Archaeologists Find Huge Crypt with Early Christian Martyrs’ Bones in Roman, Byzantine City Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria

Several human bones, which probably belonged to Early Christian martyrs, and a silver medallion with Alpha and Omega, and Chi Rho, have been found in Zaldapa in what seems to be the largest Early Christian crypt discovered in Bulgaria so far. Photo: Video grab from Dobrudzha TV

A second crypt, even larger than the one found in 2015, and human bones which probably belonged to Early Christian martyrs, have been discovered by archaeologists in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria.

The ruins of the originally Ancient Thracian settlement, and later the largest Late Roman and Early Byzantine city in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, and one of the largest in the Roman province of Scythia Minor are located near the town of Abrit, Krushari Municipality.

The new discovery has been made as a result of the continuing research of the sizable Early Christian basilica in Zalpada during the 2016 archaeological season.

With its width of 22 meters, and length of 61 meters, the basilica in question was one of the largest Early Christian temple’s in today’s Bulgaria.

Lead archaeologist Prof. Georgi Atanasov from the Silistra Regional Museum of History has announced that underneath the large basilica, which was built at the end of the 5th – beginning of the 6th century, the archaeological team has found the foundations of an even earlier Early Christian basilica, which was erected at the end of the 4th – beginning of the 5th century.

The earlier temple was smaller: it was about 30 meters long, and 18 meters wide. However, it is underneath it that the archaeologists have found a spacious crypt designed to preserve the relics of Early Christian saints.

The second crypt, which is larger than the one discovered in 2015, has been found right underneath the apse of the older basilica.

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The silver medallion found in the large crypt in Zaldapa together with the saints’ relics features the Greek letters Alpha and Omega and a Christogram, the sign of Jesus Christ. Photos: Video grabs from Dobrudzha TV

“When we began to clean up the apse, our surprise was great. We found a huge Early Christian crypt connected with the construction of the [earlier] Early Christian basilica from the end of the 4th century AD. I can say that I know these monuments but this is one of the most noteworthy crypts in Early Christian archaeology not just in Bulgaria but in the entire Roman and Byzantine world," Atanasov has told local TV station Dobrudzha TV.

The newly found martyrs’ crypt is 5.40 meters long, 3.80 meters wide, and over 2 meters tall, and has two chambers which, in his words, could fit three non-dismembered bodies of martyrs.

“Usually, [in churches found in today’s Bulgaria] a small reliquary containing a bone particle from a saint’s relics is placed underneath the altar table when the temple is consecrated. In Zaldapa, it was different. In Zaldapa, they put entire, non-dismembered bodies of martyrs," Atanasov says.

Based on the discovery of the large crypt, he has made clear his hypothesis that non-compromised bodies of Early Christian saints may have been brought to Zaldapa from the capital of the Roman province of Scythia Minor, Tomi (Tomis), today’s Black Sea city of Constanta in Romania.

“Tomis was the city with the largest number of proven Early Christian martyrs in the Balkan Peninsula, about 120. This gave its bishop the opportunity to provide entire bodies [of martyrs] for the construction of churches in the larger cities in his diocese. [The bodies were extracted] from the necropolis in Tomis. Of course, this is just a hypothesis which needs to be researched further in order to be proved or disproved," explains the archaeologist.

In the northwest corner of the larger chamber of the newly found crypt, the researchers have found three human bones, including part of a jaw bone with four preserved teeth.

In the other chamber, they have come across an arm bone as well as a silver medallion with the letters Alpha and Omega, i.e. the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, and a christogram, a Christian symbol consisting of a monogram of letters standing for the name of Jesus Christ, also known as the “seal of God”, or Chi Rho after the respective Greek letters.

“This medallion was not placed in there by accident. It stands for Christ as the first and the last, the beginning and the end," Atanasov says, referring to the phrase “I am the Alpha and the Omega" from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Two coins that can help with the more precise dating of the finds have also been discovered inside the crypt.

“What happened after [the construction of the first basilica and its crypt]? Zaldapa became a bishopric in the diocese of Tomis, we have a document, a titular list, proving that. The new larger basilica was built. The relics were probably removed, and one of the martyrs was placed in the new crypt that we discovered in 2015, and another one was placed in Church No. 1," he explains referring to another Early Christian temple in the Roman and Byzantine city whose ruins were explored around 1900 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil.

Kostadin Kostadinov, Director of the Dobrich Museum of History, shows the newly found crypt in Zaldapa, which seems to be the largest known Early Christian crypt to have been found in Bulgaria to date. Photos: Video grabs from Dobrudzha TV

In an interview for Radio Shumen, Atanasov has also pointed out that when the fortress of Zaldapa was being abandoned as a result of barbarian invasions in the late 6th – early 7th century AD, most of the saints’ relics were removed from the crypts.

