Archaeologists Discover Roman Water Fountain with Lion Heads in Ancient City Heraclea Sintica near Bulgaria’s Petrich

Two of the total of three lion head structures decorating the newly discovered Ancient Roman water fountain from Heraclea Sintica have survived. Photo: Petrich Municipality

Two of the total of three lion head structures decorating the newly discovered Ancient Roman water fountain from Heraclea Sintica have survived. Archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski is seen in the middle. Photo: Petrich Municipality

An Ancient Roman water fountain decorated with three lion head sculptures has been discovered 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 water fountain with the lion heads has been announced by Petrich Municipality after the find has been shown to Petrich Mayor Dimitar Brachkov who visited the site of the archaeological excavations.

The Roman water fountain with the lion head sculptures is made of marble, and is 2.5 meters long, and 1 meter wide.

It was discovered in the southern part of Heraclea Sintica, at the foot of the parade staircase of the 3rd century AD Roman civic basilica, an ancient public building which was found recently in the Thracian, Greek, and Roman city.

The civic basilica in question is 22 meters long and 16 meters wide, and parts of its walls have been preserved up to a height of 5 meters. Its ruins are located right near the ruins of a similar public building which is some 700 years older (dating back to the 4th century BC, i.e. the early Hellenistic period), and was discovered in 2015.

Unfortunately, one of the lion heads decorating the fountain has been found to have been broken off.

“The water fountain with the three lion heads was made with master craftsmanship. It was probably installed as part of a large-scale reconstruction that was carried out on the square in front of the basilica at the end of the 3rd century BC," lead archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski has stated.

In addition to water fountain, the archaeologists have unearthed a 1,700-year-old sewage canal taking waste waters to the nearby Strumeshnitsa River. The canal was built of stone and mortar, and is still operational.

“We have exposed the sewerage system underneath the civic basilica which represents the best of Roman architecture from the respective period… The [water fountain with the lion heads] was located before the gate leading up to the civic basilica and the parade staircase. Generally, what we are discovering right now is surpassing many times our expectations about the development of Heraclea Sintica in the 3rd century AD. This means that the city had a great economic, political, and demographic potential, and enjoyed a major upsurge in the 3rd century AD," Sotir Ivanov, the Director of the Petrich Museum of History, who is the other lead archaeologist in the excavations, has told Radio Focus Pirin.

“We are very surprised because, as a matter of fact, Heraclea Sintica was discovered by chance… When I started working in Petrich, the first thing I managed to rescue for science was a slab of Roman Emperor Galerius (r. 293-305 AD as Caesar, 305-311 AD as Augustus) (learn more in the Background Infonotes below!) with an inscription of 24 lines containing the name of the city Heraclea Sintica. Up until then, it had been believed that the [ruins] were of a city of Petra, a much less significant city connected with the Ancient Thracian tribe Maedi," Ivanov reveals.

“As we started the excavations and already knew that this was Heraclea Sintica, we presumed that, being located in the interior, not on the coast where there are greater opportunities for trade, this was an important city but of limited size. Subsequently, we have unearthed the civic basilica, and now these additional stairs and this massive water fountain which shows that the population of the city was not just a demographic gathering of diverse ethnic groups but a team which was building its future together. These materials are something in terms of aesthetics, culture, and history… that we never knew about in our cultural heritage, and it is something that has been startling and enchanting us," elaborates the archaeologist.

He says that while the archaeological excavations of Heraclea Sintica, which have been carried out with BGN 33,000 (app. EUR 16,500) in funding from Petrich Municipality, have been wrapped up, additional funding from the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture might be available to resume the digs in August 2016.

“We are entering the city’s agora, i.e. square, and are going to expose whatever is found there. This city center was such for probably 600-700 years because 4 meters below this civic basilica we have the public building from the Hellenistic period. It was probably built at the time of Macedon King Philip II (r. 354-336 BC) and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC), and features a very different architectural outline. I would be glad if we have actually already started to reveal the downtown. This would mean great continuity, for 600-700 years," Ivanov says.

For the time being, the newly discovered Ancient Roman water fountain with the lion head decoration will be kept on the site of its discovery. It will have to be guarded carefully so as to prevent treasure hunters from breaking off and stealing the remaining two lion head sculptures. It is yet to be decided where the find will be exhibited.

In the first six months of 2016, the ruins of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica were visited by over 30,000 tourists.

“I am impressed by the discoveries of the archaeologists. We are going to continue to support the team of Assoc. Prof. Vagalinski by providing funding for the research of Heraclea Sintica. This is an enormous resource for Petrich Municipality, and we must do all we can to research the site in full, and turn it into an attractive destination for tourists from Bulgaria, and abroad," Petrich Mayor Dimitar Brachkov has stated during his visit to the site of the excavations.

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Petrich Mayor Dimitar Brachkov (middle) is seen here viewing the newly found Roman water fountain with the lion head decorations. Photo: Petrich Municipality

Petrich Mayor Dimitar Brachkov (middle) is seen here viewing the newly found Roman water fountain with the lion head decorations, with lead archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski (left) providing insights. Photo: Petrich Municipality

It is believed 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 situated 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.

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).

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.

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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