Archaeologists Find Fragment of 11th Century Rakia Distillation Vessel in Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad

A spout which was draining newly brewed rakia from the distillation vessel back in the 11th century has been discovered by archaeologists in the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria's Ivaylovgrad. Photo: BNT

A spout which was draining newly brewed rakia from the distillation vessel back in the 11th century has been discovered by archaeologists in the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad. Photo: BNT

A fragment from an 11th century vessel for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, has been discovered by the archaeologists excavating the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Lyutitsa near the town of Ivaylovgrad in Southern Bulgaria.

The discovery of the medieval rakia distillation vessel has been made by a team led by archaeologist Filip Petrunov from the National Museum of History in Sofia, the Museum has announced.

The discovered fragment is actually the spout of a ceramic tube which drained the rakia from a round distillation vessel where it was brewed into another vessel where it was kept.

Even though it is from the High Middle Ages, it is hardly different from the modern-day devices used for the production of the rakia, according to the archaeological team.

“This [rakia making] technology is extremely simple but it is efficient," lead archaeologist Filip Petrunov has told the Bulgarian National Television.

The Museum reminds that this is the second case of a medieval rakia distillation vessel fragment to have been discovered in the Lyutitsa Fortress, and the third such discovery in Bulgaria overall.

The previous such discovery was made in Lyutitsa in 2011. The other similar find was also discovered in 2011 but in the medieval city of Drastar (Drustur), successor of the ancient Durostorum (Durustorum), today’s Danube city of Silistra in Northeast Bulgaria.

While all discovered rakia distillation vessel fragments in Bulgaria are dated to the 11th century, Petrunov says the respective brewing technology may have emerged even as early as the 9th century, and may have been brought in from the Middle East.

“It was not just bellicose barbarians who invaded from the East but also a number of innovations and improvements, and it could assumed that the distillation of rakia might have been one of them," he adds.

In its statement, the National Museum of History in Sofia that until the recent archaeological discoveries, historians had believed that rakia, which is essentially the traditional alcoholic drink in Bulgaria, was invented only in the 15th century.

Yet, in addition to the archaeological discoveries, recently archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology published an account of Lala Shahin (Sahin) Pasha, a commander who led the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Bulgaria and the attacks on Sredets (today’s Sofia) in the 1380s.

In this account, the commander told Ottoman Sultan (Emir) Murad I that his attack against Sredets (Sofia) in 1382 failed because the city was defended by “hardened moustached Bulgarians" who would drink rakia before the battles thus “becoming invincible".

(Sofia was attacked by the Ottoman Turks unsuccessfully several times – in 1349, 1355, and 1382, and was conquered only in 1388.)

Another archaeological discovery about the existence of rakia as a drink in the Late Middle Ages was made in 2010 by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology.

This is fragment of a 14th century cup from the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo with an inscription reading, “I drank rakia during the feast".

The Museum also points out that these discoveries have been used as arguments supporting the claim of the Bulgarian government before the European Union to brand grape rakia a Bulgarian product under the EU schemes for geographical indications and traditional specialities.

Learn more about the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad in the Background Infonotes below!

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Other views of the newly discovered rakia distillation vessel fragment from the Lyutitsa Fortress in Southern Bulgaria. Photos: National Museum of History

Other views of the newly discovered rakia distillation vessel fragment from the Lyutitsa Fortress in Southern Bulgaria. Photos: National Museum of History

Lyutitsa Rakia Spout 2

Background Infonotes:

The Lyutitsa Fortress is a Late Antiquity / Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains near the town of Ivaylovgrad (and the depopulated town of Rogozovo (or Rogozino)), Haskovo District, in Southern Bulgaria.

It has a total area of 26 decares (app. 6.4 acres), and is also known as the Marble City (because its fortress walls are made of white marble), and as Kaloyan’s Citadel (after Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire).

Even though its research is still in its early stages, there is archaeological evidence to believe that this particular fortress is the rich medieval city Lyutitsa which is mentioned in numerous historical sources. In the 9th-17th century, Lyutitsa was the center of a bishopric, and in the 17th-18th century – of an archbishopric.

Lyutitsa is one of the best preserved Bulgarian fortresses from the Middle Ages; in that, it is comparable to other well preserved medieval fortresses in Southern and Southeast Bulgaria such as the Mezek Fortress and the Matochina Fortress. Its fortress walls and towers have been preserved up to a height of 6-10 meters. It has 12 fortress towers, 9 of which have survived.

The Lyutitsa Fortress is also located close to another popular archaeological landmark, the Ancient Roman villa Armira which has been restored and has emerged as a well-known cultural tourism site.

Archaeological finds such as pottery, coins, decorations, household items made of metal and bone indicate that the location of Lyutitsa was inhabited as early as the 1st millennium BC, (starting in the Late Bronze Age), i.e. the time of Ancient Thrace.

The first time Lyutitsa was mentioned in historical sources goes back to the 9th-10th century when its name appears as a bishopric in the parish lists of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Nicholas I Mysticus (901-907; 912-925), and then again in 940 under Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII the Purple-born (r. 913-959). It was also mentioned in the memoires of Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene (r. 1347-1354) who reveals that the city of Lyutitsa was destroyed in the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans in the 14th century. While its name was not mentioned explicitly, it is also believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress was referred to by French knight and historian Geoffrey of Villehardouin of the Fourth Crusade who speaks of a fortress where Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire stationed his troops after the siege of Dimotika (Didymoteicho) in 1207.

Based on historical and archaeological research, it is believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) in the 9th century when it was located in the area of the border with Byzantium, and subsequently changed hands numerous times.

The fortress walls of Lyutitsa date back to the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century), i.e. the Early Byzantine period. They were destroyed several times, and today’s surviving fortress walls and towers are believed to have been erected in the 12th-13th century. The fortress was in use during the time of Early Byzantium and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and even survived well into the Ottoman period and Late Middle Ages, i.e. up until the end of the 18th century when its residents abandoned it, and settled at nearby mineral springs founding a town called Ladzha (today a quarter of Ivaylovgrad).

Lyutitsa’s fortress wall has a total length of 600 meters. It features one octagonal, two round, and nine rectangular fortress towers. Inside the fortress, archaeologists have found the ruins of two churches (dating back to the 10th and 15th-16th century, respectively), the keep of the fortress, a well, a water reservoir hewn into the rocks (with Thracian finds discovered on its bottom), a sewerage system as well as a medieval necropolis with 15 graves.

The 10th century bishopric church was built of marble, and had three naves and a very rich decoration of both murals and marble reliefs.

The most interesting finds include: Ancient Bulgar / medieval Bulgarian pottery identical with the pottery from Pliska (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893) and Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893-970), which is a testimony to the importance of the Lyutitsa Fortress for medieval Bulgaria and its high culture; a very rare coin of Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus; as well as two medieval fragments from vessels for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and the Balkans (found in 2011 and 2015).

In 2006, the archaeologists found in Lyutitsa the grave of one of the medieval bishops of the city who was buried in a sitting position, holding a magnificent silver-coated bronze cross in his right hand.

The Lyutitsa Fortress was first excavated in 2002, and then again in 2004-2011 under the leardership of Assoc Prof. Boni Petrunova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Subsequently, the excavations of Lyutitsa have been conducted by archaeologist Filip Petrunov (who is Petrunova’s son) from the National Museum of History in Sofia. Many of the artifacts discovered in the Lyutitsa Fortress are exhibited in the Ivaylovgrad Museum of History.

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