Pottery Analysis Reveals Visigoths Settled En Masse in Northeast Bulgaria Shortly before Roman Empire’s Division

Newly discovered pottery from the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria's Popovo indicates that the Roman city was settled by Visigoths in the last quarter of the 4th century AD. Photo: Popovo Municipality

Newly discovered pottery from the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria’s Popovo indicates that the Roman city was settled by Visigoths in the last quarter of the 4th century AD. Photo: Popovo Municipality

An archaeological analysis of the pottery discovered recently in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near the town of Popovo in Northeast Bulgaria has revealed that the Roman city and its region were settled by a large number of Visigoths in the last quarter of the 4th century AD, shortly before the ultimate division of the Roman Empire into a Western and Eastern Roman Empire in 395 AD.

The scientific analysis of the huge amount of ceramic vessels and fragments found at the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress has been carried out as part of its archaeological excavations by archaeologists from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius", and has been funded by Popovo Municipality, the municipal press service has announced in a release.

The recent excavations have led to the discovery of a huge Ancient Roman building from the 4th century AD which appears to have been a horreum (i.e. a granary).

The Late Roman fortress Kovachevsko Kale near Bulgaria’s Popovo was built in the 4th century AD to fortify the medium-sized Roman city existing there whose real name remains unknown against the barbarian invasions targeting the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (Lower Moesia, today’s Northern and Northeast Bulgaria) coming from the lands north of the Danube. (Learn more about the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress in the Background Infonotes below.)

It now turns out that just several decades later, in the last quarter of the 4th century AD, the Roman city known today as the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress was overrun by the invading Visigoths, one of the two main branches of the Germanic peoples known collectively as the Goths, who displaced the local population and settled there en masse.

This conclusion is based on the discovery and examination of the so called polished gray pottery and gray-black pottery, which is known as being typical of the Eastern Germanic tribes, and the Goths in particular, the researching archaeologists have concluded.

The researchers have found that 87% of the fragments of a total of 33 different types of ceramic vessels found in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress consist of gray and gray-black pottery.

Sorting out pottery fragments discovered in the recent excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria's Popovo. Photos: Popovo Municipality

Sorting out pottery fragments discovered in the recent excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria’s Popovo. Photos: Popovo Municipality

Kovachevsko Kale Pottery 3 The polished gray pottery alone makes up 22%. It is represented by several types of pithoi and jugs whose outer surface is decorated with polished vertical strips. The vessels in question were made of fine quality purified clay, while the gray color was produced with a special baking technology.

The archaeologists say that this type of pottery was widespread from the second half of the 4th century AD until the beginning of the 5th century AD.

The gray-black pottery found in the Roman city near Bulgaria’s Popovo consists of household vessels such as dishes and bowls, and kitchen vessels such as three different types of jugs and one type of lid.

In addition to the gray and gray-black pottery, the researchers of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress have also discovered four different types of amphorae, dolia (large earthenware vases), and luxury red-gloss ceramics consisting of bowls imported from Asia Minor (Anatolia/Pontus).

“The archaeological evidence and materials gathered as a result of the excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress show that during the [Roman Empire’s] war with the Goths of 376-382 AD, when Eastern Roman Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 AD) perished in the horrific massacre of the Battle of Adrianople, the fortress was conquered, looted, and burned down," say the archaeologists.

“The local population residing there before that most probably had to leave, and the wandering Goth foederatti, who had been given land by Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395 AD), settled in their stead," the researchers conclude.

They add that the Visigoths settling in the Roman city near Bulgaria’s Popovo attached their shanty homes made of wooden poles plastered with mud to the thick fortress wall or the ruins of the massive Roman buildings inside it.

The Gothic War of 376-382 AD started after the Visigoths living north of the Danube, in today’s Romania, were allowed to move into the Roman province of Moesia Inferior as foederati, after they had come under attack by the Huns from the east and northeast. The initial peaceful settlement of the Visigoths was compromised by a food shortage that led to a rebellion, and an all-out war with the Romans.

The Bulgarian archaeologists also point out that the inscriptions discovered in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress on walls and pottery vessels show that the original Antiquity period population of the Roman city used primarily the Ancient Greek alphabet, rather than the Latin alphabet, which was not the scholars’ expectation.

Many of the newly found ceramic vessels testifying to the settlement of the Visigoths in today’s Northeast Bulgaria at the end of the 4th century AD can be viewed at the newly built visitors’ center at the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress, Popovo Municipality says.

