Archaeologists Find 3rd Century AD Roman Civic Basilica in Ancient City Heraclea Sintica near Bulgaria’s Petrich

Heraclea Sintica was a major city in today's Southwest Bulgaria from the start of the Hellenistic Period until the Late Antiquity. Photo: Kmeta

Heraclea Sintica was a major city in today’s Southwest Bulgaria from the start of the Hellenistic Period until the Late Antiquity. Photo: Kmeta

The ruins of a 3rd century AD Roman civic basilica have been unearthed by archaeologists excavating the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica near the southwestern Bulgarian town of Petrich.

It is believed that Heraclea Sintica was founded around 300 BC by Cassander, King of the Kingdom of Macedon (r. 305-297 BC), who also founded Thessaloniki. It was named Heraclea after the mythical Ancient Greek hero Heracles, also known as Hercules, and Sintica after the Thracian tribe of the Sintians who inhabited the valley of Struma River.

The ancient city is being excavated by a team led by Ass. Prof. Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Sotir Ivanov, Director of the Petrich Museum of History.

The discovery of the Roman civic basilica of Heraclea Sintica is said to be especially impressive because a much older public building (dating back to the second half of the 4th century BC, i.e. the beginning of the Hellenistic Period) with similar functions was discovered nearby back in 2015.

It is a rare occurrence to find two well preserved ancient public buildings with similar functions which were constructed 700-800 years apart but very close to one another, in one location, says a report of the Bulgarian daily Standart.

It adds that if more similar structured are unearthed, Heraclea Sintica could become comparable to the ancient city of Ephesus on Anatolia’s Aegean Sea coast (in today’s Turkey).

“At the moment, we are continuing to expose the Roman civic basilica, [which was] a courthouse and commercial space as well as… a place for cultural events. People would get together here to communicate through art,” lead archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski is quoted as saying.

“The building dates back to the 3rd century AD, and was 5 meters tall. Its northern wall is perfectly preserved, and offers us a very truthful picture of that period. It was built of stone and bricks, a mixed construction. The bricks permeate the entire width of wall which makes the building very stable,” he elaborates.

The walls of the Roman civic basilica were revetted with marble tiles; it had marble friezes and plaster of five colors, of which only the lowest layer, which is red, has been preserved.

The archaeologists have exposed the contours of an apse within the basilica where the magistrates and leaders of the ancient city would gather to decide on important governance matters; its entrance is 4 meters wide, and was lined with marble pillars. A small kiln for glass production has also been unearthed nearby.

The excavations are continuing in the direction of the southern wall of the newly discovered 3rd century civic basilica of Heraclea Sintica.

Lead archaeologist Vagalinski also says his team is building upon its last year’s discovery of the even older public building.

“We are also exploring a complex from the second half of the 4th century BC. It is possible that this public building was the property of the governor from the then Kingdom of Macedon at the time. We found this building last year, it dates back to the Early Hellenistic Age. It probably dates back to the time when the city was founded. We have erected a supporting wall so as to prevent the wall of the Roman building from collapsing on top of it, and burying it,” he explains.

Vagalinski adds that his team has found coins of Macedon King Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), Alexander the Great’s father.

“There’s a hypothesis that the city might have been founded earlier, and not during Cassander’s time,” he adds.

He believes that the ancient amphitheater of Heraclea Sintica might be located close to the nearby Kozhuh Mount, and that it might be just as impressive as the famous Antiquity Amphitheater of ancient Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv).

Heraclea Sintica is located just 1 km away from the town of Rupite, which is famous as the hometown of Bulgarian clairvoyant Baba Vanga (Vangeliya Gushterova) (1911-1996); it lies at the foot of the 200-meter tall extinct volcano Kozhuh.

The ancient city survived for about 800 years even though it was burned down at least 4 times during that period.

“We presume that one of the fires was at the beginning of the 4th century AD, most probably during the clash between Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD) and Licinius (r. 308-324 AD) which was a class between Christianity and paganism,” Vagalinski is quoted as saying.

After the said fire, the Heraclea Sintica was restored, and flourished for another 80 years. Based on the discovery of huge chunks from the walls of commercial structures, the archaeologists believe that after 383 AD, the city was destroyed by a strong earthquake, and started waning as a result.

Excavations of graves from the 5th century indicated that by that time the city was already inhabited by impoverished population, and that it gave way as a regional center to neighboring Parthicopolis (today’s Bulgarian town of Sandanski), and later to the medieval fortress of Melnik.

Some of the most interesting finds from Heraclea Sintica over the years include a workshop from the 2nd-4th century AD for ancient terra cotta masks and statuettes of god Dionysus, a votive tablet of goddess Nemesis, and a coin of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Marcian (r. 450-457 AD).

The 2016 archaeological excavations of Heraclea Sintica are being conducted with a total of BGN 33,000 (app. EUR 16,500) in funding from Petrich Municipality for the period June 1-30, 2016, and another BGN 12,000 (app. EUR 6,000) from the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture for the period July 1-15, 2016. A total of 15 locals have employed for the digs.

“Unlike with the previous Mayor of Petrich, we have struck a cord with the new municipal authorities… The local people deserve to have such a rare archaeological site. Our goal is to turn into an attraction for the tourists, to make it suitable to visit… We’d like to leave something unique behind,” states the archaeologist, adding that all artifacts from Heraclea Sintica have been / are going to be exhibited in the Petrich Museum of History.

Cultural tourism is leading in Bulgaria which is why we must work for the better future for archaeology in Bulgaria,” he concludes.

Regular annual digs have been carried out at the ancient city of Heraclea Sintica since 2007. For several years, the excavations were funded by the American Research Center in Sofia, and were conducted with the participation of US archaeology students from NYU, including Hollywood actor Cole Mitchel Sprous, one of the Sprouse Brothers, who starred in “Friends”. He took part in the digs of Heraclea Sintica in 2013.

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Heraclea Sintica was burned down at least 4 times during the 800-year period of its existence. Photo: Standart daily

Heraclea Sintica was burned down at least 4 times during the 800-year period of its existence. Photo: Standart daily

Background Infonotes:

Heraclea Sintica was an Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city located near the town of Petrich in Southwest Bulgaria. It was the center of the ancient region of Sintica along the Struma River, which was inhabited by the Thracian tribe of the Sintians.

The ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was mentioned by Homer, Herodotos, and Thycudides in their works. It was founded around 300 BC by Cassander, King of the Kingdom of Macedon (r. 305-297 BC), who also founded Thessaloniki.

In the not so distant past, the location of the ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was a matter of contention between archaeologists from Bulgaria and Greece.

In 2002, Bulgarian archaeologists managed to identify the city for sure after they found a Latin inscription dated back to 308 AD, in which Roman Emperor Galerius (r. 293-305 AD as Caesar, 305-311 AD as Augustus) addressed the local urban citizens of Heraclea Sintica responding to a plea to restore their lost civil rights.

In the Late Antiquity, the city of Heraclea Sintica gradualy waned and was replaced by nearby Sveti Vrach (today’s town of Sandanski) as a regional center.

In recent years, Heraclea Sintica has been excavated by Ass. Prof. Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Sotir Ivanov, Director of the Petrich Museum of History.

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