Ancient Thrace: Myth And Reality
September 3-7, 2017, Kazanlak, Bulgaria

History of the archaeological investigations in the region

Prehistoric period

Because of the favorable conditions, offered by Kazanlak Valley, the earliest traces of human habitation here date from the Neolithic Period. Twelve settlement mounds were identified with remains dated to the period from the 6th to the 3rd mill. BC. Regular archaeological investigations were conducted on two sites – the settlement mounds at Kazanlak and Kran.

In 1928, the construction of a school in the village of Gabarevo destroyed a prehistoric settlement mound from the 5th mill. BC – the last, third phase of the Late Chalcolithic culture Kocadermen-Gumelnița-Karanovo VI.

The settlement mound at Kazanlak was investigated in 1967-1971. Some 100 m in diameter and 5 m high, it existed for one millennium, and the remains of 17 settlements accumulated one on top of the other, the earliest from the beginning and the latest from the end of the 6th mill. BC.

In 2003-2005, investigations were carried out of the settlement mound at Kran. The layers belong to the latest stage of the Late Neolithic Period in Thrace and the Early Bronze Age.


The Thracian culture of the 1st mill. BC

In the latter half of the 1st mill. BC, Kazanlak Valley was part of the Odrysian Kingdom. The strategic location, the mild climate, the fertile soils, the abundant waters and the developed communication all favored the state-building processes in the region. Contacts with Greeks and Persians also prompted the political and military consolidation of the Thracians. For these reasons, there are numerous archaeological sites in the Valley from that period.



In 1948-1954, during the construction of Koprinka Dam, an Odrysian urban center  – Seuthopolis – was investigated under the direction of Prof. D. P. Dimitrov and M. Chichikova. The city was located on a low terrace along the river Tundzha that encircles it from the south and the southwest, and from the east flows its tributary Golyama Varovita. The name is not mentioned in the literary sources and became known only after the discovery of the inscription in the so-called Royal Palace.

Seuthopolis had an irregular pentagonal plan and covered five hectares. Its walls were 890 m long, with rectangular towers and bastions. The wall was about two meters thick, with foundations of split stones and mudbrick superstructure, levelled with wooden beams.

The creation of the city was a single act and the principles of the orthogonal planning were observed. The two gates were to the northwest and southwest and, from them, the main streets began – to meet at right angles at the agora. All other streets were parallel to the main ones and delimited the city blocks with the houses. A peripheral street followed the entire length of the city walls. The city had sewers and several wells provided fresh water. The agora occupied a central place and housed the altar of Dionysos, as it is stated in the Seuthopolis Inscription. Public buildings bordered the agora.

The citadel occupied in the northern part of the city, encircled by its own wall with towers. A monumental gate – propylon – led into the courtyard in front of a monumental building, identified as the royal residence. It had a broad portico and several rooms, including a large hall with stuccoed walls, painted in the so-called “structural style”. The base of a staircase was preserved, indicating a second floor. In the Palace, the Seuthopolis Inscription was discovered. As the text stated that one of the four copied should be placed in the temple of the Great Gods, it is presumed that the building served also as a sanctuary.

The houses of Seuthopolis were of the main Greek types – pastas, prostas, and peristyle. The foundations were of split stones on clay, and mudbricks and light constructions were used for the walls. There were wooden pillars and the roofs were covered with roof tiles of mixed Corinthian and Laconian system.

There is evidence about a third gate in the eastern wall that led to the river. Presumably, a river port there served the active trade relations of the city. Most probably, the river Maritsa was also navigable in that period.

An important quantity of imported goods was discovered in the city – amphorae, fine pottery, luxury items, coins, etc. Thasian amphora stamps are most numerous, followed by those of Sinope, Rhodos, and Chios. There are coins of Macedonian rulers – Philip II, Alexander III, Cassander, Lysimachos, etc., and isolated issues of cities like Mesambria, Apollonia Pontica, Ainos, and Lysimachia.

