Ajdovski gradec, the place that France Prešeren, the greatest Slovene poet, chose for his epic poem Krst pri Savici, in which he describes Christianization in his own poetic way, is nowadays a rich archaeological site. We could easily say that the place is the symbol of iron making in Bohinj. It was iron making that influenced the development of the region significantly more than 2500 years ago.
Several archaeological findings reveal that Bohinj was settled as early as in the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have found out that the oldest settlements date back to the 7th century B.C. Based on various findings on Ajdovski Gradec, the small hill at the entrance of the village of Bohinjska Bistrica was settled continuously for the whole millennium, between 6th century B.C. and 7th century A.D. The iron trade was conducted through the southern Bohinj mountains to the coastal region.
These days we know that Bohinj was a part of the cultural group of Sveta Lucija with its centre in Most na Soči. Later, in 1st century B.C., when Bohinj was a part of Noricum (a Celtic kingdom), the region was included in the iron trade. At the time of the Roman Empire, Bohinj was not as densely populated; however it started to gain greater significance after the fort – some kind of a refuge – at Ajdovski gradec was built. The region of Bohinj was located away from main paths and thus represented a refuge for aborigines that fled from invading barbarous nations at the time of migrations. Among the aborigines were also the ancestors of Slovenians that probably leaned the iron art from the aborigines.
We do not know much about the Middle Ages in Bohinj. This is the time when the name of Bohinj was first mentioned in written documents, but unfortunately, there are not many actual data about iron making in this period. However, according to oral tradition, despite the fact that it lacks historical background, the Carinthian duchess Hema owned ironworks near Nomenj (St Hema’s furnace) in the 11th century, so we can guess that iron making was still present at the time.
Ironmaking and ironworks were in full swing during the 16th century in Bohinj. Ironworks was founded in Bistrica on Pozabljeno and in Stara Fužina (Staro kladvo). The iron production had changed due to growing demands thanks to Italian blacksmiths who moved to Bohinj from the Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Despite these facts, the ironworks encountered problems with profitability and for this reason, their owners often changed.
Žiga Zois, a culture enthusiast, mineralogist, metallurgist and an economist, bought the ironworks in 1777. He devoted himself eagerly to improve the economic position of the ironworks in Bohinj. The old narrow road through Štenge, that connected Bohinj with the rest of the Carniolan region, was widened under his guidance – this is how the 3-metre-wide road on the right bank of the Sava River came to life. Trying to improve the ore supply in the ironworks, he introduced a new order to the mining in Bohinj. He was also responsible for the new bridge over the Mostnica River, known as the Devil’s Bridge today.
In addition to that, he encouraged the first climb of Mount Triglav, hoping to find new ore deposits. He decided to sponsor the ascent, and on 26 August 1778 four locals from Bohinj were the first men to climb the highest mountain in Slovenia. Despite his numerous actions, Zois did not manage to compete with steal coming from Sweden and England that was getting cheaper by the day. Furthermore, the development of ironworks was greatly hindered by the French wars. Žiga Zois was forced to leave his establishments to his nephew Karl, who later left them to his wife Serafina, and finally, the ironworks were sold to a Carniolan industrial company that managed them until the great fire of 1891 when the ironworks of Bohinj burned to the ground. After the fire, iron production was transferred to Jesenice – this represented the end of the iron making period in Bohinj that lasted more than 2500 years.