The crypts themselves were filled up with rubble – marble, bricks, and stones – in order to prevent their potential desecration. However, parts of the martyrs’ bones seem to have been left behind, including three bone particles that were discovered in the earlier known crypt back in 2015.

Prof. Valeri Yotov from the Varna Museum of Archaeology and Dr. Yoto Valeriev from Burgas University “Asen Zlatarov", and the team of the Dobrich Regional Museum of History have also participated in the 2016 archaeological excavations of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa.

Archaeologists from France, Canada, and other countries have also visited the digs and expressed interest in future collaboration.

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The huge crypt in Zaldapa has been found underneath the ruins of two Early Christian basilicas from the Late Antiquity. Photos: Video grabs from Dobrudzha TV

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian, Ancient Roman, and Early Byzantine fortress Zaldapa located between the towns of Abrit and Dobrin, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria, is said to be the largest fortified settlement in the geographic region of Dobrudzha (covering much of Northeast Bulgaria). Because of the name of the town of Abrit, for a long time, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Bulgarian archaeologists and historians thought the Zaldapa Fortress was in fact the legendary ancient city of Abritus – until the ruins of Abritus were discovered some 100 km to the southwest, near the city of Razgrad, in 1953.

Zaldapa (meaning “yellow water") was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement founded in the 8th century BC. It is located on a large peninsula-shaped plateau with a length of 1.2 km and a width of 500 meters (totaling 0.6 square km). Archaeological observations indicate that Zaldapa was densely built-up and populated. The entire settlement covered an area of 35 hectares (app. 86 acres). Zaldapa’s fortress wall appears homogenous meaning it was probably constructed in a single campaign, without major reconstructions in subsequent periods. It has a lot of straight sections as well as a total of 32 fortress towers of various shape and size, as well as 3 main and 2 smaller gates. The type of the fortification indicates that it was built in the Late Antiquity, i.e. the Late Roman period, most probably in the second half of the 4th century AD.

Zaldapa was first explored in 1906-1910 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, one of the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Later archaeological exploration has been reduced to terrain observations. Between World War I and World War II, when the region of Southern Dobrudzha was part of Romania, Zaldapa was also researched by Romanian archaeologists any findings they might have had have not made it to the Bulgarian archaeologists. Proper archaeological excavations at Zaldapa were carried out for the first time in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History). Unfortunately, since the end of the 19th century the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Zaldapa has been targeted by looters and treasure hunters. All archaeological explorations there to date have studied part of the fortifications, a Roman civic basilica, an Early Christian basilica, and a huge water reservoir.

The so called Roman civic basilica was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil in the first decade of the 20th century. It is located in the center of Zaldapa, and has dimensions of 101 by 18 meters. Its walls are constructed according to the Roman style opus implectum, and its floor is tiled with bricks. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, the basilica was probably an entire architectural complex consisting of two basilicas with a common entryway; it was a Roman public building with judicial and commercial functions.

In 1906, Karel Skorpil also explored an Early Christian church, a three-nave, one-apse basilica with dimensions 27 meters by 16 meters, situation in the east-west direction. It was built in the same style as the fortress wall and the civic basilica, most probably at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). A bishop’s basilica was discovered at Zaldapa in the first regular excavations in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by Prof. Georgi Atanasov and Prof. Valeri Yotov.

The water reservoir of the Zaldapa fortress was discovered in 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. It is located northwest of the fortress itself. It was a rather complex engineering facility consisting of two spaces. The water reservoir was connected with the fortress with a secret passage, a rock tunnel which is 3 meters wide and 3 meters tall. The Bulgarian archaeologists believed that because of its vulnerable location outside the fortress wall and the secret passage, it was covered with earth immediately after its construction to hide it from the enemy forces. The water reservoir was likely constructed in the second quarter of the 4th century AD together with other Late Roman urban infrastructure in the city of Zaldapa.

According to the works of 7th century AD Byzantine chronicler John of Antioch, the city of Zaldapa was the birthplace of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520) who led a rebellion against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius which grew into a 5-year civil war. The city of Zaldapa is also found in the list of fortifications renovated during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD) where it was also mentioned as the seat of a Christian bishop under the diocese of the metropolitan in Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). The fortress of Zaldapa was in use by the Later Roman Empire and Early Byzantine Empire (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire) for about 250 years – between the second half of the 4th century AD, and the end of the 6th century AD when the city of Zaldapa was depopulated as a result of the great barbarian invasion of the Avars in 585 AD.

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