Rock Grave of ‘Dismembered’ Thracian Noblewoman Buried with Silver Jewels Discovered in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains
A grave of an Ancient Thracian noblewoman, whose corpse was ritually dismembered before her burial, has been discovered during excavations near the town of Benkovski in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.
The grave contains a rich inventory of almost 60 silver and bronze jewels, including rings, a tiara, earrings, beads, and necklaces, and dates back to the second half of the 4th century BC, roughly about the time of the rule of Emperor Alexander the Great of Macedon (r. 336-323 BC).
The grave found near Benkovski, Kirkovo Municipality, Kardzhali District, is in fact a “rock grave” – it was hewn into a rock of what could potentially turn out to be a rock mausoleum or necropolis if more graves are discovered, according to its finder.
The funeral inventory of the female Thracian aristocrat, who has also been referred to as a “Thracian princess”, is said to be among the richest inventories to have been found in Bulgaria in graves from the second half of the 4th century BC.
The excavations are funded privately by Alexander Mitushev, a businessman from the nearby town of Zlatograd interested in archaeology as a hobby who found a stone altar near Benkovski. Last year he made headlines when an archaeological artifact he bought, a Late Bronze Age toy stork, was identified as possibly “Europe’s oldest children’s toy”.
The rock grave was discovered 4 meters away from the altar, and it is believed that the two finds might be part of a larger Thracian cult complex potentially including a rock temple.
“The grave was surrounded with rocks. The grave pit itself was hewn into the rock, and inside it we’ve found a female funeral with a very rich inventory of almost 60 artifacts, two-thirds of which are made silver,” Leshtakov is quoted as saying.
According to the archaeologist, it appears that the body of the Thracian noblewoman was dismembered into five parts before her death.
“It is interesting that the body was dismembered which corresponds to some information about Orphic rituals. We know that Orpheus was ripped apart by the bacchantes,” Leshtakov says, as cited by the 24 Chasa daily.
His senior consultant, archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, says the dismemberment of dead Thracian nobles’ bodies after their death and before their burial was one of the Orphic beliefs and rituals of the Ancient Thracians.
“When Orpheus started the Orphic societies, women were not allowed in them, and began resenting him. We know that Orpheus died when he was ripped to pieces by bacchantes (maenads). He was dismembered and his body parts were thrown in the Maritsa River,” Ovcharov says.
“The ritual was performed on people who were from the upper class of the Thracian society or were priests of the cult,” adds in turn Dr. Yana Dimitrova, who is also an archaeologist from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, and taking part in the digs together with Leshtakov.
She points out that the different parts of the Thracian noblewoman’s body were placed in different sections of the rock grave.
“As we were excavating the grave, we found that the body was dismembered before the soft tissue had started to decay,” Dimitrova says adding that she and her colleagues have been unable to determine for the time being the exact way the dismemberment was performed. They are also not certain why the skull of the supposed Thracian princess or priestess was found propped up with two stones.
“It is possible that this was done so as to prevent the head from falling into a certain position,” notes the archaeologist.
The sex of the Thracian noble in the rock grave will have to be confirmed through anthropological analysis but the archaeologists believe that the buried person is a woman because of a partly preserved silver tiara found under the skull.
The tiara was made of a very thin silver sheet, and is in a very bad condition. Leshtakov hopes that restorers will be able to save the artifact.
“The tiara shows that this was no ordinary person,” he states, regarding the find which is seen as further evidence in addition to the dismemberment that the buried person was of noble origin, possibly even a “princess”.
The other jewels from the grave inventory have been described as head and body adornments from the Hellenistic period including earrings, fibulas, beads, and a total of 11 rings (of which 6 silver and 5 bronzes ones) bearing images of different ancient deities such as victory goddess Nike.
Inside the rock grave, the archaeologists have found also a silver coin, a tetradrachm from the Ancient Greek polis of Maroneia on the Aegean Sea coast. It was an obol, a coin placed under the tongue of the deceased to be found by Charon, the ferryman of Hades, who, according to Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman mythology, carries the souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron into the underworld.
Some of the artifacts in the grave are thought to have been produced in Maroneia or other Ancient Greek cities on the Aegean coast, which were situated about 100 km away, while others were made in the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom. The combination of locally made and imported items is seen as a testimony to the material culture of the Thracians.
The archaeologists say it is possible that more than one person might have been buried in the rock temple. The answer to this question will be given by the anthropological analysis of all bones found inside it.
Nikolay Ovcharov believes that as the excavations progress, finds from an even earlier time period might be discovered.
“We still have not found a shrine from the Late Bronze Age but I am convinced, especially based on this rock hewing, that we will come upon [remains from] an earlier period, i.e. the Golden Age of the Thracians – the time of Homer, the Iliad, and the Odyssey,” he says.
He has compared with the site of the rock grave to the prehistoric and then Ancient Thracian shrine of Tatul in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, and thinks that more graves, i.e. an entire necropolis might be discovered.
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.