The local coinage of the city was dynastic, of its founder Seuthes III. The small denominations indicate it served the local market and the distribution of the coins delimit the territory under the control of the king.

Seuthopolis existed for a short period of time – from the last quarter of the 4th c. until the middle of the 3rd c. BC or slightly laer.


The necropoleis of Seuthopolis

Along the investigations of the city, excavations were conducted of the two tumular necropoleis in its surroundings, the Three Mounds and the Nine Mounds, together with partial investigations of the flat necropoleis in its immediate vicinity. Both cremation and inhumation were attested; cremations were carried out on the very spot of the grave or away from it. One symbolic burial (cenotaph) was discovered. A variety of burial structures were investigated – simple pits and stone platforms, covered with cairns, graves and tombs built of bricks, urns. Pottery was the commonest grave good, but there were also metal items. Fragments of nine funerary wreaths were unearthed – with gilded wooden rings, bronze leaves, and clay elements. Gold, silver, bronze, and clay adornments were found – earrings, necklaces of beads, and fibulae.


Burial mounds, rich burials, and monumental tombs

Rich aristocratic burials, dated between the late 5th and the middle of the 3rd c. BC, were among the main specific traits of the period of economic and politic prosperity of the Odrysian Kingdom.

Between 1992 and 2006, the Thracological Expedition for Tumular Investigations of G. Kitov excavated some 200 burial mounds that illustrate the funerary practices of the Thracian population of Kazanak Valley in the Iron Age and the Roman Period. Some burials were carried out in simple pits or primitive structures, while in other cases monumental stone tombs and graves were built.

The late 5th c. BC rich burials in the sarcophagus-like graves in the tumuli of Malkata Mogila and Svetitsata illustrate the preparations for the afterlife of the Thracian aristocrats. Among the grave goods, there are insignia of power (signet rings, a golden mask, labryses), weapons and armour (cuirass, spearheads, and swords), and adornments (necklaces, fibulae, etc.).

Of major significance are the 17 monumental tombs, investigated in the tumuli Ostrusha, Slavchova, Golyama Arsenalka, Sashova, Kran II, Shushmanets, Helvetia, Griffins, Lulcheva, Racheva, Kesteleva, Fartunova, Ploskata, Donkova, Golyama Kosmatka, Tumulus 2 at Dolno Izvorovo, and Oranata. Several more, excavated previously, should be added – Kazanlak, Maglizh, Kran, and Tumuli 1 and 2 at Seuthopolis. Nine of the tombs are completely preserved, two were discovered intact, and four have rich polychrome painted decoration.


Kazanlak Tomb

Undoubtedly, Kazanlak Tomb stands out among the rest. Soldiers, while digging a trench, discovered it by chance on April 19, 1944. The tomb is built on the ancient terrain, with north-south orientation and the entrance from the south. It has a dromos, a rectangular antechamber, and a round burial chamber.

The dromos is built from split stones, and bricks and mortar were used for both chambers. The floors and the walls are coated with several layers of stucco. Murals were painted on the walls in stucco lustro and fresco techniques.

The antechamber has a gabled vault. In accordance with the Ionic order, the walls are divided into several bands, painted in white, black, and red, with the two friezes above them. The main figural frieze depicts military scenes. The center of each one is emphasized by means of two opposing warriors, and, on both sides, infantrymen and galloping cavalrymen rush to the battle. The soldiers wear short chitons and low shoes, with red and blue short cloaks (chlamydes) on the shoulders. They have various helmets and large shields and are armed with a pair of javelins and long curved swords (machairai). The scenes could be related to events from the life of the deceased, or to commemorative games in his honour.

A rectangular entrance, shaped from four stone blocks, leads to the domed chamber. A single wooden door sealed it on the inside. The chamber has a beehive-like dome, sealed on the top with a keystone. The lower half of the walls is decorated with alternating bands in black, white, and red. On the architrave, twelve rosettes alternate with twelve bucrania (bull skulls), decorated with garlands. A Lesbian cyma follows and above it the main figural frieze with heroisation scene.

