Diver Stumbles Upon Late Antiquity Amphora Containing Palm Oil near Bulgaria’s Black Sea Resort Sozopol

This amphora from the 5th-6th century AD has been found in the Black Sea off Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: National Museum of History

This amphora from the 5th-6th century AD has been found in the Black Sea off Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: National Museum of History

An amphora from the Late Antiquity still containing palm oil has been discovered by a diver in the Black Sea off the coast of the Bulgarian resort Sozopol, the successor of the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica.

The amphora dates back to the 5th-6th century, i.e. the Early Byzantine period, Bulgaria’s National Museum of History has announced.

The find is said to be “extremely valuable" precisely because its content, palm oil from the Late Antiquity, has been preserved.

The Museum points out that thousands of amphorae have been discovered along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast by divers since the 1960s when diving became popular in the country as a sports activity.

However, up until the discovery of the latest find, all but one of the known amphorae had been empty.

The only other Antiquity amphora with preserved contents from Bulgaria’s waters was discovered about a decade ago by American oceanographer and underwater and maritime archaeology researcher Robert Ballard.

He found an amphora still containing salted fish from the Atlantic bonito species in the Black Sea near Cape Kaliakra in Northeast Bulgaria.

The National Museum of History in Sofia notes that amphorae were universal shipping containers in the Antiquity and Middle Ages because when stacked in a certain way they could fill up entirely a ship’s hold.

This allowed the transportation of greater amounts of goods, and also prevented the cargo from coming out of place in the event of a high sea or storm, and thus causing the vessel’s sinking or wrecking.

It is stressed that amphorae were used to transport all kinds of goods, and not just liquids: grain, wine, olive oil, fish, amber, figs, and even nails.

The Museum, whose Director Bozhidar Dimitrov is a native of Sozopol, also mentions rumors that in the past, while trawling for turbot, local fishermen from Sozopol would happen to find dozens of ancient amphora containing palm oil.

They would turn the finds over to a soap factory in the Black Sea city Burgas in exchange for ready-made soap.

The Museum concludes that it is unclear what use exactly the ancient and medieval population of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast (such as the Ancient Thracians) had for palm oil.

Learn more about the history of Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort Sozopol (ancient Apollonia Pontica) in the Background Infonotes below!

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This is the first discovery of an ancient or medieval amphora along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast with preserved palm oil inside, and the second discovery ever of an amphorae with preserved contents. Photo: National Museum of History

This is the first discovery of an ancient or medieval amphora along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast with preserved palm oil inside, and the second discovery ever of an amphorae with preserved contents. Photo: National Museum of History

Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world.

An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis.

Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria.

Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 13.2-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium.

During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base.

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov.

The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists.

In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.

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