Archaeologists Resume Excavations of Ancient Roman Colony Ratiaria in Bulgaria’s Archar with Limited Government Funding

After they were terminated for lack of money back in 1991, the archaeological excavations of the Ancient Roman colony of Ratiaria were resumed in 2013, and have taken place every year since then, albeit with often insufficient funding. Photo: Radio Vidin

After they were terminated for lack of money back in 1991, the archaeological excavations of the Ancient Roman colony of Ratiaria were resumed in 2013, and have taken place every year since then, albeit with often insufficient funding. Photo: Radio Vidin

The archaeological excavations of the Ancient Roman colony Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria in Bulgaria’s northwestern town of Archar on the Danube River have been resumed as of October 8, 2015, with limited funding from the Bulgarian government.

Because of the meager funding, the 2015 digs at Ratiaria can hardly be expected to achieve the same results as in 2014 when the government funding was almost eight times greater, and the archaeologists discovered two altars from a temple of goddess Diana, excavated in full the residence of the Governor of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, and for the first excavated the city’s northern fortress wall, among other things.

Unfortunately, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has provided only BGN 12,000 (app. EUR 6,200) for the 2015 summer excavations at Ratiaria – one of the greatest Roman cities in the entire Roman Empire, whose ruins, however, have been ripped apart by looting treasure hunters in the past 25 years, i.e. since the collapse of the Bulgarian communist regime in 1989.

In comparison, in 2014, the government funding for the summer digs at Ratiaria was BGN 80,000 (app. EUR 40,000), and even in 2013 when the research of the Roman city was resumed for the first time in 25 years, the sum was greater – BGN 15,000 (app. EUR 7,600).

The meager funding has discouraged lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, whose research team also includes archaeologists from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, Assoc. Prof. Ivo Topalilov from the Shumen University “Bishop Konstantin Preslavski”, and Nikolay Rusev, a Ph.D. candidate at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

The team for the 2015 digs at Ratiaria, which are planned to last only until October 20, 2015, consists of 5 archaeologists, 17 local workers, and 3 interns, reports BTA.

The excavations will focus on a small section next to the Decumanus, i.e. the main street of the Ancient Roman city, located next to the residence of the Governor of the province of Moesia Superior, which was fully excavated in 2014.

The archaeologists are also planning to continue their work on the Late Antiquity thermae (public baths), and the northern fortress wall of Ratiaria which overlooks the Danube River.

“This wall is known to be 350 meters long, and to have been preserved very well,” Dimitrov is quoted as saying.

“We will continue to clear away the mounds left behind by the treasure hunters’ digging. From last year we still have a project for fencing off at least the central part of the archaeological site covering an area of 800 decares (app. 200 acres) but unfortunately this project has not been realized,” he adds regarding the security of the Roman city which has come to symbolize the all-out failure of the Bulgarian institutions and society to protect its archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage from the treasure hunting and antique trafficking mafia.

Dimitrov reminds his and his colleagues’ conclusion from the 2014 discoveries, namely, the two altars with governors’ inscriptions, that the Ancient Roman colony of Ratiaria had a temple of goddess Diana.

Both altars are about 1.5 meters tall, and their inscriptions are written in Latin. One of them even has a clear date – 151 AD, during the rule of Roman Emperor Antonius Pius (r. 138-161 AD).  The other inscription is also from the 2nd century AD.

The altars were erected by two of the Governors of the Roman Province of Moesia Superior (Ratiaria was the capital of Moesia Superior) – Fabius Minicius Opimianus and Mumius Sisana Rutilianus.

In the inscriptions, the former called goddess Diana “the Saintly”, and the latter called her “Augusta”.

“Such columns with inscriptions on them would always stand in yards or inside the temple complexes of the Roman Empire,” explains Dimitrov.

He notes that the style of the inscriptions found in 2014 indicates that they came from the urban setting of Ratiaria, and not from an outside shrine.

“This means that we can be sure of the existence of a temple of Diana in this Roman colony. Both inscriptions are in Latin which is normal for a region that was so strongly Romanized at the time,” says the lead archaeologist.

Dimitrov also emphasizes that despite the more than two decades of treasure hunting raids in Ratiaria, the Roman city still has intact layers and thus harbors an enormous potential for the conservation and exhibition in situ of a number of archaeological structures such as homes, temples, fortress walls, streets, thermae, and public buildings.

