Archaeologists Find Ceramic Sarcophagus in Necropolis of Ancient Greek Polis Apollonia Pontica in Bulgaria’s Sozopol

This ceramic sarcophagus has been found in one of the newly excavated graves of the necropolis of the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica, today's resort town of Sozopol on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Photo: TV grab from BNT

This ceramic sarcophagus has been found in one of the newly excavated graves of the necropolis of the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica, today’s resort town of Sozopol on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A ceramic sarcophagus is one of the most interesting finds from the 2015 archaeological excavations of the necropolis of the Ancient Greek polis Apollonia Pontica, today’s Bulgarian town of Sozopol, on the Black Sea coast.

The archaeological excavations in the area known as “Misarite” near Sozopol have been led by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Krastina Panayotova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Dr. Alexandre Baralis from the Department of Ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

“This year we have studied one structure and a total of eight funeral facilities. For a person who has been studying the necropolis of Apollonia for so long, it has been a very pleasant surprise for me to discover a ceramic sarcophagus in situ,” Panayotova has told the Focus news agency in an interview.

“[The sarcophagus has] the shape of a bathtub. It was covered with slabs that had been specially made,” she adds.

“It is interesting because [sarcophagi] are very rare in the necropolis of Apollonia. From a total of some 3,000 funeral facilities that have been studied so far [over the years], this is only the third [sarcophagus] that I know of, and the first one to have been found in situ,” elaborates the archaeologist.

The inventory found in the 3rd century BC funeral is also very interesting: the person buried in the ceramic sarcophagus has a funeral wreath on their head.

The wreath is made of lead with small gold leaves and gold-plated ceramic “pearls” which are connected to the lead base with bronze wires.

The leaves and the pearls imitate the leaves and fruit of the Bay Leaf plant, according to the archaeologists.

The person buried inside the ceramic sarcophagus wears a lead wreath with small gold leaves and gold-plated ceramic pearls imitating the Bay Leaf plant which are connected to the lead base with bronze wires. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The person buried inside the ceramic sarcophagus wears a lead wreath with small gold leaves and gold-plated ceramic pearls imitating the Bay Leaf plant which are connected to the lead base with bronze wires. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Next to the funeral with the ceramic sarcophagus in the necropolis of the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica, the researchers have found a grave containing a sarcophagus made of limestone.

“This, too, is a rare occurrence. Until now, there had been only one marble sarcophagus discovered in the necropolis of Apollonia, and this [newly found one] is only the second of this kind,” says Panayotova.

She reminds that the necropolis of the Greek polis in today’s Sozopol on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast is located amidst the ruins of suburban villas and estates that were situated outside the fortress walls of the ancient city.

“The funeral remains in the area called Misarite are filling [knowledge] gaps that have existed with respect to the funeral facilities of the necropolis of Apollonia. These funerals were performed after the buildings that had existed in this place had been abandoned, and had begun to collapse. It was in their ruins that these funerals were performed in the first half of the 3rd century BC, elaborates the lead archaeologist.

In one of the graves of the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica, the dead person was found buried inside a pithos, a huge ceramic vessel often used for grain storage. Photo: TV grab from BNT

In one of the graves of the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica, the dead person was found buried inside a pithos, a huge ceramic vessel often used for grain storage. Photo: TV grab from BNT

In another one of the graves from the Apollonia necropolis excavated in 2015, the researchers have found a person buried in a pithos, i.e. a giant ceramic vessel, most often used as a container for storing grain.

“In some cases, the interpretation goes that the ceramic vessel imitates the [mother’s] womb, and the person is sent back into the ground the way they were born – inside a womb,” explains Panayotova, as cited by the Bulgarian National Television.

She says that both the ceramic sarcophagus, and the pithos found in the graves have led her to believe that the residents of Apollonia Pontica might have relied on pottery making for some of their livelihood because they obviously could afford to produce such large and complex ceramic containers that did not fit inside a “standard” pottery-making kiln.

