Orpheus’ Lyre Rock Engraving Discovered in Bulgaria’s Eastern Rhodope Mountains

Said to depict the golden lyre of legendary Ancient Thracian poet, musician, and prophet Orpheus, this rock engraving has been found near Bulgaria’s Ardino. Photo: Rodopi24

A small rock relief which is alleged to depict the lyre of Orpheus, the mythical Ancient Thracian musician and poet, has been found engraved in a rock cavern in the so called Eagles’ Rocks in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains near the town of Ardino in Southern Bulgaria.

The Eagles’ Rocks near Ardino are said to be part of an ancient religious rock complex. They are not to be confused with another similar site of the same name, also in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains: the prehistoric rock shrine Orlovi Skali (“Eagles’ Rocks") near the town of Sarnitsa, Mineralni Bani Municipality, where huge human faces hewn into the rocks were discovered in 2016.

The rock relief allegedly depicting the lyre of Orpheus has been found on the inside wall of a rock cistern for collecting water, in the Eagles’ Rocks near Bulgaria’s Ardino by Mincho Gumarov, a local teacher, speleologist, climber, and a long-time explorer of the Rhodope Mountains, local news site Rodopi24 has reported.

The rock sign showing Orpheus’ lyre is said to be part of ensemble of engravings containing also other rock reliefs whose meaning remains a mystery. Based on their arrangement, the lyre depiction is said to be the focal point of the ensemble.

The alleged depiction of Orpheus’ lyre on the inside of a rock cistern for collecting water is accompanied by other rock engravings whose meaning is unknown. Photo: Rodopi24

Orpheus, the legendary Ancient Thracian musician and poet as well as a prophet, is a major figure in Ancient Greek mythology. He is known to have lived in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in today’s Southern Bulgaria.

Orpheus is known for the magic of his music, for starting the so called Orphic Mysteries cult, and for trying to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld, among other legendary feats. In the Antiquity of Classical Greece and Thrace he was celebrated as the greatest of all poets and musicians.

Orpheus is said to have been the son of Ancient Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope.

According to one of the legends for his death, Orpheus was ripped apart by bacchantes (maenads), and his body parts were thrown in the Maritsa River in Southern Bulgaria, then known as Hebrus.

In 2016, Bulgarian archaeologists found in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains the rock grave of a person who they said was a dismembered Thracian princess. In their words, the burial reminded of the legend about the dismemberment of Orpheus.

The newly discovered rock depiction of Orpheus’ lyre near Bulgaria’s Ardino is yet to be examined by professional archaeologists.

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Orpheus (left) amongst the Thracians. Side A of an Attic red-figure bell-krater. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikipedia

Its finder, speleologist and explorer Mincho Gumarov, is known for participating in numerous mountain and cave expeditions, and for running a rescue service in the Rhodope Mountains.

He is credited with discovering the famous Womb Cave, a prehistoric and Ancient Thracian rock shrine near the towns of Ilinitsa and Nenkovo in the Kardzhali District, also in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains back in 1990.

Back then, Gumarov first informed of his discovery Pavel Petkov, the then Director of the Kardzhali Regional Museum of History. At Petkov’s advice, the location of the Womb Cave was kept secret for 8 years in order to protect the find from treasure hunters.

According to the report, during this treks in the Rhodopes, Gumarov has also stumbled upon other sites and artifacts, potentially of great interest for archaeology, which have had to be kept secret for one reason or another.

In the 1980s, the local speleologist participated in an expedition by speleologists organized under the guidance of Prof. Alexander Fol from the then Thracology Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences known as the founder of thracology, i.e. the study of the civilization of Ancient Thrace.

The expedition in question was tasked with exploring the Eagles’ Rocks near the town of Ardino to search for a legendary rock niche with a sacred Ancient Thracian relief engraved on the inside of its walls.

The report points out that even though the niche in question was not discovered, during the expedition in the 1980s, Gumarov found a different stone depiction – that of Orpheus’ lyre.

Back then, however, the Academy of Sciences in Sofia decided not to make the discovery public pending further research, which, however, never materialized in the tumultuous times after the end of Bulgaria’s communist regime in 1989 and the country’s trouble post-communist transition.

The altar of the Womb Cave in Bulgaria’s Eastern Rhodope Mountains. Photo: Ivo Filipov/Wikipedia

Gumarov was reminded of the long-forgotten find several weeks ago after reading press articles on Orpheus’ legendary golden lyre.

He returned to the Eagles’ Rocks near Ardino where he had found the alleged lyre engraving on the lichen-covered inside walls of a rock cistern for collecting water, and decided to make the find public.

“[Orpheus’ lyre] is in a place that’s easily accessible but for decades hunters and hikers have been building fires here so the engraving could not be seen," Gumarov is quoted as saying.

There are local legends and tales that Orpheus’ personal belongings – the golden lyre, a silver dagger in a gold-coated scabbard, and a leather belt – were taken by eagles or winged horses (similar to Pegasus) to the so called Eagle’s Rocks near what is today Bulgaria’s Ardino.

The legends also have it that rock engravings were made to mark the place where Orpheus’ belongings were hidden.

Gumarov says he has revisited the site of the alleged Orpheus’ lyre engraving together with a friend of his, sculptor Ziyatin Nuriev, presently a professor of fine arts in Turkey, and another local stone mason, who have been stunned by the find.

Nuriev is quoted as saying that even though the meaning of the other rock engravings around the alleged lyre depiction remains unknown, they seem like an ensemble showing a human silhouette holding a lyre.

A local geologist, Petar Sivkov, says in turn that engravings near Bulgaria’s Ardino of what is said to be Orpheus’ lyre and the other depictions are up to 2 centimeters wide, and up to 3.5 centimeters deep.

“Trachyte is a rock that hard to engrave. It is the volcanic equivalent of granite," Sivkov is quoted as saying.

“The engraved figures that I see are up to 2 cm wide, and 3.5 cm deep. These can be rightfully described as bas-reliefs, [they required] serious and hard work. A lot of time was spent working on those depictions," he adds.

Noting his 40-year experience as a geologist, he forecasts that a spectrographic analysis would find the alleged Orpheus’ lyre and the other engravings to be 3,500 – 5,000 years old.

“Apparently, archaeologists will have a lot of work at these rocks… This is a small artifact which could bring about large-scale archaeological exploration," Grigor Grigorov, a member of the Association of Restorers in Bulgaria, is quoted as saying.

“Ensuing discoveries might make Ardino world famous," he adds, cautioning that the first thing to be done should be figuring out how to protect the alleged depiction of Orpheus’ lyre from destruction by ill-minded people.

No professional archaeologists or thracologists have commented so far on the discovery of Orpheus’ lyre engraving, its authenticity, age, and meaning.

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