Analysis of ceramic vessel fragments discovered in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress. Photos: Popovo Municipality

Analysis of ceramic vessel fragments discovered in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress. Photos: Popovo Municipality

Kovachevsko Kale Pottery 7 Kovachevsko Kale Pottery 5 Kovachevsko Kale Pottery 6 Also check out our other recent story about the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria:

Archaeologists Discover Huge Ancient Roman Horreum (Granary) in Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria’s Popovo

Background Infonotes:

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress is a Late Antiquity and Late Roman fortress located 6 km west of the town of Popovo, Targovishte District, in Northeast Bulgaria. (“Kale" is a Turkish word meaning “fortress" left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria whose proper names are sometimes unknown.) Its present-day name comes from the names of the nearby town of Kovachovets and the Kovachevska River.

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress is located at the junction of the small river Chepez Dere and the Kovachevska River, in a small plain, near three relatively large plateaus.

During the Cretaceous of the Mesosoic Era, the region was the bottom of a warm tropical sea, a fact testified to by the numerous finds of belemnite fossils.

The Late Roman fortress Kovachevsko Kale near Bulgaria’s Popovo was built in the 4th century AD fortifying a medium-sized Roman city. Based on the numerous coins, the bricks with imperial seals, and the construction technology, the archaeologists believe that impressive fortifications were erected between 308 and 324 AD, during the reigns of Roman Emperors Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), and Licinius (r. 308-324 AD) who ruled the Roman Empire together as rivaling Augusti under the Tetrarchy system. (Licinius was defeated and bby Constantine in the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324 AD.)

The Kovachevsko Kale features a mighty fortress wall which was about 3.2 meters wide, and encompassed an area of more than 40 decares (app. 10 acres). It had 17 towers sticking out of the fortress wall, including 4 round towers at its corners, two gates, a bridge over the Chepez Dere river, and a underground water bmade of clay pipes.

The archaeological excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress started in 1990, and have been in progress ever since. The archaeologists have excavated a total of five fortress towers – two on the northern fortress wall, two on the western gate, and one on the western fortress wall.

Other finds from the excavations include the ruins of a pagan shrine and a building next to it, a large building from the Byzantine period as well as two buildings from the 4th century AD located in the southern part of the fortress.

During the excavations, the archaeologists have discovered a total of three archaeological layers formed as a result of the construction and collapse of the Roman structures as well as an earlier layer predating the construction of the Roman fortress by several centuries which dates back to the Late Iron Age, i.e. the period of Ancient Thrace but has not been explored yet.

The first period of the life of the Roman fortress Kovachevsko Kale ended when the city was set on fire in the Second Gothic War of 376-382 AD, and life was not restored to the city immediately. The second period refers to the time until the invasions of the Huns led by Attila around 447 AD. The third period was ended by the destruction caused by the invasion of the Slavs and Avars in the 580s.

The latest Byzantine coins to have been found in Kovachevsko Kale were mined by Byzantine Emperor Justin II (565-578 AD) in 578 AD. Coins from other times periods that have been found in or around the fortress – from the 3rd, 10th and 11th century, are said to be unrelated to the history of the city.

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress was first explored by Bulgarian-Czech archaeologist Karel Skorpil at the end of the 19th century who found that Kovachevsko Kale was the second road station on the Roman road from Marcianopolis (today’s Devnya) to Nicopolis ad Istrum (today’s Nikyup).

The first archaeological digs there were rescue excavations during a reconstruction of the PopovoByala Road in 1965. Regular excavations started only in 1990, and have been carried out by archaeologists from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius".

During the digs in 1993-1995, in one of the fortress towers, the archaeologists found the skeletons of three people which are believed to have been killed by a strong earthquake which destroyed the inside structures of the tower. In 1998, on the outer side of the fortress wall near the same tower, the archaeologists discovered a construction inscription in Latin which has not been fully deciphered.

All five of the excavated fortress towers in Kovachevsko Kale had three stories and roofs made of wood and covered with large clay roof tiles (tegulae).

The numerous coins discovered in the fortress include coins of at least 29 Roman and Byzantine Emperors, 5 empresses, and even several bronze coins of King Philip II of Macedon. The coins have been minted in at least 13 cities in the Roman Empire – Alexandria, Antioch, Cyzicus, Constantinople, Nicomedia, Rome, Ticinum, Augusta Treverorum, Aquileia, Sirmium, Siscia, Thessaloniki, and Heraclea. There are also individual coins from the 3rd century AD from the cities Marcianopolis, Odessos, and Nicopolis ad Istrum.

Bulgaria declared the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress a monument of culture in 1976. In 2010, the Bulgarian government granted Popovo Municipality management rights for the 40 decares (10 acres) of the fortress. Subsequently, in 2013, a partial archaeological restoration carried out with EU funding (almost BGN 4 million (app. EUR 2 million)) has turned Kovachevsko Kale into a cultural tourism attraction called “Archaeopolis".