Archaeologist Discovers Largest Neolithic Homes from Europe’s First Civilization in Prehistoric Settlement in Bulgaria’s Sofia

An aerial view of the latest archaeological excavations of the Neolithic Settlement in the Slatina Quarter of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. The digs have resulted in the discovery of two enormous prehistoric homes, among other discoveries. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An aerial view of the latest archaeological excavations of the Neolithic Settlement in the Slatina Quarter of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. The digs have resulted in the discovery of two enormous prehistoric homes, among other discoveries. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The largest Neolithic homes in Europe to date, which are 8,000 years old and belonged to the first European civilization, have been discovered in the Neolithic Settlement in the Slatina Quarter of the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

The discovery has been made by the team of Prof. Vasil Nikolov, from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, a renowned expert in prehistoric archaeology who has been exploring the Slatina Neolithic Settlement since the 1980s.

Nikolov made headlines in 2015 with a number of major prehistoric discoveries: an 8,000-year-old nephrite frog-like swastika also found in the Slatina Neolithic Settlement; a similar Early Neolithic settlement near the town of Mursalevo in the valley of the Struma River, in Southwest Bulgaria excavated together with his colleague, Assoc. Prof. Krum Bachvarov; and a 6,300-year-old gold jewel from the Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") settlement, known as Europe’s first town, near Provadiya in Northeast Bulgaria.

Now, during the 2016 summer excavations of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Sofia, in the past few days, his archaeological team has found the remains of two Neolithic homes which are of an “unexpectedly large size for this time period", Nikolov has revealed in a media announcement.

Each of the two houses, both of which were ritually burned down by their own inhabitants, is more than 20 meters long, whereas the typical maximum length of similar Neolithic homes discovered so far has been up to 4-5 meters.

The houses are about 8 meters wide, and have an area of 150 square meters or more each. Separated clearly by a “small street", together they cover a territory of about 400 square meters.

“So far in the Balkans, and in Europe, respectively, no buildings of such size have been found from this time period which is new evidence supporting the hypothesis that today’s Bulgarian territory is where the first European civilization developed," Nikolov has stated.

On the floors of the Neolithic homes, whose walls were made of wattle and clay, the archaeologists have found remains of domed kilns and numerous ceramic granaries filled with burned spelt (Einkorn wheat), barley, and lentils as well as ritual facilities, lots of ceramic vessels, other artifacts, and burned wood.

Underneath the huge houses, the researchers have unearthed part of a long arc-shaped ditch which appears to have been part of a full circle, a so called “magical circle" that encompassed the entire Neolithic settlement at some point, with wider outer circles added as the settlement grew.

New data from radiocarbon dating of the homes in the Slatina Neolithic Settlement has confirmed that the prehistoric settlement in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is a full 8,000 years old. The newly found houses are from the end of the 7th and the beginning of 6th millennium BC; however, the settlement also had homes that were 100-200 years older, and were located right on the left bank of the Slatinska River (as opposed to newly discovered ones which are situated further and higher from the river).

Further aerial shots of the excavated section of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Further aerial shots of the excavated section of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

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Before unearthing the two huge Neolithic homes, the archaeologists believed that they had found the remains of four houses. Part of one of the houses was actually dug up back in 2013, and its remains were conserved, only to be excavated further in June 2016.

Each of the homes has three kilns, one in each of three rooms with identical layout. Each room was inhabited by a separate family. More than 20 ceramic granaries have been found near the kilns. Each of the houses had an auxiliary farm building attached to its northern wall.

Another intriguing discovery is that the eastern walls of the houses are not straight but slightly curved, i.e. the houses are not strictly rectangular. The difference is that one of the homes is curved inwards, and the other outwards. The eastern wall of the fully excavated home, which is curved inwards, has a total length of 20.5 meters; the identical wall of the second house has not been fully exposed yet but seems to be about 25 meters in length.

The longest Neolithic home at the Slatina Settlement which had been known until now was excavated in the 1980s and 1990s and was “only" 12 meters long.

Lead archaeologist Vasil Nikolov points out that one of his major goals now is to figure out how these enormous Neolithic homes with their curved walls were roofed.

“This is the first time I see anything like this, and nothing like this has ever been described in the [archaeological] literature," he has told the Bulgarian National Television.

