Rucăr - Bran Corridor

Author: E. S. Teodor (IAB)

This pass is undoubtedly the most important mountain passage through the Carpathian Mountains across ages, although it is a rather high one (1262 m, in comparison with Oituz Pass, 866 m).


Fig. 1. The main circulation corridors in the western area of the project.

LegendLimes Transalutanus (dashed line); Dâmbovița Valley (green arrows); Prahova-Timiș Pass; counties (upper case)

Its relevance can be clearly attested at least since the Late Iron Age, as the fortress at Cetățeni (Argeș County) was closing the access along the Dâmbovița Valley towards Rucăr. For the next two millennia it remained the most relevant strategic crossing towards the upper lands when coming from the Lower Danube.

If the mountainous passage itself, between Rucăr and Bran, is only about 31 km long, and only 21 km as the crow flies, the access ways towards the both ends are evenly important.

From Bran there is only one (major) way out, heading Râșnov and the high flat lands of Bârsa Depression, near Braşov.

South of Rucăr the main route is splitting at Dragoslavele, just a few km away: one is going south-southwest towards Câmpulung and Pitești (both hot-spots for both Antique and Middle Ages); another is taking south and southeast, towards Târgoviște, the main capital city of the medieval Wallachia.

As a consequence, the distances of interest for the project are far lengthier: the route between Râșnov and Pitești measuring today 121 km, and that between Râșnov and Târgoviște – 118 km.

HiLands comes as a follow-up project of Limes Transalutanus Project (2014-2017) dealing then only with the monument's extent across the plain, between Danube and Argeș Valley.
As a consequence, the former leader of that team (E. S. Teodor) took over the western sector of HiLands project, focusing on Rucăr-Bran Pass

Fig. 2. Rucăr-Bran corridor in the time of the First World War. Armies of the Central Powers in blue, Romanian Army in red.

In the same area of interest one could find some secondary routes. One of them follows the corridor Prahova-Timiș, the most important for the last century or so, but until late in the modern age this was just a path for horses and small merchandise.

In this case, of smaller communication routes, mostly mountain paths, there is a longer list, but let us mention only one, Plaiul Turcilor (approx. The Turkish Track), located north of Rucăr, detouring Piatra Craiului (King’s Rock) Mts. westward. The pass is not only high (ca 1440 m) but with difficult access, long and possible only by foot, using at best donkeys for heavier loads, and it was used in at least two relevant military clashes: in 1690, when a pretender of the throne of Transylvania, Thököly Imre, backed by Turkish, Tatar and Wallachian forces, crossed unexpectedly the mountain crest and crushed the Austrian army near Zărnești (Zernest); the Austrian never forgot that, and made the same surprising manoeuvre in late 1916, but heading south, turning the left wing of the Romanian army and making it to leave the fortified positions from the mountains without a proper fight (Fig. 2). Plaiul Turcilor is still only a difficult path.

Considering the size of this western area of the project, 6565 sq. km, containing 435 localities, one clearly needs drawing some priorities. Far worse, about 75% of the area is covered with vegetation which obliterates the visibility, mostly woods, but also large natural pastures or (deserted) orchards. As the aerial photography is almost useless for those, the LiDAR is the only realistic approach for enhancing the archaeological knowledge of the area. This is anyway an expensive mean, even if the prices evolved very favourable within the last a few years. The implied costs are referring not only at buying collected airborne data, but also the time for processing data. This requires, again, drawing some priorities.


Fig. 3. The distribution of the archaeological discoveries along the corrridors driving to the Rucăr-Bran pass.
The legend is not given.


Fig. 5. The secondary circulation corridors: the distribution of the Plai place name into the area of study.


The top priority in this area was chosen to be, from the very beginning, the alingment known as Limes Transalutanus, departing from Pitești and reaching Râșnov (from the point of view of studying this section; the old Roman frontier stretches out further, in Oituz Pass).  In the winter 2018-2019 have been acquired and processed LiDAR data for 171 sq. km, comprising the area between Jidova fort (south of Câmpulung) and Fundata (the first village in Transylvania). In the next winter were added 131 sq. km in south (Pitești to Câmpulung) and 66 sq. km in north (between Fundata and Râșnov). We have now (April 2020) LiDAR processed data for 368 sq. km., covering almost fully our designated top priority.

The second major step towards fulfilling the project’s aims is checking data in the field. In the summer campaign 2019 there have been visited many places in the central area of the corridor, for which LiDAR data was available. About some results of those trips we will provide separate files, under the generic of “field missions”. Of course, the current situation – Covid-19 lockdown – makes our previous plans more difficult to accomplish.

