Necropolis with Rich Inventories from Second Bulgarian Empire Discovered in Bulgaria’s Vratsa

Lead archaeologist Alexandra Petrova from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History showing an artifact discovered in the "necropolis of the wealthy" of medieval Vratitsa. Photo: Monitor daily

Lead archaeologist Alexandra Petrova from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History showing an artifact discovered in the “necropolis of the wealthy” of medieval Vratitsa. Photo: Monitor daily

A necropolis from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422), i.e. the High Middle Ages, containing rich funeral inventories of silver and copper jewels has been discovered as a result of construction, and has been excavated by archaeologists in the downtown of the city of Vratsa in Northwest Bulgaria.

A total of 18 skeletons have already been in the graves of the necropolis, which was the cemetery of one of the residential quarters of the medieval Bulgarian city of Vratitsa, reports the Monitor daily.

Vratitsa was also an Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine fortress and is often referred to as Gradishte (a common Bulgarian word meaning “fortress").

The medieval necropolis, which is located in the downtown of today’s city of Vratsa, was first stumbled upon during the construction of an apartment building at the end of June and early July 2016.

Initially, the local archaeologists were refused access to the site by the investor, with the construction workers damaging a total of ten skeletons. The construction works were first halted by the local police, and later, at the end of August, it formally terminated by the National Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties in Sofia.

The Institute has given the archaeologists a month to excavate the necropolis, with a final decision on whether the construction will be allowed to continue to be made afterwards.

Human remains discovered in the medieval necropolis in Bulgaria's Vratsa. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Human remains discovered in the medieval necropolis in Bulgaria’s Vratsa. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

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The medieval necropolis has been researched by scholars from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History and the Anthropology Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia.

The inventories of silver coated and copper jewels and adornments discovered in the graves from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire have turned out to be unexpectedly rich.

“For the first time in Vratsa, we now have the opportunity to excavate urban archaeological structures. They date back to the 12th-14th century. What has made an impression on us is the large amount of funeral inventory consisting of personal adornments – bracelets (up to three on each hand), ear pads, earrings, and rings," lead archaeologist Alexandra Petrova from the Vratsa Regional Museum of History, has told BNT.

The researchers are hypothesizing that many of the artifacts discovered in the newly found necropolis from medieval Vratitsa might have originated at the hands of the first craftsmen from the Vratsa Goldsmiths School.

“Adornments would lead to an unnecessary luxury, and in general Christian canon rules provided for modest funerals. This means that the population which left behind this necropolis enjoy a rather high social status. For example, a young woman buried in one of the graves had a lot of bracelets on both hands. The fact that such artifacts are found en masse [in the necropolis] speaks of local production," elaborates anthropologist Mariya Hristova from the National Institute and Museum of Anthropology in Sofia.

Archaeologist Georgi Ganetsovski, Director of the Vratsa Museum, during the excavations of the necropolis from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photo: Monitor daily

Archaeologist Georgi Ganetsovski, Director of the Vratsa Museum, during the excavations of the necropolis from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photo: Monitor daily

Another argument in favor of the hypothesis that the necropolis was a cemetery for the wealthy is that Hristova and her colleague Kaloyan Vasilev have found few traces of exostosis on the skeletons which is interpreted to mean that the people who were buried in it did not engage in hard physical labor.

Georgi Ganetsovski, Director of the Vratsa Regional Museum of History, who himself is an expert in prehistory, has pointed out that one of the young women buried in what was one of the necropolises of medieval Vratitsa had very healthy and perfectly aligned teeth, i.e. the so called “Hollywood smile". In one of the graves, the archaeologist found a wooden pad placed underneath the buried woman’s head.

One of the graves demonstrates a deviation from the Christian burial customs. It was restricted with a stone leading the researchers to believe that the buried person probably had a lower body disability.

The archaeological excavations of the necropolis from medieval Vratitsa in downtown Vratsa dating back to the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire are going to continue until September 21, 2016. After that, all human bones will be transported for analysis to the Anthropology Institute in Sofia.

Given that the necropolis is located right next to an existing apartment building and a school, the archaeologists are convinced that the rest of it is located under the building and the schoolyard.

The archaeological and anthropological examination of the necropolis is going to provide crucial information about the population of the medieval city of Vratitsa.

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The construction site where the medieval necropolis has been discovered in downtown Vratsa is located close to a residential building and a schoolyard. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The construction site where the medieval necropolis has been discovered in downtown Vratsa is located close to a residential building and a schoolyard. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval fortress known as Gradishte (a common Bulgarian word meaning “fortress") or Vratitsa (as it was called in the Middle Ages) is located near today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Vratsa at the canyon of the Vartaeshnitsa River. It is located near the Vrattsata Pass (meaning “door"), which gave its name to the city of Vratsa, using the natural defenses of the mountainous terrain.

The Gradishte or Vratitsa Fortress is an Ancient Thracian, Roman, Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian city. There are hypotheses that the Thracian settlement may have been the capital of one of the major Ancient Thracian tribes, the Tribali, who inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. There have been doubts among scholars whether the unearthed Antiquity fortress walls of Gradishte / Vratitsa were first build by the Romans, who often built their cities on top of previously existing Thracian settlements, or by the Thracians themselves. The fortress of Gradishte / Vratitsa was also used by Byzantium in the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, i.e. the Early Byzantine period. It protected the most direct mountain pass route between what are today Northwest and Southwest Bulgaria.

During the period of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, Vratitsa was a major fortified city; its name – as well as its importance – are made clear by a 13th century inscription on a stone slab which has been discovered in a cave connected to a medieval Bulgarian church. The inscription was found in 1942, and it states that the place harbored a monastery in the Middle Ages. The fortification system of the Vratitsa fortress uses the towering rocks to the north as part of its fortress wall; the fortress wall itself is about 2.4 meters wide. According to the archaeological discoveries, the settlement at the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Vratsa existed in several time periods.

The first is the Thracian period from the 4th until the 1st century BC. The finds hint at the existence of a Thracian fortress wall. In case of danger, the fortified area could provide asylum for up to 10-15,000 people, i.e. the entire population of the nearby valley. At the end of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian geographer Felix Kanitz described the ruins of the Gradishte / Vratitsa Fortress as having many different fortifications from different periods. Unfortunately, since then, much of the stone and rock material has been used by local villagers for the construction of homes and fences. However, the archaeological excavations conducted before 1965 indicate that the place was a settlement and fortress of the Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi during the Early Thracian period.

The second period in the existence of Gradishte / Vratitsa is the 3rd century AD when it was a Roman fortress. The third period is in the 4th century AD, the Late Antiquity period which has left traces of burned down buildings. The fourth period started in the 6th century AD the Early Byzantine Empire added new fortifications to the existing Thracian and Roman ones.

The fifth period is the 13th-14th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which also added new fortifications as evidenced by the discovery of bronze coins and ceramics. It was in this period that the city started to expand outside of the fortress walls turning into today’s city of Vratsa over the next centuries.

A total of five medieval graves have been found in a necropolis from the time of the Bulgarian Empire; one of them was the grave of a big man with a stone placed on his chest in order to “neutralize" him so that he would not rise from the grave. The discovery has led the Bulgarian media to term the buried man “the Vratsa Vampire".

Another necropolis containing numerous graves with rich inventories from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) was discovered in downtown Vratsa in July-August 2016 during the construction of an apartment building.

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