Archaeologists from Varna Museum of Archaeology to Excavate Further Kastritsi Fortress, Medieval Bulgarian Monastery

Part of the ruins of the medieval Bulgarian city and fortress of Kastritsi, which was also a Late Antiquity Byzantine fortress. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev's YouTube Channel

Part of the ruins of the medieval Bulgarian city and fortress of Kastritsi, which was also a Late Antiquity Byzantine fortress. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev’s YouTube Channel

The archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology are about to start their annual summer excavations of the Late Antiquity Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress of Kastritsi located on the Black Sea coast in the Bay of Varna.

The recent archaeological excavations of the well preserved Kastritsi Fortress, which was a vibrant city in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) during the High and Late Middle Ages but was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century, started in 2004, and have been taking place every summer since then.

The Kastritsi Fortress is very well preserved because it is located inside the enclosed territory of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government, with limited public access since 1890, which has saved the important archaeological and historical site from looting treasure hunters.

The annual archaeological excavations of the city of Kastritsi will be funded by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, with co-funding from the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History), the Museum Director Prof. Valentin Pletnyov has told Radio Focus Varna.

Part of the ruins of the medieval Bulgarian city and fortress of Kastritsi, which was also a Late Antiquity Byzantine fortress. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev's YouTube Channel

Part of the ruins of the medieval Bulgarian city and fortress of Kastritsi, which was also a Late Antiquity Byzantine fortress. Photo: TV grab from Nikolay Uvaliev’s YouTube Channel

Plevnyov has also explained that the Museum’s own funds for archaeological digs in 2015 are limited. They amount to BGN 30,000 (app. EUR 15,000) in total, and are only used for co-funding of excavation projects financed by the state institutions.

In addition to their excavations of the medieval Bulgarian city of Kastritsi, the Varna archaeologists will also work on the further research of the unique Christian monastery in the area known as Kaarach Teke near Varna.

The monastery dates back to the reign of Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD), who made Christianity the official religion in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 865 AD, and adopted the Bulgarian (Cyrillic, Slavic) Script as the official alphabet in 886 AD). It is especially unique because it had the largest scriptorium, a place for writing and copying of manuscripts, in the medieval Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire combined.

“These [two] are traditional archaeological sites which cannot be finished in one year," the Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology says.

What is more, however, his colleagues are going to excavate further the Early Christian basilica and monastery located in an area known as Dzhanavara near Varna as well as on the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress in the town of Byala located to south of Varna.

“The funding [for the excavations of the St. Athanasius Cape Fortress] comes from both the central government and the municipality, and I would like to congratulate Byala Mayor Anastas Trendafilov for allocating substantial funding every year for the research of the fortress," Pletnyov has stated.

He points out that the Varna archaeologists would also like to conduct excavations in a cave near Byala where prehistoric artifacts have been found. There is also a possibility that they might get the chance to excavate one of Varna’s downtown streets where they believe that the theater of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus) was located.

Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress and city of Kastritsi is located to the northeast of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, in the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government on the northern coast of the Bay of Varna. It occupies the St. George (St. Yani) Cape. The fortress of Kastritsi was built by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in the 5th century AD, and was expanded in the 6th century AD. It was destroyed in the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars in the early 7th century AD, and was abandoned. The Kastritsi Fortress was restored in the middle of the 13th century AD by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), and emerged as a medieval Black Sea city. The preserved medieval fortress walls rises to up to 3 meters. The outer fortress wall has a total of 5 rectangular fortress towers with a diameter of 5.5 meters, and a three-meter wide gate. The fortress’s keep is a rectangular multi-story tower located in its western corner. The inside of the fortress features the ruins of a city from the High and Late Middle Ages, including an entire densely populated residential quarter of stone-masonry homes, and a one-nave, one-apse church.

