Archaeologists Find Byzantine General’s Seal, Medieval Necropolis in Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad

This lead seal of a Byzantine general or administrative district governor has been discovered in the 2016 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria's Ivaylovgrad. Photo: National Museum of History

This lead seal (“bulla”) of a Byzantine general or administrative district governor has been discovered in the 2016 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad. Photo: National Museum of History

A well preserved lead seal of a medieval Byzantine general is just one of the numerous artifacts which have been discovered by the archaeologists excavating the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Lyutitsa near the town of Ivaylovgrad in Southern Bulgaria.

The 2016 archaeological excavations of Lyutitsa, which is one of the best preserved fortresses from the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire and changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium a number of times, have been conducted by team led by archaeologist Filip Petrunov from the National Museum of History in Sofia.

While the artifact is yet to be examined and dated more precisely, according to Petrunov, it probably dates back to the 11th century, the Museum has announced.

A release of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, which recapitulates on the results of the 2016 digs in Lyutitsa, notes that the bulla (seal) was probably used in the correspondence between the Byzantine military governors in the Achridos Theme (i.e. district), for example, between Lyutitsa and Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv).

On its front, the seal has an inscription in Greek, reading, “Protospatharios Demetrius”, “protospatharios” being a title awarded to senior Byzantine generals or administrative governors.

The back of the bulla features an image of a military saint, most probably St. Dimitar Solunski (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki), who seems to have been the patron saint of the seal’s owner.

Two other highly intriguing medieval finds from the 2016 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria include a ceramic medallion with a graffiti image of Jesus Christ Pantocrator (“Almighty”) and a bronze cross which was worn on the neck.

The medallion with Jesus Christ was made out of the bottom of a ceramic vessel, and was used as a personal icon. The image of Christ Pantocrator was a typical depiction for the Christians in medieval Byzantium and Bulgaria.

This medallion discovered in Lyutitsa was made from the bottom of a ceramic vessel. It features an image of Jesus Christ, and was used as a personal icon in the Middle Ages. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

This medallion discovered in Lyutitsa was made from the bottom of a ceramic vessel. It features an image of Jesus Christ, and was used as a personal icon in the Middle Ages. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The bronze cross which was discovered in the latest excavations in Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The bronze cross which was discovered in the latest excavations in Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

A total of over 100 artifacts made of bone, ceramics, iron, bronze, and silver have been discovered during the 2016 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress. They date back to the 2nd century BC, the Late Antiquity, and the High Middle Ages (11th-13th century)

The digs have been carried out in three different sections – near the fortress gate, around the two medieval churches (dating back to the 10th and the 15th-16th century), and near the rock hewn water reservoir of the fortress.

All three of the most intriguing finds mentioned above – the Byzantine general’s lead seal, the medallion with Christ Pantocrator, and the bronze cross – have been discovered in the first section, inside a building with a total area of 250 square meters close to the main gate of the Lyutitsa Fortress.

The other artifacts from the building in question include household ceramic vessels and a large number of animal bones, mostly from the 11th-13th century.

The second section of excavations around the medieval churches has resulted in the discovery of a necropolis of 20 previously unknown graves where the bones of over 30 people have been found. The human remains have been transferred for examination to the Anthropology Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

The graves have been found west of a single nave church from the 14th century which was built on top of a 10th century basilica. A total of nine artifacts from marble, bronze, and ceramics have been discovered in the necropolis.

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The newly unearthed graves in the 14th century necropolis around the 10th century basilica in the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The newly unearthed graves in the 14th century necropolis around the 10th century basilica in the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

A Bulgarian Orthodox priest performs a memorial service at the medieval necropolis in Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylograd Municipality Facebook Page

A Bulgarian Orthodox priest performs a memorial service at the medieval necropolis during the archaeological excavations in Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylograd Municipality Facebook Page

The excavations of the medieval water reservoir of the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The excavations of the medieval water reservoir of the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

Excavations in the third section of the Lyutitsa Fortress close to the water reservoir have been carried out for the first time since 2005 because the archaeologists found it had been targeted by treasure hunters (judging from a fresh pit dug up by the looters).

The most interesting find from this section is an Ancient Greek silver coin from the 2nd century BC, a tetrobol, from the city of Histiaea (today’s Istiaia in Greece) on the island of Euboea dated more precisely to 196-146 BC. The front of the coin features the image of a nymph wearing a wreath of vine leaves, a necklace, and an earring. The back of the coin shows the nymph sitting on the front of a ship and holding a stylus sword as a sign of victory.

This 2nd century BC Ancient Greek tetrobol has also been found in the latest digs in the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

This 2nd century BC Ancient Greek tetrobol has also been found in the latest digs in the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The 2016 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress in Southern Bulgaria have been funded by the Ministry of Culture, the National Museum of History in Sofia, and Ivaylovgrad Municipality. The archaeological team has also included representatives of New Bulgarian University in Sofia, the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, Plovdiv University “Paisiy Hilendarski (Paisius of Hilendar)”, and the Ivaylovgrad Museum of History.

The archaeologists have alerted the authorities about the traces of looting by treasure hunters they have found inside the fortress as well as in a late medieval necropolis located south of the abandoned town of Rogozovo nearby.

Even though Lyutitsa has been excavated since 2002-2004, archaeologist Filip Petrunov has noted that just about 1% of the total area of the medieval city has in fact been researched by the archaeologists.

