Archaeologists Find Medieval Marketplace of Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa

The Rahovets Fortress, a major Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian stronghold, which was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age, is located on mountainous terrain near Bulgaria's Gorna Oryahovitsa and Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

The Rahovets Fortress, a major Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian stronghold, which was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age, is located on mountainous terrain near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa and Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

A medieval square which hosted the marketplace of the Rahovets Fortress near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa in Central North Bulgaria has been discovered during its 2016 summer archaeological excavations.

During the research of the square, the archaeological team led by Iliyan Petrakiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and Maya Ivanova from the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History, and consulted by Prof. Hitko Vachev, has discovered parts from weight scales, control weights known as egzagia (ekzagia), and a large number of coins.

Judging from these finds, the archaeologists have concluded that the medieval marketplace of Rahovets existed between the beginning and the middle of the 13th century, Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality has announced.

The period in question arguably coincides with the time when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) saw its height.

The 2016 digs have marked the second archaeological season in row after the restoration of the archaeological research of the Rahovets Fortress, a major stronghold in close proximity to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the High and Late Middle Ages.

Originally, Rahovets had been excavated in the 1980s, up until 1991. The 2015 excavations in the fortress were notable because they led to the discovery of a Bronze Age home and an Ancient Thracian Antiquity fortress wall leading to a hypothesis that medieval Rahovets may in fact have been the successor of the Ancient Thracian fortress Zikideva.

Lead archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev (right) showing the location of the newly discovered medieval marketplace of the Rahovets Fortress to Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev (left). Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Lead archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev (right on the above photo) showing the location of the newly discovered medieval marketplace of the Rahovets Fortress to Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev (left). Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

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The discovery of the likely 13th century marketplace of the Rahovets Fortress may be seen intriguing because of its connection with major international events during this period, including not just the rise of the Second Bulgarian Empire but also the destruction of the Byzantine Empire by the Western European knights from the Fourth Crusade after they took the Byzantine capital in 1204, and went on to create the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261).

“The coins [discovered in the square] cover the period from the beginning until the middle of the 13th century. This is the time when Byzantium ceased to exist, and the medieval Bulgarian rulers didn’t have coins of their own [yet]," says lead archaeologist Iliyan Petrakiev.

“The lack of specie led to the clipping of existing coins into smaller ones, which resulted in their great devaluation. In this period, until the mid 13th century, the coins’ worth was based on their weight, rather than on their face value," he adds.

In addition to discovering and unearthing part of the downtown square of the Rahovets Fortress where its marketplace was probably located, the archaeologists have also studied further the western fortress gate and the northern fortress wall of the medieval Bulgarian city, and have also dug up part of the main street leading inside from the western gate.

Petrakiev notes that part of the streets inside Rahovets were built after terracing the steep slopes where the city was located.

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Some of the artifacts discovered during the 2016 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Some of the artifacts discovered during the 2016 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

The archaeological layers of the Rahovets Fortress have preserved structures from the Bronze Age, Antiquity Ancient Thrace, Early Byzantium, and the medieval Bulgarian Empire. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

The archaeological layers of the Rahovets Fortress have preserved structures from the Bronze Age, Antiquity Ancient Thrace, Early Byzantium, and the medieval Bulgarian Empire. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Archaeologist Maya Ivanova (below) showing a newly discovered pottery vessel. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Archaeologist Maya Ivanova (below) showing a newly discovered pottery vessel. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

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Another discovery from the latest summer digs is a medieval home attached to the northern fortress wall of the city. Inside it, the researchers have come across household artifacts, including ceramic vessels, and a large number of coins.

“What’s also interesting this year is the [discovery] of a substantial archaeological layer from the Early Byzantine Age. Several figurines, various coins, and parts of armaments have been found in it," Petrakiev reveals.

Amid the total of some 300 items discovered in the 2016 digs of the Rahovets Fortress near Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa, there are some 150 coins, and a substantial number of metal arrow tips.

The archaeologists have continued their research of the Ancient Thracian layers and the Bronze Age home that they found in Rahovets in 2015. The well-preserved Bronze Age pottery vessels found there last year have already been exhibited in the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History.

However, it is the latest discoveries from the Middle Ages have helped them paint a more precise picture of part of the over 2,000 years of history of the fortress.

