Archaeologists Find No Thracian Traces at Roman City Serdica Raising Questions about Antiquity History of Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia

An aerial photo showing the major sections of the new open-air museum of Ancient Serdica in Sofia corresponding along the two main Roman streets. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An aerial photo showing the major sections of the new open-air museum of Ancient Serdica (before its completion) in Sofia corresponding to the two main Roman streets, the Decumanus Maximus (the main east-west oriented street – visible on the right), and the Cardo Maximus (the main north-south oriented street – visible on the left). Photo: TV grab from BNT

The archaeological team that conducted the excavations at what has now become the new open-air museum of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica in the downtown of today’s Sofia has found no Ancient Thracian traces in that particular section raising questions about the Antiquity history of the Bulgarian capital.

The Bulgarian Cabinet and Sofia Municipality have just unveiled the new open-air museum of Ancient Serdica at the so called Sofia Largo (the complex of government buildings in Sofia’s very downtown), a project that has been criticized over the quality of the archaeological restorations. The issues aside, however, the respective rescue excavations have nonetheless provided extremely valuable information about the history of the city.

The team of archaeologist Mario Ivanov from Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology has conducted the digs on the site of the new open-air museum since the construction of the second line of the Sofia subway led to the rescue excavations there back in 2010.

You can compare what the ruins of Ancient Serdica looked like upon their excavation in 2010 and what they looked like upon their criticized restoration in October 2015 in our PHOTO GALLERY.

You can also view the photos in our in our Facebook Albums HERE and HERE.

In this particular part of Ancient Serdica the archaeologists have discovered no traces of an Ancient Thracian settlement, reports the Bulgarian National Television.

Instead, they have found early remains from a Roman military camp which may have led to the founding of the city in the 1st century AD as a stop on the Roman road Via Militaris (or Via Diagonalis) which runs diagonally through the Balkan Peninsula in the northwestern-southeastern direction, and is a major European transport corridor to this day.

A preserved almost 2000-year-old wooden wall from the Roman military barracks, which is now exhibited in situ at the new open-air museum, is one of the earliest trace of civilized human life found at this particular part of Ancient Serdica in the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital.

“[The wooden wall is] one of the attractive remains from this early “wooden" period of Serdica when it probably was a military camp or outpost," says lead archaeologist Mario Ivanov adding that it has been preserved because of the high underground waters in Serdica.

The place is said to have been settled after the end of Ancient Rome’s military campaigns in the region which is a “history that is rather different from the existing notions about a founding Thracian settlement", the report points out.

A nearly 2000-year-old wooden wall from the barracks of the Roman military camp in the 1st century AD which predated the establishment of the Roman city of Serdica, today's Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The wooden wall is exhibited in the new open-air museum in the city's downtown. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A nearly 2000-year-old wooden wall from the barracks of the Roman military camp in the 1st century AD which predated the establishment of the Roman city of Serdica, today’s Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The wooden wall is exhibited in the new open-air museum in the city’s downtown. Photo: TV grab from BNT

It has been widely accepted in Bulgaria that the Roman city of Serdica emerged on the spot of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement conquered by the Romans in 29 AD.

Traces of the Thracian settlement of Serdica from the 6th-4th century BC were discovered in the rescue excavations in 1949-1953 during the construction of the massive government buildings of the Sofia Largo, below the Ancient Roman layer.

It is known that the Thracian settlement of Serdica was captured and ruled briefly by King Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dating back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. The latest intriguing find from the excavations of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement, as it is known, has been a nephrite frog-like swastika. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age.

After the Bronze Age, the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe – even though some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi might have been a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while adopting its name.

Around 29 BC, the Sofia Valley and the Thracian settlement were conquered by the Romans. The newly founded Roman city was renamed Ulpia Serdica, became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings.

“This is the period when this territory has already been completely absorbed, and he just took measure to administer it. In order for the Roman system to function, it needed an urban center to rule over the surrounding territories, to collect taxes, to recruit soldiers, and so on," Ivanov adds.

He points to the spot where the two main streets of the typical Roman city, the Decumanus Maximus (the main east-west-oriented street) and the Cardo Maximus (the main north–south-oriented street) intersect even today – both streets have been discovered with their original pavement during the rescue excavations, and now been restored.

“This is where the planning of the city began. Probably in the early 2nd century, maybe even a little earlier, this was where the then theodolite was placed with which the main tracks were laid," explains the archaeologist.

Major boulevards in today’s Sofia actually correspond to the main streets of Roman Serdica: the Todor Alexander Boulevard runs along the Decumanus Maximus, and the Knyaginya Maria Lousa Boulevard runs along the Cardo Maximus.

During their excavations, the archaeologists have found an inscription with the name of one of the owners of the homes in Serdica’s downtown – Arius Papus, a city councilor.

A major achievement of the restoration project has been the moving and restoring of the apse of an Early Christian church from the 6th century AD.

Download the ArchaeologyinBulgaria App for iPhone & iPad!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr!

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age.

After the Bronze Age, the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe (some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi were a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while keeping its original name).

The name of the Serdi tribe gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.

Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome".

In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa.

It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.

***

The Sofia Largo is the architectural complex of government buildings in downtown Sofia erected in the 1950s, in the early years of the former communist regime. Regardless of their Communist Era architecture, today the buildings house the most important Bulgarian government institutions and are one of the most famous parts of Sofia’s cityscape. Parts of the ancient city of Serdica, which have been excavated, can be seen in the underpasses and the Serdica Metro Station right next to the Sofia Largo.

Download the ArchaeologyinBulgaria App for iPhone & iPad!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr!