Bronze Age Discoveries Reveal Ancient Bulgar Capital Pliska Was Settled Much Earlier Than Middle Ages

Bronze Age vessels dating back to 1,300 BC have been found in an ancient home in Pliska proving the early medieval Bulgarian capital was inhabited as early as the early period of Ancient Thrace. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Bronze Age vessels dating back to 1,300 BC have been found in an ancient home in Pliska proving the early medieval Bulgarian capital was inhabited as early as the early period of Ancient Thrace. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Discoveries of a Bronze Age home and artifacts have revealed that the Ancient Bulgar city of Pliska in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) in 680-893 AD, was settled much earlier than previously thought.

The Bronze Age discoveries have been made during rescue excavations for the construction of a water pipeline in the modern-day town of Pliska, Kaspichan Municipality, Shumen District, BNT reports.

They seem to be adding a new age to the already rich history of one of the old Bulgarian capitals, which has been mostly associated with its glorious period in the Early Middle Ages.

Pliska was established as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire after the Ancient Bulgars shifted the center of their state from the lands of the so called Old Great Bulgaria (in today’s Ukraine and Southwest Russia) north of the Black Sea to the wider Lower Danube region in the second half of the 7th century AD. Before the arrival of the Ancient Bulgars, the area is known to have been settled by Slavs.

Thus, Pliska became the first capital of Bulgaria and the Ancient Bulgars south of the Danube, and remained such until the end of the 9th century when the capital was moved to the nearby city of Veliki (“Great”) Preslav. The move was designed to solidify the transformation of the First Bulgarian Empire which had adopted Christianity in 865 AD, and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script in the years after 886 AD.

Learn more about the Great Basilica in Pliska and the adoption of Christianity by the First Bulgarian Empire in the Background Infonotes below!

Pliska has been described as the largest medieval city in Europe by territory because of the scope of its outer city which was enclosed and protected with a rampart (adding up to a total territory of 23 square km). It also harbors the ruins of what appears to have been the largest church in Europe from the 9th until the 16th century, the Great Basilica in Pliska, which is presently under restoration.

The 3,300-year-old home has been found in an area thought to have been inhabited only in the Middle Ages. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The 3,300-year-old home has been found in an area thought to have been inhabited only in the Middle Ages. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

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Now a 3,300-year-old home from the Late Bronze Age has been discovered in the rescue excavations in the modern-day town of Pliska confirming that the settlement was established much earlier, in the early period of Ancient Thrace, which is also the time of Ancient Mycenae and the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

The Late Bronze Age home has been discovered in a location which had been thought to have been first settled in the Middle Ages, in the period when Pliska was no longer the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire.

The spot in question had never been researched by archaeologists before, and the Bronze Age artifacts were discovered in a layer just 1.5 meters below the surface. The dating back to 1,300 BC is based on fragments of ceramic vessels.

“What has been discovered are fully handmade storage vessels from rough clay containing large mechanical admixtures. Some of those form the so called garland-like decorations with pagan handles,” explains archaeologist Assist. Prof. Yanko Dimitrov from the Shumen Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

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The newly discovered fragmented Bronze Age pottery and other artifacts. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The newly discovered fragmented Bronze Age pottery and other artifacts. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

pliska-bronze-age-6In addition to the Late Bronze Age finds, the rescue excavations have exposed the foundations of a wooden fence and a kiln from the Early Middle Ages with sooty river stones which may be traces of Slavic settlers.

“The Ancient Slavs had the custom of placing such river stones in the fire. Once the stones were hot, they were put at the base of a wooden vessel such as a barrel. The barrel was then filled with water so that the water can be warmed up,” Dimitrov adds.

The archaeological team is about to carry out a geophysical survey of the area of the Bronze Age discoveries in order to deepen its research.

Another recent archaeological discovery from the excavations of the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire Pliska has been the unearthing of a large stone canal underneath the 9th century Great Basilica.

The Bronze Age discoveries in Pliska have been made in rescue digs for the construction of a water pipeline. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The Bronze Age discoveries in Pliska have been made in rescue digs for the construction of a water pipeline. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

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Background Infonotes:

Pliska and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) are two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire. Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD, and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD, at the height of the Bulgarian state. The state capital was moved from Pliska to Veliki Preslav, a new medieval city nearby, in 893 AD in order to seal Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script (in 865 and 886 AD, respectively). The ruins of both Pliska and Veliki Preslav can be seen today in the Shumen District in Northeast Bulgaria.

