Bulgarian Archaeologists Unearth Lots of Animal Bones at Ancient and Medieval Fortress Vratitsa (Gradishte) near Vratsa

The archaeological excavations in the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Bulgaria's Vratsa where the archaeologists have found the skeleton of a tall medieval man as well as lots of animal bones. Photo: TV grab from Konkurent TV

The archaeological excavations in the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Bulgaria’s Vratsa where the archaeologists have found the skeleton of a tall medieval man as well as lots of animal bones. Photo: TV grab from Konkurent TV

The Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress known as Gradishte or Vratitsa near the northwestern Bulgarian city Vratsa have come across a large amount of animal bones.

“These bones have been placed in pits inside the fortress wall, which means that these animals were the food of the people buried in the graves of the medieval necropolis,” explains lead archaeologist Nartsis Torbov from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History, as cited by Radio Focus Vidin.

He says his team needs a zoologist who can identify the discovered animal bones which will provide information about the food of the medieval people, and will also pose the question about the forage of the domestic animals.

Archaeology is a puzzle which is put together piece by piece, and this here is a very important piece,” Torbov adds.

The discovery of the animal bones is announced shortly after the archaeological team found the grave of a tall medieval man in the necropolis inside the fortress.

Talking about the finds from the earlier periods discovered at the Vratitisa (Gradishte) Fortress near Vratsa, the archaeologist states that a 6th century AD Early Byzantine church excavated by his team had a room that was probably used as a baptistery.

The fact that a baptistery had to be built means the church was a key facility used for spreading Early Christianity by baptizing the local population in today’s Northwest Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have also found traces of fire on the outer front wall of the church leading them to suspect that the Early Christian church in Vratitsa (Gradishte) was probably burned down in a barbarian invasion at the end of the 6th century. After that it ceased to exist because during the period of the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages it was never restored as a church, and there were other buildings erected on top of its foundations.

Archaeologist Nartsis Torbov also spoke about two of the interesting discoveries that his team made at the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress in the 2014 summer excavations.

One of them is a coin from the period of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Zeno (r. 474-475 AD; 476-491 AD) which is connected with time when the Goths left the Balkan Peninsula for good.

“In order for them to do that, however, Emperor Zeno was supposed to pay them off which is why he was forced to start minting coins that are fakes made by the government. The coin that we found is one of those. Oftentimes, during the reigns of different rulers fake coins had to be made by the state itself. Apparently, Emperor Zeno had to stabilize the Empire in a time of crisis caused by the Goths, and ordered the minting of such coins,” explains Torbov

He elaborates that the forged coin was minted “by placing a thin gold plate on top of the core, then placing a plate from another metal on top of it, and then putting one more thin gold plate on top; thus, there were three layers like a sandwich; the coin appears as if it was made of gold but it wasn’t”.

The archaeologist says another intriguing discovery at the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress in 2014 was a small rhomboid plate depicting a human face which dates from the Bulgarian Middle Ages. None of the experts in the Middle Ages that he consulted have managed to offer a plausible explanation as to what function this item served.

Torbov points out that the archaeological richness of the region of Vratsa is due to the fact that it was inhabited by the major civilizations in Southeast Europe. This started with the Ancient Thracians who left behind places such as the Mogilanska Mound in the city of Vratsa. Its several graves yielded finds such as a golden laurel wreath, golden earrings, and a silver greavе, among others.

Another very impressive piece of their heritage in the region is the Rogozen Treasure, an ancient collection put together throughout the entire 4th century BC consisting of 165 wine drinking vessels.

During the period of the Roman Empire when the region of Vratsa was part of the Roman province of Moesia, the local Thracian population became “Romanized”, i.e. adopted the Roman way of life.

The archaeologist notes further that the successor of Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire known as Byzantium had a major role in spreading Christianity as evidenced by the 6th century AD church with baptistery found in Vratitsa (Gradishte), among a huge number of other similar finds all over today’s Bulgaria.

“Then came the Bulgarian Middle Ages which are very well reflected in our site. The city of Vratsa with its rich historical and cultural heritage is part of the history of all of Europe. The fate of our ancestors who lived in this region did not differ much from the fate of the inhabitants of Germany, Italy, France, and Spain at the time,” Torbov concludes.

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Archaeologist Alexandra Petrova shows the newly discovered human skeleton at the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Bulgaria's Vratsa. Photo: TV grab from Konkurent TV

Archaeologist Alexandra Petrova shows the newly discovered human skeleton at the Vratitsa (Gradishte) Fortress near Bulgaria’s Vratsa. Photo: TV grab from Konkurent TV

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval fortress known as Gradishte (a common Bulgarian word meaning “fortress”) or Vratitsa (as it was called in the Middle Ages) is located near today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Vratsa at the canyon of the Vartaeshnitsa River. It is located near the Vrattsata Pass (meaning “door”), which gave its name to the city of Vratsa, using the natural defenses of the mountainous terrain.

