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Bulgaria: Archeological Finds Reveal Thracian Civilization

This year in Bulgaria has seen spectacular archaeological discoveries, which many experts believe will yield important information about the cultures which thrived in what is now Bulgaria during ancient times. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky talked about the finds with one of Bulgaria's leading archaeologists.

Sofia, 4 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Over the course of the past summer, two separate sites in southern Bulgaria were opened up to rich archeological finds. Experts believe that they will shed light on a period when Thracian civilization -- which began around the beginning of the first millennium BC -- was at its peak in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, the time from which the newly discovered sites date.

The former Thracian civilization was bounded to the north by the Danube, to the east by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and to the south by the Aegean Sea. About two-thirds of the former empire now lies on territory belonging to Bulgaria, with the remainder in European Turkey, including the Gallipoli peninsula, and the Greek province of Thrace.

Often disunited by quarrels among rival kings, the Thracians were nonetheless renowned as excellent fighters and valued by the Romans as mercenaries. They had a relatively advanced culture famous for its poetry and music, but they did not keep written records. Much of what is known about them comes from limited information revealed by Greek and Roman writers like Herodotus and Suetonius.

Nikolai Ocharov, head of the archeology department at Sofia's New Bulgarian University, is supervising the investigation of the larger of the two sites found this year. The site is at Perperek in the Rhodopes mountains near the southern Bulgarian town of Kurdjali.

At the time of the find, Ocharov and a team of archeologists were studying a wooded hill where altars dating from the Thracian era had previously been discovered. Both Herodotus and Suetonius mentioned such altars in their writings and said they were used for sacrificing horses, bulls and even human beings.

The archeologists' investigations led to the discovery of what is thought to be a Thracian king's palace under a medieval fortress atop the hill. The multi-storied building is shaped like the Latin letter "L" and approached by a 100-meter-long passage. Ovcharov says it contained many rooms hewn out of the surrounding stone, a ceremonial throne room with a throne fashioned out of the same stone -- which is still easily recognizable -- crypts and staircases.

"Perperek is a cult and religious site from ancient times, but during the fourth and fifth centuries BC it became one of the Thracians' capitals. The architecture, which has been preserved to this day, consists of a monumental palace with a length of more than 80 meters and containing 15 rooms on three or four floors. The surface the palace covers and the city that surrounds it -- which has yet to be excavated -- could be compared with such ancient monuments in Europe as Mycenae."

Ovcharov believes the comparison with Delphi -- the ancient Greek site of mysterious religious rituals where leaders went to consult oracles who revealed the future -- is particularly apt. The Rhodopes mountains were considered a holy place by leaders of the Thracian and adjoining civilizations and many made pilgrimages to them. Ovcharov believes that Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC) may have traveled to Perperek before he set off to conquer the then known world.

Ovcharo says that finds at the site include traces of pottery from the Neolithic age -- that is, the fourth millennium BC -- indicating that the Thracians were not the first people to inhabit the area. Many fragments of Thracian pottery have been found, but Ovcharov says the size of the site means many more discoveries are still to be made.

"Like any important archeological site, this one at Perperek will be studied for years, perhaps decades, to come. I couldn't say precisely how long it will take. But what I can say is that when the excavation works are completed and the site is fully studied, the results will be no less impressive than the Acropolis [in Athens]."

The other major discovery this year was the grave of what is believed to be a Thracian ruler. The site, at the village of Starosel near Plovdiv in southern Bulgaria, has also been dated as from the fourth or fifth century BC.

The two-chamber grave is approached by stairs and a corridor. It is surrounded by a wall made out of some 4,000 stone blocks and was hidden under a 20-meter high mound of earth. Within, archeologists found a magnificent trove of relics, including a large gold funerary wreath, other gold jewelry, bronze shields, helmets and swords, and two sets of silver decorations for horses.

The grave and its surroundings are also thought by archeologists to have been an important religious site for Thracians dating from the stone age.

Ovcharov says the excavations at both the Starosel and Perperek sites have been held back by a lack of money. He hopes that both Bulgarian and foreign sponsors willing to make donations for the excavations will contact him.

"The problems linked with Perperek are those of Eastern Europe as a whole now, principally financial ones. Sparse resources are being allotted to culture for easily understandable reasons. That's why, in the first place, we need financial help. Our teams in Bulgaria are good, we have well-trained archaeologists and scientists. That's why what we need is to find more money both in Bulgaria and abroad for this site of international importance."

Ovcharov says that at an international conference in Bulgaria this autumn, U.S. and British archeologists hailed the discoveries as highly significant. He believes, too, that as Bulgaria's cooperation with Greece increases, the importance of the Thracian culture --which straddles many modern borders -- will become increasingly apparent. But for now money is the key need for the archeologists to press on with their work.