Archaeologists Discover First Ever Prehistoric Remains in Downtown of Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia, No Thracian Traces

Pieces of 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic (Copper Age) pottery discovered at a depth of 5.5 meters are the first prehistory finds ever from the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and the territory of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica. Photo: TV grab from BNT

For the very first time archaeologists have found prehistoric traces of human life in the very downtown of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia – 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) pottery – which comes close to the age of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement in Sofia’s Slatina Quarter.

At the same time, however, the archaeological team excavating medieval, Antiquity (Roman) and prehistoric ruins at a top spot in Sofia’s city center has not come across any traces from Ancient Thrace, confirming earlier findings to the same end, BNT reports.

The archaeologists have also hypothesized 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 the 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.

The researchers have also reached the deepest archaeological layer with traces of civilized human life which dates back to 5,000 BC, i.e. the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) – the first discovery of prehistoric human presence to have ever been discovered in Sofia’s downtown.

The construction of the massive 2nd-5th century AD Roman building that seems to have been used as ancient Serdica’s imperial mint wiped out the first layer of the Roman city from the 1st century AD.

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Pieces of 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic (Copper Age) pottery discovered at a depth of 5.5 meters are the first prehistory finds ever from the downtown of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and the territory of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Underneath that layer, the archaeologists have found no layers from Ancient Thrace in that particular location, uncovering instead a prehistoric layer from 7,000 years ago.

“This layer lies directly on top of a layer from the Early Chalcolithic," explains lead archaeologist Veselka Katsarova, referring to the Early Roman layer in Sofia’s downtown.

Even though the prehistoric finds are considered a major discovery because they are first of their kind, they are not particularly impressive.

Consisting only of pieces of crude handmade ceramic vessels, they are nowhere as impressive as the finds from the 8,000-year-old Slatina Neolithic Settlement, in Sofia’s Slatina Quarter which is located about 5 km southeast of the downtown.

Intriguing recent discoveries from the Neolithich settlement has been a nephrite frog-like swastika as well as the largest known homes from Europe’s first prehistoric civilization. It also has traces of life from the Charcolithic and the Bronze Age.

The Chalcolithic (Copper Age) layer discovered at the St. Nedelya Cathedral in the downtown of the Bulgarian capital lies at a depth of 5.5 meters beneath the modern-day surface. Below it come underground waters.

The prehistoric layer in ancient Serdica is located at a depth of 5.5 meters, right underneath the 1st-2nd century AD Ancient Roman layer. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Underground waters spring up underneath the prehistoric layer. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The pottery has been studied by Prof. Vasil Nikolov, a prehistory expert from Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, and long-time researcher of the Slatina Neolithic Settlement, who has dated it to about 5,000 BC.

One of the important discoveries – or lack thereof – in the ongoing excavations at Sofia’s downtown at the Sofia Hotel Balkan is the absence of archaeological layers from Ancient Thrace.

The archaeological team excavating the site announced as early as the spring of 2016 that they had not come across any Thracian remains.

Instead, they have found early remains from a Roman military camp which may have led to the founding of the city in the 1st century AD as a stop on the Roman road Via Militaris (or Via Diagonalis) which runs diagonally through the Balkan Peninsula in the northwestern-southeastern direction, and is a major European transport corridor to this day.

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Aerial views of the excavations at the St. Nedelya Square in downtown Sofia, near the five-star Sofia Hotel Balkan. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

It has been widely accepted in Bulgaria that the Roman city of Serdica emerged on the spot of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement conquered by the Romans in 29 AD.

Traces of the Thracian settlement of Serdica from the 6th – 4th century BC were discovered in the rescue excavations in 1949-1953 during the construction of the massive government buildings of the Sofia Largo, below the Ancient Roman layer.

It is known that the Thracian settlement of Serdica was captured and ruled briefly by King Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

After the Bronze Age, the Sofia Valley was inhabited by the ancient Serdi who are believed to have been a Celtic tribe – even though some Bulgarian scholars hypothesize that the Serdi might have been a Thracian tribe, or a Thracian tribe which assimilated a smaller Celtic tribe while adopting its name.

Around 29 BC, the Sofia Valley and the Thracian settlement were conquered by the Romans. The newly founded Roman city was renamed Ulpia Serdica, 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.

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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