“Can you imagine the knowledge these people had at the end of 7th and the beginning of the 6th millennium to be able to do this [roofing]? Only with stone and wooden jointing. [Of course,] it is clear that [the roof] was covered with reed and thatch," the researcher adds.

The excavated Neolithic homes were burned down by their inhabitants, probably as part of a specific "home funeral" ritual. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The excavated Neolithic homes were burned down by their inhabitants, probably as part of a specific “home funeral” ritual. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Slatina Neolithic Settlement 7Slatina Neolithic Settlement 2Slatina Neolithic Settlement 3Slatina Neolithic Settlement 4A still further discovery made at the Slatina Neolithic Settlement is what was a prehistoric “magical circle", a circular ditch which encircled the settlement at an earlier stage in its development to provide symbolic protection, and which has been found underneath the floor in one of the two newly discovered homes.

The magical circle was identified when the archaeologists observed that the floor in all three rooms in one of the houses had collapsed in certain sections in the form of an arc.

Nikolov has explained that the first time a ditch from such a circle in Slatina was found was when it was unearthed by construction vehicles in 1985. However, back then the archaeologists thought it was part of a dugout. Two years ago, the researchers noticed a thick layer of gravel piled underneath some of the kilns and granaries in the then known homes of the Neolithic settlement, apparently in order to level up the floor.

He also says that in recent years geophysical surveys of a number of Early Neolithic Settlements in Bulgaria have shown that they had three concentric circles which were designed to provide protection for the respective settlement by means of magical symbolism.

The concentric ditches of the prehistoric settlement in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia existed before the homes were built. The ditches were gradually filled up as a result of the rituals performed inside them, and were then covered up as the settlement expanded.

The ditches of the concentric magical circles underneath the Neolithic homes will probably be excavated next year.

The two huge newly excavated Neolithic homes were destroyed by fire by their own inhabitants, a ritual also observed elsewhere in prehistoric settlements in Bulgaria such as the one discovered in Mursalevo in 2014-2015.

“We’ve found lots of pieces of clay which were melted at over 1,200 degrees Celsius. This can only happen if a large quantity of wooden material is placed inside [the home]," Nikolov explains regarding the evidence that the houses were burned down by their inhabitants.

“We can call this a “funeral" of the house. In order to be able to build a new house, the soul of the old house would have to be released. It is quite possible that such beliefs [of the prehistoric people] necessitated the burning down of the houses," he elaborates.

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Charred grain in ceramic granaries and green stone axes, among other items, were left behind as sacrifice by the Neolithic dwellers in the "home funeral" fire. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Charred grain in ceramic granaries and green stone axes, among other items, were left behind as sacrifice by the Neolithic dwellers in the “home funeral” fire. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

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Before they set their homes on fire, the prehistoric dwellers of Sofia’s Slatina removed their hand mills but left behind they stocked granaries; they also removed their typical white-painted ceramic vessels but left behind all of their axes.

“Why are these axes here?… The blade of this particular ax is made of green stone which is very rare. It is very sharp and is not broken so this cannot be the reason it was left behind," explains the archaeologist.

The Slatina Neolithic Settlement covered a territory of at least 300 decares (app. 75 acres). However, the entire territory of 300 decares was not inhabited all at once but over a longer period of time, with the archaeologists presently excavating seven different archaeological layers.

Unfortunately, much, if not most of it was destroyed during the laying of tram tracks and other construction projects in Sofia during the communist period, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet, there is still much to be learned from what was a major settlement of the first European civilization which was brought to Europe by agriculturalists from Middle Asia.

“The climate [where they lived originally] became drier, and they left for Asia Minor; the climate there also changed so they headed for the Balkans through the Aegean Sea [region]. The Balkans are the first part of Europe which hosted this [civilization], and Bulgaria’s territory is right in the middle of this zone," says the archaeologist.

“This was the first European civilization. There are no traces of agriculturalists and animal breeders from this period elsewhere in Europe. These people came from Middle Asia where agriculture and animal breeding were invented. [In the Balkans,] they went up the valley of the Struma River (where the Mursalevo Settlement is also located – editor’s note), and settled here. Through the valley of the Mesta River, they settled [the geographic region of] Thrace, and from the Sofia Valley, which they headed up towards the Lower Danube, and Middle Europe. The Sofia Valley with the Slatina settlement was something like a redistribution center [of population]. The Bulgarian territory hosted this civilizational process, and it was here that the core of the future European civilization took shape," Nikolov sums up.

