Monday, January 08, 2007

View of Ancient Thrace Continues to Evolve with New Archaeological Finds

By Prof. Ivan Marazov
New Bulgarian University

"The biggest people after the Indians,? as Herodotus referred to the Thracians, inhabited the enormous territory from the Aegean Sea in the south to the Carpathian Mountains in the north during the antiquity. It is not known with certainty when these tribes came to the Balkans. The most recent and extremely rich finds of magnificent gold jewellery in the tumuli from Dubene (Central Bulgaria), which were excavated by Martin Hristov, are dated to the end of the second millennium BC. Maybe they were left by the first Indo-European settlers in these lands.

In this context, the appearance of the splendid vessels of the Vulchitrun gold treasure six or seven centuries later does not seem unexpected. These finds mark the gold history of the Thracians ? a people which had disappeared, but which continues to amaze the world more and more with the wealth of its culture.

In the past 50 years, archaeological excavations and accidental finds in Bulgaria made us change radically our notions about the customs, way of life, mythology, architecture and art of the Thracians. Thousands of tumuli conceal under their embankments splendid tombs built of stone or brick, and often decorated with frescoes. A tomb decorated with frescoes made by a local artist during the second half of the 4th century BC was discovered in 2001 near the village of Alexandrovo (Southeastern Bulgaria).
The frescoes present the hero?s royal trials: hunting and military heroic deeds. Most tombs in the ?Valley of the Thracian Kings? in Central Bulgaria were plundered already back in ancient times, but some of them have nevertheless preserved rich funerary offerings. In the summer of 2003, Georgi Kitov excavated a stone tomb in which he discovered a brilliant gold mask from the second half of the 4th century BC, in addition to weapons, silver, bronze and ceramic vessels. During the next season that archaeologist discovered the tomb of the Odrysian ruler Seuthes III, which is dated to the beginning of the 3rd century BC, unplundered and full of precious vessels, articles of adornment, ornamentation to horse trappings, etc.

The images of Medusa and Helios on the marble doors of the tomb show the way to the darkness of the kingdom in the world beyond and the light of eternal life. A bronze head was found in front of the entrance to the tomb, probably a portrait of the king himself, a magnificent work of art of a talented Hellenistic sculptor. One year later, Daniela Agre excavated a big tumulus near Yambol (Southeastern Bulgaria) and found an untouched burial of another Thracian ruler. And there was again a sensation: in addition to the beautiful Greek silver rhytons with scenes on the horn, a silver greave with the mask of a goddess on the knee and mythological scenes around it, made by a local artist, was also found in the grave.
Until then we believed that this type of parade protective weaponry was characteristic only of the northern regions of ancient Thrace. Treasures are the second source, after burials, for studying Thracian art. They are deposits of precious objects belonging to the same or similar types that had been buried in the ground outside any archaeological context. The number of treasures increased dramatically in the 4th century BC ? a time of flourishing and of tumultuous political events that shook the Thracian kingdoms. When the silver treasure from Rogozen (Northwestern Bulgaria) was discovered in 1986, it became clear that such a wealth (165 silver vessels with gilt weighing 20 kilogrammes!) was hardly buried during a flight from an invading enemy. A new ?ritual? hypothesis emerged: the buried treasure marked and guarded the borders of the state territory. This explains why the Thracian word for this ritual deposit has been preserved: pitye, ?buried, sunk.?

The Thracians remained true to that custom until the end of the Roman period, trying to protect their lands against the barbarians invading from the north."

I hope to visit Bulgaria and see these magnificent treasures for myself.