It is believed that Kastritsi is one of the Late Antiquity Byzantine fortresses on the Black Sea coast described by the 6th century AD Byzantine chronicler Procopius of Caesarea (ca. 500-ca. 560 AD) though its name was not mentioned. The Kastritsi Fortress was described in the early 14th century by cartographers from Genoa as in the High and Late Middle Ages it had thriving commercial relations with the Italian city-states Genoa and Venice. Kastritsi’s fortifications protected an area of 20 decares (app. 5 acres). The discovered skeletons of men, women, and children indicated that the city’s population was slaughtered by the invading Ottoman Turks who conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century AD. The Turks settled Kastritsi briefly but abandoned the city in the 15th century (the most recent coins discovered there are from 1404 AD). Some Bulgarian archaeologists have hypothesized that the Ottoman Turks might have vacated the fortress of Kastritsi because of the raids of the Vlachs (Wallachians) from the north.

In the Late Middle Ages, Kastritsi was a typical medieval city with narrow streets and large homes. The archaeological remains of the medieval homes, streets, churches, and fortifications of Kastritsi are very well preserved allowing the Bulgarian archaeologists to discover lots of pottery vessels, metal tools, decorations, and over 2,500 coins. If it is researched more thoroughly, conserved, and exhibited, Kastritsi has the potential to show a fully preserved medieval Bulgarian city with a major potential for historical and cultural tourism, according to archaeologists.

The Kastritsi City and Fortress north of Bulgaria’s Varna is especially well preserved because it is inside the enclosed territory of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government, which has been with limited public access since the end of the 19th century, meaning that treasure hunters and looters could not do damage to it, unlike what they have done to thousands of other archaeological and historical sites all over Bulgaria. The Euxinograd Residence was built on lands that the first ruler of Liberated Bulgaria, i.e. the Third Bulgarian Tsardom, Knyaz Alexander I Batenberg, received as a gift from the Greek Bishopric in Varna after Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Thus, access to the site has been limited since 1890, and Kastritsi is said to be the only Bulgarian medieval city with a preserved port which has not seen any construction after the Late Middle Ages.

The Kastritsi Fortress and City was first excavated in 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, who, together with his brother Hermann Skorpil, is the founder of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Its most recent archaeological excavations have been conducted every summer since 2004 by archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by its Director, Prof. Valentin Pletnyov. The recent archaeological discoveries there include a treasure of 166 silver coins of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) and his son Mihail Asen, who was declared a “Co-Tsar" by Ivan Alexander in 1331 upon the latter’s assumption of the Bulgarian throne. Mihail Asen died in a battle against the Ottoman Turks near Sredets (today’s Sofia) in 1355 AD. The treasure in question is one of the largest medieval Bulgarian treasures discovered in recent years. In addition to these and many other Bulgarian coins, other0 treasure finds from Kastritsi include Byzantine, Tartar, Vlachian, Moldavian, Venetian, and Ottoman Turkish coins. These include a treasure of silver coins of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I “The Lighting"(r. 1389-1402 AD) and of Wallacian ruler Mircea the Elder (Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418 AD) who held the region of Dobrudzha (today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania) in the early 15th century. The finds also include a rare gold coin from the Antiquity minted in the Ancient Greek colony of Callatis (today’s Mangalia in Romania) during the reign of Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated more than one-fifth of the territory of the Kastritsi Fortress, have started some conservation efforts, and have opened part of the site for tourists. ***

The Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius, part of the St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve, near the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Byala, District of Varna, has been rediscovered by Bulgarian archaeologists in recent years. The fortress is located on a plot of about 40 decares (app. 10 acres), and is dated back to the 5th-6th century AD while the precise area of an ancient settlement located on the same site remains unknown. The Early Byzantine fortress has been dated more precisely to the reigns of Byzantine Emperors Anastasius I (r. 491-518 AD), and Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD).

Before the excavations in recent years, the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius had only been known from a 1892 note by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologists Karel and Hermann Skorpil known as the founders of contemporary Bulgarian archaeology, and from a brief expedition in the 1970s. The major reason the fortress had not been excavated earlier is that a military base of the Bulgarian Army and Navy was located nearby because the location gives good command of a large section of the Bulgarian Black sea coast. The military base was closed down a few years ago, allowing the local authorities to approach archaeologists for the excavations of the site.

