Archaeologists Find Preserved Wooden Structure from Moat Bridge at Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s Sofia

Archaeologists Find Preserved Wooden Structure from Moat Bridge at Western Gate of Ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s Sofia

The ruins of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica are to be restored by Sofia Municipality, hopefully with better luck than the highly controversial restoration known as the Sofia Largo Project. Photo: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The ruins of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica are to be restored by Sofia Municipality, hopefully with better luck than the highly controversial restoration known as the Sofia Largo Project. Photo: Geo Kalev, Studio Fo / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The archaeologists who have carried out the recent preparatory excavations of the Western Gate of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, have discovered a wooden structure which was probably part of an ancient moat bridge.

The excavations of Serdica’s Western Gate started in May 2016, and were wrapped up in a month to prepare the site for a restoration project funded by the Norway Grants and EEA Grants with nearly BGN 947,000 (app. EUR 500,000), which is supposed to be executed over the summer.

One of the most interesting finds dating back to the 2nd-4th century AD that have been unearthed by the archeological team are the wooden remains from a bridge of Roman Serdica. The discovered wooden structure was probably used to prop up the bridge. It was found right in the section right in front of the Western Gate.

“In this ditch which we believe was a moat before the fortress walls [of Serdica], we have found a wooden structure which was probably [part] of a bridge over the moat," Assist. Prof. Iliyana Borisova-Katsarova from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski"," the lead archaeologists for the site, has announced, as cited by the press service of Sofia Municipality.

“This is an exceptional discovery since it is very rare to discover [ancient] wood in such a good condition in countries with moderate climate," she elaborates.

The archaeologists suspect the 1,800-1,600-year-old wooden structure has been preserved as a result of the specific chemical composition of the local soil.

“We have done everything possible, after documenting the situation, to rebury [the structure] in order to preserve it for the future when, potentially, there will be opportunities to exhibit it," Borisova-Katsarova adds.

Her team has also come across what was a road outside the fortress walls and two trenches but they, too, have been conserved and reburied since the present excavations were solely intended by the authorities as preparation for the restoration project.

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The background of these new photos of the Western Gate ruins shows the building of UniCredit Bulbank. It was because of this building’s construction back in 1974 that Serdica’s Western Gate was first excavated. Photos: Geo Kalev, Studio Fo / Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

The background of these new photos of the Western Gate ruins shows the building of UniCredit Bulbank. It was because of this building's construction back in 1974 that Serdica's Western Gate was first excavated. Photos: Sofia Mayor Facebook Page

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The Western Gate of Ancient Serdica is said to have been especially important because of a building located across from it outside of the fortress wall of the Roman city which is believed to have housed its customs.

Today the ruins of the Western Gate and the Roman customs building are located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia (as are all ruins of ancient Serdica), next to the St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral.

The Western Gate of Serdica was first discovered in 1974, and was excavated until 1980 when a pentagonal northern fortress tower at the gate, parts of the fortress wall, and a triangular tower were also unearthed.

The archaeological excavations were resumed in 2011-2013 after in 2011, the site was cleaned up over several weekends by hundreds of volunteers, an initiative organized by the Potomtsi (“Ancestors”) NGO, and funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

This is what the site of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica looked like after years of neglect before it was cleaned up by volunteers in 2011. Photo: Magazine 8 / PRNew

This is what the site of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica looked like after years of neglect before it was cleaned up by volunteers in 2011. Photo: Magazine 8 / PRNew

Volunteers at work cleaning up Serdica's Western Gate in 2011. Photo: America for Bulgaria Foundation

Volunteers at work cleaning up Serdica’s Western Gate in 2011. Photo: America for Bulgaria Foundation

The ensuing excavations led to the discovery of one of the main streets of the ancient city that led to the Western Gate. The part of Serdica adjacent to the gate was densely populated, and had water pipelines and sewerage that were repaired numerous times.

In 2012, the archaeologists unearthed floor mosaics with geometric motifs from the first half of the 4th century inside a building which is believed to have been a basilica.

The archaeological excavations in the area of Serdica’s Western Gate are to be continued in the western, southern, and northeastern direction, i.e. outside of the ancient city’s fortress walls.

The ruins of the Western Gate made news headlines in March 2016 when part of them were buried under the collapsing George Washington Street, which, however, is said to have caused no damages to the ancient structures.