The central place is reserved for three figures – the noble Thracian with a golden wreath, seated on a low kline, his wife with a diadem and a veil on the head, seated on a high chair, and a tall woman in peplos, holding a tray and advancing towards the couple. The scene is interpreted as a funeral banquet. A procession is depicted on both sides of the central figures. Behind the woman with the peplos, a young man carries a cup and a jug, followed by two female musicians in long chitons. Then come two warriors leading saddled horses. To the left of the noble woman, a woman in long chiton carries a box with gabled lid and a rectangular casket. Another woman follows bringing a light-blue cloak. Behind them, a youth leads four horses, harnessed in a two-wheeled chariot.

Above the frieze, there is an Ionic cornice, dentils, a cord and a red band with eleven lion heads. On the top of the dome, three chasing bigas (two-horse chariots) are depicted. The keystone was decorated with eight-leaf rosette.

The tomb was plundered already in ancient times. In the round chamber, a transport amphora was found, together with fragments of local and imported pottery, gilded clay elements from a wreath, golden round appliques and golden threads, most probably from clothing, bone items, parts of weapons and bridle, pieces of wood and iron nails, probably from a funerary couch, and human remains from two people. In the antechamber, an oenochoe was found together with bones from a horse burial.

Outside the tomb, two ritual fireplaces were discovered with traces from sacrifices – animal bones and pottery. Two pithoi were unearthed on both sides of the round chamber.

The ground plan, the style and the technique of the murals, and the artifacts from Kazanlak Tomb indicate a date in the second quarter of the 3rd c. BC. Because of the general concept, bringing together architecture and painted decoration, and the unique style and skill of the artist, the tomb is a masterpiece of ancient Thracian art. In 1979, the tomb was declared a site of UNESCO’s world heritage.


Golyama Kosmatka

Equally important is the intact tomb, investigated in the tomb in Golyama Kosmatka tumulus. In addition to the rare opportunity to study the entire assemblage of the burial structure with the material remains of the funerary ritual, for the first time it was possible to relate them to a specific person – the Odrysian ruler Seuthes III, founder of Seuthopolis.

The tomb has a monumental façade and three chambers – one rectangular with double pitch cover, one round domed one, and a sarcophagus-like chamber, carved from a 60-ton monolithic granite block.

In the early 3rd c. BC, a noble Thracian was buried in the central chamber, and a horse was sacrificed in the antechamber. The inventory is extremely rich, consisting of personal belongings and grave goods: golden wreath, golden cup, a set of golden fittings for a bridle, iron sword in a scabbard with gilded ornaments, bronze greaves, spearheads, and bronze and alabaster vases. Three artifacts are of particular importance – a bronze helmet, a silver juglet, and a silver cup, inscribed with the name ΣΕΥΘΟΥ – “[belonging] to Seuthes”.

After the funeral, the entrances to the chambers were sealed, and a 13-meter-long corridor was added in front of the façade; it had stone walls and wooden roof. When the tomb was sealed, the corridor was set on fire and filled up with the collapsed mound. At seven meters from the entrance, the head of a bronze statue, a Hellenistic masterpiece, was buried.

The discovery of four bronze coins of Seuthes III in the corridor, the close similarity between the features of the bronze head and the portrait on the coins of the Thracian ruler, and the three inscribed artifacts in the tomb made the discovered G. Kitov suggest that this is the tomb of this Odrysian king and founder of Seuthopolis.


Ostrusha, Golyama Arsenalka, Griffins Tumulus, Helvetia, Shushmanets

In Ostrusha tumulus near Shipka, a monumental 4th c. BC monumental structure with funerary and cult functions was investigated. Six rooms, one of them a sarcophagus-like chamber, were built, covering 100 square meters. In front of the structure, a large ritual pile was discovered, consisting of fragmentary vases and architectural elements.

