Archaeology Museum in Bulgaria’s Varna Calls for Volunteers for 2016 Summer Excavations of 4 Major Archaeological Sites

Archaeological excavations in the Kastritsi Fortress near Bulgaria's Varna. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology

Archaeological excavations in the Kastritsi Fortress near Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology

The Museum of Archaeology in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna has issued a call for volunteers for the 2016 summer archaeological excavations of a total of four major sites which will be explored by its archaeologists.

The sites in question are the medieval fortress Kastritsi (located inside the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government, right on the Black Sea coast), the Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery “Holy Mother of God" (located in the Karaach Teke area in Varna’s suburbs), the Early Christian monastery (located in the Dzhanavara area in the city’s Asparuhovo Quarter), and an Early Christian basilica (located in the Borovest area, also in the Asparuhovo Quarter).

For its prospective volunteers, the Varna Museum of Archaeology has published brief descriptions of the four archaeological sites and their archaeological research teams, as follows (learn further details about these sites in the Background Infonotes below):

  • The Kastritsi Fortress is located in the park of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government. It has been excavated since 2006. The digs have exposed parts of its fortress walls and towers, streets with squares, chain-like homes, and two churches. Buildings walls have been preserved up to a height of 1.8 meters. The archaeologists have found there numerous ceramic vessels, coins, and adornments. The Kastritsi Fortress has been partly restored for visitors.

The lead archaeologist for the Kastritsi Fortress is the Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology Prof. Valentin Pletnyov. His deputies are Dr. Mariya Manolova, Dr. Igor Lazarenko, and Assoc. Prof. Preslav Peev. The digs are planned for June-July 2016. Daily transportation to the site will be provided for the volunteers.

  • The medieval Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery “Holy Mother of God" (Virgin Mary) in the Karaach Teke area is located on the southern slope of the Frangen Plateau in Varna’s suburbs. It has been excavated since 1996. The archaeologists have exposed there monastery buildings, a temple with unique planning, a dining room, and a sacred spring (holy well, also known as “ayazmo"). These structures have been preserved up to a height of 2 meters. There is a legend that this was where Knyaz (i.e. King) Boris I Mihail, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) who converted it to Christianity in 865 AD, took a monastic oath and retreated from the Bulgarian throne at the end of his life. That is why the monastery is known as “Knyazheski", i.e. royal.

Lead archaeologist for this site is Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius"; his deputies are Prof. Valentin Pletnyov and Assoc. Prof. Rosina Kostova. The digs are scheduled for August 2016.

  • The Early Christian Monastery in the area known as Dzhanavara in Varna’s Asparuhovo Quarter. In it, the archaeologists have found an Early Christian church with four towers which is unique for Bulgaria’s territory, alongside other monastery buildings, tombs, mosaics, architectural fragments, and a reliquary containing the relics of an unknown saint.

The archaeologists in charge of the digs there are Alexander Minchev and Dr. Vasil Tenekedzhiev. The excavations are scheduled for July-August 2016.

  • The Early Christian basilica in the area known as Borovets, also located in the Asparuhovo Quarter, a suburb of Varna, has been excavated for several years now. Much of the large Early Christian temple has been revealed; numerous marble pillars have been discovered.

The archaeologists in charge of the digs there are Alexander Minchev and Dr. Vasil Tenekedzhiev. The excavations are scheduled for July-August 2016.

If you wish to join the researchers from the Varna Museum of Archaeology as volunteers for the 2016 summer excavations of these exciting sites, please contact the Museum at rimvarna@abv.bg or +359 52 681 012.

Another Bulgarian museum, the Regional Museum of History in the city of Veliko Tarnovo, also issued recently a similar call for volunteers for the 2016 summer excavations of the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, and has managed to recruit at least 50 volunteers, Bulgarian and international alike.

