Bulgaria’s National Museum of History Shows Newly Discovered Artifacts from Urvich Fortress

These decorations are among the latest discoveries from the Urvich Fortress located near the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: National Museum of HIstory

These decorations are among the latest discoveries from the Urvich Fortress located near the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: National Museum of HIstory

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History has released photos of some of the artifacts discovered in the recently completed first phase of the 2015 archaeological excavations in the Urvich Fortress, a major stronghold in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) located 15 km southeast of the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The finds are dated to different time periods spanning a total of 2,200 years: the earliest find is a 5th century BC Ancient Thracian spear tip, while the latest artifacts are dated to the 17th century AD, i.e. the Ottoman period.

The released photos show newly discovered decorations and human bones; the most interesting find is said to be an unfinished medieval bronze ring with pieces of the excessive metal all over it.

The Urvich Fortress, which played a major role at the end of the 14th century in Bulgaria’s resistence against the invading Ottoman Turks by guarding the road to Sredets, today’s Sofia, has been excavated by Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov and the young archaeologist Filip Petrunov with funding from Sofia Municipality.

The discovery of the Thracian bronze arrow is taken to indicate that the hill where the medieval fortress Urvich was later located was inhabited as early as the 5th century BC, reports the Bulgarian daily Novinar.

Other interesting finds from the ongoing excavations of Urvich include a number of coins from the Ancient Roman period and from the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire (7th-14th century).

The Bulgarian archaeologists are not sure why the newly found unfinished bronze ring was not completed but Ovcharov believes the unfinished ring is evidence of the jewelry production in the Urvich Fortress meaning that the so called Urvich Treasurea collection of gold and silver decorations and jewelry from the Late Middle Ages – was probably produced there.

This aerial photo shows part of the ruins of the Urvich Fortress, located 15 km southeast of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

This aerial photo shows part of the ruins of the Urvich Fortress, located 15 km southeast of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

Items from the Urvich Treasure were first shown to the Bulgarian public in 2011; it was rescued by an English history teacher, John Burnip, who bought it at an auction in London in 1979, and in 1983 donated it to the Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. It is known that the treasure had been dug up illegally at the Urvich Fortress near Sofia (it had been found hidden in a clay vessel), and had somehow been smuggled to the UK.

The Urvich Treasure is dated to the 14th-17th century AD, and consists of silver and gold-coated wreathes, belt decorations, and head decorations used by the late medieval Bulgarian nobility for wedding rituals as well as two rings, a bracelet, and different necklace decorations.

In addition to the late medieval fortress Urvich, the Bulgarian archaeologists are also excavating further the ruins of the St. Iliya (St. Elijah) Monastery, which was a Bulgarian spiritual center in the 15th-17th century AD, i.e. during the early centuries of the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

According to the archaeologists, the main church of the St. Iliya Monastery was burned down in the 17th century; there is a hypothesis that it may have been destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in revenge over an advance of the forces of the Austrian Empire towards Sofia during one of the Austrian-Turkish Wars.

The Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the Urvich Fortress are hoping to be able to restore the church of the St. Iliya Monastery, and to attend the first service there since the 17th century.

Both the Urvich Treasure and the existence of the St. Iliya Monastery in the 15th-17th century on the location of the destroyed fortress are seen as evidence by Bulgarian archaeologists Nikolay Ovcharov and Boni Petrunova that not all members of the Bulgarian nobility were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks during their conquest of Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century, and that the Bulgarian population in the region of today’s Sofia may have enjoyed a special status in the first centuries of the period of the Ottoman Yoke.

The archaeological excavations of the Urvich Fortress and the St. Iliya Monastery are set to continue in the late fall of 2015 when the archaeologists are also going to summarize the results from their research on the site throughout the year.

urvich grave

Young archaeologist Filip Petrunov with the newly found human bones in the Urvich Fortress near Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

As part of the promotion of the Urvich Fortress as a site for cultural tourism, Bulgaria’s National Museum of History promotes a children’s book authored by the archaeologists and the Theology Department of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” (Clement of Ohrid), which is entitled “The Monks of the Royal Monastery Urvich", and presents the life of the St. Iliya Monastery in the 15th-17th century AD.

Background Infonotes:

The fortress of Urvich is located some 20 km southeast of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. The medieval fortress there was built in the 9th-10th century by the First Bulgarian Empire, possibly as early as the reign of Khan (or kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) who first conquered Sofia for Bulgaria in 805 AD, and was lated developed during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD). It was first excavated in 1969 by Prof. Dimitar Ovcharov, father of Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov. Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov has resumed the excavations there in recent years. The Urvich archaeological site bears marks from different time periods – from the Roman Empire in the late Antiquity, Byzantium, the First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) to the Ottoman Empire. In Bulgarian culture and national memory it is mostly known as a site of heroic resistance against the Ottoman Turkish invaders in the second half of the 14th century by some of the last state leaders of medieval Bulgaria, defending the strategically vital city of Sredets (today’s Sofia).

As the Second Bulgarian Empire was being conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the late 14th century (Sofia was conquered in 1385 AD), the Urvich fortress was set on fire but was later rebuilt and used by the Ottoman Turkish invaders; the local monastery was also restored. The archaeological excavations at Urvich have unearthed murals from the St. Iliya (St. Elijah) Church and St. Iliya Monastery, and some of the frescoes have been shown to the public. It has also been emphasized that there is information about the monastery at Urvich in the first History of Bulgaria, the Slavic-Bulgarian History, compiled by the Bulgarian monk Paisiy Hilendarski in 1762 AD, which was the book that essentially laid the foundations of the modern-day Bulgarian nation leading to the so called period of Bulgarian National Revival (late 18th-19th century). There is evidence that the St. Iliya Church at the Urvich Monastery was restored in the 15-17th century.

Back in 2011, Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov unveiled 18 gold coins found at Urvich which were minted by medieval Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371). They are believed to have been part of a legendary medieval Bulgarian treasure “treasure of the Shishman Dynasty", which ruled Bulgaria from the ascension of Tsar Ivan Alexander to the throne in 1331 AD to the demise of his sons – Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) and Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. It is believed that sometime in 1371-1372 AD the last Tsar of Bulgaria Proper, Ivan Shishman, buried his treasure at the fortress of Urvich where his forces made a stand against the invading Ottoman Turkish forces fighting fierce battles during the 1370s and 1380s. The archaeologists believe that Tsar Ivan Shishman’s treasure really existed but that most of it has been snatched by treasure-hunters and that the 18 gold coins found at Urvich are everything that is left of it.