Medieval Castle’s ‘Monumental’ Staircase, More Byzantine Gold Found in Bulgaria’s Rusocastro Fortress

The newly discovered stone staircase was the only way into the castle of the Rusocastro Fortress, a major stronghold medieval Bulgaria and Byzantium. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

A large staircase leading up to a medieval castle has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the early Byzantine and major medieval Bulgarian fortress of Rusocastro in Burgas District in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.

Near the staircase of Rusocastro’s medieval castle – described as “monumental" , the researchers from the Burgas Regional Museum of History have discovered a Byzantine gold coin from the 1330s, a hyperpyron.

In July 2017, the archaeological team excavating the major fortress discovered a rare 10th century ivory icon believed to have belonged to a Byzantine Emperor or a member of the Byzantine imperial family, and to have been made in Constantinople.

Before that, the Burgas Museum had just announced the discovery of a 7th century gold coin of Early Byzantine Emperor Phocas (r. 602-610 AD).

The Rusocastro Fortress is best known for the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD. It was the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

In it, Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire defeated Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD).

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The staircase of the Rusocastro Castle climbs up 5 meters, and is built directly upon the rock where the castle is located. Photos: Burgas Regional Museum of History

“A monumental stone staircase leading up to the interior of the castle has been discovered during the archaeological excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress," the Burgas Regional Museum of History has announced.

The newly found staircase in Rusocastro is 12 meters long, 2.05 meters wide, and climbs up 5 meters inside what was the fortress castle.

The stairs are built of large stone blocks known as quadrae attached together with mortar.

“The staircase was built directly upon the rock, and leads towards the entrance of the fortress castle which has already been localized by the archaeologists," the Burgas Museum says.

It points out that, “unfortunately", many of the medieval stone stairs were removed in the first half of the 20th century by residents of the nearby villages to be used for construction.

The ruins of the Rusocastro Fortress’s castle themselves have also been badly affected by the said extraction of construction material.

The importance of the find, however, is underscored by the fact that, according to the archaeologists, the staircase was the only way into the Rusocastro castle.

“This was the only place to enter into the castle which is one of the largest medieval structures of this type in Bulgaria, with an area of some 2 decares (app. 0.5 acres).

Around the staircase, the researchers have found pottery and coins from the 13th-14th century. Fragments of frescoes, which are yet to be studied by experts in medieval art, have also been discovered in the upper part of the staircase.

One of the coins that the archaeologists have stumbled upon near the newly found monumental staircase in Bulgaria’s Rusocastro Fortress is a hyperpyron, a Byzantine gold coin minted in 1325-1328.

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The newly discovered Byzantine gold coin (hyperpyron) from the Rusocastro Fortress dates back to 1325-1328. Photos: Burgas Regional Museum of History

The front side of the coin features an image of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary), and the back side depicts Jesus Christ alongside Byzantine Emperors Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282-1328) and his grandson, Andronicus III Palaeologus (r. 1325/28-1341).

Andronicus III had been declare a Co-Emperor of Byzantium in his youth, and in 1325-1328, he ruled as a Co-Emperor alongside his grandfather. Before that, in 1321, a year after the death of his father, also Co-Emperor, Michael IX Palaeologus (r. 1294/95-1320), he had rebelled against his grandfather’s rule.

The History Museum in Bulgaria’s Burgas points out that the newly found Byzantine gold coin is the second hyperpyron of its kind to have been found in the Rusocastro Fortress, after a Byzantine gold coin minted in 1341-1348 was found there in 2016.

The front side of the coin features an image of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary), and the back side depicts Jesus Christ alongside Byzantine Emperors Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282-1328) and his grandson, Andronicus III Palaeologus (r. 1325/28-1341). Photos: Burgas Regional Museum of History

The other coin finds from the 2017 summer excavations in Rusocastro include copper coins of Bulgarian Tsars Konstantin Asen Tih (or Constantine I) (r. 1257-1277) and Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).

Among the finds are also silver coins minted by Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander, Venice, and the Duchy of Athens (1205-1458).

The Rusocastro Fortress had a territory of 52 decares (app. 13 acres), making it the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southern Bulgaria, and comparable in size to the key medieval fortress in today’s Northern Bulgaria such as the citadels of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), Tsarevets and Trapesitsa, and the cities of Cherven and Kaliakra.

The walls of the Rusocastro Fortress have been preserved up to a height of 5 meters.

The fortress is being researched by a team of the Burgas Regional Museum of History led by its Director Milen Nikolov and Doroteya Gyurdzhiyska.

The 2017 excavations are focused on exposing the citadel of Rusocastro in order to allow for its conservation, restoration and exhibiting in situ after their completion.

The digs are co-funded by Kameno Municipality, Bulgaria’s Culture Ministry, and the National Museum of History in Sofia.

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Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity (Early Byzantine) and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro (Rusocastron) is located in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Black Sea city of Burgas. Rusocastro was also known as “The Red Fortress" because of the red stones it was built of.

In the 2nd millennium BC, the Ancient Thracians set up a shrine of the Sun God, the Mother Goddess, and the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, near the legendary cave known today as Rusina Cave or Rusa’s Hole. Its site was settled in the period of Ancient Thrace, and was an important center in the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.

The fortress itself was built in the 5th century AD on a strategically located hill. The Early Byzantine fortress was most probably destroyed in the Slavic and Avar invasions in the 7th century. The Rusocastro Fortress was rebuilt by the Bulgars in the 9th century, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), at the time of the construction of the Bulgarian border rampart known as Erkesiya (in use in the 9th-11th century), and was a major stronghold in the geographic region of Thrace during the High Middle Ages.

The earliest written information about the Rusocastro Fortress comes from a 6th century epigraphic monument dedicated to Byzantine military commander Justin, who, according to some Bulgarian scholars, was the great-grandson of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 AD), the uncle of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD). The name Rusocastro was first used in the 12th century by Arab geographer El Idrisi in his work “Geography of the World", where Rusocastro is described as a large and crowded city. The fortress was also mentioned in a number of Byzantine sources from the 14th century relevant to current events.

The Rusocastro Fortress is famous in Bulgarian history for the Rusocastro Battle in which the army of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD) in 1332 AD.

The Battle of Rusocastro is often referred to as the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

Tsar Ivan Alexander’s victory at Rusocastro is considered the last major military victory of the Bulgarian Empire before its decline in the second half of the 14th century, and its conquest by the Ottoman Turks that ushered in the darkest page in Bulgaria’s history, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912). The Rusocastro Fortress was ultimately destroyed in Ottoman campaigns in 1443.

Rusocastro has been excavated by archaeologists Milen Nikolov and Tsanya Drazheva from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated several churches there including a monastery named after St. George, which existed in the 11th-14th century. Unfortunately, a Christian necropolis in the Rusocastro Fortress was partly destroyed in the largest military drills dubbed “Shield" of the countries from the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact that took place in Eastern Bulgaria in 1982.

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