Lead archaeologist Elena Bozhinova shows one of the many artifacts from four major time periods – the Middle Bronze Age, the Late Hellenistic Age, the Late Antiquity, and the High Middle Ages – discovered at the western slope of the Nebet Tepe Hill in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Pod Tepeto
Structures dating back to the 1900-1700 BC, i.e. the Middle Bronze Age, which are remains from wooden homes, have been discoveredfor the first time in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, also known as the oldest city in Europe.
The team of archaeologist Elena Bozhinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology has made the important discovery together with the discoveries of structures and artifacts from a range of other time periods, reports local news site Pod Tepeto.
The location excavated by Bozhinova’s team – a privately owned property at the foot of the western slope of Nebet Tepe, one of the seven historic hills in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv which bears the earliest traces of human civilized life in the southern Bulgarian city.
In addition to the Middle Bronze Age, also for the first time in Plovdiv, the archaeologists have unearthed structures from the Late Hellenistic Period, i.e. the 2nd-1st century BC; the other finds include a Late Antiquity Early Christian necropolis, and the destroyed ruins of homes from the High Middle Ages.
Both the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Hellenistic Period had never been researched in the history of Plovdiv, or Philipopolis, as it was known in the Antiquity, after it was conquered by the King of Macedon Philip II in 342 BC.
The archaeological excavations on the property located on Plovdiv’s Tsar Boris III Blvd, which have just been completed, were realized a bit late since a year ago the owners of the plot started there the construction of an office building without notifying the local museum authorities.
After reports in the local media, however, the construction was terminated, and archaeological digs were authorized in order to inspect the site but, as it turns out, damage to the medieval archaeological layer had been done.
An aerial view of the property at the foot of the western slope of the Nebet Tepe HIll in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv where local archaeologists have found structures and artifacts from the Bronze Age, the Hellenistic Age, the Late Antiquity, and the Middle Ages. Photo: Pod Tepeto
Nonetheless, Bozhinovaand her team have made major discoveries stumbling upon an unexpectedly rich plethora of archaeological structures and artifacts from different eras at the foot of the western slope of Nebet Tepe(More about the history of Nebet Tepe and Plovdiv read in the Background Infonotes below).
While Bulgaria’s Plovdiv has deservedly been dubbed “Europe’s oldest city", there are major periods in the city’s history which have not been researched in-depth.
One of these “Dark Ages" in the history of Plovdiv, and the entire region of Southern Bulgaria, for that matter, had been the Middle Bronze Age.
Only in the past few years, the Bulgarian archaeologists have revealed a couple of archaeologicalsites dating back to the Middle Bronze Age.
The latest Middle Bronze Age discoveries in Plovdiv have now added new pieces to the puzzle of what the life and history of the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe) looked like in that period.
Thus, the team of Elena Bozhinova has found a 1.5-meter thick archaeological layer with remains of Middle Bronze Age homes.
These were primarily wooden homesbuilt on wooden platforms; the platforms served to isolate the homes from the clay soil underneath providing greater stability as the soil was susceptible to the force of the water draining down the western slope of the Nebet Tepe Hill.
What is also important about the Middle Bronze Age discoveries is that the archaeologists have found no evidence that the place was inhabited in both the Early Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age meaning all Bronze Age artifacts found there are from the Middle Bronze Age.
“From now on, this site will be a standard for further excavations in Southern Bulgaria, and probably even in all of Bulgaria. The significance of the discoveries has been assessed highly by both Bulgarian and foreign archaeologists who have come to see the site and the artifacts, and have been impressed by the new information and this archaeological luck [that we have had],"lead archaeologist Elena Bozhinova is quoted as saying.
Other views of the rescue excavations at the western slope of the Nebet Tepe Hill in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photos: Pod Tepeto
The other major time period that had been a dark spot in the history and archaeology of Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, and for which the newly excavated site has provided answers is the Late Hellenistic Period.
This is the time “between” the Ancient Thracian Philipopolis and the Roman city of Trimontium, as Plovdiv was called by the Ancient Romans, when the power of the Thracians waned, and they were subjugated by Rome.
(In 46 AD, all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube, including the Odrysian Kingdom, was conquered by the Roman Empire and was divided into several Roman provinces.)
Thus, Philipopolis / Trimontium (today’s Plovdiv) was where the Romans built one of their largest cities in the Balkan Peninsula.
