Archaeologists Excavate Early Christian Basilica Destroyed by Barbarian Invasion, Ancient Earthquake in Bulgaria’s Cherven Breg

The two seasons of archaeological excavations at the site near Bulgaria's Cherven Breg so far have revealed the impressive size of the Early Christian basilica, and led to the hypothesis that it was probably part of a major Antiquity settlement. The surviving small medieval church is visible in the background. Photo: Dupnitsa Museum of History

The two seasons of archaeological excavations at the site near Bulgaria’s Cherven Breg so far have revealed the impressive size of the Early Christian basilica, and led to the hypothesis that it was probably part of a major Antiquity settlement. The surviving small medieval church is visible in the background. Photo: Dupnitsa Museum of History

An Early Christian basilica which was destroyed by a barbarian invasion and a major earthquake in the Late Antiquity has been excavated by archaeologists near the town of Cherven Breg, Dupnitsa Municipality, in Southwest Bulgaria.

The Early Christian temple near Cherven Breg (not to be confused with the town of Cherven Bryag in Northwest Bulgaria), which existed in the 4th-6th century AD, has been excavated by the team of Assist. Prof. Svetla Petrova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, including also researchers from the Dupnitsa Museum of History, reports the Standart daily.

The digs which took place in September 2016 have been the only second archaeological excavations at the Late Roman and Early Byzantine site, after it was first excavated back in 2014.

“This is proving to be a rather impressive in size Early Christian basilica which existed for nearly 200 years after it was built,” says lead archaeologist Petrova, as cited by BNT2 – Blagoevgrad.

She points out that the temple was destroyed by a powerful earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD, and that there has been evidence about the same earthquake in other archaeological sites in Southwest Bulgaria as well.

“We have registered [traces of the earthquake] here. It has also been registered in the Early Christian basilica in Sandanski, and in another archaeological site, the ancient city of Nicopolis ad Nestum,” Petrova explains.

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A surviving small medieval church from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (12th-14th century) was built on top of the middle nave of the original Roman and Byzantine basilica. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

A surviving small medieval church from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (12th-14th century) was built on top of the middle nave of the original Roman and Byzantine basilica. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

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Surviving medieval murals from inside the 12th century church. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

Surviving medieval murals from inside the 12th century church. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

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cherven-breg-murals-3While the original and much larger Early Christian basilica collapsed in the 6th century AD, a small church named “Feast of the Ascension” (also known in Bulgarian as St. Spas) was built on top of the ruins in the 12th century, and still features surviving murals from the 12th-14th century, the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).

One of the most interesting finds from the ongoing excavations on the site is a coin of Roman Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 AD).

Aneliya Gerenska, Director of the Dupnitsa Museum of History and deputy head of the digs, hopes that the archaeological excavations and restoration of the site of the Early Christian basilica near Cherven Breg are going to start attracting visitors on cultural tourism tours.

The first ever archaeological excavations of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Christian temple were carried out back in 2014 with a total of BGN 16,000 (app. EUR 8,000) in funding from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

They revealed that near the basilica site there used to be a necropolis and an Ancient Thracian settlement, a precursor of the nearby Ancient Roman city of Germania (Germaneia) (today’s Sapareva Banya in Southwest Bulgaria).

The funding was also used for partial restoration of the murals inside the small medieval church built on top of the Late Antiquity basilica’s ruins.

No excavations were held at the basilica near Cherven Breg in 2015. Its exploration was resumed only in 2016, this time with funding from Dupnitsa Municipality.

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Lead archaeologist Svetla Petrova on the site of the excavations. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

Lead archaeologist Svetla Petrova on the site of the excavations. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

Newly exposed ruins from the time of the Early Christian basilica near Bulgaria's Cherven Breg. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

Newly exposed ruins from the time of the Early Christian basilica near Bulgaria’s Cherven Breg. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

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On its Facebook Page, the Dupnitsa Museum of History has noted that the Early Christian basilica was ransacked and abandoned after the barbarian invasion of the Slavs and Avars in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the third quarter of the 6th century. The temple’s surviving northern wall collapsed to the south as a result of the strong earthquake at the end of the century.

“The research from 2014 and from this year have revealed the ruins of a highly impressive building. The basilica façade was covered with plaster, and the inside of its walls was decorated with murals. It had five construction periods, four of which refer to the basilica period, the first half of the 4th – the end of the 5th century,” the Museum says.

It notes that the discovered fragments from the Early Christian and medieval murals, Early Christian sanctuary lamps, Roman luxury red varnish pottery, luxury grey pottery, remnants from metal and glass processing support the hypothesis about the existence of a large settlement whose well-off residents built the basilica near today’s Cherven Breg.

The medieval church itself was built in the middle nave of the original Roman and Byzantine basilica, and is similar to surviving temples from the regions of Radomir and Breznik in Western Bulgaria.

“The preserved murals make it unique among the similar buildings. They demonstrate the construction periods and repairs of the building the 12th-14th century, as reflected in its mural decoration which feature icon images of St. Constantine and St. Helena, St. Nicholas, and several other saints from the medieval icon painting tradition,” says the Dupnitsa Museum of History underscoring the fact that the medieval church survived the period of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) as a protector of the Christian faith and Bulgarian customs.

Pottery and mural fragments discovered during the latest excavations of the Early Christian basilica near Cherven Breg in Southwest Bulgaria. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

Pottery and mural fragments discovered during the latest excavations of the Early Christian basilica near Cherven Breg in Southwest Bulgaria. Photos: Dupnitsa Museum of History

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