Exploration of the funeral found inside the ceramic sarcophagus in the necropolis of Ancient Greek city Apollonia Pontica (today's Bulgarian town of Sozopol). Photo: TV grab from BNT

Exploration of the funeral found inside the ceramic sarcophagus in the necropolis of Ancient Greek city Apollonia Pontica (today’s Bulgarian town of Sozopol). Photo: TV grab from BNT

The bone material from the newly excavated graves is to be examined by anthropologists in order to find more about the population of the Ancient Greek Black Sea colony of Apollonia Pontica.

“We know that the ancient Apollonians ate a lot of plant food. What was interesting for me was that they ate less fish that one would expect from residents of the Black Sea coast. Of course, they suffered from various diseases and infections. It is also interesting that the residents of this place had dental cavities 2,500 years ago,” Panayotova notes based on her years of exploration of the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica so far.

Earlier this summer, during their digs in the Apollonia necropolis in Misarite near Sozopol, the archaeologists found unique roof tiles with stamps which appear to have been dedicated to god Apollo.

“I hope that we will be able to continue to explore this very interesting site because this is the first time such a comprehensive research of a suburban estate of an Ancient Greek colony has been undertaken in Bulgaria,” states the lead archaeologist.

She adds that the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has been working on the site near the Black Sea town of Sozopol in cooperation with the Louvre Museum in Paris since 2002.

The two institutions have just completed their second cooperation contract for the excavations of Apollonia Pontica, and Panayotova hopes that a new, third contract will be signed in 2016.

Archaeologist Krastina Panayotova is seen here on the side of the grave containing the ceramic sarcophagus. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Archaeologist Krastina Panayotova is seen here on the side of the grave containing the ceramic sarcophagus. Photo: TV grab from BNT

With their excavations of the villas and estates outside the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica (Sozopol) and the necropolis found there, the Bulgarian and French archaeologists are trying to expand their understanding of the economic life of the Greek colony.

The beginning of the civilized life in the estate in the area known as Misarite is dated to the 5th century BC, and the structures and artifacts found there so far indicate that the villas there were inhabited seasonally, i.e. only during certain periods of the year.

“The fact that we have not found enough remains of hearths and heating inside the buildings, and we haven’t even found enough cooking vessels, indicates that this place was used seasonally. It was connected with some sort of work,” explains further Panayotova.

In her words, some of the finds such as fragments from amphorae and pithoi spread over a large area allude to the fact that the seasonal occupation in question of the local population might have been vine growing.

Apollonia was very important in the 5th-4th-3rd century BC. But until now we hadn’t had the opportunity to find out where the potential of this city came from. Without its economic foundation we wouldn’t be able to understand how it functioned. Now we have found that at first, there were some mines in the [Stranzha] mountain which operated in the 6th century BC but after the 5th century BC the territory [of the polis] expanded, and there had to be a greater [economic] potential for the people living in the city,” says in turn French archaeologist Alexandre Baralis, as cited by BNT.

“At the beginning, the life of the Ancient Greeks in these lands was indeed connected with copper mining. You know that the Strandzha Mountain is rich in polimetal ores. It was this copper mining that allowed Apollonia to rise, and even to build a 13-meter tall statue of god Apollo, for which the Athenian sculptor Kalamis was invited,” adds Panayotova.

“The material from the mines was worth a lot but after the 6th century BC, based on the condition of the economic life, something more must have been found,” Baralis adds.

In their excavations of the suburban estates outside Apollonia Pontica, the Bulgarian and French archaeologists have been looking precisely for these kinds of answers.

Starting with the latest archaeological layers, which are on top, however, they have been unearthing the ancient necropolis dating back to a later period, the 3rd century BC, which was formed amidst the ruins of the earlier estates.

“The owners of this property, of these estates used them in order to bury their dead in a safer place. Based on the date we have, we can say that the [estates] were abandoned in the tumultuous times after the death of Emperor Alexander the Great, and the infighting among his successors, the diadochi… At the same time, this period, the end of the 4th, and the beginning of the 3rd century BC, is the time of the Celtic invasions of these territories. So these were just tumultuous times that forced the people to go back inside the fortress walls of the city,” lead archaeologist Panayotova concludes.

Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world. An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis. Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria. Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov. The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists. In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.