Archaeologists May Have Found Mint of Ancient Roman City Serdica in Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia

Coins and other artifacts found in the latest excavations in downtown Sofia indicate that the archaeologists may have found the 3rd-4th imperial mint of the Roman city of Serdica. Photo: BGNES

Archaeologists hypothesize they may have discovered the 3rd-4th century AD coin mint of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, the predecessor of today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, as a result of ongoing digs in Sofia’s very downtown.

The latest findings, which reveal crucial new information about the prehistoric and Antiquity history of Bulgaria’s modern-day capital, are based on the excavations over the past three years of ruins of ancient Serdica on the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia, right in front of the five-star Sofia Hotel Balkan (formerly the Sofia Sheraton) and the historic St. Nedelya (Holy Sunday) Cathedral.

The excavations there have been carried out since the fall of 2015 by archaeologists the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology and the Sofia Regional Museum of History (also known as the Museum of Sofia History), and have been funded by Sofia Municipality.

The digs had originally been launched in search of the Roman Forum (public square) of ancient Serdica but instead surprised the archaeologists by revealing the ruins of an enormous building located right where the Forum had been thought to have been.

In addition to the huge building, in 2015, the archaeologists discovered an Ancient Roman silver coin treasure from the 2nd-3rd century AD. The coin hoard found in a ceramic vessel consisted of a total of 2,974 silver and 5 bronze coins.

Now that the researchers have reached the deepest archaeological layer revealing traces of human life, they have announced their latest conclusions about the discovered, and seem to shed new light on the 2015 discovery of the Roman coin hoard.

Once the archaeologists discovered a huge Antiquity building, rather than the Roman Forum of Serdica, their main goal has been to figure out the purpose and function of the building in question.

Based on the findings from the 2017 excavations, they now believe that in the Late Roman period, the building was used as Serdica’s coin mint.

The huge building was first constructed in the second half of the 2nd century AD, and survived almost until the end of the 6th century.

However, the layer from the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century has revealed tangible traces of metal processing.

That is deemed surprising given that metal processing was supposed to be forbidden in the central parts of Antiquity cities because it was a fire hazard.

The ruins of a large building from Ancient Serdica exposed in Sofia’s very downtown. Photo: archaeologist Veselka Katsarova

The building in question existied from the 2nd until the 6th century AD. Photo: BNT

The building had a large colonnade hall whose remains were ultimately destroyed during home construction in the 15th-16th century. Photo: bTV

“We’ve come to a layer with material from the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century in which we have discovered slag and bellows for fanning up fire for metal smelting," lead archaeologist Veselka Katsarova from the Museum of Sofia History, has told bTV.

She adds that the layer in question contains coins from the time of Roman Emperors Gallienus (Gallien) (r. 253-268 AD), Claudius II (r. 268-270 AD), and Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD) up until the beginning of the 4th century AD.

“We are finding slag, and clay fragments from bellows… There are metal particles stuck to the bellows fragments," she has elaborated, as cited by BNT.

In addition to these latest finds, the archaeologists’ hypothesis that in the Late Roman era the building in question and the adjacent structures were turned into a coin mint is also supported by findings from excavations in the 1970s and 1980s by archaeologist Prof. Magdalina Stancheva of a large Roman public building underneath today’s St. Nedelya Cathedral.

In one of the building’s rooms, Stancheva also discovered back then a large amount of metal slag, and clay bellows fragments.

“[What we have unearthed now] is probably one of the divisions of Serdica’s mint but for the time being, this remains a research hypothesis," Katsarova says, as cited by the 24 Chasa daily.

“In the 3rd century BC, almost all cities in [the Roman province of] Thracia (Thrace) minted coins. They usually had an inscription in Greek on the back side, and an image of some deity or a site from the respective city, and the other side featured an image of the current emperor," she adds.

“However, they were allowed to mint only bronze [coins of] nominal [value]. After an administrative reform from the end of the 3th and the beginning of the 4th century, Serdica became one of several imperial mints which were entitled to minting bronze, silver, and gold coins. Other mints were located, of course, in Rome, Constantinople, and Thessaloniki. That means the mint in Serdica did not mint coins on behalf of the local authorities but acted with the sanction of the emperor, which is a whole other money category," the archaeologist elaborates.

In one of the building’s rooms, her team also found a small bronze ingot which may have been prepared for the minting of new coins.

