Lear archaeologist Vasil Nikolov showing the ruins of the Chalcolithic fortress of the Salt Pit settlement near Bulgaria’s Provadiya. Photo: Trud daily
A 6,400-year-oldwater well has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the Solnitsata (i.e. “The Salt Pit”) prehistoric settlement, which has been dubbed “Europe’s oldest prehistoric town“, located near Provadiya in Northeast Bulgaria.
The archaeological excavations of the prehistoric town “Provadiya – Solnitsata" made international headlines last year with the discovery of a 6,300-year-old gold jewel.
The prehistoric well has been unearthed at a depth of 8 meters in “the Salt Pit". It is 1.6 meters long, and 1.4 meters wide. It was used to supply water to the residents of the fortified Chalcolithic (Copper Age, Aeneolithic) town when it was under siege.
Back when it was in use, the inside of the well was reinforced with a rectangular structure made of wooden planks but since then the wood has become carbonized because of the lack of oxygen, the researchers have found.
“The existence of such a well once again confirms that the fortress protected a very rich settlement which was targeted by numerous attacks, and was often under siege," says Nikolov, who has been excavating Europe’s oldest town and rock salt mining center since it was discovered 11 years ago.
He has noted that even oldest water wells have been found in Europe, and that other prehistoric pits have been found in Bulgaria for which it is unclear if they were used as wells or as ritual pits.
“What is interesting is that the well is located inside the third ring of fortifications. Apparently, it dates back to the last period of the settlement’s existence," the archaeologist notes, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio.
Over 200 bone arrow tips have found around the fortifications which is seen as a testimony that the prehistoric settlement was under siege, and there were battles at its walls.
The small 6,300-year-old, 24-carrat gold jewel found in Provadiya – Solnitsata in 2015. Photo: Archaeological Team
The 2016 archaeological excavations of the Salt Pit prehistoric settlement in Bulgaria’s Provadiya, which started in August, are going to be completed with the restoration of one of the fortification stone walls erected ca. 4,500 BC.
The prehistoric wall in question is at least 324 meters long, and up to 4.3 meters thick.
“Perhaps the walls of Constantinople were this thick. Such a citadel was rare even in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, let alone the Prehistory," notes the archaeologist.
The prehistoric fortification is to be partly rebuilt by using stones from the site in order to allow visitors to imagine its true scope.
The archaeological team has excavated at Provadiya – Solnitsata three sets of prehistoric stone fortifications from the 5th millennium BC which were in use one after the other, and are the largest known Chalcolithic fortress in Europe. The stones that the citadel of the settlement was made weigh at least 3 metric tons each.
It is noted that the fortifications were designed to protect the salt deposits which back were of the greatest value, and was used as a currency.
“Salt was used as the first form of money whereas gold and copper became a sign of wealth much later," Nikolov explains, adding that with its bullion of rock salt, the Salt Pit settlement was probably Europe’s first “mint", and its salt was traded far to the south in exchange for food and other goods.
While the archaeological team plans to excavate the residential area of the Provadiya – Solnitsata settlement as of 2017, it has already found two-floor houses behind the fortress walls.
It is estimated that the prehistoric town had a population of about 350 people who were rich because they could pay in salt for the construction of their homes with large stones brought in from far away.
During their digs so far, the archaeologists have unearthed the actual prehistoric salt extraction pits, each of which could yield up to 5 metric tons of salt.
In addition to the present excavations of the fortifications of the Salt Pit settlement, the Bulgarian team is joined by British osteoarchaeologist Kath McSweeney from the University of Edinburgh who has been researching the necropolis of the prehistoric town.
For the first time, the archaeologists have found there a mass grave from the Chalcolithic containing no funeral inventory whatsoever which was highly untypical.
This has led the archaeologists to hypothesize that the people buried in the grave were an entire family murdered in the conflicts over salt and food.
The thriving prehistoric town of Provadiya – Solnitsata started waning at the end of the Chalcolithic, possibly as a result of climate change and drier climate. The extraction of rock salt there was fully terminated ca. 4,300 BC.
Since the archaeological site of Provadiya – Solnitsata is located on the property of private salt producer Provad-Sol, the firm has agreed to allow visitors as well as the construction of an alley leading up to the prehistoric settlement. In order to facilitate tourism, Provadiya Municipality is going to construct a parking lot right outside the private property.
The prehistoric settlement of Provadiya – Solnitsata (i.e. “The Salt Pit") is located 6 km southeast of the modern-day town of Provadiya, VarnaDistrict, in Northeast Bulgaria. It is a prehistoric settlement mound which in a later historical period was turned into a large Ancient Thracian burial mound.
The prehistoric settlement mound has an archaeological layer of about 6 meters, and a diameter of 105 meters at the only rock salt deposit in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. It is has a territory of 7 decares (app. 1.75 acres).
The extraction of rock salt began during the Late Neolithic, about 5,400-5,000 BC, with the prehistoric residents of the town boiling water from a local salt water spring in ceramic vessels placed inside large domed kilns, and producing salt bricks which they traded and used for the preservation of meat.
The Salt Pit settlement near Provadiya is Europe’s earliest known case of the use of this salt-making technology making Provadiya the oldest salt producing center on the continent.
The life of the Providiya – Solnitsata settlement continued during the Mid Chalcolithic, i.e. between 4,600 and 4,500 BC, and the Late Chalcolithic, between 4,500 and 4,200 BC, when it developed further into a major salt making complex, with the initial kilns being replaced by open-air salt pits up to 10 meters in diameter.
The prehistoric people would light an open fire at the bottom of the pit to boil the salt water in large clay bowls. It is estimated that in this period the town was inhabited by about 350 people.
The Salt Pit settlement near Bulgaria’s Provadiya has yielded a number of other intriguing discoveries such as Europe’s earliest two-storey homes from the Late Neolithic which were used for both dwelling, and salt making, as well as a granary where the archaeologists have found four sicklesmade of deer horns.
The lucrative extraction and trade of rock salt are believed to have led to the accumulation of wealth by the prehistoric inhabitants of the Provadiya – Solnitsata settlement, and have been linked to the gold treasure of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis (4,500-4,200 BC), the oldest hoard of gold objects found in the world, which is located 37 km to the east.
The riches of the settlement had to be protected which is why during the Mid Chalcolithic its inhabitants built a fortification consisting of a moat and a rampart wall of oak poles covered with clay as well as two large-scale stone bastions.
The bastions were destroyed by an earthquake around 4,550 BC leading the prehistoric people to build new walls made of stone, which also were destroyed by an earthquake. The moat in front of the fortress walls had a diameter of about 100 meters, and was over 2 meters wide, and 3.3 meters deep.
The archaeological artifacts from the fortified prehistoric settlement Provadiya – Solnitsata are part of the collections of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and Provadiya Museum of History.