“Our main goal is to develop the site by removing the mounds [form as a result of the treasure hunters’ digging] which hid the preserved structures, and after excavating them to go ahead with projects for their restoration and conservation,” he explains.

“Ratiaria was a really major military and civilian center. The structures we are unearthing are in a rather bad condition. The city was enormous in scope, especially after it turned into a Roman colony and provincial capital. The presence of architectural complexes and public buildings is great. It demonstrates the development of Ratiaria as a Roman colony that enjoyed the highest status in the system of the Roman Empire. It ranked equally with the imperial capital Rome, adds the archaeologist.

Dimitrov believes that at least 10-15 years will be necessary for the consistent research, conservation, and restoration of Ratiaria as a unique monument of national and international importance.

While almost all of Bulgaria’s numerous archaeological sites keep getting pillaged by ruthless treasure hunters, and the Bulgarian institutions fail in (or abstain from) the effort to crack down on them, the fate of Ratiaria has been an especially outrageous case.

The archaeological excavations at Ratiaria were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex has been brutally looted and excavated by scores of treasure hunters – from poor local diggers to well-organized antique trafficking mobsters. It is alleged that in the 1990s the Roman city was bulldozed by the local mafia with the alleged participation of some government officials, while local Roma clans have been picking at the archaeological site by hand for decades. The treasure hunting plight of Ratiaria (and Bulgaria, for that matter) was documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past”. This film pretty much makes it clear that the looting of Ratiaria keeps taking place on an hourly basis so announcements about new damages are no news. The overall damage sustained by the Roman city from modern day treasure hunters can hardly be calculated.

Also check out our other recent stories about the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria in Bulgaria’s Archar:

Bulgarian Archaeologist Discouraged over Meager Funding for Excavations of Looted Ancient Roman City Ratiaria

Ancient Roman City Ratiaria in Bulgaria’s Archar Assaulted by Brutal Treasure Hunters Yet Again

Bulgarian Treasure Hunter Receives Jail Sentence over Digs in Ancient Roman City Ratiaria

Archaeologists Find Altars Showing Ancient Roman Colony Ratiaria in Bulgaria’s Archar Had Temple of Goddess Diana

Background Infonotes:

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 vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

Ratiaria, also known as Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, is an Ancient Roman arsenal city located on the right bank of the Lower Danube, near today’s Bulgarian town of Archar, in the Vidin District. Some scholars believe that the city of Ratiaria was first founded by the Thracian tribe Moesi in the 4th century BC, near a gold mine. In 29 BC, the Moesi were defeated by Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus sealing the Roman conquest of today’s Northwest Bulgaria. All of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD, and in 87 AD, Roman Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD) organized the region of Moesia into the Roman provinces of Moesia Superior (in today’s Northwest Bulgaria and Eastern Serbia) and Moesia Inferior (in today’s Northern Central and Northeast Bulgaria, and the Romanian part of the region of Dobrudzha).

It is assumed that the Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria was set up during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD). After the Roman conquest of the Dacians, the Thracian tribes north of the Danube, in 107 AD, Ratiaria became a colony in Moesia Superior under the name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, taking the names of its founder, Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD). In 271 AD, Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD) transformed the province of Moesia Superior into the province of Dacia Aureliana with its capital at Serdica (today’s Sofia), after vacating Dacia Traiana beyond the Danube. Around 283 AD, Dacia Aureliana was divided into two provinces, Dacia Mediterranea, with its capital at Serdica, and Dacia Ripensis (“Dacia from the banks of the Danube”) with its capital at Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria).

Throughout its entire existence in the Roman Empire, and later the Early Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), Ratiaria was a key Roman outpost defending the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the frontier area of the Roman Empire on the Lower Danube. It was one of a total of six Roman arsenal cities, i.e. producers of arms, along the Limes Moesiae. The Roman Legion Legio IV Flavia Felix (“Lucky Flavian 4th Legion) was based at Ratiaria at least until the Roman conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD). During the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), it was the headquarters of Classis Moesica, the Lower Danube fleet of the Roman Empire established between 20 BC and 10 AD, which controlled the Danube from the Iron Gates to the Northwest Black Sea as far as the Crimean (Taurica) Peninsula. At different points in time, it was headquartered at Noviodunum (near Isaccea, today’s Romania), Ratiaria, Sexaginta Prista (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse), and with secondary bases at Novae (near Bulgaria’s Svishtov) and Ulpia Oescus (near Bulgaria’s Gigen), and Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania).