While individual artifacts from earlier digs elsewhere on the territory of Europe’s oldest city had been dated to the Late Hellenistic Period, they had been thought to be insufficient evidence about the presence of permanent population in that era.
However, the new findings at the western slope of Nebet Tepe have revealed a well preserved Late Hellenistic archaeological layer.
It contains the remains of homes made of wood and clay as well as kilns, including “escharas" – decorated hearthsthat were used as home altars.
In addition to the ruins of the residential architecture, the archaeologists have found from this period a large moat with a triangular vertical section which was about 1-1.5 meters deep.
It is believed that the moat could have been used for both water draining and protection since on its outer bank ofthe archaeologists have found remains of a clay structure, and on the inner bank – a massive structure made of large stone blocks.
However, the researchers have been unable to find out more about the functions of the Late Hellenistic moat and the adjacent structures because that would require excavating the neighboring properties as well.
In addition to the hearths that were also home altars, the other most interesting finds from the Late Hellenistic period at the western slope of Nebet Tepe in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv include movable kilns, bronze coins, and bronze fibulas that the Ancient Thracians used to buttontheir clothes instead of buttons.
The finds from the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Hellenistic Period, however, are not all archaeological discoveries made on the site.
Bozhinova’s team has managed to establish what the site in question was used for by the Romans in the Late Antiquity / Late Roman Period: it was a cemetery.
The Late Roman Period was a time when Philipopolis / Trimontium / Plovdivthrived; however, it had been unclear whether the spot on the western slope of Nebet Tepe was part of the city back then because of its unwelcoming environment. The place is located to the northwest of the Nebet Tepe Hill, it is close to the Maritsa River, and may have often been flooded.
One of the dozen Late Antiquity / Late Roman graves from the newly found Early Christian necropolis at the western slope of Nebet Tepe. Photo: Pod Tepeto
The artifacts that have now been discovered there prove that at that time the spot in question was not inhabited but in the second half of the 4th century AD it was in use as a graveyard.
The archaeologists have found there a Late Antiquity Early Christian necropolis, and have excavated more than 10 graves.
The east-west orientation of the funerals indicates that this was a Christian cemetery; some of the graves were covered with tiles.
In some of the graves, especially the child graves, the archaeologists have found inventories consisting of decorations such as earrings and rings made of silver, gold, or bronze, as well as glass decorations. It is these finds that provide for the precise dating of the funerals to the second half of the 4th century AD.
Different archaeological artifacts discovered during the latest rescue digs in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest city. Photos: Pod Tepeto
The last historical and archaeological period from which the Plovdiv archaeologists have discovered major findsat the western slope of Nebet Tepe is the High Middle Ages, and, more precisely, the 12th-13th century when the city was first part of the Byzantine Empire, and then of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).
“The medieval Plovdivwas glamorous and its territory was equal to that of the Roman city Trimontium. It had a huge territory, and it was no surprise for us to discover remains from that time here as well. Unfortunately, the medieval archaeological layer had been almost completely destroyed during the construction works that were carried out before the archaeological excavations were authorized," says Bozhinova.
She adds that the medieval layer which is about 1 meter thick contained ruins of massive buildings. Only some bricks and tiles from the High Middle Ages have survived the initial construction works for the future office building.
However, the medieval finds are taken to mean that in the 12th and 13th century the site was occupied by home and was populated.
Some historical sources indicate that this part of Plovdiv was the location of a Latin Quarter, i.e. one visited and/or populated by Crusader knights on their way to the Holy Lands during the Crusades. Bozhinova says this is “not impossible".
“The discovered materials including parts of artifactsimported from Byzantium and possibly from other places different from Plovdiv are representative of the period but their origin is yet to be established. All that could confirm the hypothesis that the Latin Quarter of Plovdiv was here. We know from the historical sources that on their way to Jerusalem the Crusaders stopped here and spent time in the city. These included knights from many orders, including the Order of the Knights Templars. Unfortunately, for this particular spot, this information has been lost forever [because of the construction works], and for the time being we cannot say for sure if that was indeed the Latin Quarter of Plovdiv," the lead archaeologist sums up.
The history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe" is the Turkishword for “hill") is one of the seven historic hills where today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times. The hills, or “tepeta", are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi. During the Early Antiquity periodEumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills") as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.
In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire. In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills. Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)),Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.
Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD. In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.
Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.