Bulgaria’s Kazanlak Starts Long-Anticipated Excavation, Restoration of Helvetia Tomb, Griffins’ Tomb in Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings

Computer generated images show what the restored Thracian tombs Helvetia and Griffins' are supposed to look like after the end of the restoration and conservation project. Photo: Kazanlak Municipality

Computer generated images show what the new visitors’ center of the restored Thracian tombs Helvetia and Griffins’ is supposed to look like from the outside after the end of the restoration and conservation project. Photo: Kazanlak Municipality

Kazanlak Municipality in Central Bulgaria has finally begun the delayed restoration of two of the most famous Ancient Thracian tombs in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings, the Helvetia Tomb and the Griffins’ Tomb, which is funded with a grant from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway grants.

Both the Helvetia Tomb and the Griffins’ Tomb are located near the town of Shipka. They were discovered in 1996 by late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov, and date back to the 5th-4th century BC.

The Helvetia Tomb was named after the Swiss foundation Helvetia which supported Kitov’s archaeological excavations at the time, while the Griffins’ Tomb was named after the griffin figures depicted at its entrance.

The EEA/Norway Grant mechanism is a major source of financial support for the restoration and preservation of Bulgaria’s archaeological sites and cultural heritage monuments.

In the spring of 2015, Kazanlak Municipality won the EEA/Norway Grants funding totaling BGN 2.77 million (app. EUR 1.42 million) for the restoration and rehabilitation of the Thracian burial mounds.

The grant is provided from the EEA/Norway Grants mechanism under a measure for the restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Bulgaria’s cultural heritage.

The funding will be used for the restoration and conservation of the two Ancient Thracian tombs, partial archaeological excavations, the construction of a visitors’ center for the Thracian burial mounds Helvetia, Griffins’, and Shushmanets, and additional infrastructure. The three mounds in question are located within 150 meters of one another, and can be visited conveniently in a single visit.

The start of the restoration project for the two Thracian burial mounds, which has been delayed by almost a year, has finally been given. Photos: Kazanlak Municipality

The start of the restoration project for the two Thracian burial mounds, which has been delayed by almost a year, has finally been given. Photos: Kazanlak Municipality

Thracian Tombs Restoration 1 The grant contract was signed by Kazanlak Municipality and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, which administers the EEA/Norway Grants, at the end of April 2015. Back then the press service of Kazanlak Municipality announced that the project was supposed to be completed in 13 months – by June 2016.

However, the project has been substantially delayed for administrative reasons, and the deadline for its completion has been pushed to April 30, 2017, Kazanlak Municipality has announced.

In its restoration of the Ancient Thracian tombs Helvetia and Griffins’, Kazanlak Municipality is partnering with the Kazanlak Museum of History “Iskra".

Experts from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia will also be overseeing the excavation, restoration, and conservation efforts.

The restoration of the Helvetia Tomb and the Griffins’ Tomb will add two more Ancient Thracian tumuli to the six Thracian tumuli already open for visitors as part of the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings.

The six Thracian tombs already opened for visitors in the so called Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings in Central Bulgaria include the Kazanlak Tomb (which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979), the Golyama Kosmatka Mound Tomb, the Ostrusha Tomb, the Kran II Tomb, the Golyama Arsenalka Tomb, the Shushmanets Tomb.

The opening for visitors of the Helvetia Tomb and the Griffins’ Tomb after their restoration with EEA/Norway money expected to help create a better integrated system of archaeological attractions in the Valley of Thracian Kings.

During the ground breaking ceremony for the restoration of the Helvetia and Griffings’ Tombs, Kazanlak Mayor Galina Stoyanova has announced that Kazanlak Municipality has already submitted an application to UNESCO for the inclusion of more sites from the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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Views of the Ancient Thracian tombs, just two of the many Thracian burial mounds in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings in Central Bulgaria. Photos: Kazanlak Municipality

Views of the Ancient Thracian tombs, just two of the many Thracian burial mounds in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings in Central Bulgaria. Photos: Kazanlak Municipality

Thracian Tombs Restoration 5Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracians were an ethno-cultural group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting much of Southeast Europe from about the middle of the second millennium BC to about the 6th century AD on the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia.

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The Odrysian Kingdom, a union of Thracian tribes dominated by the tribe of the Odrysians (also known as Odrysea or Odrysai bearing the name of a mythical ruler, Odryses or Odrisis, (ca. 715 – ca. 650 AD)), was one of the two most powerful states of the Ancient Thracians. It existed from the unification of many Thracian tribes by a single ruler, King Teres, in the 5th century BC till its conquest by the Romans in 46 AD on the territory of most of modern-day Bulgaria, Northern Greece, Southeastern Romania, and Northwestern Turkey.

