Archaeologists Discover Ancient Mosaics in Roman Villa Estate with Nymphaeum near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo

Part of the edge of newly found mosaic decorations in the Ancient Roman villa estate near Bulgaria's Kasnakovo which is known for its nymphaeum. Photo: Veselka Katsarova, lead archaeologist

Part of the edge of newly found mosaic decorations in the Ancient Roman villa estate near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo which is known for its nymphaeum. Photo: archaeologist Veselka Katsarova

Intact Ancient Roman decorative mosaics have been discovered for the first time in the Roman villa estate near the town of Kasnakovo in Southern Bulgaria, which is known for its nymphaeum, i.e. a shrine dedicated to the nymphs and Aphrodite by a Thracian veteran from the Roman military.

The Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite, as the nymphaeum in question is known, is part of the Roman villa estate which was built in the middle of the 2nd century AD, and survived until the mid 4th century AD.

The site, which originally became an Ancient Thracian rock shrine in the Early Iron Age, until it was made part of the Roman military veteran’s estate in the 2nd century AD, is known especially for the still surviving inscription in Ancient Greek left by the founder and owner of the Roman villa reading,

“Good Riddance! Titus Flavius Beitukent Esbenerios, and his wife Claudia Montana built and dedicated this spring to the nymphs and Aphrodite."

While the nymphaeum, which consists of three architecturally decorated mineral water springs, has been a well known archaeological and historical site in Bulgaria for decades, after it was first excavated in 1945-1946, little of the entire Roman villa estate had been explored until the digs were resumed there in 2007, and then again in 2013 and 2015.

Now, during its latest archaeological excavations of the Roman villa near Kasnakovo, the team led by archaeologist Assist. Prof. Veselka Katsarova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia has found intact decorative mosaics in one of the buildings.

“We resumed the archaeological excavations at the nymphaeum in 2007, 70 years after the original digs. It has turned out that the archaeological site is very big, over 15 decares (app. 4 acres). Only two buildings had been excavated and exhibited in situ back in 1945-46 by Prof. Ivan Venedikov, out of a total of seven buildings. In 2007, we excavated a third building, in 2013 – a fourth building, and now – a fifth one," lead archaeologist Veselka Katsarova has told ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com.

She has likened the villa with the nymphaeum near Kasnakovo to another Ancient Roman villa in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, Villa Almira near Ivaylovgrad.

However, in the case of the site near Kasnakovo, the Roman villa estate has a more unusual planning because its buildings were situated on rock terraces, and it features the well known nymphaeum.

The major discovery from the latest excavations of the site, which took place in October – November 2015, is the decorative mosaics because while fragments from destroyed mosaics have been found there in the past, this is the first time intact wall and floor mosaics have been unearthed there.

The fifth out of a total of seven buildings in the Ancient Roman villa with the nymphaeum near Bulgaria's Kasnakovo has been excavated for the first time in 2015. Photo: Veselka Kasnakova, lead archaeologist

The fifth out of a total of seven buildings in the Ancient Roman villa with the nymphaeum near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo has been excavated for the first time in 2015. Photo: archaeologist Veselka Kasnakova

“For the first time, in the building that we have explored this year, we have found mosaics in place; there is also a wall decoration colored with Pompeian red," Katsarova says referring to the particular nuance of red known as “Pompeian red" which is named after the rich buildings painted with this color in the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii in Italy.

“We have also found lots of marble architectural details from different orders in classical architecture – Ionic and Corinthian; we have also come across fragments from a marble statue. We don’t know whose it was but it might have been of Titus Flavius because it is a male statue," adds the archaeologist.

Unfortunately, because of the limited funding, her team worked on the site for only 20 days, and managed to reveal only the edges of the mosaics decorations.

In one of the rooms of the building that has been excavated in 2015, the archaeologists unearthed the edge of monochrome white mosaic decoration.

“The room is very large, and we are going to excavate it further next year. So far we have excavated only the rim, and we don’t know what lies in the center of the mosaic decoration," Katsarova explains.

She says that the Roman villa of Titus Flavius and Cladiua Montana near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo came under attack several times in the Late Antiquity.

An aerial view of much of the Roman villa estate near Bulgaria's Kasnakovo, with the nymphaeum, i.e. the Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite visible in the right (also view the photo below). Photo: Veselka Katsarova, lead archaeologist

An aerial view of much of the Roman villa estate near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo, with the nymphaeum, i.e. the Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite visible on the right (also view the photo below). Photo: archaeologist Veselka Katsarova

Two of the five (out of a total of seven) buildings that have been excavated there so far were used for residential purposes.