Photos from the past archaeological research of the four sites for which the Varna Museum of Archaeology is inviting volunteers. The photos were released as part of the Museum's call for volunteers. Photos: Varna Museum of Archaeology

Photos from the past archaeological research of the four sites for which the Varna Museum of Archaeology is inviting volunteers. The photos were released as part of the Museum’s call for volunteers. Photos: Varna Museum of Archaeology

Varna ExcavationsVarna Excavations 2Varna Excavations 8Varna Excavations 5Varna Excavations 6Varna Excavations 7Background Infonotes:

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, the Varna Gold Treasure, dating back to the 5th millenium BC.

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Ancient Odessos (known as Odessus in Roman times) 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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The Late Antiquity Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress and city of Kastritsi is located to the northeast of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, in the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government on the northern coast of the Bay of Varna. It occupies the St. George (St. Yani) Cape. The fortress of Kastritsi was built by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in the 5th century AD, and was expanded in the 6th century AD. It was destroyed in the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars in the early 7th century AD, and was abandoned. The Kastritsi Fortress was restored in the middle of the 13th century AD by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), and emerged as a medieval Black Sea city. The preserved medieval fortress walls rises to up to 3 meters. The outer fortress wall has a total of 5 rectangular fortress towers with a diameter of 5.5 meters, and a three-meter wide gate. The fortress’s keep is a rectangular multi-story tower located in its western corner. The inside of the fortress features the ruins of a city from the High and Late Middle Ages, including an entire densely populated residential quarter of stone-masonry homes, and a one-nave, one-apse church.

It is believed that Kastritsi is one of the Late Antiquity Byzantine fortresses on the Black Sea coast described by the 6th century AD Byzantine chronicler Procopius of Caesarea (ca. 500-ca. 560 AD) though its name was not mentioned. The Kastritsi Fortress was described in the early 14th century by cartographers from Genoa as in the High and Late Middle Ages it had thriving commercial relations with the Italian city-states Genoa and Venice. Kastritsi’s fortifications protected an area of 20 decares (app. 5 acres). The discovered skeletons of men, women, and children indicated that the city’s population was slaughtered by the invading Ottoman Turks who conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century AD. The Turks settled Kastritsi briefly but abandoned the city in the 15th century (the most recent coins discovered there are from 1404 AD). Some Bulgarian archaeologists have hypothesized that the Ottoman Turks might have vacated the fortress of Kastritsi because of the raids of the Vlachs (Wallachians) from the north.

In the Late Middle Ages, Kastritsi was a typical medieval city with narrow streets and large homes. The archaeological remains of the medieval homes, streets, churches, and fortifications of Kastritsi are very well preserved allowing the Bulgarian archaeologists to discover lots of pottery vessels, metal tools, decorations, and over 2,500 coins. If it is researched more thoroughly, conserved, and exhibited, Kastritsi has the potential to show a fully preserved medieval Bulgarian city with a major potential for historical and cultural tourism, according to archaeologists.

The Kastritsi City and Fortress north of Bulgaria’s Varna is especially well preserved because it is inside the enclosed territory of the Euxinograd Residence of the Bulgarian government, which has been with limited public access since the end of the 19th century, meaning that treasure hunters and looters could not do damage to it, unlike what they have done to thousands of other archaeological and historical sites all over Bulgaria. The Euxinograd Residence was built on lands that the first ruler of Liberated Bulgaria, i.e. the Third Bulgarian Tsardom, Knyaz Alexander I Batenberg, received as a gift from the Greek Bishopric in Varna after Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Thus, access to the site has been limited since 1890, and Kastritsi is said to be the only Bulgarian medieval city with a preserved port which has not seen any construction after the Late Middle Ages.

