankfurt are the first foreign partners to have established significant cooperation with Serbian institutions on the protection and further examination of Romuliana.

UNESCO itself does not grant money to custodians of listed sites. But the fact that it has listed the palace will draw the attention of others who may invest money into its further examination and tourist development, Marco Omcikus, member of the UNESCO National Committee, said speaking from Belgrade.

The state and the local authorities will now also be obliged to undertake a greater level of care than before, he added. "Applying for certain donations can financially and logistically assist the state in protecting the object," he continued.

The registration of Serbia's first UNESCO archaeological site should hopefully encourage a more enlightened policy on the part of the authorities when it comes to the protection and development of similar cultural heritage sites in Serbia.

So far, Serbia has not had a good track record. Bora Dimitrijevic, director of the Zajecar museum, said the usual former practice was to treat "rocks sticking out of the ground as good construction material or as a source for illegal trade by unlicensed treasure hunters".

The Zajecar museum and city authorities have already campaigned for the better protection of Romuliana and have succeeded in seeing the installation of partial lighting, occasional police visits and night patrols. It is not enough, though it is more than most other sites in eastern Serbia have seen.

The Sarkamen site near Negotin, a residential complex from the same era as the Emperor Galerius, was another important archaeological discovery made by Dragoslav Srejovic. The examination began in 1994 and only two years later the world was astonished by the collection of gold imperial jewellery found at the spot.

But the complex, which sprawls over 25 hectares, is completely neglected today and enjoys no protection, enabling treasure hunters to resume work on it undisturbed. The evident lack of local interest means the state has taken no interest in it either.

In the vicinity of Knjazevac, several unprotected sites dating from the prehistoric period to the Byzantine Empire, have been looted. The Roman-Byzantine site of Ravna was routinely plundered by well-equipped treasure hunters once the experts working on the site had finished their working days.

Dusica Zivkovic, director of the County Museum in Knjazevac, emphasises that more systematic protection and care of the new UNESCO site is essential.

Raiders, she said, do not hesitate to exhibit their valuable findings at collectors' fairs "because they do not fear legal repercussions, which are mainly symbolical, anyway".

The fate of Lepenski Vir, another important site, located on the Danube at the Djerdap gorge, is far from encouraging.

This was yet another find of Srejovic's between 1965 and 1971. It was subsequently moved to a higher level after the Djerdap dam was built.

Today, the site has few visits from tourists, having in mind its significance. Instead of permanent care for its protection and presentation, the exhibits have been covered by a temporary roof for the last 30 years.

Hopefully, the authorities in eastern Serbia will not abandon Felix Romuliana to a similar fate, especially once the UNESCO over the gates of Romuliana proclaims the value that the world attaches to this historic find.