Beyond those main activities – which are summarily describing only the core of the project – there are many, “smaller” jobs to do, nevertheless relevant and time consuming. One of them is collecting all known archaeological sites from the perimeter. As one can imagine, this is far from a simple task. The aim of such a task is twofold: first for identifying relevant groups, in order to understand better what a ‘strategical’ position means. Looking at another map (Fig. 3) one can see a cluster of archaeological discoveries about 15 km northeast of Pitești, at the confluence between Râul Târgului and Argeșel streams. As the discoveries are from all temporal layers, it is obvious that the location is important, no matter if we understand the reasons or not. Another cluster of archaeological sites is located on the same stream, Râul Târgului, but 30 km farther, where Câmpulung city is laying. A second reason to do a map of known discoveries is to compare it with LiDAR data (where it is present), in order to classify data as soon as possible. As we shall see (later), the LiDAR data is presenting many new objectives.

Reverse engineering


Dealing with a large geographical area, without chronological limits, is pretty uncomfortable, but it is, in the same time, a real opportunity, because the ‘inverse engineering’ becomes feasible within the historical research. The First World War produced a dramatic clash all along the Southern and the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, pointing out accurately what a ‘strategic point’ is and which are the main gates to defend. As those historical events are better documented than any other previous wars, our knowledge is provided with some certain facts about the sizes of the military bodies, time spent and casualties, as well as the outcomes. The main battles developed in the research area were given in Rucăr-Bran Pass (and along that corridor), Upper Prahova Valley, on the crests from Tatar Pass and around Oituz Pass. Consequently, those are the main areas of interest for our research project, across all ages.
Fig. 4 The main field fortifications in the middle of the Rucăr-Bran Pass, in 1916. LiDAR data.
As expected, many events reported for the First WW can be precisely located on the maps due to LiDAR documentation. Data comparison showed yet that many things are still to be found out, and although that war is better documented than others, there are still a lot of unknown facts to be studied. As the marks of the war are relatively fresh, being one of the latest layers of anthropization in the landscape, they are still relatively easy to find; on the other hand, almost all those marks are made just by dislocating the soil, with few solid constructions, therefore they are quickly decaying and will be far more difficult to find in a future not very distant. Therefore, the LiDAR documentation made within our project is the base of present and future research of the First WW, for the given area (Fig. 4) as a micro-regional example. Unfortunately, today we cannot speak about ‘conflict archaeology’ in Romania, the interest of the professional archaeologists being very low. 

Historical cartography

Going back with the ‘reverse engineering’ one can use the modern cartography, mostly due to the activity of the Austrian Army topographical services, with four editions from the late XVIII to the early XX century, but also Romanian productions from the XX century. The benefits could be of many kinds, for instance the track of the old routes, before modernisation, frontier related facilities (including quarantines), fort places, old names of the landmarks.

Middle Age

Middle Age documents are overwhelmingly many, difficult to tackle by any team, regardless of its profile. Though our team professional profile is rather an archaeological one, reading Mediaeval texts (or their transcription) is still a must-do, as the difficulties of crossing the mountains, no far than three or four centuries ago, become more obvious, along the high relevance of the corridors of circulation for both military and civil purposes. The strong links between the two sides of the mountain, across political borders, are highlighting strong economic bonds and cultural blending, including for communities as different as those of Romanian, German or Hungarian origins. By studying Middle Age documentation it becomes obvious that the connections between the sides of the mountainous ranges were critical for the political influence and welfare of all parties, and this could be a major working hypothesis for older ages, for which such written documents are lesser, when not missing at all.

Roman Age

Roman time is an interesting and different approach of looking at the map (in modern terms!). The Roman strategists were not interested in making from mountains’ crests their borders. Most of the Oriental Carpathians were left outside the frontier, drawn at the mountains’ feet. In the Western Carpathians things were only slightly different, a notable exception being only the so called “Golden Quadrilateral”, where Alburnus Maior (or Roșia Montană) was standing, a highland included in the Roman territory for obvious reasons. The Southern Carpathians were not a frontier, not even an internal one, because they were split between Dacia Superior (the western range) and Dacia Inferior (the eastern range). As a general rule, the administrative inner limits of the Roman Empire were not made following the mountains crests, but the edges of some major river basins, as Mureș (Maris) for Dacia Superior and Olt (Alutus) for Dacia Inferior.


Another ‘secondary’ line of activity is collecting, mapping and interpreting toponymy. We made a collection of 3500 place names, for this western area of the project, using them as dynamic hints for themes like ‘fort’ (Cetate, Grădiște, Priseacă), ‘watching’ (Hotar, Grănicer, Pușcaș, etc), ‘gorges’ (Cheie, Poartă), and so on, in order to understand the geography as stated by locals. Picturing strategic corridors it is also interesting to know where the resources are located (as salt or construction limestone), or which are the secondary corridors of communication, given by the spread of a key word as Plai (paths crossing highlands, See Fig. 5). Currently I am dealing with a word considered clear in historiography, schei, understood as communities of (Middle Ages) Bulgarians, although the spatial distribution is suggesting otherwise.