Bulgaria’s Varna to Showcase World’s Oldest Gold Treasure in Exhibition in Dordrecht, Netherlands

Some of the most famous artifacts from the 6,500-year-old Varna Gold Treasure, part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Photo: Visit Varna

Some of the most famous artifacts from the 6,500-year-old Varna Gold Treasure, part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Photo: Visit Varna

An exhibition of the world’s oldest gold treasure, the Varna Gold Treasure from the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna, is to be showcased in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands.

The exhibition entitled “Humanity’s First Gold" is organized on the occasion of the 15th anniversary since Varna and Dordrecht became sister cities.

Items from the Varna Gold Treasure from the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology are to be showcased in the Dordrechts Museum from October 20, 2016, until May 2, 2017*, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has announced.

*Update as of October 12, 2016: the Varna Museum of Archaeology has announced the exhibition is going to take place between October 28, 2016, and April 28, 2017, a clarification confirmed by the announcement on the website of the Dordrechts Museum.

In 2015, a number of the artifacts from the Varna Gold Treasure were showcased in an exhibition in the European Parliament in Brussels.

The Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, and, the Varna Gold Treasure, respectively, was first discovered in 1972 during the digs for the infrastructure of a canning factory in Northeast Bulgaria.

Created by the Chalcolithic Varna Culture, the treasure consisting of a wide range of gold artifacts from the funeral inventories of a number of prehistoric graves has been dated to 4560-4450 BC.

While the title of the “world’s oldest gold to be processed by humans" of the Varna Gold Treasure has been disputed by other finds in Northeast and Southern Bulgaria (including a gold bead discovered just days ago in the Yunatsite Settlement Mound near Pazardzhik), it is widely considered the world’s oldest gold treasure.

Learn more about the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis and the Varna Gold Treasure in the Background Infonotes below!

The exhibition in the Dutch city of Dordrecht of Chalcolithic gold artifacts from the Varna Museum of Archaeology has been supported by the Bulgarian Cabinet which has approved a state guarantee for the event amounting to BGN 40,000 (app. EUR 20,000).

Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture says that provision of a government guarantee is a common European practice which helps reduce cost for the organization of exhibitions and promote cultural heritage.

The exhibition of the Varna Gold Treasure in the Dordrechts Museum is just one of a number of events for the 15th anniversary of sister city relations between Varna and Dordrecht, which are also going to feature a Dutch exhibit in the Black Sea city as well as an economic forum, among others.

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Background Infonotes:

Bulgaria’s Varna Gold Treasure is considered the oldest processed gold in the world dating back to the time of the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) Varna Culture (usually dated to 4400-4100 BC).

It was discovered in 1972 in the so called Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis during the construction of a canning factory. It was the operator of an excavator, Raycho Marinov, then aged 22, who stumbled upon several artifacts, collected them in a shoe box, and took them to his home. A couple of days later he informed the local archaeologists. For his discovery back then, Marinov was awarded BGN 500, a substantial sum for the time equaling several monthly salaries. However, the intelligence services of the Bulgarian communist regime followed him around for a while to make sure he had not kept any artifacts for himself in order to sell them.

A total of 294 Chalcolithic graves were unearthed at the necropolis which was excavated by Bulgarian archaeologists Mihail Lazarov (in 1972–1976) and Ivan Ivanov (in 1972–1991). About 30% of the estimated territory of the necropolis is yet to be excavated.

Using radiocarbon dating, in 2006, the Chalcolithic graves where the Varna Gold Treasure was found were dated to 4560-4450 BC.

The discoveries from the necropolis indicate that the Varna Culture had trade relations with distant Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. It likely exported rock salt from the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") rock salt mine.

The shells of the Mediterranean mollusk Spondylus found in the graves in the Varna Necropolis and at other Chalcolithic sites in Northern Bulgaria may have been used as a form of currency.

Among the graves, several featured a wealth of gold artifacts indicating that as early as the Chalcolithic the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe) already had some form of statehood and a royal institution.

The gold artifacts from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis were found in graves with skeletons (mostly male) as well as in symbolic graves without human remains.

One of the most interesting inventories was found in the so called Grave No. 43 which was unearthed in the central part of the Varna Necropolis in 1974. It belonged to a male aged 40-45 but of rather substantial size for the time, 1.70-1.75 meters tall (app. 5 feet 6 – 8 inches).

The numerous gold artifacts discovered in Grave No. 43 near Bulgaria’s Varna weighbb a total of 1.5 kg which one of the reasons to believe that the buried man was a very important member of his community.

The gold items include 10 large applications, a high number of rings some which were on strings, two necklaces, an item believed to be a gold phallus, beads, golden decorations for a bow, a stone ax and a copper ax with gold decorations, a bow with gold applications.

The funeral inventory also includes a large number copper artifacts such as a copper ax, a copper claw hammer, a copper chisel and a copper awl as well as lots of stone, flint, seashell, and bone artifacts including bracelets from the Spondylus mollusk, and 11 ornately decorated ceramic vessels.

In another grave of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, Grave No. 36, a symbolic grave, the archaeologists found over 850 gold itemsa tiara, earrings, a necklace, a breastplate, bracelets, a belt, a gold hammer-scepter, a good model of a sickle, two gold lamellas representing animals, 30 models of heads of horned animals.

The artifacts were found covered with a gold-laced cloth. The gold items lined the contours of a human body with more artifacts on the right side which is deemed to signify that the grave contained a male funeral. The gold artifacts are interpreted as royal insignia.

Similar “royal” burials have also been found in graves No. 1, 4, and 5 of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis.

Another type of graves in the necropolis contains clay masks of human faces where the eyes, mouths, teeth, and noses are depicted with gold. Unlike the graves described above which contain smith tools, the graves with the mask contain clay vases, cups, and needles. That is why these are interpreted as female funerals depicting the Mother Goddess.

The closeness of the “female” symbolic graves No. 2, 3, and 15 with the symbolic royal graves No. 1, 4, and 5 are interpreted as ritual representations of holy marriages between a king and the Mother Goddess. These six funerals are believed to have been the core of the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Varna, and to have predated the rest of the graves.

Much of the meaning of the finds from the necropolis is seen as celebrating the role of the smith who in his role as a creator is seen as supplanting the role of the Mother Goddess transforming the matriarchal world into a patriarchal one.

The position of the smith in the Chalcolithic culture is seen as comparable to that of the king because during the Chalcolithic period metal was more of a status symbol than an economic means.

The Varna Gold Treasure is part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

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