The Kastritsi Fortress and City was first excavated in 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, who, together with his brother Hermann Skorpil, is the founder of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Its most recent archaeological excavations have been conducted every summer since 2004 by archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by its Director, Prof. Valentin Pletnyov. The recent archaeological discoveries there include a treasure of 166 silver coins of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) and his son Mihail Asen, who was declared a “Co-Tsar" by Ivan Alexander in 1331 upon the latter’s assumption of the Bulgarian throne. Mihail Asen died in a battle against the Ottoman Turks near Sredets (today’s Sofia) in 1355 AD. The treasure in question is one of the largest medieval Bulgarian treasures discovered in recent years. In addition to these and many other Bulgarian coins, other0 treasure finds from Kastritsi include Byzantine, Tartar, Vlachian, Moldavian, Venetian, and Ottoman Turkish coins. These include a treasure of silver coins of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I “The Lighting"(r. 1389-1402 AD) and of Wallacian ruler Mircea the Elder (Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418 AD) who held the region of Dobrudzha (today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania) in the early 15th century. The finds also include a rare gold coin from the Antiquity minted in the Ancient Greek colony of Callatis (today’s Mangalia in Romania) during the reign of Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated more than one-fifth of the territory of the Kastritsi Fortress, have started some conservation efforts, and have opened part of the site for tourists.

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The ruins of the Knyazheski (Royal) Monastery are located in the suburbs of Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna, in an area known as Karaach Teke, on a terrace of the Frangen Plateau. The monastery dates back to the 9th-10th century AD, i.e. the height of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). The archaeologists believe it is connected to several important Ancient Bulgar settlements and necropolises in the Varna region which have been explored.

The Knyazhevski Monastery in the area known as Karaach Teke (Ottoman Turkish for “Khanqah of the Black Elms") was built at the end of the 9th century AD or the beginning of the 10th century AD, i.e. during the reign of Knyaz (i.e. King) Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) or the reign of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD). That was after the First Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity in 865 AD, and introduced the Slavic Script in 886 AD (first the Glagolithic alphabet invented by Byzantine scholars St. Cyril and St. Methodius in 855 AD, and then the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet developed by their disciples St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski (St. Naum of Preslav)).

The Knyazheski Monastery complex in the Karaach Teke area, which is believed to have been dedicated to the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary), features unique architecture, which is untypical for the Bulgarian and even for the Byzantine architectural tradition, a view supported by Prof. Georgios Velinis from the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

The Knyazheski Monastery has a total area of about 10 decares (app. 2.5 acres) even though less than half of that has been explored since the rest of the plot is in private properties.

The Bulgarian archaeologists have found there a large monastery church, a huge tower with a chapel, a huge scriptorium with an area of 400 square meters (a building that was 40 meters long and 10 meters wide), which may have been Europe’s largest scriptorium in the 9th-10th century, a library, a school, monastic dormitories, an altar table, Bulgarian, Byzantine, Serbia, Turkish, and Venetian coins, and over 5,000 fragments from the frescoes from the monastery church.

The ceramic vessels discovered there include both items (such as amphorae) imported from Byzantium, and Bulgarian ceramics styled according to a form of art known as the painted ceramics from Veliki Preslav from the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century. The archaeologists have also found there numerous artifacts such as crosses and coins from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century). One particularly interesting find is a bronze cross with the images of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Seals of three of the most important rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire – Knyaz (King) Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) (canonized as St. Knyaz Boris I the Converter for making Christianity Bulgaria’s religion), his son Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD) (known for both his military skill and expansion and the Golden Age of Old Bulgarian culture and literature), and his grandson Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969 AD) (canonized as St. Tsar Petar of Bulgaria the Pious, known for his long peaceful reign) have also been found on the site of the Knyazheski Monastery.

In its northwestern part, the buildings in the monastery complex have been preserved up to a height of 3 meters.

The Knyazheski Monastery is said to have been the largest religious center in the First Bulgarian Empire outside the capitals Pliska (680-893 AD) and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) (893-970 AD). Its scriptorium for the production of medieval books in Old Bulgarian is believed to have been especially impressive; it was one of medieval Bulgaria’s largest buildings rivaling in size the imperial palaces in Pliska and Veliki Preslav.

The interior of the scriptorium was divided into 12 symmetrical rooms. The massive walls indicate that the building had a second floor, a hypothesis later confirmed by the discovery of collapsed arches. The building was made using both bricks and stone, an Antiquity technique of building with mixed materials similar to the construction technique of the Great Basilica in the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska.

