Archaeologists Discover Medieval Necropolis on Top of Late Antiquity Floor Mosaics of Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

The 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv has been known for its beautiful layers of floor mosaics. It has now turned out that people were buried in later periods on top of the previously existing mosaic floors. Photo: BGNES

The 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv has been known for its beautiful layers of floor mosaics. It has now turned out that people were buried in later periods on top of the previously existing mosaic floors. Photo: BGNES

A necropolis containing a total of 18 burials from the Middle Ages has been discovered on top of the layers of floor mosaics of the Early Christian and Early Byzantine Great Basilica in the city of Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria.

The necropolis has been discovered during the ongoing excavations and restoration of the 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica with its stunning mosaics in the city of Plovdiv (also known as Europe’s oldest city).

The burials are located in the northern nave of the impressive temple, with the bodies in the earliest grave having been laid right on top of the Late Antiquity mosaics, reports the Bulgarian private news agency BGNES, which has also released a video of the necropolis discovery.

The discovery has been made after the entire territory of the large Early Christian basilica had been opened up for excavations, with the clearing of the remaining asphalt covering part of the plot’s northern section.

While the archaeological team has preferred to abstain from revealing the precise dating of the medieval burials, it is reported that part of the graves date back to the 10th-11th century, i.e. about five centuries after the destruction of the 5th century AD Great Basilica.

Not all of the skeletons have been fully preserved, and some of the bones have been found scattered, lead archaeologist Zheni Tankova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology has revealed, reports local news site Plovdiv24.

One of the burials has been found to contain a child skeleton with five glass bracelets on the child’s left arm.

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The graves in the necropolis are from different periods of the Middle Ages. Photos: Plovdiv24

The graves in the necropolis are from different periods of the Middle Ages. Photos: Plovdiv24

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A man buried inside another one of the graves from the 10th-11th century, whose corpse was laid directly on the Late Antiquity mosaic floor, was probably a clergyman since the archaeologists have discovered on top of his bones two bronze crosses which are engolpions (encolpions), i.e. a (religious) item, for example in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom.

It is possible that the two engolpion crosses may contain holy relics of saints, which was the custom in the Middle Ages, but the artifacts are yet to be examined in detail, reports the Monitor daily.

The same report also says two of the burials contain the remains of children, probably girls because in each of the two graves the archaeologists have found a pair of bronze earrings. According to this report, the earliest graves in the necropolis date back to the period immediately after the destruction of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, i.e. the 6th century AD, whereas the latest are from the Late Middle Ages.

After the skeletons are examined by anthropologists, their remains will be reburied with Christian rites, and an inscription is to be placed on the site of the necropolis.

The archaeological team has also unearthed the chancel of the Great Basilica, which is found to have been surround with large marble blocks, as well as the temple’s apse.

One of the excavated burials found right on top of the Late Antiquity mosaic floor. Photo: Monitor daily

One of the excavated burials found right on top of the Late Antiquity mosaic floor. Photo: Monitor daily

In July 2016, the archaeologists discovered a total of 9 large marble columns during the excavations of the basilica.

The ruins of the Great Basilica are located close to the modern-day Catholic cathedral St. Ludwig in downtown Plovdiv. They are just meters away from the residence of the Catholic bishop of Sofia and Plovdiv, Monsignor Georgi Yovchev. The same residence was visited briefly by the late Pope John Paul II during his visit in Bulgaria back in 2002.

After the completion of the excavations and restoration of the basilica, which is supposed to be done by 2018, the space around the ancient church is to be turned into a square and a pedestrian zone.

The excavation and restoration of the 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica with its stunning mosaics in the city of Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria is a joint project of Plovdiv Municipality and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a Sofia-based NGO.

The foundation is providing a grant of BGN 4.9 million (app. EUR 2.5 million) for making the Great Basilica a major cultural landmark.

The restoration project which started in 2015, and has led to the exposure of two layers of marvelous Early Christian floor mosaics and to archaeological discoveries.

According to Plovdiv Municipality, the excavation and restoration of the Great Basilica is part of an integrated plan for urban development for 2014-2020, and supports Plovdiv’s status as the European Capital of Culture for 2019.

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The archaeological site of the Great Basilica in Bulgaria's Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv24

The archaeological site of the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv24

(View more photos of the beautiful Early Christian mosaics of Plovdiv’s Great Basilica in the links at the end of this article!)

