Roman Tomb Forgotten by Archaeologists (Re)discovered by Workers in Bulgaria's Varna

Roman Tomb Forgotten by Archaeologists (Re)discovered by Workers in Bulgaria’s Varna

The entrance of the rediscovered Roman family tomb in downtown Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT 2

The entrance of the rediscovered Roman family tomb in downtown Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT 2

An Ancient Roman tomb located in the very downtown of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna has been discovered by accident during construction works by workers rehabilitating the water pipes and sewers of the central city square.

The Roman tomb was situated outside of the fortress walls of the Ancient Greek colony of Odessos, the precursor of today’s city of Varna, which later became the Roman city of Odessus as Rome conquered the Balkan Peninsula.

The exciting find, however, is not brand new. It turns out that the Ancient Roman tomb in Varna was initially found at the end of the 19th century by the founders of contemporary archaeology in Bulgaria, the Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel Skorpil and Hermann Skorpil, reports Bulgarian National Television channel BNT 2.

Nonetheless, after it was first studied, the Roman tomb was sealed, and had been virtually forgotten, and as the city of Varna grew over the recent decades it remained under the Nezavisimost (Independence) Square. As construction workers have stumbled upon it during the sewer and water pipes rehabilitation, they have technically rediscovered it for archaeologists, the public, and the local authorities who are now considering ways to take advantage of the convenient location to turn the archaeological site into a tourist attraction.

Blueprints of the Roman tomb drawn by Bulgarian archaeologist Mirko Mirchev in the 1960s have been preserved, says Teodor Rokov, an archaeologist from the Varna Regional Museum of History.

In his words, the ancient tomb consists of three elements – a funeral chamber, a corridor, and a staircase whose entrance was at the level of the terrain at the time the tomb was built.

“The design of the walls is very interesting. Its planning is peculiar. Most of the Roman tombs – whether they are on the Italian Peninsula or in the Roman provinces – are either rectangular, or round whereas the Odessos tomb that we have here is octangular. Each side of the octagon-shaped tomb consists of a vertical wall which the ceiling is a dome,” explains Rokov.

“It is also interesting that each one of the octagon walls has a niche built into it in the form of an arch. It has been suggested that those niches served to accommodate images of the forebears of the tomb owner which means it used to be a family tomb,” he elabotes.

The archaeologist also notes that the only other similar Ancient Roman tomb in Bulgaria is the one near the southern Black Sea town of Pomorie; it, too, has niches built into its walls; however, unlike the tomb in Odessos (Varna), the Roman tomb in Anchialos (Pomorie) is round.

Rokov points out that the location of the Varna tomb on the contemporary downtown square is a unique opportunity for exhibiting the archaeological site to the city residents and the thousands of international tourists visiting the largest Bulgarian Black Sea city every year.

Blueprints of the rediscovered Roman tomb in Varna based on Karel and Hermann Skorpil's excavations in the late 19th century explaining its octangular design. Photo: TV grab from BNT 2

Blueprints of the rediscovered Roman tomb in Varna based on Karel and Hermann Skorpil’s excavations in the late 19th century explaining its octangular design. Photo: TV grab from BNT 2

The Ancient Roman family tomb is actually located between the Varna theater and the regional office of the Bulgarian State Archive.

Archaeologists have explained this meant it was outside the fortress wall of the ancient city of Odessos. The plot around the tomb that is eligible for archaeological excavations has an area of about 100 square meters.

This is the place where the necropolis of the ancient city of Odessos was once located. Other ancient tombs have been excavated not far from the location; however, unlike it, they are shaped like rectangular wells with vertical walls. One such tomb is exhibited under a glass cover in the basement of a hotel in downtown Varna.

According to Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, director of the Varna Regional Museum of History, after it was explored and sealed back in the day, the tomb could be accessed through a passage and a door. However, the passaged was destroyed with time, and the toom would fill with rain water.

“It would be very nice if the tomb could be cleaned up and become more popular,” says Pletnyov, adding that he has already discussed the possibilities for the rehabilitation of the archaeological site with Varna Deputy Mayor Hristo Ivanov.

In his words, the designers of the rehabilitated downtown square in Varna now can offer options about how to incorporate the Roman tomb in the square. One option would be to display the tomb under a glass dome. Another option is to allow visitors access inside it.

Background Infonotes:

Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Eneolithic Varna Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts dating back to the 5th millenium BC.

Ancient Odessos is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC. However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The v(val) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.