Bulgarian Archaeologists Seeking Constantine the Great Statue, Roman Building from Ancient Serdica in Downtown Sofia

Bulgarian Archaeologists Seeking Constantine the Great Statue, Roman Building from Ancient Serdica in Downtown Sofia

Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, who is also an archaeologist, at the public presentation of the project for the excavation of the Forum of Ancient Serdica in the downtown of today's Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: BGNES

Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, who is also an archaeologist, at the public presentation of the project for the excavation of the Forum of Ancient Serdica in the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: BGNES

A statue of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD), a massive Roman building, and Roman inscriptions are some of the finds that the Bulgarian archaeologists might come across in the recently started excavations of the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia, their team has announced at a news conference.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have recently started excavating the northern part of the square next to the St. Nedelya (“Holy Sunday”) Cathedral which is now the parking lot of the five-star Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton), where the Roman forum of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is believed to have been located.

The excavations are being conducted by archaeologists from Sofia Municipality and the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

The search for the Roman Forum (public square) of ancient Serdica is funded with BGN 133,000 (app. EUR 68,000) by Sofia Municipality.

“The square has been preserved in its original parameters for some 2,000 years which is unique for the territory of the Roman Empire,” Deputy Sofia Mayor and archaeologist Todor Chobanov has told reporters during a public presentation of the excavations.

Lead archaeologist Assist. Prof. Veselka Katsarova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia (earlier it was announced that the lead archaeologist will be Assist. Prof. Dr. Mario Ivanov) says the information about what might lie under the St. Nedelya Square is scarce because only its periphery has been studied so far.

Roughly the same square, however, was the Forum of Ancient Serdica where its city council would place commemorative inscriptions and statues of the more deserving citizens.

“The Forum for sure had a statue of the ruling Roman Emperor at the time,” Katsarova points out.

“Even if we don’t discover a statue of Emperor Constantine, we will be glad if our excavations reveal inscriptions with historical information,” Chobanov says in turn adding that some of the most valuable historical sources are found in ancient forums.

The Bulgarian archaeologists are also hoping to come across the ruins of a massive Roman building with marble architecture known as Building No. 6.

Back in December 1953, before the construction of the so called Sofia Largo, i.e. the large Communist Era government buildings in downtown Sofia, including the building of the Sofia Hotel Balkan, the archaeologists were allowed in to study the site for a brief period of time.

However, they only managed to excavate the outskirts of the Forum, and to document part of the ruins of the so called Building No. 6 which may have been a passage into the ancient square.

“We believe this was a really massive building with marble decorations erected according to Rome’s best standards. Whether that was a building or an entrance passage to the agora we are yet to find out,” Katsarova adds.

The archaeologists are also hoping to discover more about the history of the square and, respectively, of Serdica (later called Sredets and Sofia) after the Antiquity period, during the time of the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages. They also have indications that they might discover the ruins of a medieval Bulgarian church.

In the past, Bulgarian archaeologists have hypothesized that the ground below the St. Nedelya Square might hide the palace of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) who is known to have said, “Serdica is my Rome”.

Emperor Constantine, who was a native of Nis in today’s Serbia, is known to have considered Serdica, today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, as a possible place for relocating the capital of the Roman Empire before he chose Constantinople.

The archaeologists believe that ruins of Emperor Constantine’s palace might be found in the southern part of the St. Nedelya Square, and part of the palace might even lie under the St. Nedelya Cathedral.

However, the current excavations will focus on an area of about 150 square meters in the northern part of the square, and will not be searching for the alleged palace of Constantine.

It is not clear yet whether any of the archaeological structures to be unearthed will be conserved because that will depend on what will be discovered. Any artifacts to be found will be displayed in the Museum of Sofia’s History.

The archaeologists excavating the St. Nedelya Cathedral square are working in close cooperation with the two other archaeological teams currently working on the Western Gate of Serdica and on the restoration of the structures at the Sofia Largo.

“[The excavations of Ancient Serdica] are a great challenge for [Bulgarian] archaeological science because in spite of the 100 and more years of research of various Roman cities across the country Serdica remains one of the most interesting places for the archaeologists. The excavation of the main square of this city is even a greater challenge,” lead archaeologists Veselka Katsarova has concluded.

The Sofia authorities are currently working on the completion of the reconstruction project for the so called Sofia Largo expected in the fall of 2015.

Meanwhile, the design of the three glass domes to cover the archaeological structures at the Sofia Largo has been made public.

In March 2015, Deputy Mayor of Sofia Todor Chobanov announced that in addition to the Sofia Largo project Sofia Municipality also planned to excavate and exhibit in situ the Western Gate of Ancient Serdica and the mosaics inside the St. Sofia Basilica.

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age. After the Bronze Age the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe serdi (some believe them to have been a Celtic tribe) which gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome”. In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa. It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.

The Sofia Largo is the architectural complex of government buildings in downtown Sofia erected in the 1950s, in the early years of the former communist regime. Regardless of their Communist Era architecture, today the buildings house the most important Bulgarian government institutions  and are one of the most famous parts of Sofia’s cityscape. Parts of the ancient city of Serdica, which have been excavated, can be seen in the underpasses and the Serdica Metro Station right next to the Sofia Largo.