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(Left-right) Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, archaeologist Snezhana Goryanova, and archaeologist Borisova-Katsarova speaking after the wrap-up of the preparatory excavations. Photo: Sofia Municipality Press Center

(Left-right) Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov, archaeologist Snezhana Goryanova, and archaeologist Iliyana Borisova-Katsarova speaking after the wrap-up of the preparatory excavations. Photo: Sofia Municipality Press Center

Now Sofia’s Deputy Mayor, Todor Chobanov, himself an archaeologist, has said that the restoration project for the gate also provides for reinforcing the foundations of the collapsing street.

He adds that the restoration which has just been started is going to establish an archaeological park called “The Western Gate of Serdica", which will be connected via an underground passage with the other Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo.

Sofia Municipality has had big plans for the all-out excavation, conservation, and restoration of the ruins of the Western Gate of ancient Serdica as part of the entire archaeological complex together with the Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo, the St. Nedelya Square, the Amphitheater, and the underground museum in the necropolis of the 4th century St. Sofia Basilica, which is said to be the oldest functioning Christian temple in Europe, and whose name the Bulgarian capital Sofia took during the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, the Sofia Largo Project, the large-scale restoration of Roman ruins of ancient Serdica, which was finally opened in April 2016 after years of delays, has produced highly criticized results. Its execution (and other cases of outrageously botched restorations) have cast doubts over similar future projects in Sofia and elsewhere in the country.

Chobanov has revealed that the future underground passage between the Roman ruins at the Sofia Largo and the Western Gate Archaeological Park will probably go right through the ruins of the basilica with its floor mosaics.

“The Western Gate of the inner city dates back to the middle of the 1st century AD. After that, it was reinforced during the rule of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD), and then again up until the 4th century AD," Chobanov says.

The restoration of the Western Gate of Serdica might end up as the Sofia Largo project because it has started without a clear plan, cautions Bulgarian news site Dnevnik.

Its report explains that the firm which won the tender for the restoration, Infra Roads, is owned by Bulgarian gambling oligarch Vasil Bozhkov, and that the company official in charge of the restoration is not formally registered as a certified restorer as per the Cultural Heritage Act.

Furthermore, the original restoration project drafted by an architectural consultant in 2013 provides for the destruction of a surviving reinforcing wall of the gate and part of the fortress wall, and the rebuilding of the main section of the fortress wall. This design has been criticized by archaeologist Borisova-Katsarova.

A new restoration project is being drafted by another architect but she still unknown if it will do away with the controversial restoration solutions of her predecessor.

The ruins of the Western Gate of Serdica are very close to the Sofia Largo, the complex of massive government buildings in downtown Sofia. Photo: TV grab from bTV

The ruins of the Western Gate of Serdica are very close to the Sofia Largo, the complex of massive government buildings in downtown Sofia. Photo: TV grab from bTV

Aerial view of a triangular fortress tower unearthed at the Western Gate of ancient Serdica in Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Photo: Museum of Sofia History (Sofia Regional Museum of History)

Aerial view of a triangular fortress tower unearthed at the Western Gate of ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photo: Museum of Sofia History (Sofia Regional Museum of History)

A maps showing the location of the Western Gate and customs of Ancient Serdica (and all of ancient Serdica against the backdrop of the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Map: UlpiaSerdica.com

A map showing the location of the Western Gate and customs of Ancient Serdica (and all of ancient Serdica against the backdrop of the downtown of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia. Maps: UlpiaSerdica.com

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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 Western Gate of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica (later the medieval Bulgarian city of Sredets), the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The Western Gate of Ancient Serdica is said to have been especially important because of a building located across from it outside of the fortress wall of the Roman city which is believed to have housed its customs.

Today the ruins of the Western Gate and the Roman customs building are located in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia (as are all ruins of ancient Serdica), next to the St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral.

The Western Gate of Serdica was first discovered in 1974, and was excavated until 1980 resulting also in the unearthing of a pentagonal fortress tower, which was the northern tower of the gate, a section of the fortress wall, and a triangular tower were also unearthed.

In fact, the excavations of the Western Gate started back in 1974 because of the construction of a large building which today houses UniCredit Bulbank. Back then, the archaeological team led by Magdalina Stancheva from the Museum of Sofia History also exposed the ruins of the 11th century church St. Spas. During the 1990s, these ruins were exhibited in situ in the basement of the modern-day building.

The archaeological excavations were resumed in 2011-2013 by Sofia Municipality leading to the discovery of one of the main streets of the ancient city that led to the Western Gate. The part of Serdica adjacent to the gate was densely populated, and had water pipelines and sewerage that were repaired numerous times.

In 2012, the archaeologists unearthed seven-color floor mosaics with geometric motifs from the first half of the 4th century, i.e. the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), inside a building which is believed to have been a large basilica with a colonnade and three parade entrances.

***

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.

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