The sarcophagus-like chamber was carved from a monolithic granite block, weighing more than 60 tons. The ceiling is decorated with dozens of coffers, painted with exquisite portraits (probably of the members of the aristocratic family), scenes with human and animal figures, struggling animals, and floral and geometric motifs.

The tomb was plundered already in ancient times, with only the southwestern chamber left intact. It contained a horse with rich silver bridle fittings, a gilded collar-pectoral, and two silver vases.

In Golyama Arsenalka tumulus, a tomb from the mid-4th c. BC was discovered. It has a monumental façade, a rectangular antechamber, and a domed chamber. The entrances to the chambers had double stone doors. A funerary couch was placed opposite the entrance of the main chamber. The tomb was plundered in ancient times, and the bones of a horse, fragments of a gilded pectoral, and two small golden ornaments were found in the antechamber.

In the Griffins Tumulus, a tomb was excavated, consisting of a corridor and two chambers. It has a monumental façade, decorated with two pilasters and a pediment, framing the entrance. To the façade, a long open corridor was added. Only above the façade itself, there was a shed with pan and cover tiles.

The entrances to the antechamber and the chamber were closed with double stone doors. The rectangular antechamber has a double-pitch cover of large bocks, and the burial chamber has an elegant dome. Opposite the entrance, there is a funerary couch of stone slabs. In front of it, there is a stone step with carved lion paws. The tomb dates from the 4th c. BC and was plundered already in ancient times – only two golden beads were found.

The tomb in Helvetia tumulus dates from the middle of the 4th c. BC. It has a long a broad corridor, antechamber, and burial chamber. The walls of the corridor are made of split stones. The antechamber and the chamber are rectangular in plan, with arched double-pitch cover. The walls and the floor are plastered with fine mortar, with incised horizontal and vertical grooves, as if the walls were built of large marble blocks. The entrance to the chamber could be closed with double stone doors that had a locking mechanism on the inside. There is a plastered funerary couch opposite the entrance. The remains of the last burial were plundered already in ancient times, and the intact skeleton of a sacrificed horse was investigated in the antechamber.

The tomb in Shushmanets tumulus is a masterpiece of the Thracian architecture. It consists of a corridor, a façade, an antechamber, and a round chamber. The corridor was built of fieldstones and split stones, and had wooden roof with roof tiles. In ancient times, the façade had a pediment, as a half-palmette antefix was found during the excavations.

The antechamber is rectangular, covered with barrel-shaped corbel vault, with an Ionic column in the middle. The remains of four sacrificed horses and two dogs were found in the antechamber.

Above the entrance to the burial chamber, there is a pediment, carved in relief, with a palmette acroterion and two antefixes at the corners. On the inside of the entrance, two coffered stone doors were mounted, decorated with incised stylized solar disks, painted in red.

 The burial chamber has a round plan and a dome. In the center, beneath the keystone, rises a Doric column. The walls are divided in three horizontal zones, the first one with seven Doric half-columns.

The façade and both chambers were coated in lustrous white plaster, preserved mainly in the round chamber. The tomb dates from the 4th c. BC.

The high concentration of such monuments in the relatively small area of Kazanlak Valley confirms one more time the existence of an important political center. Most of them could be related directly to Seuthopolis, while others indicate an earlier – or later – center.

In the 1960s, the tumular necropolis at Dolno Sahrane was investigated by Prof. L. Getov. Five mounds were excavated, revealing several phases. The earliest graves in flexed position date from the Early Bronze Age. Several burials date from the 6th-5th c. BC, and the latest is a cremation burial from the late 5th – early 4th c. BC.

In the 1970s, the team of M. Domaradzki conducted investigations of a settlement and necropolis in Atanasitsa locality near the village of Tazha. The settlement was largely disturbed during land cultivation. The pottery from the site was contemporary with the finds from the tumuli. Intriguing burial practices were revealed. The main rite was cremation; the pyres were built in the tumuli and were reused multiple times. The graves were simple pits, often encircled in stone arches or circles. The inventory consisted mainly of pottery and weapons. The settlement and the necropolis existed in 2nd/1st c. BC – 2nd/3rd c. AD. They are important as they reveal the characteristics of the Thracian culture in the period of the establishment of the Roman rule.