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A bronze ingot which was likely destined to be used for coin minting. Photo: archaeologist Veselka Katsarova

“If our hypotheses are correct, several buildings were given the functions of [Serdica’s] coin mint," Katsarova has told BNT.

She has hypothesized further that the silver coin hoard discovered in the ruins in downtown Sofia two years ago had not been hidden in order to be saved but was probably set aside for use in the mint.

“The treasure had probably been prepared to be smelted and cast into new coins which were up to date for the 4th century AD," Katsarova says.

“The most exciting site for us [in the excavations so far] has been room No. 1 where in 2015 we discovered the already famous pot containing 2,976 silver coins, with its last owner being Selvius Calistus, a Roman citizen with a Greek surname written on the vessel’s walls," she notes, as cited by BGNES.

“We keep being surprised by the quality of the metalwork. The coins were gathered for a long time – from the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) almost until the reigns of Caracalla (198-217 AD) and Geta (r. 209-211 AD)," the archaeologists adds.

She emphasizes that the coin hoard features rare coin such as that depicting an emperor who ruled for only 86 days – seemingly referring to Emperor Pertinax (193 AD).

What is more, the hoard has 111 coins of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD) but each of them is unique, with different images.

The archaeological team’s hypothesis that they have discovered the mint of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica will be judged further based on results from a chemical analysis of the newly found items and the artifacts discovered in the 1970s and 1980s.

The chemical analysis is to be performed in the winter after all field work for the current excavations in downtown Sofia is completed.

Coins and artifacts found during the latest excavations of Serdica’s ruins in downtown Sofia. Photos: BGNES

The large building, which is now believed to have been Serdica’s mint in the Late Roman period, however, was reconstructed several times.

It is thought to have had different functions in the 2nd century AD when it was built, and was beautifully decorated.

“We have [found] a lot of cups, amphorae, game pieces, and coins. I think these rooms were stores facing the cardo maximus, one of Serdica’s main streets," Katsarova says, referring to the eastern part of the building.

The large building also had a large formal colonnade hall whose precise function remains unclear – the hypotheses range from a part of Serdica’s thermae (public baths) to a working hall for the city’s governor, or a main gathering venue and meeting place for business deals.

“This large public building operated as a center for Ancient Serdica, and had various functions. It was a very monumental public building with a central hall with a colonnade," adds Todor Chobanov, Deputy Mayor of Sofia in charge of culture and education, who is also an archaeologist, as cited by the 24 Chasa daily.

“Among the most interesting finds is a set of game pieces for a game similar to today’s Nine Men’s Morris, which the Romans really loved. Backgammon and chess appeared in Bulgaria only in the 7th-8th century. Until then, this game was played, including for gambling," Chobanov elaborates.

“We have also found many more coins, including new coins from the hoard of about 3,000 Roman silver coins discovered by the earlier expeditions," he adds.

The main hall of the large Roman public building was destroyed during digging for the construction of a home in the 15th-16th century – when today’s Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

“The site [of the excavations] can provide material for human presence dating back 7,000 years," lead archaeologist Veselka Katsarova has concluded, referring to the findings with respect to the Prehistory period which are from the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age).

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica is the precursor of the contemporary Bulgarian capital Sofia. The oldest traces of civilized life in Sofia are from a Neolithic settlement dated back to 5000 BC located in today’s Slatina Quarter. There are also traces of life from the Charcolithic (also known as Aeneolithic or Copper Age) and the Bronze Age.

After the Bronze Age, the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the Ancient Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe (some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi were a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while keeping its original name).

The name of the Serdi tribe gave the name to the Ancient Thracian settlement called Serdica or Sardica. The city of Serdica was conquered briefly in the 4th century BC by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.

Around 29 BC, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, the center of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and saw extensive development with many new buildings. It is known to have been the favorite place of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who used to say, “Serdica is my Rome".

In 343 AD, the Council of Serdica was held in the city, in the 4th century church that preceded the current 6th century St. Sofia Basilica. In 447 AD, the city was destroyed by the Huns. During the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD), a new fortress wall was built whose remains have been excavated and can be seen today. This is when it was renamed Triaditsa.

It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) in 809 AD when it was conquered by Bulgaria’s Khan Krum, and was known by its Slavic-Bulgarian name Sredets until the 14th century when it took the name of the St. Sofia Basilica.

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