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The Great Basilica “St. Sofia” in the city of Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD, was built between 866 and 875 AD, after Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religions in 865 AD under Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

The Great Basilica in Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria south of the Danube, was the largest Christian cathedral in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was 102.5 meters long and 30 meters wide, which means it was 20 meters longer than the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, the titular temple of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the period of the Byzantine Empire, and about 30 meters longer than the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the predecessor of today’s St. Peter’s Cathedral). Thus, the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Pliska was technically the largest Christian temple in Europe until the 17th century, i.e. until the completion of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican in 1629 AD.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was built with huge white limestone quadrae from the quarries in the nearby town of Kyulevcha. Around the basilica there was a large monastery complex and the residence of the Bulgarian Archbishop (between 870 and 917 AD), and the Bulgarian Patriarch (from 917 AD onwards). In this monastery complex, Bulgarian archaeologists have found a scriptorium for the “production” of medieval books in Old Bulgarian, also known as Church Slavonic. As Bulgaria’s National Museum of History points out, “it is with these books that the monastery monks and missionaries converted [to Christianity] the peoples of modern-day countries Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Serbia in the 9th-10th century.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was still standing until the Late Middle Ages but was razed to the ground by the Ottoman Turks after their invasion at the end of the 14th century, and in the 15th century, because according to the laws of the Islamic Ottoman Empire no Christian temple could stand taller than a Muslim man mounted on a horse. The construction material from the unique buildings in Pliska was used by the Ottomans for the construction of the Turkish military barracks and the Tombul Mosque in the nearby city of Shumen, and whatever had been left of it by the 19th century – for the construction of the Varna-Ruse railway in 1866 under Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha.

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Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the formal and only state religion took place in 864-865 AD under the leadership of Khan / Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

As a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), by the middle of the 9th century the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including the entire or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, the major peoples inhabiting the Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars (whose religion is known as tengriism) and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies. This was true even though there were entire areas in the then Bulgarian Empire which had been Christianized in earlier periods, and even though the first Khans from the House of Dulo are believed to have been Christians who were baptized by the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium: Khan (Kanas) Kubrat (r. ca. 630-ca.660) who founded the so called Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD on the territory of much of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia; Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. ca. 680-700) who expanded the state to the southwest technically creating modern-day Danube Bulgaria around 680 AD; and Khan (Kanas) Tervel (r. 700-718/721) who saved Europe from an Arab invasion during the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though the adoption of Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted Bulgaria to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors of the Frankish Empire in the west.

While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he was forced to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty signed in 863 AD. This resulted after the First Bulgarian Empire had had to fight simultaneously Byzantium in the southeast and Great Moravia in the northwest. Thus, in 863 or 864 AD, a mission from the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios came to Pliska and converted the Bulgarian Tsar, his family and high-ranking dignitaries, who were baptized as Christians. Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihael – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse of the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question”, i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized First Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe.

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity, however, went far from smoothly, and not only because of the clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over whose diocese the newly converted Bulgarians should belong to. In 865, conservative Bulgar aristocrats from all 10 komitats (administrative regions) of the First Bulgarian Empire revolted against Boris, who now took the Christianized title of Knyaz (i.e. King) in order to restore the old religion, tengriism. Knyaz Boris I managed to suppress the revolt executing 52 Bulgarian boyars (heads of noble families). According to some sources, he also had their entire extended families executed. Until the end of his life, Knyaz Boris was haunted by guilt about the harshness of his measures and the moral price of his decision in 865. In his later correspondence with Pope Nicholas I, the Knyaz asked whether his actions had crossed the borders of Christian humility, for which the Pope offered forgiveness: “You have sinned rather because of zeal and lack of knowledge, than because of other vice. You receive forgiveness and grace and the benevolence of Christ, since penance has followed on your behalf.”

Knyaz Boris realized that the Christianization of Bulgaria gave Byzantium great influence over the domestic affairs of the Bulgarian Empire. Thus, juggling the differences of Rome and Constantinople, he eventually managed to get Byzantium’s Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as the Pope in Rome to recognize an independent (autocephalous) Bulgarian Archbishopric, which was created in 870 AD in an unprecedented development for Europe because independent churches had been only those founded by Apostles or Apostles’ disciples. For example, the Papacy in Rome had been challenging Constantinople’s claim of equality to Rome on the grounds that the Church of Constantinople had not been founded by an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this development was also a success for Byzantium, and during the decade after 870 AD, Pope Adrian II and his successors kept trying desperately to convince Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris to leave Constantinople’s religious sphere.

Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed, the adoption of Christianity, in 886 AD when Bulgaria welcomed the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski, helping them to teach thousands of Bulgarian clergymen to serve in Bulgarian. Thus, Bulgaria adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This allowed Knyaz Boris, and his successor Tsar Simeon I the Great to declare Bulgarian (also known as Old Bulgarian or Church Slavonic) as the official language of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Council of Preslav in 893 AD (which also moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav)). As all over Europe religious services were held in the “official” church languages Latin and Greek, this “nationalization” of the liturgy language by Bulgaria became another exceptional development in medieval Europe after the recognition of the independent Bulgarian church.

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