Introduction to the Archaeology & History of Bulgaria

Looking through the skênê of the ancient theatre of Plilippopolis onto the city of Plovdiv. © Kyle Taylor - Wikipedia

When it comes to archaeological destinations around the World, it is probably safe to bet that Bulgaria would not spring to mind for too many people. Yet this is more of a reflection of recent historical events in the south eastern Balkans than the quantity and diversity of the archaeology on offer for tourists to that region. Archaeologists there argue that the gold artefacts from a Chalcolithic cemetery in the east are amongst the oldest gold artefacts in the World. Some of the country’s major cities have unequivocal Neolithic archaeological remains – making these some of the oldest cities in Europe. What’s more these Neolithic sites are accessible to the public.

Besides the archaeology from the usual range of prehistoric periods, archaeology in Bulgaria includes Thracian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian and Ottoman. Below is an overview of the archaeology and history of Bulgaria, making specific reference (in bold) to sites that are open to the public and museum collections.

Red – prehistory & Thracian; Green – Roman; Purple – Medieval; Yellow – historic; Blue – museums & theme parks

Prehistory

At the southeastern corner of Europe, Bulgaria looks towards Asia Minor. Some of the earliest European evidence for farming is found here as the new crops and domestic animals spread from the Near East through modern day Turkey. The Bulgarian Neolithic begins around 6000 BC, certainly in the south of the country, and there are some world renowned Neolithic remains.

A reconstructed Neolithic house at the Antique Village near Varna.

A reconstructed Neolithic house at the Antique Village Complex in Neofit Rilski, Varna in north east Bulgaria. © Treasure

At Stara Zagora there are two intact Neolithic houses which were preserved as they were burnt down some time during the sixth millennium BC. You can see the layout of the buildings with intact kitchen, fireplace, ceramic vessels and quern stones for grinding grain. The houses are the best preserved Neolithic dwellings in Europe and are displayed in exactly the same location as they were found, in their own museum.

Around 5000 BC the people living in modern Bulgaria began to experiment with metalworking, specifically the working of copper and gold. Fine copper objects and vessels were exported to the territories to the north around the coast of the Black Sea. This probably led to differences in power and prestige in society. The world famous cemetery from Varna on the Black Sea is one such example. In 1972, 280 graves were found showing the burial of a whole community. Some graves had very few if any grave goods whilst others had many rich objects. This probably reflects different social status and power between individuals.

The richest of the graves was a male aged 40 to 50 years old and had over 1000 objects, 980 of which were gold, including beads, rings, bracelets and even a penis sheath. The cemetery dates from around 4500 BC and is one of the earliest signs in Europe of the great displays of wealth and power using metalwork in burials that spreads across the rest of Europe over the following centuries. The findings from this cemetery have been put on display in Varna Archaeological Museum, which includes many reconstructions of some of the richest graves showing the layout of finds around the skeletons.

Greeks & Thracians

The Thracians fill the history books of this area during the first millennium BC. They are first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as allies of the Trojans during the Trojan War. Many ancient Greek myths are set in the Thracian lands such as the exploits of Jason and the Argonauts and the story of Orpheus in the Underworld. The connection between these people and the Greeks came through the Greek trading colonies around the coast of the Black Sea from the seventh century BC. Modern cities like Varna and Burgas began life as trading colonies through which much of the influence of Greek culture passed to the Thracian elites. It was the Thracian tribes who provided the raw materials such as grain and slaves that the Greeks were looking for. To the Greeks, the Thracians were great warriors, skilled in fighting on horseback and indeed some Thracian cavalry units fought alongside Alexander the Great.

The archaeology of the Thracians used to be all about their skill as metalworkers and if you go to any Bulgarian museum you will be able to see this for yourself. The most impressive examples can be seen in the National Historical Museum in Sofia where the Panagyurishte and Letnitsa treasures are on display. Other regional museums with significant examples are at Vratsa and Ruse. At Ruse you can see the Borovo Treasure which is a group of ceremonial vessels probably used at a lavish wedding ceremony. The three silver rhyta have bases depicting a sphinx, horse and bull respectively. The jug is decorated with scenes from the wedding of Dionysus who was a favourite deity for the Thracians.

The Thracian tomb at Aleksandrovo, in south east Bulgaria.

Since the 1980s there have been excavations on some of the largest burial mounds and these have produced a number of world renowned tombs, most of which date from the fourth and third centuries BC. They represent the wealthiest and most powerful sector of Thracian society and some of the individuals buried can be named from the Greek sources. The finest tombs are at Kazanlak and Sveshtari where the quality of stone sculpture and wall painting inside the tombs is incredibly high. Whilst a number of Thracian places are mentioned in the Greek and Roman sources there is very little in the way of urban settlements or royal palaces for the visitor to see. The town of Seuthopolis was revealed in 1948 but quickly covered up by the waters of the Koprinka Reservoir. It was established by the Thracian king Seuthes in the fourth century BC. More recently the historical town of Helis, capital of the Getae in the third century BC has been located in northeastern Bulgaria close to the tomb at Sveshtari.

Other Thracian sites well worth a visit are the megalithic sanctuaries. The most famous of these is in southern Bulgaria at Perperikon where recent excavations have shown the rocky hilltop to have been occupied for thousands of years. The main finds here were remains of a Roman palace and fortress but there is also Thracian evidence and the archaeologists working on the site has suggested it is the historical Temple of Dionysus. It is also possible to visit the Devil’s Throat cave in the Rhodope Mountains which is reputed to be the site where Orpheus descended into the underworld to rescue his bride, Eurydice.

Romans

The Thracian lands south of the River Danube were taken into the Roman Empire during the first century AD and the provinces of Thrace, Lower and Upper Moesia became an important part of the eastern Roman Empire. The area was close to Constantinople which grew in importance after the fourth century AD. There were well established port towns on the Black Sea and trade routes from here through Serdica (Sofia) to central Europe and the Adriatic. The Danube was the northern frontier of the Eastern Empire for centuries and was the base for military garrison and campaigns into Dacia (southern Romania). These are the sites that make up the Danubian Limes.

Fortifications from the Roman occupation of Serdica beneath modern-day buildings in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Remains of the wall that surrounded Roman Serdica, modern-day Sofia. © Apostoloff

There are Roman remains all over Bulgaria. The main cities of Varna, Plovdiv and Sofia were all Roman cities but the level of preservation of the ruins is variable. In recent years the Roman remains in Sofia have been excavated during the building work for the new metro system. There are some good displays at the Serdica Metro station. In Plovdiv there is a fine Roman theatre which was discovered in the 1970s and is well worth a visit. It is even used for concerts. The most impressive Roman remains in Varna are the Roman baths, which are open to the public and in some places the ruined walls have been incorporated into gardens for apartment dwellers in this tightly packed part of the city.

To get a good feel for the Roman heritage it is probably best to visit places like Nikopolis ad Istrum where there has been no later occupation and the visitor is free to wander around the ruins which are set in quiet open countryside. Another fine Roman city can be visited at Hisar, north of Plovdiv which was a walled Roman spa town. The city walls are still largely intact and hugely impressive. The Roman provinces of Moesia and Thrace played a big part in the later history of the empire as it was here, especially in Lower Moesia, that groups of Goths, Huns and other invading groups crossed from the fourth century AD. At first, the Goths were settled by agreement in the areas that are now northeastern Bulgaria. For example Theoderic the Great who later conquered Italy and set up his base in Ravenna ruled from the Roman town of Svishtov on the Danube.

In the fourth and fifth centuries they clashed with the Roman armies and despite Justinian’s refortification of the frontier along the Danube. By the sixth and seventh century most of the Roman towns had been destroyed or abandoned. Other groups arrived here during this time leading to a dramatic ethnic and cultural mixing between immigrants and locals. By the later seventh century a strong elite group had emerged in the northeast of the country. They established their capital at Pliska on the north side of the mountain passes that took trade and travellers between the Danube and along the Black Sea Coast to Constantinople. In 681 their state and its king were recognised by the Byzantine Empire. They called themselves Bulgarians and for many this date marks the beginning of Bulgarian history.

First & Second Bulgarian Empires

In the middle ages, there were two great Bulgarian empires. The first empire ruled from the seventh to the tenth centuries and the second from the twelfth to the fourteenth. They controlled lands that extended across the Balkans from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and the Aegean and far north of the Danube into modern Romania and Hungary. They were neighbours to the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople and several times defeated the Byzantine armies in battle. Although pagan for the first two centuries, the Bulgarian Tsars became Christian in the eighth century. They established an independent Bulgarian Orthodox church and sponsored a new alphabet, Cyrillic, that was later adopted by other Slavic countries including Russia and Serbia. The two early capitals, Pliska and Veliki Preslav, became centres of culture and the arts as well as being political and military strongholds. Both sites have extensive ruins which are laid out to visitors in archaeological reserves. You can walk around the royal palaces, churches and fortresses of both sites, which are within 20 km of each other close to the city of Shumen.

The rock carved horseman near the village of Madara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Carved into a 100 metre high cliff face near the village of Madara is a horseman thrusting a spear into a lion lying at his horse’s feet, with his dog running after the horse.

Another nearby site, Madara, is famous for its stone carving of a horse and rider, recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage place. Here the political exploits of the Bulgarian Khans are recorded in Greek script etched into a rock face alongside the stone horseman, itself supposed to represent the victories of the Bulgarian armies. Madara was also a pre-Christian sacred centre with a series of temples and shrines on the same site as a much earlier Thracian cave sanctuary.