In his writings, Ancient Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – ca. 24 AD) mentions a fortress called Larissa, which is located south of the Greek colony of Odessos (today’s Bulgarian city of Varna) and north of the Greek colony of Naulochos (today’s Bulgarian town of Obzor). Even though no defining evidence has been found that the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius is in fact the fortress Larissa described by Strabo, the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the site have discovered traces not only from ancient, but also from earlier times. The earliest finds are from the Chalcolithic (also known as Eneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age, and an Ancient Thracian religious site from the 6th-5th century BC. An Ancient Roman settlement from the 2nd-3rd century AD has also been discovered.

Some of the finds uncovered on the Cape of St. Athanasius include an anti-landing rampart designed to prevent a sea invasion dating back to the Late Antiquity; a fortification consisting of a fortress wall and a moat cutting off the cape from its hinterland; an Early Christian one-apse basilica, two baptisteries, the residence of the head priest, two ceramic ovens, mural fragments and inscriptions; an ancient winery; a 6th century bronze table lamp, also known as a candelarium, found in a rich ancient residential building that collapsed in a fire around 614 AD; a stone plate for grinding powers, herbs, and cosmetic substances taken as a proof that the ancient residents of the St. Athanasius Cape practiced medicine; part of a Byzantine road; a golden ring with a model of the Rotunda of Anastasis in Jerusalem; a marble alter table produced in an imperial workshop on the Island of Paros in the Southern Aegean. The latest coins found in the fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius as well as other traces have led Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Dr. Valeri Yotov from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, who excavated the site, to hypothesize that the fortress near Byala was destroyed during the Avar and Slav invasion in 614 AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 AD). The head of the St. Athanasius Cape Archaeological Preserve Deyan Yanchev has described the one-time ancient fortress as a “small port town with a substantial commercial potential".

Since 2010, the ancient fortress on the Cape of St. Athanasius has been restored with a total funding of BGN 5.4 million (app. EUR 2.76 million), most of which was an EU grant provided from Operational Program “Regional Development", in order to turn it into a destination for cultural tourism. The recent archaeological excavations started in 2008, and have been carried out every year with funding from Byala Municipality, which invested about BGN 1.5 million (EUR 770,000) in the first seven years of archaeological exploration, a major sum for a relatively remote municipality with only about 3,000 inhabitants.***

The unique Early Christian Church and Monastery Complex located in the area called Dzhanavara in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna dates back to the 5th century AD. It is located 5 km away from the fortress walls of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus), today’s Varna. It existed for about 2 centuries having been destroyed in a barbarian invasion of the Avars and Slavs in the early 7th century AD. The architecture and mosaics of the Early Christian church are untypical for the Balkan Peninsula but bear some resembles to monuments in the easternmost provinces of the Roman Empire leading Bulgarian archaeologists to hypothesize that the Early Christian monastery was founded and inhabited by monks who came from the Middle East.

The church itself was 31 meters long and 28 meters wide, and the walls of its naos were 2.5 meters thick. It was built of layers of stone blocks. Under the church there was a man’s brick tomb where three reliquariesa marble, silver, and gold one – containing the relics of an unknown Christian saint were found. This discovery was made in 1915-1919 when the Early Christian church near Odessos (Varna) was excavated by the Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. The site was further excavated by Bulgarian archaeologist Alexander Minchev and Vasil Tenekedzhiev from the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) in 1997-1999 when they uncovered household structures proving that the church did not stand by itself but was part of a monastery complex. As of the spring of 2015, the unique Early Christian church and monastery are part of Bulgaria‘s State Forestry Fund, and have not been granted a protected status; their ruins have been used by locals for camping and drinking parties. Local archaeologists in Bulgaria’s Varna hope to be able to complete the excavations and turn the site into a Museum of Early Christianity. The site contains about 100 square meters of preserved Early Christian floor mosaics which have been reburied by contemporary archaeologists in order to protect them.