“Based on this year’s research, it may concluded that the two chronological periods stand out – the 4th-6th century (i.e. the Early Byzantine period), and the beginning – middle of the 13th century (i.e. the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire). One of [our] working hypotheses is that the fortress was probably seriously damaged by a strong earthquake in the middle of the 13th century because after that life there waned," Petrakiev says.

The 2016 archaeological excavations of the Rahovets Fortress in Central North Bulgaria have been carried out with a total of BGN 25,000 (app. EUR 12,500), the bulk of which, BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000), came from Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality. The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture has contributed the rest.

As part of the 2016 digs, Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality and the archaeological team have organized a summer archaeological school involving a large number of school children in the excavations of Rahovets.

Learn more about the Rahovets Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!

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Schoolchildren are seen participating in the archaeological school at the Rahovets Fortress, and posing with their diplomas. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

Schoolchildren are seen participating in the archaeological school at the Rahovets Fortress, and posing with their diplomas. Photos: Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality

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Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval settlement and fortress of Rahovets is located near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa and the city of Veliko Tarnovo, in Veliko Tarnovo District, Northern Bulgaria. It existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD, and was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Rahovets Fortress is located at a curve of the Yantra River, on a hill towering about 100 meters over the surrounding area.

The site of the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited by the Ancient Thracians, during the Iron Age, as early as the 6th century BC. Some Bulgarian scholars have hypothesized that the settlement that later became known as the Rahovets Fortress was part of a huge regional fortification system in Thracian times, and/or that Rahovets was in fact the ancient city Beripara, the alleged capital of the Thracian tribe Krobyzoi (which might have belonged to the Thracian tribes of the Gets (Getae) or the Dacians), or that it was the legendary Thracian fortress Zekideva. However, these hypotheses have not been proven. The Roman Fortress of Rahova, later called Rahovets, was built in the 3rd-4th century AD as part of the fortification system guarding the roads in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor).

Rahovets remained an important fortress during the period of the Early Byzantine Empire (Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages), during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), then again during the period of Byzantine domination over Bulgaria (1018-1185 AD). It became especially important during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which was created after the Uprising of Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV) against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD when Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) was declared capital of Bulgaria.

It became part of a set of fortifications which protected Tarnovgrad from the north. There are hypotheses that Rahovets used to be the locations of the coin mint of the Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire, and while these hypotheses have not been confirmed, Bulgarian archaeologists have indeed discovered there evidence of metal smelting during the Middle Ages. They have also found a residential area outside of the fortress, between the fortress wall and the Yantra River, known as the Dark City, meaning that it might have been the site of a large medieval city, where the Rahovets Fortress had the role of a citadel.

After the invading Ottoman Turks conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century, they continued to use the Rahovets Fortress. The fortress was destroyed only in 1444 AD by the forces of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III ((r. 1424-1444 AD) who launched two unsuccessful Crusades against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 AD and 1444 AD (he is also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD).

After that, the Turks abandoned the Rahovets Fortress completely. While much of the archaeological structures at the Rahovets Fortress had survived until the beginning of the 20th century (including fortress walls, towers, and gates described by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil), those were destroyed in 1913 by a strong earthquake with an epicenter in the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa.

The Rahovets Fortress was first mentioned in historical sources by Byzantine chronicler George Pachymeres (1242-1310) in 1304 AD, and again in 1460 AD by German wandering singer Michael Beheim (1416-ca. 1472) in a poem based on the story of a crusader knight from the second Crusade of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III against the Ottoman Empire aiming the liberation of Bulgaria and the other Balkan Christian nations in 1444 AD. In the early 20th century, Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil drafted a blueprint of the preserved ruins of the Rahovets Fortress, which, however, were destroyed further by an earthquake in 1913.

The Rahovets Fortress was excavated only between 1985 and 1991 by Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists Yordan Aleksiev, Ivan Bachvarov, and Hitko Vatchev. They excavated partly the western, northern, and eastern fortress wall, which were about 3 meters thick. The archaeological digs at the fortress confirmed not only its significance during the Second Bulgarian Empire but also the fact that as a settlement it is really ancient: the Bulgarian archaeologists found a large amount of Ancient Thracian ceramics, and amphora seals testifying about the connections with the Hellenic world. They also discovered the nearby remains of a rural Ancient Roman villa (known as villa rustica) from the 3rd-4th century AD, ancient coins, decorations, and tools as well as artifacts and arms from the Second Bulgarian Empire.

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