1st Century AD Inscription Found in Ancient Thracian Tomb in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo Turns Out to Be Verse from Solon’s ‘Prayer to the Muses’

The inscription that was printed on the balsamarium found in a 1st century AD Ancient Thracian grave in Bulgaria's Tatarevo after the vessel was wrapped in a parchment has turned out to be a verse from the Athenian poet and politician Solon. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

The inscription that was printed on the balsamarium found in a 1st century AD Ancient Thracian grave in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo after the vessel was wrapped in a parchment has turned out to be a verse from the Athenian poet and politician Solon. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

The 1st century AD inscription which has recently been discovered printed (most likely, by accident) on an ancient vessel in an Ancient Thracian burial mound near the town of Tatarevo in Southern Bulgaria has been found out to be a verse from the poem “Prayer to the Muses" by Ancient Greek poet and statesman Solon.

The inscription, which was printed on a clay vessel, was found in August 2015 by the archaeologists excavating a Thracian tumulus (burial mound) repeatedly targeted by treasure hunters in the town of Tatarevo, Parvomay Municipality, in Southern Bulgaria.

The vessel with the “printed" inscription in Greek is a balsamarium (an ancient vessel for holding balsam).

It was found by the tem of the Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, Kostadin Kisyov, inside the fourth, and most likely main grave in the so called Great Ancient Thracian Mound in Tatarevo.

Because of the fact that ancient inscriptions on vessels are usually engraved while the one from the Tatarevo Mound appears to have been printed, with straight lines of letters, the Bulgarian archaeologists have figured out that the “printing" on the balsamarium was most likely accidental, and appeared after the vessel was wrapped in a parchment on which the actual text was written.

The Ancient Greek text on the balsamarium from the Great Ancient Thracian Mound in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo has now been deciphered, reports the 24 Chasa daily citing lead archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov.

It appears to be part of a quote from the poem “Prayer to the Muses" by the glorious Athenian politician and poet Solon (ca. 638 – ca. 558 BC), who, among other things, is credited with laying the foundations of the democracy of Ancient Athens.

The quote from Solon’s poem that was printed on the vessel from the parchment the balsamarium was wrapped into has been found to be part of the following verse of “Prayer to the Muses":

“[Grant me from the blessed gods prosperity, and] from all mankind the possession ever of good repute; [and that I may thus be a delight to my friends, and an affliction to my foes, by the first revered], by the others beheld with dread."*

(*The part of the verse that actually appears printed on the balsamarium is in Bold. The English translation of Solon’s “Prayers to the Muses" is based on the following source: http://thriceholy.net/Texts/Solon.html.)

“This is a unique find because it is the first time a parchment with the text of a literary work has ever been found in Bulgaria – and in a “negative" in which the letters are backwards," says lead archaeologist Kostadin Kostadinov.

He concludes that the man who was buried in the fourth and deepest Ancient Thracian tomb in the Great Mound in Tatarevo, and in whose grave the archaeological team found the balsamarium with the printed inscription, was likely a spiritual figure.

“Apparently, the buried [man] was not a warrior because there were no armaments or expensive decorations, which shows he was a spiritual figure. In the Antiquity, people like him were the most erudite," explains the archaeologist.

Kisyov reminds that his team rescued in the last minute the Great Ancient Thracian Mound near Tatarevo from treasure hunters who had started to make tunnels into the mound in search for the Thracian tombs beneath.

“The treasure hunters had dug up tunnels but, luckily, they had not reached the tombs. If they had robbed them, they would have sold this find (the balsamarium) for a lot of money," he points out.

Archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, is seen here during the excavations of the Great Ancient Thracian Mound near Bulgaria's Tatarevo where his team beat the treasure hunters to the discovery of four Thracian graves. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

Archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, is seen here during the excavations of the Great Ancient Thracian Mound near Bulgaria’s Tatarevo where his team beat the treasure hunters to the discovery of four Thracian graves. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

The Great Mound near Tatarevo has a diameter of 60 meters, it is 12 meters tall, and was covered with 26,000 cubic meters of soil.

Because of the four graves found underneath the mound, Kisyov believes it was an Ancient Thracian family tomb.

The man buried in Grave No. 4 underneath the Mound was cremated, and the grave had a meager inventory – a total of four clay vessels, including the balsamarium with the printed inscription, and an iron spear tip.

“The parchment itself [that the balsamarium was wrapped in] has almost completely disintegrated. This technique [of writing] was used first in Ancient Egypt, and later spread to Ancient Greece and Rome," Kisyov notes.

The archaeologist believes that the spiritual figure buried in the fourth grave of the Tatarevo Mound came from the Odrysians, the tribe that formed the most powerful Ancient Thracian state, the Odrysian Kingdom, and that he was a learned man who could read Solon’s poem written in Ancient Greek on the parchment found in his grave.

“These works were sold in the Antiquity like books. The owner of this parchment acquired it because he liked what Solon had written," the archaeologist speculates.

