Prehistoric People in Bulgaria’s Provadiya Consumed Milk in 5th Millenium BC, Archaeologists Find

The Salt Pit settlement near Bulgaria's Provadiya was "Europe's oldest town" - it not only grew rich with the production and trading of rock salt but also had a fortress wall as early as the 5th millenium BC. Photo: BBC

The Salt Pit settlement near Bulgaria’s Provadiya was “Europe’s oldest town” – it not only grew rich with the production and trading of rock salt but also had a fortress wall as early as the 5th millenium BC. Photo: The BBC

Samples from several skeletons discovered in the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") prehistoric settlement in Northeast Bulgaria, which has been described as Europe’s oldest prehistoric town, indicate the people who lived there in the 5th millennium BC consumed milk.

Prof. Vasil Nikolov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, who has been the lead archaeologists of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement near the town of Provadiya in Northeast Bulgaria since its discovery in 2005, has revealed that samples from skeletons found in the settlement, a major producer of rock salt in the 6th and 5th millennium BC, have been examined in a laboratory of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The analyses have yielded “surprising" results indicating that the people who inhabited Europe’s oldest prehistoric town in the 5th millennium BC did consume milk.

“Until recently, we thought that the [consumption of milk] happened at a considerably later stage because it was believed that the human body could not absorb raw milk… [These people consumed] milk from domesticated animals, not from wild animals. These people were stock breeders but for a long time it was thought that they used the animals only for meat," Nikolov has told the Bulgarian private news agency Focus in an interview.

He adds that further analyses are to reveal whether the prehistoric inhabitants of salt-producing prehistoric town near Bulgaria’s Provadiya also consumed yogurt, and/or some other kind of milk products.

In his interview, the archaeologist also explains that the prehistoric town near Provadiya had “one of the earliest" fortresses whose walls are being unearthed further during the ongoing 2015 summer archaeological excavations.

“Last year, we revealed ruins from the fortress near Provadiya but now we are gradually reaching the foundations. It is extremely interesting. It is 6,500 years old, one of the earliest fortresses. Before it, there was another fortress, about 200 years older, which is the earliest one. The two came one after the other but were in the same settlement. The wall is well preserved in long sections. There are two such sections of 50-60 meters each, and we have so far unearthed about 140 meters of the wall. This is about half of the total," Nikolov elaborates.

“It was a closed fortress. By saying that I mean that it was the earliest closed fortress wall because from the same period there are singular fortress walls used to close off a peninsula. For example, Nessebar was a closed isthmus… For the first time, this was a plain region fenced off with a round wall, and a rather thick one, too, as it was more than 3 meters wide in its base, and at least 5 meters tall. This was something incredible in the middle of the 5th millennium BC," concludes the Bulgarian archaeologist describing the prehistoric fortification near Provadiya.

Background Infonotes:

The prehistoric settlement of Provadiya – Solnitsata (i.e. “The Salt Pit") is located 6 km southeast of the modern-day town of Provadiya, Varna District, in Northeast Bulgaria. It is a prehistoric settlement mound which in a later historical period was turned into a large Ancient Thracian burial mound.

The prehistoric settlement mound has an archaeological layer of about 6 meters, and a diameter of 105 meters at the only rock salt deposit in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. It is has a territory of 7 decares (app. 1.75 acres).

The extraction of rock salt began during the Late Neolithic, about 5,400-5,000 BC, with the prehistoric residents of the town boiling water from a local salt water spring in ceramic vessels placed inside large domed kilns, and producing salt bricks which they traded and used for the preservation of meat.

The Salt Pit settlement near Provadiya is Europe’s earliest known case of the use of this salt-making technology making Provadiya the oldest salt producing center on the continent.

The life of the ProvidiyaSolnitsata settlement continued during the Mid Chalcolithic, i.e. between 4,600 and 4,500 BC, and the Late Chalcolithic, between 4,500 and 4,200 BC, when it developed further into a major salt making complex, with the initial kilns being replaced by open-air salt pits up to 10 meters in diameter.

The prehistoric people would light an open fire at the bottom of the pit to boil the salt water in large clay bowls. It is estimated that in this period the town was inhabited by about 350 people.

The Salt Pit settlement near Bulgaria’s Provadiya has yielded a number of other intriguing discoveries such as Europe’s earliest two-storey homes from the Late Neolithic which were used for both dwelling, and salt making, as well as a granary where the archaeologists have found four sickles made of deer horns.

The lucrative extraction and trade of rock salt are believed to have led to the accumulation of wealth by the prehistoric inhabitants of the Provadiya – Solnitsata settlement, and have been linked to the gold treasure of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis (4,500-4,200 BC), the oldest hoard of gold objects found in the world, which is located 37 km to the east.

The riches of the settlement had to be protected which is why during the Mid Chalcolithic its inhabitants built a fortification consisting of a moat and a rampart wall of oak poles covered with clay as well as two large-scale stone bastions.

The bastions were destroyed by an earthquake around 4,550 BC leading the prehistoric people to build new walls made of stone, which also were destroyed by an earthquake. The moat in front of the fortress walls had a diameter of about 100 meters, and was over 2 meters wide, and 3.3 meters deep.

The archaeological artifacts from the fortified prehistoric settlement Provadiya – Solnitsata are part of the collections of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and Provadiya Museum of History.

Europe’s oldest prehistoric town was first excavated in 2005, and has been studied ever since, by lead archaeologist Prof. Vasil Nikolov and Assoc. Prof. Krum Bachvarov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences .