Bulgaria’s Varna to Make Site of World’s Oldest Gold, Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, Accessible for Tourists

Some of the numerous gold artifacts which are part of the Varna Gold Treasure, the world’s oldest processed gold. Photo: Standart daily

Some of the numerous gold artifacts which are part of the Varna Gold Treasure, the world’s oldest processed gold. Photo: Standart daily

The Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, the archaeological site near the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna where the world’s oldest processed gold has been discovered, will be made accessible for tourists for the first time by the local authorities.

The world’s oldest processed gold, the almost 7,000-year-old Varna Gold Treasure from the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Varna, was first discovered in 1972 during the digs for the infrastructure of a canning factory in Northeast Bulgaria.

Created by the Chalcolithic Varna Culture, the treasure consisting of a wide range of gold artifacts from the funeral inventories of a number of prehistoric graves has been dated to 4560-4450 BC.

The start of the initiative to open up the site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis for visitors has been set with a project of Varna Municipality, Dimitar Dichev from the local NGO entitled “Culture and Tourism of the Bulgarian Northeast" has announced, as quoted by BTA.

The preparatory project is due to be completed by the end of November 2015; it is said to be just the first of several projects that will make the site of the world’s oldest gold accessible for tourists.

According to Dichev, at present, the site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis is unrecognizable, and only about 30 people, mostly archaeologists, are aware of its precise location which is in Varna’s Western Industrial Zone.

He believes that the site will enjoy major interest on part of Bulgarian and international tourists alike.

The site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis has been the exclusive property of the Bulgarian government since 2012.

In October 2015, the Bulgarian Cabinet granted Varna Municipality management rights over it and five other major archaeological sites in and around Varna as a measure for promoting cultural tourism.

After the completion of the initial project for designating the site, Varna Municipality is going to seek EU funding for the further development of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis as a tourist attraction, including through the establishment of a tourist information center.

The initiative harbors the possibility for further archaeological research of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis because about 30% of its known territory has never been excavated.

In the excavated section of the necropolis back in the 1970s and the 1980s, the archaeologists discovered a total of 294 graves, including 57 graves with no remains of human bones.

The bulk of the some 3,000 gold artifacts found in the necropolis were found in just three of the graves.

The total combined weight of the gold items is over 6 kg, and the gold artifacts themselves are 38 different kinds

All finds from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, including the Varna Gold Treasure, are kept at the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

The Varna gold has been exhibited all over the world in the 43 years since its discovery.

Its most recent exhibitions have been the exhibit “Varna – The Oldest Gold Treasure" on October 14-16, 2015, at the European Parliament’s Altiero Spinelli Building, on the 3rd floor, and the current Golden Legend exhibit in Japan’s Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

For the first time at the Brussels exhibit the organizers invited Raycho Marinov, 65, the man who originally discovered the treasure and the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis while he was operating an excavator back on October 22, 1972, at the age of 22.

Marinov came across several bracelets and a breastplate, collected them in a shoe box, and took them home. Having had no idea what he had stumbled upon, a couple of days later he informed the local archaeologists.

For his discovery back then, Marinov was awarded BGN 500, a substantial sum for the time equal to several monthly salaries. However, the intelligence services of the Bulgarian communist regime followed him around for a while to make sure he had not kept any artifacts for himself in order to sell them.

Learn more about the Varna Gold Treasure and the Necropolis in the Background Infonotes below.

Background Infonotes:

Bulgaria’s Varna Gold Treasure is considered the oldest processed gold in the world dating back to the time of the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) Varna Culture (usually dated to 4400-4100 BC).

It was discovered in 1972 in the so called Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis during the construction of a canning factory. It was the operator of an excavator, Raycho Marinov, then aged 22, who stumbled upon several artifacts, collected them in a shoe box, and took them to his home. A couple of days later he informed the local archaeologists. For his discovery back then, Marinov was awarded BGN 500, a substantial sum for the time equaling several monthly salaries. However, the intelligence services of the Bulgarian communist regime followed him around for a while to make sure he had not kept any artifacts for himself in order to sell them.

A total of 294 Chalcolithic graves were unearthed at the necropolis which was excavated by Bulgarian archaeologists Mihail Lazarov (in 1972–1976) and Ivan Ivanov (in 1972–1991). About 30% of the estimated territory of the necropolis is yet to be excavated.

Using radiocarbon dating, in 2006, the Chalcolithic graves where the Varna Gold Treasure was found were dated to 4560-4450 BC.

The discoveries from the necropolis indicate that the Varna Culture had trade relations with distant Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. It likely exported rock salt from the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") rock salt mine.

The shells of the Mediterranean mollusk Spondylus found in the graves in the Varna Necropolis and at other Chalcolithic sites in Northern Bulgaria may have been used as a form of currency.

Among the graves, several featured a wealth of gold artifacts indicating that as early as the Chalcolithic the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe) already had some form of statehood and a royal institution.

The gold artifacts from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis were found in graves with skeletons (mostly male) as well as in symbolic graves without human remains.

One of the most interesting inventories was found in the so called Grave No. 43 which was unearthed in the central part of the Varna Necropolis in 1974. It belonged to a male aged 40-45 but of rather substantial size for the time, 1.70-1.75 meters tall (app. 5 feet 6 – 8 inches).

The numerous gold artifacts discovered in Grave No. 43 near Bulgaria’s Varna weighbb a total of 1.5 kg which one of the reasons to believe that the buried man was a very important member of his community.

The gold items include 10 large applications, a high number of rings some which were on strings, two necklaces, an item believed to be a gold phallus, beads, golden decorations for a bow, a stone ax and a copper ax with gold decorations, a bow with gold applications.

The funeral inventory also includes a large number copper artifacts such as a copper ax, a copper claw hammer, a copper chisel and a copper awl as well as lots of stone, flint, seashell, and bone artifacts including bracelets from the Spondylus mollusk, and 11 ornately decorated ceramic vessels.

In another grave of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, Grave No. 36, a symbolic grave, the archaeologists found over 850 gold itemsa tiara, earrings, a necklace, a breastplate, bracelets, a belt, a gold hammer-scepter, a good model of a sickle, two gold lamellas representing animals, 30 models of heads of horned animals.

The artifacts were found covered with a gold-laced cloth. The gold items lined the contours of a human body with more artifacts on the right side which is deemed to signify that the grave contained a male funeral. The gold artifacts are interpreted as royal insignia.

Similar “royal" burials have also been found in graves No. 1, 4, and 5 of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis.

Another type of graves in the necropolis contains clay masks of human faces where the eyes, mouths, teeth, and noses are depicted with gold. Unlike the graves described above which contain smith tools, the graves with the mask contain clay vases, cups, and needles. That is why these are interpreted as female funerals depicting the Mother Goddess.

The closeness of the “female" symbolic graves No. 2, 3, and 15 with the symbolic royal graves No. 1, 4, and 5 are interpreted as ritual representations of holy marriages between a king and the Mother Goddess. These six funerals are believed to have been the core of the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Varna, and to have predated the rest of the graves.

Much of the meaning of the finds from the necropolis is seen as celebrating the role of the smith who in his role as a creator is seen as supplanting the role of the Mother Goddess transforming the matriarchal world into a patriarchal one.

The position of the smith in the Chalcolithic culture is seen as comparable to that of the king because during the Chalcolithic period metal was more of a status symbol than an economic means.

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The dawn of Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts dating back to the 5th millenium BC.

Ancient Odessos is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC.

However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos.

The wall (rampart) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna.

It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.

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