The balsamarium with the quote from Solon’s “Prayer to the Muses" will be restored, and will become part of the permanent collection of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology which has over 160,000 artifacts.

The Thracian inscription printed on the balsamarium found in the Tatarevo Mound is the second Thracian inscription found in the region around the town of Parvomay in Southern Bulgaria.

In 1912, an inscription was found on a gold ring (discovered in a Thracian burial mound) near the town of Ezerovo, which belonged to a Thracian aristocrat.

The letters in the balsamarium inscription found in the Tatarevo Mound were written with ink made from cinder and natural dyes that left an imprint on the clay vessel.

The hypothesis that the printing was unintentional is also confirmed by the fact that on one of its sides the lines of letters are horizontal, while next to that they appear at an angle, and the bottom has an imprint from the folding of the parchment.

The inscription indicates that the local Thracians were literate. They used Greek instead of Latin letters even though by that time – the second half of 1st century AD – they were already part of the Roman Empire (Rome conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube in 46 AD, with the Thracian aristocracy generally becoming absorbed as Roman provincial aristocracy).

The balsamarium with the “printed" inscription is one of the vessels found in Grave No. 4 of the Great Mound in Tatarevo which is the last one that has been discovered by the Plovdiv archaeologists, and is thought to have been the central tomb in what appears to have been a family burial mound.

Not unlike the burial of the Ancient Thracian princess in Grave No. 2 of the same mound, the person buried in Grave No. 4 was also cremated. The corpse was placed in a rectangular pit with dimensions 2 by 3.5 meters, it was covered with firewood, and was burned.

In the northeast corner of the grave, the archaeologists have found funeral inventory consisting of 4 clay vessels and a small iron spear tip; these artifacts have been preserved because they were placed in the grave after the cremation. Another discovered artifact is a metal fragment from sole of a man’s sandal.

Two other graves have also been found in the Great Mound in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo. Grave No. 1 was lying at a depth of 3 meters below the surface of the mound, and was a Christian funeral in which the corpse was placed in the east-west direction, with the hands crossed on it. Grave No. 3 is the grave of a child who was also cremated; it was found 9 meters beneath the surface. Grave No. 2, i.e. the grave of the Thracian princess, which was found at a depth of 6 meters, was more precisely dated thanks to the discovery of a large clay basin with seals indicating that it was made ca. 90 AD.

The excavation of the Ancient Thracian mound in Tatarevo is one of the not so many cases in which the Bulgarian archaeologists have managed to beat the ruthless treasure hunters looting the country’s thousands of archaeological sites, after Plovdiv Municipality provided emergency funding for the excavations, and after the Thracian tumuli in Tatarevo were targeted by treasure hunters as recently as June 2015.

Back in 2013, through emergency excavations, Kisyov managed to save from treasure hunters six Thracian funerals found under the so called Pamuk Mogila mound in the town of Brestovitsa where the most impressive discovery was a very rare war helmet of a Thracian aristocrat from the 1st-2nd century AD, which was recently showcased for the first time, and, judging by the readership of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, generated global interest.

Learn more about the Ancient Thracian burial mound known as Pamuk Mogila in the Background Infonotes below.

Another view of the inscription on the balsamarium. The vessel has been found in the main grave of the Great Burial Mound in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo. Photo: Parvomai.net

Another view of the inscription on the balsamarium. The vessel has been found in the main grave of the Great Burial Mound in Bulgaria’s Tatarevo. Photo: Parvomai.net

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian tumulus (burial mound) known as Pamuk Mogila near the town of Brestovitsa, Plovdiv District, in Southern Bulgaria, was excavated in emergency rescue excavations in 2013 since it had been targeted by treasure hunters. It was excavated by a team led by Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, after local treasure hunters had dug up a 13-meter tunnel into the burial mound in search of the graves inside, and Kisyov himself had been trying to find funding for five years.

The emergency digs were funded by Plovdiv Municipality and Rodopi Municipality a total of BGN 50,000 (app. EUR 25,500). Luckily, the treasure hunters had not managed to find the graves inside the mound, and Kisyov and his team discovered them. The huge tumulus, which was 14 m tall and had a diameter of 70 m, harbored a total of six graves, including the grave of a Thracian aristocrat from the 1st-2nd century AD.

The archaeologists discovered about 80 artifacts, including a golden ring, a silver ring, a bronze ring, a parade combat helmet, two iron swords, three spears, a bronze coin (an obol for Charon, the ferryman of Hades who, according to Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman mythology, carries the souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron in the underworld), 4 glass balsamaria with essential oils, 4 clay vessels, 2 bronze hydria for water and wine, bronze phiales (pateras), two candelabra, among others. Kisyov believes that because of the proximity of the Pamuk Mogila mound to ancient Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) it might have been a tomb for an aristocratic family that ruled the city. The Ancient Thracians believed in afterlife and they placed a lot of personal belongings in the graves and tombs of their dead.

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Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the majority of whom appear to be impoverished low-level diggers.

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