It is possible that the location of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement might have been determined not so much by fertile land and water but by (rock) salt which grew ever more valuable to the early agriculturalists.

“The name “Slatina" stems from “slat", an Ancient Slavic word meaning “salt". Apparently, there was salt here in his region. A lot of Early Neolithic settlements are found in areas which are called “Slatina" in Bulgaria and also in Serbia," Nikolov adds.

The fact that the Neolithic inhabitants of what later became the Slatina Quarter of Sofia were interested in the salt and utilized it is seen as further evidence of their high material culture and civilization.

Structures from the Neolithic Settlement in Sofia's Slatina Quarter are to be exhibited in a Neolithic archaeological park. Photos: TV grabs from bTV

Structures from the Neolithic Settlement in Sofia’s Slatina Quarter are to be exhibited in a Neolithic archaeological park. Photos: TV grabs from bTV

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Archaeologist Prof. Vasil Nikolov has been making headlines in recent years with some of Bulgaria's top prehistoric discoveries. Photo: TV grab from bTV

Archaeologist Prof. Vasil Nikolov has been making headlines in recent years with some of Bulgaria’s top prehistoric discoveries. Photo: TV grab from bTV

The funding for the continuing excavations of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement has been provided by Sofia Municipality which also plans to finance the restoration of the structures in order to establish a Neolithic archaeological park as a cultural tourism attraction.

Originally, Nikolov and Sofia’s local authorities intended on restoring the previously largest known home which was 12 meters long. The new discoveries might modify their plans for the future archaeological park at the Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Bulgarian capital.

Background Infonotes:

The 8,000-year-old Slatina Neolithic Settlement is located in the Slatina Quarter in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.

It was discovered by accident in 1950 by construction workers near the Shipchenski Prohod Blvd. During the first archaeological excavations of the site in 1958, the archaeologists found remains from prehistoric homes, including clay-plastered poles, hearths, and ceramic vessels.

The prehistoric settlement mound was found to be located on the left bank of the Slatinska River. At first, the settlement was dated back to the 3rd millennium BC.

However, new rescue excavations starting in 1985 revealed additional information, and based on the new data and more modern dating methods, in 1987, the settlement was dated to about 6000 BC, i.e. the Early Neolithic. Back then, the archaeologists excavated nine homes and discovered dozens of axes and claw hammers, flint knives, sickles, handmills, loom weights, as well as funerals of Neolithic people.

Since 1985, the prehistoric settlement in Slatina has been excavated and studied by Prof. Vasil Nikolov, from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

Thus, the Slatina Neolithic Settlement is the earliest human settlement on the territory of the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia. It was settled in the Early Neolithic by people who came from Asia Minor.

The Slatina Neolithic Settlement had a total territory of 80 decares (app. 20 acres). Unfortunately, during urban construction in the 1970s, most of it was destroyed, and today only 8 decares (app. 2 acres), have been preserved.

The Neolithic homes in Slatina were built of wattle plastered with clay. The ceilings were made of wood, and covered with straw or reed. The prehistoric people’s main food was wheat grown nearby; the archaeologists also found there 8,000-year-old lentils. The livestock was kept outside of the settlement.

The Slatina Neolithic homes had granaries inside them as well as kilns, cult (religious) hearths, and wooden beds. The materials used by the prehistoric people there include wood, clay, stone, flint, bone, and horns. Some of the clay vessels feature geometric motifs. One of the most interesting finds has been a part of a marble figure of the Mother Goddess used for fertility rituals.

The Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Bulgaria’s Sofia belongs to the first phase of the Neolithic period when the first agriculturalists and livestock breeders settled down in today’s Bulgaria. They came from Asia Minor to the Balkan Peninsula, gradually advancing from the south and southeast to the north, deeper into Europe.

Thus, similar Neolithic settlements found in the Struma Valley in Southwest Bulgaria such as the Mursalevo Neolithic Settlement are about 50-100 years older than the Slatina settlement in Sofia.

The Slatina Neolithic Settlement was a large one and had contacts with all neighboring regions – it is believed that some ceramic vessels and other items were brought from today’s regions of Southern Bulgaria (Thrace), Southwest Bulgaria (the Struma Valley), Serbia, and Northwest Bulgaria.

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