Earliest Roman Aqueduct of Ancient Philipopolis Discovered in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Several hundred meters worth of the foundations of the 2nd century AD Roman aqueduct of ancient Philipopolis have been discovered in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: lead archaeologist Rositsa Mitkova

2nd century AD Roman structures from what was the earliest aqueduct of ancient Philipopolis, the predecessor of today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria, have been discovered during a road rehabilitation project.

Initially, workers rebuilding the Komatevsko Shose road in Plovdiv, also known as Europe’s oldest city, stumbled upon Roman aqueduct foundations in August 2016.

This led Plovdiv Municipality and the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology to start rescue excavations which over the months since the past summer have resulted in the unearthing of a 500-meter section of preserved aqueduct foundations along the Komatevsko Shose.

The foundations consist of numerous interconnected stone prisms which supported the main aqueduct of ancient Philipopolis which brought fresh water to the city from the nearby Rhodope Mountains. The foundations are uninterrupted along the entire section. They are about 2 meters wide, and have been reached at a depth of approximately 2 meters.

“We have come across part of a pipeline which probably dates back to the 2nd century AD, and appears to be the earliest pipeline of Philipopolis. For almost 2,000 years, the city was supplied with fresh mountain water from the Rhodopes,” lead archaeologist Rositsa Mitkova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology told Radio Plovdiv in the early stages of the rescue excavations.

Along the route of the Komatevsko Shose road, the archaeologists have also found clay pipes from a later Antiquity pipeline.

The Roman aqueducts of ancient Philipopolis in Plovdiv were first explored in the 1930s by Bulgarian archaeologist Dimitar Tsonchev. Further research was carried out in 1980 by archaeologist Elena Kisyakova during the reconstruction of the Komatevo Road Junction when she traced two Antiquity aqueducts and one pipeline.

However, as a result of the rehabilitation of the Komatevsko Shose road, the archaeologists have now revealed a long section of the oldest main Roman aqueduct of Philipopolis.

The facility was used to bring water over a distance of 22 km from two catchment reservoirs in the Rhodope Mountains located near the towns of Markovo and Kuklen, which have already been discovered by archaeologists. The aqueducts from there merged into the main 2nd century AD aqueduct of Philipopolis.

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Archaeologist Eva Dimitrova is seen exploring the foundations of the Roman aqueduct shortly after they were exposed by construction workers at the end of August 2016. Photos: Radio Plovdiv

“Ancient Philipopolis was supplied with water through several aqueducts and a clay pipeline. The main aqueduct is the one located along Komatevsko Shose. However, upon entering the city, it went underground, and then rose only in some sections,” Mitkova has told Radio Focus – Plovdiv.

Unfortunately, the newly discovered section of the Roman aqueduct will have to be conserved and reburied so that the road, which is a crucial one within the city of Plovdiv, can be rebuilt.

“There is no way to sacrifice this important road in order to exhibit the archaeology [structures],” Mitkova says.

The discovery, however, has led the local authorities to modify their plans for the renovation of the modern-day water supply and sewerage system so all archaeological structures are to be preserved.

In December 2016, Plovdiv Municipality allocated additional BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000) in funding for hiring archaeologists to complete the research of the entire newly discovered section of the Ancient Roman aqueduct before it can reburied.

Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Totev has defended the decision to rebury the finds in order to keep the modern-day road. He has pointed out that the road has existed in the same location for some 1,500 years, i.e. since the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages when the foundations of the Roman aqueduct were used to build it.

“About 1,500 years ago, our predecessors decided to build their road right on top of the aqueduct. I suppose, this was because of the robust foundations, and the fact that the surrounding area was covered with swamps,” Totev has stated in a Facebook post.

He has had it clear that the rescue excavation, and conservation, and, respectively, the rehabilitation of the Komatevsko Shose road will have to be completed by June 2017 at the latest.

“The foundations of the aqueduct have been preserved all along the road. Buildings which are being researched have also been discovered on the side of the road. We may have had some quarrels but we’ve eventually agreed to preserve the structure of the aqueduct as much as possible,” Assoc. Prof. Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaelogy, stated during the Museum’s end-of-year news conference in late December 2016, as cited by Plovdiv24.

Because of the large-scale excavations and numerous excavation projects, the discovery of the 2nd century AD Roman aqueduct along the Komatevsko Shose road cause a shortage of archaeologists.

In addition to Rositsa Mitkova, the excavations were also led by Eva Dimitrova, a specialist in Roman archaeology from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”.

Fragments from a Roman clay pipeline have also been discovered durnig the rescue digs along the Komatevsko Shose road. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Mitkova has revealed that an Ancient Roman water tower located west of the newly found main aqueduct along the Komatevsko Shose road had survived until the 1950s.

However, back then it was destroyed since it stood on arable land which was supposed to be integrated into a collective farm during the nationalization and collectivization campaign of the communist dictatorship in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (1944/48-1989).

“Much of the construction material extracted from this tower was used for building the houses along Komatevsko Shose… In some periods, people would take construction material for survival purposes without even thinking,” says the archaeologist, as quoted by Radio Focus – Plovdiv.

She reminds that there are many cases of material from Antiquity structures utilized for new construction starting as early as the Middle Ages. A famous case is the destruction of the Ancient Bulgar early medieval capitals Pliska and Veliki Preslav.

Learn more about the history of Plovdiv in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

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 period Eumolpia / 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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