The Gradishte or Vratitsa Fortress is an Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian city. There are hypotheses that the Thracian settlement may have been the capital of one of the major Ancient Thracian tribes, the Tribali, who inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. There have been doubts among scholars whether the unearthed Antiquity fortress walls of Gradishte / Vratitsa were first build by the Romans, who often built their cities on top of previously existing Thracian settlements, or by the Thracians themselves. The fortress of Gradishte / Vratitsa was also used by Byzantium in the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, i.e. the Early Byzantine period. It protected the most direct mountain pass route between what are today Northwest and Southwest Bulgaria.

During the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, Vratitsa was a major fortified city; its name – as well as its importance – are made clear by a 13th century inscription on a stone slab which has been discovered in a cave connected to a medieval Bulgarian church. The inscription was found in 1942, and it states that the place harbored a monastery in the Middle Ages. The fortification system of the Vratitsa fortress uses the towering rocks to the north as part of its fortress wall; the fortress wall itself is about 2.4 meters wide. According to the archaeological discoveries, the settlement at the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Vratsa existed in several time periods.

The first is the Thracian period from the 4th until the 1st century BC. The finds hint at the existence of a Thracian fortress wall. In case of danger, the fortified area could provide asylum for up to 10-15,000 people, i.e. the entire population of the nearby valley. At the end of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian geographer Felix Kanitz described the ruins of the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress as having many different fortifications from different periods. Unfortunately, since then, much of the stone and rock material has been used by local villagers for the construction of homes and fences. However, the archaeological excavations conducted before 1965 indicate that the place was a settlement and fortress of the Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi during the Early Thracian period.

The second period in the existence of Gradishte / Vratitsa is the 3rd century AD when it was a Roman fortress. The third period is in the 4th century AD, the Late Antiquity period which has left traces of burned down buildings. The fourth period started in the 6th century AD the Early Byzantine Empire added new fortifications to the existing Thracian and Roman ones.

The fifth period is the 13th-14th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which also added new fortifications as evidenced by the discovery of bronze coins and ceramics. It was in this period that the city started to expand outside of the fortress walls turning into today’s city of Vratsa over the next centuries.

A total of five medieval graves have been found in a necropolis from the time of the Bulgarian Empire; one of them was the grave of a big man with a stone placed on his chest in order to “neutralize” him so that he would not rise from the grave. The discovery has led the Bulgarian media to term the buried man “the Vratsa Vampire”.

Another necropolis containing numerous graves with rich inventories from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) was discovered in downtown Vratsa in July-August 2016 during the construction of an apartment building.

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The 2,500-year-old Mogilanska Mound Treasure, also known as the Vratsa Gold Treasure, was found during the excavations of an Ancient Thracian burial mound in the downtown of Vratsa back in 1965.

In addition to the human and horse skeletons and the chariots discovered in the mound’s three tombs, the archaeologists also found a treasure consisting of a golden laurel wreath, 47 gold appliqués, 2 golden earrings, 4 silver phialae, a silver jug, a rhyton-shaped amphora, and 50 clay figures.

The Mogilanska Mound is believed to have been a royal tomb of the ruling dynasty of the Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi which inhabited the region of Northwest Bulgaria more than 2,000 years ago.

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The Mogilanska Mound Treasure, also known as the Vratsa Gold Treasure, was found during excavations of a mound (which turned out to hold three tombs) in the downtown of Northwestern Bulgarian city of Vratsa in 1965-1966. The treasure found with the skeletons of people and horses, and chariots, consists of a golden crown of laurels, 47 gold appliqués, 2 golden earrings, 4 silver phialai, a silver jug, a rhyton-shaped amphora, and 50 clay figures. The Mogilanska Mound is believed to be a royal tomb connected with the dynasty of the Tribali tribe.

***

The Rogozen Treasure, also known as the Rogozen Silver Treasure, is the largest (in terms of weight) treasure from Ancient Thrace to have ever been found in Bulgaria and beyond.

It was first discovered by accident in 1985 by Ivan Dimitrov, a tractor driver digging a ditch for water pipes in his own yard, and his wife Nadka Savova, in the town of Rogozen, Hayredin Municipality, in Northwest Bulgaria. A second stash of silver and gold plated vessels was found on January 6, 1986, during emergency excavations by archaeologists Bogdan Nikolov, Spas Mashov, and Plamen Ivanov.

The Rogozen Treasure consists of 165 receptacles, including 108 phiales, 54 jugs and 3 goblets. They have a combined total weight of more than 20 kg making it the largest Ancient Thracian treasure ever found. The treasure is an invaluable source of information for the life of the Thracians due to the variety of motifs from the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Greek mythology in the richly decorated artifacts.

Because the large number of vessels was collected over a long period of time, the treasure is dated back to the period from the 6th century BC until the middle of the 4th century BC. Some of the vessels were locally made in Ancient Thrace, while others are imports from Ancient Greece.

The Rogozen Treasure belonged to Thracian aristocrats, most probably the royal family of the Triballi tribe who inhabited the region of today’s Northwest Bulgaria. It is part of the collection of the Vratsa Regional Museum of History, with 20 of its 165 vessels loaned to the National Museum of History in Sofia.

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