Bulgarian Archaeologists Discover Late Antiquity Outer Fortress Wall, Murals from Ancient Roman City Durostorum

A 3D reconstruction of the fortress of Drastar (today's Silistra, Durostorum in Thracian and Roman times) in the 9th-14th century (most of the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire). Photo: Silistra Regional Museum of History

A 3D reconstruction of the fortress of Drastar (today’s Silistra, Durostorum in Thracian and Roman times) on the Danube River in the 9th-14th century (most of the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire). With respect to the Roman period, however, the latest discovery of the previously unknown outer fortress wall, renders the models incomplete. Photo: Silistra Regional Museum of History

Bulgarian archaeologists conducting rescue excavations in the Danube city of Silistra known as Durostorum (or Dorostorum) in Ancient Thracian and Roman times and as Drastar (or Drustur) during the medieval Bulgarian Empire have discovered a previously unknown Late Antiquity fortress wall and ancient murals.

The newly discovered fortress wall is about 2-2.15 meters wide, and is preserved up to a height of 1.5 meters at some sections, Prof. Georgi Atanasov, an archaeologist from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, has announced, as cited by the Bulgarian state news agency BTA.

Atanasov hypothesizes that at the beginning of the 4th century AD the entire Ancient Roman city of Durostorum might have been surrounded with a previously unknown outer fortress wall.

This allegedly outer fortress wall of Durostorum, which was the headquarters of Ancient Rome’s Legio XI Claudia (Claudius’ 11th Legion) during the entire period of the Late Antiquity (see the Background Infonotes below for more history details), had rectangular towers and was made with very strong red mortar.

The newly discovered outer Late Roman fortress wall is located near the ruins of structures from later time periods: a medieval Bulgarian patriarchal basilica, and the alleged location of the Imperial Danube Palace of the Bulgarian Khans built by Khan (or Kanas) Omurtag, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire in 814-831 AD, reports local news blog Versinaj.

The Silistra archaeologists hypothesize that the existence of an outer fortress wall of the ancient city of Durostorum means it was of essential importance for Rome, and might have been a “symbol city in the Roman Empire".

The fact that Durostorum was never vacated by the elite military unit Legio XI Claudia might also mean that it was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor), instead of the Black Sea city of Tomis, today’s Constanta in Romania, as had been believed until recently.

Atanasov says this hypothesis belongs to Romanian archaeologist Prof. Ioan Piso from the Babes Bolyai University in the city of Cluj-Napoca, pointing out that the capital of a Roman province is supposed to be the headquarters of a major military detachment, while no legion was stationed at Tomis.

Further evidence is the discovery during past excavations of Durostorum by archaeologist Peti Donevski of three Roman inscriptions with the names of the governors of the province of Moesia Inferior.

Atanasov adds that Dorostorum / Drastar, today’s Silistra, has been a regional capital at least five times since the Antiquity, and that in the 10th-11th century AD it might have been the largest city in the medieval Bulgarian Empire.

In addition to the discovery of the allegedly outer Late Antiquity fortress wall, in an Ancient Roman public building from the 2nd century AD the Bulgarian archaeologists have found for the first time at Durostorum / Drastar well preserved wall murals.

The murals are colored in a particular nuance of red known as “Pompeian red" which is named after the rich buildings painted with this color in the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii in Italy, as well as in deep blue, green, and yellow colors.

The Silistra archaeologists are uncovering the murals a fragment at a time, and taking care to preserve each fragment.

They have been conducting rescue excavations in Bulgaria’s Danube city of Silistra, a major urban center with a rich ancient and medieval history, since October 2014 because of the rehabilitation of the city’s water supply and sewerage network, after construction workers came across archaeological layers from Dorostorum / Drastar. The archaeologists are working very deep into the ground, at a depth reaching 6 meters.

So far the archaeologists in Silistra have discovered a total of 20 ancient and medieval structures from Durostorum / Drastar as a result of their rescue excavations. Those include 9th-10th century AD public buildings from the time of the First Bulgarian Empire, a medieval Ancient Bulgar settlement located on the outskirts of the medieval city, and part of the Ottoman Turkish fortifications built after the Ottoman invasion of the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century.

The rescue excavations in Silistra are being conducted by archaeologists from both the Silistra Regional Museum of History, and the branch office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences based in the northeastern city of Shumen whose team in Silistra is led by archaeologist Stanislav Ivanov.

Part of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman and medieval Bulgarian city of Durostorum / Drastar, today's Silistra, on the Danube River. Photo: Silistra Municipality

Part of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman and medieval Bulgarian city of Durostorum / Drastar, today’s Silistra, on the Danube River. Photo: Silistra Municipality

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Durostorum (Dorostorum) – known as Dorostol or Drastar (Drustur) during the periods of the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages – is the precursor of today’s Bulgarian city of Silistra. It was originally founded as an Ancient Thracian settlement on the Lower Danube. In 29 AD, the Romans built there a fortress keeping the settlement’s Thracian name of Durostorum (or Dorostorum). After his victories wars over the Dacians north of the Danube, Roman Emperor Trajan stationed the elite Claudius’ 11th Legion – Legio XI Claudia – at Durostorum, and the fortress remained its permanent seat until the demise of the Roman Empire. In 169 AD, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD), Durostorum was made a Roman city – a municipium. Between the 2nd and the 4th century AD, it was a major urban and military center of the Roman Province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor), and a major Roman stronghold against the barbarian invasions. The earliest 12 Christian saints from the territory of today’s Bulgaria are Roman soldiers executed in Durostorum during the Great Persecution of Emperor Diocletian between 303 and 313 AD, including St. Dasius and St. Julius the Veteran. In 388 AD, today’s Silistra became the seat of a Christian bishopric. Roman general Flavius Aetius (391-454 AD), who is known as “the last of the Romans" for his army’s victory over the Huns in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD, was born in Durostorum. During the barbarian invasions of Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars the city was ransacked several times. It was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD).

The Slavs settled in Durostorum around 590 AD, and named it Drastar (Drustur). The city became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) around 680 AD. Bulgarian Khan (or Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD) is known to have built there a large imperial palace known as the Danube Palace of Bulgarian Khans where later Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD) resided in 896-897 AD. In 895 AD (during the Bulgarian-Hungarian War of 894-896 AD), the Magyars (Hungarians), allies of Byzantium, besieged the Bulgarian army under the personal command of Tsar Simeon I the Great in the fortress of Drastar but were repulsed. The next year the Magyars were decisively defeated by the Bulgarians in the extremely fierce Battle of Southern Buh (in today’s Ukraine) which eventually led their tribes to retreat to the west and settle in the region of Pannonia essentially founding today’s Hungary.

During the later years of the First Bulgarian Empire the region around today’s Silistra was known for its rock monasteries. In 927 AD, Drastar became the seat of the first internationally recognized Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Damyan. In 969 AD, it was captured by Knyaz Sviatoslav I of Kiev, the ruler of Kievan Rus in 945-972 AD, but two years later it was conquered by Byzantium under Emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976 AD) in the Battle of Dorostolon, and renamed Theodoropolis, after military saint Theodore Stratelates. In 976 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Samuil (Samuel) (r. 977/997-1014 AD) regained the city until 1001 AD when it was again conquered by the Byzantine Empire.

Drastar was a metropolitan’s residence and a major fortress during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD). In 1279 AD, under Tsar Ivailo (r. 1277-1280), Drastar withstood a three-month siege by the Mongols. It was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1388 AD (ca. 1400 AD, according to some sources), and turned into a major Ottoman fortress. Subsequently, Silistra has remained a major urban center in the Lower Danube region.