In the fall of 2015, Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers granted Plovdiv Municipality management rights for the Early Byzantine Great Basilica, a major archaeological monument where archaeologists and restorers have been working on the excavation and restoration of its stunning Early Christian mosaics.

Plovdiv Municipality is supposed to manage the Early Christian Great Basilica, officially known as Archaeological Complex “Great Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica Philipopolis” (Plovdiv was known as Philipopolis after the conquest of Ancient Thrace by King Philip II of Macedon in 342 AD), in accordance with Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act, and in cooperation with the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

Also in the fall of 2015, the archaeologists and restorers working on the excavation and conservation of the 5th century AD Byzantine Great Basilica in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv made a series of new intriguing discoveries at the Early Christian temple.

These include the unearthing of more of the impressive Late Antiquity mosaics – including mosaics of unique species of birds and an ornate floor panel with motifs connected with the Levant (i.e. Syria, Lebanon, etc.), a wall indicating the true size of the building as well as a partly preserved bishop’s inscription.

The Early Byzantine Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was discovered in the 1980s but its ruins and unique floor mosaics have been re-buried with soil and sand as a means of preserving them in anticipation of the resolution of legal disputes over the property, and the securing of sufficient funding for the further excavation and conservation of the site.

The lower layer of the mosaics is covered with several centimeters of mortar leading the archaeologists to assume that at some point in the life of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, which was one of the largest public buildings in Southeast Europe in the Late Antiquity, it was decided to cover its initial mosaic floor with mortar in order to create new mosaics which feature primarily depictions of birds.

The project for Plovdiv’s Great Basilica, which is sometimes likened to similar historical monuments from ancient Constantinople and Ravenna, the last capital of the Western Roman Empire, is the second of this kind, after in 2010-2014 Bulgaria Culture Ministry, Plovdiv Municipality, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation collaborated for the excavation and restoration of another Early Christian monument, the so called Small Basilica dating back to the 5th century AD.

The Small Basilica project was financed by the America for Bulgaria Foundation with a BGN 1 million (app. EUR 511,000) grant, and was formally opened for tourists in May 2014.

Also check out our other recent stories with photos from the excavations and restoration of the Early Christian Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv:

Bulgaria’s Cabinet Grants Plovdiv Municipality Management Rights for Early Christian Great Basilica amidst Mosaics Restoration

Archaeologists Find Bishop’s Inscription, Mosaics with Middle Eastern Motifs in 5th Century AD Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Further Older Layer of Beautiful Early Christian Mosaics at Plovdiv’s Great Basilica

Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Further Lower Layer of Early Christian Mosaics at Plovdiv’s Great Basilica

Bulgarian Archaeologists Discover Lower Layer of Early Christian Mosaics, Murals, Roman Building in Plovdiv’s Great Basilica

Bulgarian Archaeologists Reveal Beautiful Early Christian Floor Mosaics amidst Unpleasant Present-Day ‘Finds’ in Plovdiv’s Great Basilica

Bulgarian Archaeologists Start Excavations, Restoration of Early Christian Great Basilica in Plovdiv

Background Infonotes:

The Early Christian Great Basilica (or Bishop’s Basilica) is located in the center of the ancient city of Philipopolis, which is itself in the downtown of today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria. It was discovered in 1982 by a team of archaeologists led by Elena Kisyakova. The excavated remains of the Great Basilica were fenced off as part of conservation efforts but have not been excavated further ever since.

Back in 2002, Plovdiv Municipality sold the property to a private firm even though it contained a formally recognized monument of culture. As a result, once the scandalous deal unraveled, it took the municipality and the central government seven years of court trials to regain the ownership of the Great Basilica site. The Philipopolis Bishop’s Basilica is impressive in size – its length totals 86.3 meters (the combined length of its naos with the apse is 56.5 meters), and its width is estimated to be 38.5 meters.

The entire floor of the three-nave basilica is paved with unique Early Christian mosaics covering a total area of 700 square meters. The mosaic floors were created in two construction stages. The color mosaics feature primarily geometric motifs and images of birds typical of the second quarter of the 5th century. About 70 different species of birds have been identified, some of which appear to be unknown to contemporary ornithology. Based on the mosaics, the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis is dated back to the first half of the 5th century BC, the Late Roman – Early Byzantine period. It was destroyed in the middle of the 6th century, possibly during a barbarian invasions. It was built on the foundations of an earlier building of similar size and potentially with similar functions.

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The history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta“, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity periodEumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)),Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.

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