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The Ancient Thracian burial mound (tumulus) known as the Helvetia Tomb is located near the town of Shipka, Kazanlak Municipality in Central Bulgaria. It is dated to the 5th-4th century BC. It was discovered in 1996 by late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov, and was named after the Swiss foundation Helvetia which supported Kitov’s excavations at the time. It is the second tumulus from the necropolis around the Shushmanets Mound. The stone funeral bed and stone benches found inside it indicate that the tomb was used as a mausoleum-shrine where Orphic Mysteries (connected with the cult for mythical Ancient Thracian poet Orpheus) were probably performed. The tomb had a mechanism for locking from the inside. A small furrow at its doorstep indicates that sacrifices were performed there, which is the first time this has been discovered in a Thracian tomb. The Helvetia tomb-shrine was emptied or robbed in the Antiquity period. Yet, the Bulgarian archaeologists have found there several silver artifacts including silver applications and buttons as well as two fully preserved horse skeletons.

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The Ancient Thracian burial mound (tumulus) known as the Griffins’ Tomb is located near the town of Shipka, Kazanlak Municipality in Central Bulgaria. It is dated to the 5th-4th century BC. It was discovered in 1996 by late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov, and was named after the depictions of griffin heads discovered above its entrance. It is the third tumulus from the necropolis around the Shushmanets Mound, and the largest domed tomb from Ancient Thrace discovered to date. The door to the Griffins’ Tomb was found crushed in several pieces. The Bulgarian archaeologists have established that the tomb was robbed back in the Antiquity period. Inside its funeral chamber, there is a stone funeral bed and a small stone table in front of it. It was built with stone blocks connected with iron brackets. It is believed to have been built 1-2 decades after the Golyama Arsenalka tomb. Despite the ancient robbery, the archaeologists excavating the Griffins’ Tomb discovered two golden jewels, golden flakes, and small pieces of silver and bronze.

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The Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings is a term used to describe the numerous Ancient Thracian tumuli (burial mounds) containing tombs and graves in the valley of the Central Bulgarian town of Kazanlak, which was coined by late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov, a tracologist (an archaeologist specializing in Ancient Thrace). It is believed that over 1,500 Ancient Thracian burial mounds exist in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings alone, of which some 300 have been excavated by archaeologists. Not unlike the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the Valley of the Odrysian Thracian Kings is where the Thracian rulers and high aristocrats were buried.

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The world-famous Kazanlak Tomb was discovered in 1944 (it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979). Between 1948 and 1954, Bulgarian archaeologists had the chance to explore one of the capitals of the Ancient Thracians, the ancient city of Seuthopolis. Unfortunately, those were only rescue excavations since the then communist dictatorship in Bulgaria decided it would be a good idea to submerge Seuthopolis on the bottom of the then constructed Koprinka Water Reservoir (present day initiatives for creating an underwater island to exhibit Seuthopolis for tourists have failed to be realized). The Thracian tombs in Maglizh and Kran were discovered in 1965. Thracian tombs from the Roman period (i.e. after Ancient Thrace (at least south of the Danube) was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD) were excavated near the towns of Tulovo and Dabovo in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the team of Dr. M. Domaradski explored a Thracian settlement and a necropolis near the town of Tazha. Between 1992 and 2006, late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov led his special archaeological expedition TEMP (Tracology Expedition for Mound Research) which explored over 200 Thracian burial mounds during the Iron Age and the Roman Age in the Kazanlak Valley. The expedition’s finds include over 15 tombs, 3 brick masonry graves, and a number of rich funerals. New discoveries after 2007 of funerals of Thracian aristocrats at Drumeva Mogila Mound near the town of Staro Selo, and Yakimova Mogila Mound near Krushare have extended the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings’ eastward along the Tundzha Valley to the city of Sliven. The traces of civilized life indicate that the Thracians continued many of the traditions of the prehistoric people who inhabited the region in today’s Central Bulgaria. This is evidenced by the Buzovgrad Megalith dating back to 1,800-1,600 BC, and the city of Seuthopolis, which was built on top of a previously existing settlement. More Thracian tumuili have been studied recently near Buzovgrad and Dolno Izvorovo.

Of all the Ancient Thracian burial mounds with their tombs and graves in the Valley of the Odrysian Thracians Kings, only the Kazanlak Tomb has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1979). However, in 2012, Kazanlak Municipality started preparing its application for seeking UNESCO World Heritage Status for several more of the most major Thracian tombs in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings’ – the Golyama Kosmatka Tomb, the Ostrusha Tomb, the Shushmanets Tomb, the Helvetia Tomb, and the Griffins’ Tomb.

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