One of those two, the building explored in 2007, was burned down in the middle of the 3rd century AD, most probably during the invasion of the Goths in 251 AD, and was never rebuilt.

The building excavated in 2015 was also destroyed in the mid 3rd century but was restored in the 370s, and survived until the middle of the 4th century AD.

Thus, the Roman villa estate near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo known for its nymphaeum, the Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite, still harbors great potential for further exploration.

“This is the only [proven] nymphaeum in Bulgaria. In general, the nymphaeums were more typical for the urban environment. A lot of the ancient cities had them. They are like fountains, and one of their functions was to make the urban environment more beautiful. Especially in Asia Minor there were many nymphaeums that were built pro bono, in order to decorate the respective city," says the archaeologist.

“This nymphaeum here is found in the private mansion of Titus Flavius and Claudia Montana. Apparently, they were very well off because they could afford to decorate their estate in line with what was fashionable [in the Roman Empire]," she concludes.

An aerial view of the nymphaeum, i.e. the Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite, with its three mineral springs, which is part of the Ancient Roman villa of Titus Flavius and Claudia Montana built in the 2nd century AD. The place originally was an Ancient Thracian rock shrine dating back to the Early Iron Age. Photo: Veselka Katsarova, lead archaeologist

An aerial view of the nymphaeum, i.e. the Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite, with its three mineral springs, which is part of the Ancient Roman villa of Titus Flavius and Claudia Montana built in the 2nd century AD. The place originally was an Ancient Thracian rock shrine dating back to the Early Iron Age. Photo: archaeologist Veselka Katsarova

Background Infonotes:

The Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite, i.e. a nymphaeum near Bulgaria’s Kasnakovo, Dimitrovgrad Municipality, Haskovo District, is part of an Ancient Roman villa complex of several buildings.

It is one of the best preserved Ancient Thracian shrines in Bulgaria. The nymphaeum, i.e. a water fountain, was built on top of an Ancient Thracian religious complex (originally dating back to the Early Iron Age) by the family of Titus Flavius, a veteran from the Roman military, and his wife Claudia Montana, as indicated by an inscription in Ancient Greek that has been preserved to this day.

The nymphaeum and the Roman villa that it was part of were built in the middle of the 2nd century AD, and existed until the middle of the 4th century AD.

The shrine was hewn into a karst rock, and has the shape of a semi-ellipse. It used to have a monumental colonnade whose foundations have been preserved. The nymphaeum itself consists of three mineral water springs with architectural decoration, while the Roman villa complex includes a total of seven buildings.

This has been the only known nymphaeum found in Bulgaria (even though in 2015, what appears also to be a nymphaeum was discovered in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon).

In Ancient Thracian, Greek, Roman, and other mythologies, the nymphs were minor female deities associated with a particular place. In Bulgarian folklore that emerged after the time of the Ancient Thracians, their “successors" are known as “samodivas". Even though Aphrodite is known as the Greek goddess of love, beauty, fertility, etc., it is known that a number of the deities that later became known as Greek gods were worshipped first or simultaneously by the Ancient Thracians.

The name of the founder and owner of the Roman villa estate who set up the nymphaeum on top of the earlier Thracian shrine is revealed by the inscription in Ancient Greek preserved over the central of the three springs. It reads,

“Good Riddance! Titus Flavius Beitukent Esbenerios, and his wife Claudia Montana built and dedicated this spring to the nymphs and Aphrodite."

After the Roman villa estate was ultimately destroyed in the middle of the 3rd century AD, the nymphaeum with its mineral springs continued to be considered a holy place for gatherings, with the popularity of the pagan shrine persisting in Christian times to this day. After the adoption of Christianity in the region, a chapel named after the Ascension of Christ was built near the springs; however, very little has been remained of it.

During the period of the Ottoman Empire, the site was known as the “Infidels’ Spring" meaning that the local Bulgarian population continued to worship the place in the Late Middle Ages.

Even today, the locals from Kasnakovo and the region gather there for community meetings every year on Ascension Day.

Another place near Kasnakovo and the nymphaeum is also of historical significance – the nearby town of Klokotnitsa where in 1230 AD, Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) defeated the powerful Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD.

The Shrine of the Nymphs and Aphrodite was first excavated by Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Ivan Venedikov in 1945-1946. In 1968, it was declared “a monument of culture of national importance" by the Bulgarian government back.

The excavations of the nymphaeum and the Roman villa estate were resumed in 2007 by Dimitrovgrad Municipality, and have been led by Assist. Prof. Veselka Katsarova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

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