During the excavations of the scriptorium, the archaeologists have found over 30 iron styli and lots of bronze book locks. Despite its size, the scriptorium’s space seems to have become insufficient for the scope of the literary activity there, and the building had to be expanded to the south.

The Knyazheski Monastery waned in the late 10th century. At first the archaeologists thought it may have been destroyed in the Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars in the second half of the 10th century but later found evidence that it was demolished by a landslide, a natural disaster that affects Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast around Varna to this day. After the landslide, the ruins on the site of the monastery were turned into a settlement with dugouts and small stone homes. The settlement survived until the 16th-17th century, i.e. long after Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 14th century.

It has also been hypothesized that Knyaz Boris I Mihail was a personal donor of the Knyazheski Monastery, and/or that he became a monk there in 889 AD upon deciding to step down from the throne (leaving it to his first-born son, Knyaz Vladimir Rasate (889-893 AD) who attempted to restore paganism and was thus deposed and blinded 4 years later), and/or that he was buried there. These hypotheses are yet to be proven convincingly.

The ruins of the monastery were discovered ca. 1899 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, the founder of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. The discovery came after a lead seal of Knyaz Boris I Mihail was found in a nearby vineyard. The seal features the ruler’s image on one side, and an image of Jesus Christ on the other, with inscriptions stating, “God, help you servant Mihail, Archon of Bulgaria" on both sides.

It was Skorpil who first hypothesized that Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris I was the donor of the Knyazheski Monastery based on the discovery of the seal and of inscriptions in Old Bulgarian.

In the first half of the 20th century, the site was also explored by archaeologist Bogdan Filov, later a pro-German Prime Minister of the Tsardom of Bulgarian during World War II. During that period, about half of the total territory of the monastery complex was expropriated for archaeological research but the rest remained in private properties.

The first full-fledged archaeological excavations started only in 1995. The Knyazheski Monastery has been excavated by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Assist. Prof. Rosina Kostova from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius", and Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

In 2013, the archaeologists found the monastery’s so called holy well, i.e. the sacred spring, also known with the Greek word “ayazmo", a spring or a small body of water revered by pagans and/or Christians. Next to it, they found a pillar capital with a depiction of seven leafy branches symbolizing the Tree of Life. This find has led the researchers to believe that the monastery was dedicated to the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary).

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The unique Early Christian Church and Monastery Complex located in the area called Dzhanavara in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna dates back to the 5th century AD. It is located 5 km away from the fortress walls of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus), today’s Varna. It existed for about 2 centuries having been destroyed in a barbarian invasion of the Avars and Slavs in the early 7th century AD. The architecture and mosaics of the Early Christian church are untypical for the Balkan Peninsula but bear some resembles to monuments in the easternmost provinces of the Roman Empire leading Bulgarian archaeologists to hypothesize that the Early Christian monastery was founded and inhabited by monks who came from the Middle East.

The church itself was 31 meters long and 28 meters wide, and the walls of its naos were 2.5 meters thick. It was built of layers of stone blocks. Under the church there was a man’s brick tomb where three reliquariesa marble, silver, and gold one – containing the relics of an unknown Christian saint were found. This discovery was made in 1915-1919 when the Early Christian church near Odessos (Varna) was excavated by the Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. The site was further excavated by Bulgarian archaeologist Alexander Minchev and Vasil Tenekedzhiev from the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) in 1997-1999 when they uncovered household structures proving that the church did not stand by itself but was part of a monastery complex. As of the spring of 2015, the unique Early Christian church and monastery are part of Bulgaria‘s State Forestry Fund, and have not been granted a protected status; their ruins have been used by locals for camping and drinking parties. Local archaeologists in Bulgaria’s Varna hope to be able to complete the excavations and turn the site into a Museum of Early Christianity. The site contains about 100 square meters of preserved Early Christian floor mosaics which have been reburied by contemporary archaeologists in order to protect them.