Bulgaria’s Kameno, Burgas Museum to Excavate Rusocastro Fortress Known for Last Big Victory of Medieval Bulgarian Empire

Bulgaria’s Kameno, Burgas Museum to Excavate Rusocastro Fortress Known for Last Big Victory of Medieval Bulgarian Empire

The rocky hill where the ruins of Rusocastro, a major medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress and city, are located. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

The rocky hill where the ruins of Rusocastro, a major medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress and city, are located. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

Kameno Municipality in Southeast Bulgaria has allocated substantial funding for the 2016 archaeological excavations of Rusocastro, a major early Byzantine and medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress known as the site of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s last big military victory in 1332.

The Battle of Rusocastro was also the last major battle of the seven-century-long Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars for domination of the Balkan Peninsula (from the 7th until the 14th century), which ended when, weakened by their hostilities against one another, among other factors, Bulgaria and Byzantium were both conquered by the Ottoman Turkish invaders at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century.

The town council of Kameno, Burgas District, has approved a contract between the Municipality and the Burgas Regional Museum of History for the 2016 digs at Rusocastro, which was also a large medieval city with Bulgarian and Byzantine population.

The local authorities will contribute BGN 45,000 (app. EUR 22,500) in funding of the excavations.

“Archaeology is the first step towards the promotion of Rusocastro as a tourist site. Only after the [archaeological excavations] are we going to be able to draft a project for the conservation and restoration, and then to seek EU funding under development programs," Kameno Mayor Zhelyo Vardunski has stated, as quoted by local news site Burgas24.

The Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History Milen Nikolov, who has been working on the exploration of Rusocastro and will again be the lead archaeologists in 2016 digs, says the starting day for the excavations is still unknown since the Museum needs to receive a permission from the Ministry of Culture.

“Our plan for this year is to finish [the excavations] of parts of the fortress, and mainly the citadel, which were started in 2006-2007 but haven’t been completed yet. We also plan to clear up terrain for conservation and exhibition of the exposed archaeological remains," Nikolov has told Radio Focus Burgas.

In his words, the funding voted by Kameno Municipality will be sufficient for the exploration of Rusocastro for the time being since the archaeologists’ plan provides for gradual excavation to be followed immediately by conservation and exhibition in situ of the ruins.

“[Archaeological excavations] have revealed until now parts of the western fortress wall, parts of the citadel, the northern façade of the western gate of the fortress, the foundations of a medieval church with a necropolis, several residential buildings from the 6th and the 11th century. A very massive, monumental fortified passage with a tower-well has also been found at the northern slope of the Rusocastro fortress," Nikolov explains.

He adds that the excavation of the Rusocastro fortress and city presents some major difficulties because of the terrain.

“There are no high trees there, and during the summer season we work in severe conditions," says the archaeologist.

The Monument of the Battle of Rusocastro located near the ruins of the medieval city and fortress in Southeast Bulgaria. Photo: Spiritia, Wikipedia

The Monument of the Battle of Rusocastro located near the ruins of the medieval city and fortress in Southeast Bulgaria. Photo: Spiritia, Wikipedia

Map of the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD, the last major military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and the last major battle in the seven-century-long Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars for domination on the Balkan Peninsula. Map: Kandi, Wikipedia

Map of the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD, the last major military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and the last major battle in the seven-century-long Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars for domination on the Balkan Peninsula. Map: Kandi, Wikipedia

Nikolov reminds the importance of Rusocastro in the history of the medieval Bulgarian Empire because this is where it scored its last big military victory.

During the 1332 Battle of Rusocastro, the then still young Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) led personally his troops to rout the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD).

As a result of the battle, the Second Bulgarian Empire forced Byzantium to rescind its claims to the rich medieval cities on the southwestern Black Sea coast which remained parts of Bulgaria for a few more decades.

“Most probably, in the 1360s or 1370s, the fortress was abandoned. For the time being, we haven’t found traces of fires. It was most probably vacated under the threat of an Ottoman invasion," Nikolov explains.

He adds that the population of the medieval city of Rusocastro was Bulgarian and Byzantine. The archaeologists have found there inscriptions in Old Bulgarian, including graffiti on ceramic vessels, as well as an Early Byzantine stone inscription in Greek.

“Its population had a slightly more luxurious life than the average medieval settlement because Rusocastro was a large medieval city. It had suburbs, at least 3-4 medieval settlements located close to it. Historical sources mention it as a city. This is a high-profile archaeological site which deserves to be exhibited and to become a tourist site. It’s also a place of national pride. The Bulgarians won a great victory there," concludes the head of the Burgas Museum.

In addition to Rusocastro, in 2016, the Burgas Museum of History also plans to continue the archaeological excavations of the ancient and medieval cities of Aquae Calidae – Thermopolis and Burgos (Poros) on Cape Foros.

A map of the Burgas region in Southeast Bulgaria showing the years and locations of major battles between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire that were fought there during the entire period of the Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars - from the 7th until the 14th century. These include the 708 Battle in the valley of the Aheloy River, the 917 Battle of Anchialos (also near the Aheloy River), the 1304 Battle of the Skafida River, and 1332 Battle of Rusocasto. Map: Burgas Regional Museum of History

A map of the Burgas region in Southeast Bulgaria showing the years and locations of major battles between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire that were fought there during the entire period of the Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars – from the 7th until the 14th century. These include the 708 Battle in the valley of the Aheloy River, the 917 Battle of Anchialos (also near the Aheloy River), the 1304 Battle of the Skafida River, and 1332 Battle of Rusocasto. Map: Burgas Regional Museum of History

Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity (Early Byzantine) and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro (Rusocastron) is located in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Black Sea city of Burgas.

In the 2nd millennium BC, the Ancient Thracians set up a shrine of the Sun God, the Mother Goddess, and the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, near the legendary cave known today as Rusina Cave or Rusa’s Hole. Its site was settled in the period of Ancient Thrace, and was an important center in the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.

The fortress itself was built in the 5th century AD on a strategically located hill. The Early Byzantine fortress was most probably destroyed in the Slavic and Avar invasions in the 7th century. The Rusocastro Fortress was rebuilt by the Bulgars in the 9th century, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), at the time of the construction of the Bulgarian border rampart known as Erkesiya (in use in the 9th-11th century), and was a major stronghold in the geographic region of Thrace during the High Middle Ages.

The earliest written information about the Rusocastro Fortress comes from a 6th century epigraphic monument dedicated to Byzantine military commander Justin, who, according to some Bulgarian scholars, was the great-grandson of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 AD), the uncle of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD). The name Rusocastro was first used in the 12th century by Arab geographer El Idrisi in his work “Geography of the World", where Rusocastro is described as a large and crowded city. The fortress was also mentioned in a number of Byzantine sources from the 14th century relevant to current events.

The Rusocastro Fortress is famous in Bulgarian history for the Rusocastro Battle in which the army of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD) in 1332 AD.

The Battle of Rusocastro is often referred to as the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

Tsar Ivan Alexander’s victory at Rusocastro is considered the last major military victory of the Bulgarian Empire before its decline in the second half of the 14th century, and its conquest by the Ottoman Turks that ushered in the darkest page in Bulgaria’s history, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912). The Rusocastro Fortress was ultimately destroyed in Ottoman campaigns in 1443.

Rusocastro has been excavated by archaeologists Milen Nikolov and Tsanya Drazheva from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated several churches there including a monastery named after St. George, which existed in the 11th-14th century. Unfortunately, a Christian necropolis in the Rusocastro Fortress was partly destroyed in the largest military drills dubbed “Shield" of the countries from the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact that took place in Eastern Bulgaria in 1982.