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The excavations in the section inside the fortress gate of Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The excavations in the section inside the fortress gate of Lyutitsa. Photo: Ivaylovgrad Municipality Facebook Page

The excavations in the section inside the fortress gate of Lyutitsa. Photo: National Museum of History

The excavations in the section inside the fortress gate of Lyutitsa. Photo: National Museum of History

An aerial view of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria's Ivaylovgrad. Photo: Haskovo.net

An aerial view of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad. Photo: Haskovo.net

In its release on the latest findings from the Lyutitsa Fortress, Bulgaria’s National Museum of History has retold a story connected with the fortress found in Byzantine chronicles:

In the winter of 1345, during a raging civil war in Byzantium, there was famine in the then Byzantine town of Dimotika (Didymoteicho). Its authorities sent an armed detachment to procure food but the troops got lost in a snow blizzard, and deviated from their route crossing the border with the Second Bulgarian Empire. They were surrounded by Bulgarian border patrols who took them the Lyutitsa Fortress. There the commander of the fortress ordered the Byzantines to be fed, given mule loads of food, and sent back to Dimotika.

During their 2015 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress, the archaeologists discovered a fragment from an 11th century vessel for the brewing of rakia (popular Bulgarian and Balkan brandy).

Lear more about the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The Lyutitsa Fortress is a Late Antiquity / Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains near the town of Ivaylovgrad (and the depopulated town of Rogozovo (or Rogozino)), Haskovo District, in Southern Bulgaria.

It has a total area of 26 decares (app. 6.4 acres), and is also known as the Marble City (because its fortress walls are made of white marble), and as Kaloyan’s Citadel (after Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire).

Even though its research is still in its early stages, there is archaeological evidence to believe that this particular fortress is the rich medieval city Lyutitsa which is mentioned in numerous historical sources. In the 9th-17th century, Lyutitsa was the center of a bishopric, and in the 17th-18th century – of an archbishopric.

Lyutitsa is one of the best preserved Bulgarian fortresses from the Middle Ages; in that, it is comparable to other well preserved medieval fortresses in Southern and Southeast Bulgaria such as the Mezek Fortress and the Matochina Fortress. Its fortress walls and towers have been preserved up to a height of 6-10 meters. It has 12 fortress towers, 9 of which have survived.

The Lyutitsa Fortress is also located close to another popular archaeological landmark, the Ancient Roman villa Armira which has been restored and has emerged as a well-known cultural tourism site.

Archaeological finds such as pottery, coins, decorations, household items made of metal and bone indicate that the location of Lyutitsa was inhabited as early as the 1st millennium BC, (starting in the Late Bronze Age), i.e. the time of Ancient Thrace.

The first time Lyutitsa was mentioned in historical sources goes back to the 9th-10th century when its name appears as a bishopric in the parish lists of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Nicholas I Mysticus (901-907; 912-925), and then again in 940 under Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII the Purple-born (r. 913-959). It was also mentioned in the memoires of Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene (r. 1347-1354) who reveals that the city of Lyutitsa was destroyed in the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans in the 14th century. While its name was not mentioned explicitly, it is also believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress was referred to by French knight and historian Geoffrey of Villehardouin of the Fourth Crusade who speaks of a fortress where Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire stationed his troops after the siege of Dimotika (Didymoteicho) in 1207.

Based on historical and archaeological research, it is believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) in the 9th century when it was located in the area of the border with Byzantium, and subsequently changed hands numerous times.

The fortress walls of Lyutitsa date back to the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century), i.e. the Early Byzantine period. They were destroyed several times, and today’s surviving fortress walls and towers are believed to have been erected in the 12th-13th century. The fortress was in use during the time of Early Byzantium and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and even survived well into the Ottoman period and Late Middle Ages, i.e. up until the end of the 18th century when its residents abandoned it, and settled at nearby mineral springs founding a town called Ladzha (today a quarter of Ivaylovgrad).

Lyutitsa’s fortress wall has a total length of 600 meters. It features one octagonal, two round, and nine rectangular fortress towers. Inside the fortress, archaeologists have found the ruins of two churches (dating back to the 10th and 15th-16th century, respectively), the keep of the fortress, a well, a water reservoir hewn into the rocks (with Thracian finds discovered on its bottom), a sewerage system as well as a medieval necropolis with 15 graves.

The 10th century bishopric church was built of marble, and had three naves and a very rich decoration of both murals and marble reliefs.

The most interesting finds include: Ancient Bulgar / medieval Bulgarian pottery identical with the pottery from Pliska (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893) and Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893-970), which is a testimony to the importance of the Lyutitsa Fortress for medieval Bulgaria and its high culture; a very rare coin of Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus; as well as two medieval fragments from vessels for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and the Balkans (found in 2011 and 2015).

In 2006, the archaeologists found in Lyutitsa the grave of one of the medieval bishops of the city who was buried in a sitting position, holding a magnificent silver-coated bronze cross in his right hand.

The Lyutitsa Fortress was first excavated in 2002, and then again in 2004-2011 under the leardership of Assoc Prof. Boni Petrunova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Subsequently, the excavations of Lyutitsa have been conducted by archaeologist Filip Petrunov (who is Petrunova’s son) from the National Museum of History in Sofia. Many of the artifacts discovered in the Lyutitsa Fortress are exhibited in the Ivaylovgrad Museum of History.

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