The Thracian culture of the Roman Period in Kazanlak Valley

Thrace became a Roman province in AD 45. During the Early Empire, Augusta Traiana was the closest large administrative center. In Kazanlak Vally, there were probably small satellite settlements, as indicated by the excavated burial mounds from the Roman Period. They are clustered mainly in the eastern half of the valley. The local Thracians continued their ancestral tradition to bury their dead under mounds, and the cremation was the predominant rite. In the 1960s, several mounds were investigated near the villages of Dabovo and Tulovo. They date from the period between the late 1st and the late 2nd c. AD. The earlier ones had rich inventory that illustrates a combination between the Thracian traditions and personal items that were typical of the Roman way of life, indicating the role of the Thracian aristocracy in the Roman provincial administration.

In the late 1990s, several tumuli from the 1st c. BC – 3rd c. AD were investigated near the villages of Maglizh and Tarnichene. The rite was cremation, most often on the spot. The mounds covered the grave pits, but also fireplaces, remains of ritual meals, stone piles and arches, etc. the grave goods were typical of the period, with a few luxury items. Food offerings and libations were practiced, and the mounds were constructed in several stages, the last one associated with the deposition of several ceramic vases.

The religious beliefs of the local population are illustrated by three sanctuaries of the Thracian Horseman at the villages Kran and Viden, dating from the 2nd-4th c. AD. In 1969, during construction works near Kran, 10 km to the north of Kazanlak, a deposit of 69 marble votive tablets of the Thracian Horseman was unearthed. Some 200 m to the east, stone walls and roof tiles were found, probably from the sanctuary, and some 200 m to the southwest, remains of a settlement were detected, probably to which the sanctuary belonged. The style and the execution of the tablets, as well as the inscriptions on them indicate that the sanctuary existed in the second half of the 2nd c. and the early 3rd c. AD.

In the early 20th c., villagers on several occasions brought votive tablets, found in their fields near Viden, at 12 km to the west of Kazanlak. In 1959, excavations began at the spot and revealed a two-partite rectangular building. It had walls of stones on mortar, coated with fine plaster and painted with polychrome decoration. Fragments of monochrome pottery indicated ritual activity already in per-Roman times. The archaeological materials date the heyday of the sanctuary to the 3rd c. AD; it was still functioning in the 4th c., and was destroyed by the end of it.

 In all the sanctuaries, a local deity was worshipped, depicted as a horseman and identified as Apollo in inscription. In the two sanctuaries at Kran, Apollon bears two different epithets – Zerdenos (Ζερδηνος) and Teradenos (Τηραδενος). Marsias, Venus, Asclepius, Hygeia, Heracles, Telesphorus, Daphne were also among the depicted mythological figures. The Horseman-Apollo was worshipped as healer and protector from evil and misfortunes.


Field surveys, GIS

The scope of the archaeological investigations in Kazanlak Valley is well beyond excavations only. Also important are the field surveys, aimed at identifying new sites. They were pioneered by G. Tabakova-Tsanova and M. Domaradzki. In the 1970s, evidence about archaeological sites was collected from the western parts of the valley. A new stage took place in 1996-1998, when M. Domaradzki and G. Nehrizov organized a total survey with trench excavations to confirm the results.

In 2009, systematic investigations for completing the archaeological map of Kazanlak Valley were started. Mobile and stationary GIS software is used for tracing polygons on the surveyed area. When the results are analyzed in GIS, the limits of the registered sites are defined based on the dispersion of archaeological materials (mainly pottery). Cores with higher concentrations of materials are distinguished. Following the regulations for conservation of the cultural heritage, protective zones are set around each site. The surveys and the subsequent analyses were directed by G. Nehrizov. Seven field campaigns from 2009 to 2015 resulted in the systematic survey of an area of 105 square kilometers, where 910 archaeological sites were registered.