The later capital city was at Veliko Tarnovo, a beautiful and dramatic setting for a town. This place has been continually occupied and it is a wonderful place to visit with its winding streets, art galleries and cafes. The old medieval castle and royal residence is known as the Tsaravets and has been reconstructed for visitors. The restorations were made in 1981 and timed to coincide with the 1300th anniversary of the first Bulgarian state in 681. In Veliko Tarnovo and neighbouring Arbanasi the medieval Christian heritage of Bulgaria is well preserved in many fine orthodox churches and monasteries. There is also a good archaeological museum. One of the great achievements of the Bulgarian church was the Tarnovo School of icon painting and examples of the work of this group of painters can be seen at the rock monastery of nearby Ivanovo, another UNESCO world heritage site. Further north of here is the medieval town of Cherven which has been excavated thoroughly over the last decades. The dramatic setting of this relict medieval walled town makes it well worth a visit. Another place where the quality and skill of the church painters can be seen is at a little church on the outskirts of Sofia at Boyana. The wall paintings here are outstanding, and it too has world heritage status as does the iconic Rila Monastery in the mountains south of Sofia. The archaeological discoveries from the major medieval centres like Cherven, Pliska, Preslav and Tarnovo are on display in the regional museums at Shumen, Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo but also in the National Historical Museum in Sofia.

Ottomans

For four hundred years Bulgaria was under the control of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled from Constantinople. A legacy of this period is some of the finest historic mosques in the Balkans such as the Tombul mosque at Shumen and Sofia’s Banya Bashi mosque. This period in Bulgarian history has not been promoted as effectively as other periods and there are relatively few Ottoman heritage places.

The stone bridges that were built across steep sided river gorges in the southern mountains were designed to help the traffic of long distance trade across the empire. Even though they are often called Roman bridges they are in fact Ottoman in date. In some places the evidence for the cultural integration of the Ottoman period has been preserved such as at Demir Baba Teke, the seventeenth century tomb of an Islamic mystic which is still a shrine for both Christians and Muslims.

Some rural towns and villages have been restored and preserved as architectural reserves and in these places like Shiroka Laka, Smolyan and Koprivshtitsa there are good examples of traditional houses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These places fall within the Ottoman period but are usually presented as Bulgarian National Revival Period houses because they are associated with the rise of Bulgarian nationalism at this time. This eventually led to independence in 1878.

The monasteries were also bases for the awakening of nationalism and there are many to visit all over the country, each with their own stories of having sheltered famous revolutionaries such as Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev. The independence movement and the fight against the Ottoman Empire is perhaps the time in Bulgarian history which is most visible for tourists travelling around regional towns and villages. Most small museums have a display or monument devoted to independence, the war and the National Revival period that preceded it.

September 9th 1944

September 9th 1944 is another key date. On that day the Soviet Red Army crossed into Bulgaria from the north and this effectively began the next phase of the country’s history as a communist state, closely allied to the USSR. There are some fascinating monuments from this time all over the country and many of them are so dramatic and ambitious that they are well worth a visit. Most of these monuments are historical as they commemorate key events in Bulgarian history.

The Buzludzha Monument built by the communists for their headquarters.

The Buzludzha Monument on a crisp autumn day. © Mark Ahsmann

The Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument in Shumen is a massive concrete and stone sculptural edifice that sits on top of the hill above the town and can be seen for miles. It is a monument that can be explored as visitors walk inside it to see sculptures and frescos depicting scenes from medieval history. A lot of these monuments were built in the early 1980s to commemorate 1300th anniversary of the first Bulgarian state in 681 AD. There is another in Veliko Tarnovo dedicated to the Tsars who ruled from this old capital. In Kalofer on the south side of the Balkan mountains is a huge statue to Hristo Botev, one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement against the Ottoman state who lost his life in the April Uprising of 1876. As with many of these monuments it is raised up high on a hillside and approached from below by hundreds of stone steps.

In Sofia the monuments are more political, namely the bronze and stone statues to the Red Army and nearby another massive monument to celebrate the role of the communist partisans in the fight against the Nazis in World War Two.

There is one monumental building from the communist period that dwarfs the rest. It is not on any official heritage schedule but has become very popular with urban explorers and lovers of dark heritage in recent years. Bozludhza is the abandoned headquarters of the communist party, a huge flying saucer in concrete that sits on the top of a mountain in the Balkan range not far away from Shipka Pass. Visitors can walk round the outside of the building and see the recent graffiti which reads, ‘Forget Your Past’ in huge letters on the blocked up entrance.

Recommended books on the archaeology and history of Bulgaria

The following books about the archaeology and history of Bulgaria are available on Amazon.com (see the same set of books on Amazon.co.uk):

Finding the best Archaeology & History sites & museums in Bulgaria

Archaeological & Historical Sites & Museums in Bulgaria

North West
Vidin, Montana, Vratsa

North Central
Pleven, Lovech, Veliko, Turnovo, Gabrovo, Ruse

North East
Varna, Dobrich, Shumen, Turgovishte, Razgrad, Silistra

South West
Grad Sofia, Sofia, Blagoevgrad, Pernik, Kyustendil

South Central
Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Khaskovo, Pazardzhik, Smolyan, Kurdzhali

South East
Burgas, Sliven, Yambol