Archaeologists Unearth Unknown, Mysteriously Abandoned Medieval Byzantine Settlement near Bulgaria’s Velikan
А previously unknown large Byzantine settlement from the High Middle Ages which was mysteriously abandoned by its residents has been unearthed by Bulgarian archaeologists near the southern town of Velikan, Haskovo District, in rescue excavations on the projected route of Lot 2 of the Maritsa Highway.
At the end of May 2015, Stoychev’s team completed its several-month rescue excavations of the outskirts of the settlement where the construction of the Maritsa Highway, which is projected to run from Central Southern Bulgaria to the Bulgarian border with Turkey, is already taking place as of early June 2015.
The archaeologist explains that the Byzantine settlement, whose original name is unknown, also features several homes dating to the 9th century AD.
Its height, however, the 11th-12th century AD, is precisely the period between the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) when the Byzantine Empire conquered all over Bulgaria and ruled over it for a period of 167 years, before the Uprising of Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV restored the Bulgarian state in 1185 AD.
“This is a very large medieval settlement whose outskirts we excavated as part of rescue excavations for the construction of the Maritsa Highway. It is located at the foot and up on a hill, and has a large necropolis. I can say that judging from the homes we excavated there it was a very rich settlement. This is based on preliminary data because we still don’t have data from the comprehensive analysis of the artifacts and ceramics,” explains lead archaeologist Stanimir Stoychev.
In his words, the medieval Byzantine settlement located near Bulgaria’s Velikan, Dimitrovgrad Municipality, features both pit-houses (similar to the so called sunken featured buildings), and stone architecture, with one of the sectors outside the medieval necropolis containing about 40 medieval homes.
The excavated sections on the outskirts of the Byzantine town cover an area of about 7 decares (app. 1.8 acres).
The medieval settlement near today’s Bulgarian town of Velikan is not mentioned anywhere in the known historical sources. It was first identified as a potential archaeological site during terrain exploration along the projected route of the Maritsa Highway in 2012.
While the Byzantine settlement was thriving in the first half of the High Middle Ages, it was completely abandoned at the end of the 12th century AD for a reason that still remains unknown, explains the archaeologist from the Shumen Regional Museum of History.
“I don’t want to make definitive conclusions at this point as to why this settlement was abandonment. There are different possibilities about the cause such as the effect of the Crusades, or a pandemic. We also have evidence of a flooding in this period but that is unlikely to have been the reason for its abandonment because in that case only the low parts of the settlement would have been abandoned,” explains Stoychev.
He adds that a number of other medieval settlements in the entire region, along the Middle Maritsa River Valley, were also abandoned at the about the same time, the end of the 12th century – for example, the medieval settlement discovered in 2009 near the town of Zlatna Livada, Chirpan Municipality, Stara Zagora District.
Stoychev adds that an overarching hypothesis as to what caused the mass abandonment of towns in the Middle Maritsa Valley at the end of the 12th century is yet to be formulated.
As far as the possibility of a pandemic causing a mass exodus is concerned, he notes that analyses of the bones discovered in the medieval necropolis near Velikan can give additional clues about the diseases from which the local population suffered.
The archaeologist also says that the excavated settlement near Velikan had Byzantine population even though there is evidence of Bulgarian presence such as specific forms of pottery typical of the medieval ceramics produced in Northern Bulgaria.
He points out the stormy history of the region of Thrace in the second part of the High Middle Ages, when it was re–conquered by the newly restored Bulgarian Empire, and then conquered back by Byzantium, later changing hands back and forth several times.
The picture was further complicated by the Western European forces from the Third Crusade (1189-1192 AD), and then The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204 AD) whose crusader knights even conquered Constantinople and set up the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD)
The items discovered by Stoychev’s team at the Byzantine town near Velikan include “luxury” medieval ceramics, different decorations, rings, earrings, ammunition such as spear tips, and a large amount of household artifacts such as locks and hinges.
While the excavated part of the outskirts of the Byzantine settlement is already part of the route of the Maritsa Highway, the better part harbors substantial potential for further discoveries.
There are no plans for the research of the rest of the town for the being, however, since, as the Shumen archaeologist notes, with the Bulgarian government allocating only about BGN 500,000 (app. EUR 255,000) for regular archaeological excavations in 2015, it is up to the archaeologists themselves to procure project-based funding from different institutions, organizations, or local administrations.
“I hope someone will be able to excavate the rest of the settlement in the future because it will yield really interesting finds,” concludes archaeologist Stanimir Stoychev.