The name of Ratiaria is derived from the Latin word “ratis” (raft) or from “ratiaria”, a type of vessel, signifying its significance for the Roman Navy, especially since only two of all Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae have names connected with sailing – Ratiaria and Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships”, today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse). As the capital of Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis, Ratiaria served as the seat of the military governor and the base for Legio XIII Gemina (the 13th Twin Legion). Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria was the home of many Roman patricians (aristocrats). According to 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, the city of Ratiaria existed until 586 AD when it was destroyed in a barbarian invasion of the Avars.

The Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria is located on a high terrace with an area of 60 hectares (app. 148 acres), overlooking the Danube River, about 30-40 above the river; from the east and south it is surrounded by the Archaritsa River. It was mentioned by Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) in his work “Geography” in the 2nd century AD, and was marked in the 4th century AD Tabula Peutingeriana (the Peutinger Map showing cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire, covering Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia), and was mentioned in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus”), an Ancient Roman register of road stations. The name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria is first mentioned in a Roman inscription from 125 AD. Other inscriptions discovered by the Bulgarian and Italian archaeologists excavating the site in the 1980s indicate that the city of Ratiaria had a lot of resident settlers from the Italian Peninsula as well as aristocrats of Eastern origin. One of the finds is a rare inscription dedicated to the Roman deity Pales, a patron of shepherds, flocks, and livestock.

Judging by the excavated graves and numerous discovered artifacts, slabs, statues (for example, a marble statue of the resting Hercules (Heracles)), and sarcophagi, Ratiaria was a key center of arts, agriculture and crafts, and there are indications that many of the landed estates around the city were cultivated with slave labor. In the 2nd-3rd century AD, it likely emerged as the most important Ancient Roman urban center not just in the province of Moesia Superior but also in the entire northern part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its importance as a commercial center was underlined by the major Roman roads passing through it: the road from the Roman city of Singidunum (today’s Belgrade in Serbia) to the delta of the Danube, and from there down the Western Black Sea coast to the city of Byzantium, which later became Constantinople; the Roman roads from the province of Dacia to the Italian Peninsula.

Some of the most interesting Late Antiquity structures excavated at Ratiaria include a building with agricultural tools, clay lamps, household items, and Byzantine coins from the middle of the 6th century AD, a building with a mosaic floor which likely was an Early Christian basilica, and pipes from the main aqueduct of Ratiaria. Bones of a total of 18 species of wild and domestic animals have been found there. According to Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev, the most interesting of those are the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus colchicus), and the now nearly extinct in Bulgaria griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus).

Modern-day archaeological interest in the Ancient Roman city of Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria first started in the 1860s when it was visited by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz. In the 1890s, it was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vaclav Dobrusky, and in 1900 – by Bulgarian archaeologist Boris Dyakovich. The first paper on the history of Ratiaria was published in 1911 by Nikifor Nedelev, and in the first half of the 20th century his word was built upon by archaeologists Ivan Velkov, Georti Katsarov, and Bogdan Filov. In the 1960s, Ratiaria’s history was explored by archaeologists Velizar Velkov and Boris Gerov. In 1958-1968, Ratiaria was partly excavated by archaeologists from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, including its then Director Yordanka Atanasova. In the 1980s, Ratiaria was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-Italian archaeological expedition led by Prof. Dario Giorgetti and Prof. Maria Bollini from the University of Bologna, which led to the publication of a the four-volume collection book Ratiariensia. Also in the 1980s, Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kuzmanov excavated the residence of the governor of the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis.

Unfortunately, the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria affected negatively the research and security of the Ancient Roman city. The archaeological excavations were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex has been brutally looted and excavated by scores of treasure hunters – from poor local diggers to well-organized antique trafficking mobsters. It is alleged that in the 1990s the Roman city was bulldozed by the local mafia with the alleged participation of some government officials, while local Roma clans have been picking at the archaeological site by hand for decades. The treasure hunting plight of Ratiaria (and Bulgaria, for that matter) was documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past”. The damage done to one of the largest Roman cities outside Italy can hardly be calculated. The archaeological excavations of Ratiaria were resumed in 2011 by archaeologist Krasimira Luka from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, and in 2013 by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.