One of the ends of the 11th-12th century child’s bracelet discovered in Bulgaria’s Momchil’s Fortress has a stamp showing Virgin Mary Oranta. Photo: Maritsa daily
A metal child’s bracelet from the 11th-12th century with a stamp depicting the Virgin Mary – or the Holy Mother of God, as she is known in Eastern Orthodox Christianity – has been discovered by archaeologists during the excavations of the medieval Momchil’s Fortress near Smolyan in Southern Bulgaria.
Momchil’s Fortress is located on a mount in the Western Rhodope Mountains, near the town of Gradat, Smolyan District. The fortress itself dates back to the 6th century AD, i.e. the Early Byzantine period, but its site also has a Chalcolithic shrine from the 5th millennium BC as well as traces from Ancient Thrace in the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
In the High and Late Middle Ages, the fortress was ruled over by Byzantium and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422).
In the first half of the 14th century, the fortress was part of the estate of Momchil, a local Bulgarian feudal lord who is believed to have been the first to realize the gravity of the threat posed by the Ottoman Turks. He died in battle with them, which the fortress known at the time as Podvis, later came to be named after him.
A total of 47 artifacts from various time periods – from the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) to the Middle Ages have been discovered by the archaeologists at Momchil’s Fortress during the two-week 2017 summer excavations there which have been funded by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture with the modest sum of BGN 11,000 (app. EUR 5,500).
The excavations have been led by Dr. Nikolay Boyadzhiev from the Stoyu Shishkov Regional Museum of History in the city of Smolyan, and consulted by Prof. Margarita Vaklinova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
Lead archaeologist Boyadzhiev deems the child’s bracelet from the High Middle Ages to be the most intriguing artifact discovered at Momchil’s Fortress in 2017 because of the depictions at its two ends.
One of its ends features a snake head, while the other ends with a stamp depicting the praying Virgin Mary with her hands raised.
This type of iconography depiction in which the mother of Jesus Christ is shown with arms in ornate position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb, is known as Oranta, i.e. “praying", or Panagia, i.e. “of the sign" in Ancient Greek.
(This is a reference to the words of Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”)
“In my view, this child’s bracelet from the 11th-12th century is the most interesting find," Boyadzhiev has said, as cited by ETV, during the presentation of the finds at the Smolyan Regional Museum of History.
“One of its ends ends as a stylized snake head, while the other end is flattened and has a stamp of the Virgin Mary Oranta, raising her hands, with a maphorion and a nimbus (halo)," he has added.
“In terms of metal, this is a cheap work. However, the stamp of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) is of very good quality," says in turn Vaklinova, a renowned Bulgarian expert in medieval archaeology, as cited by the Maritsa daily.
“Such a find from the 11th century in a military fortress means that in addition to a garrison, the fortress also had civilian population which used it for protection," she adds.
“This bracelet was procured by a mother or grandmother from a marketplace in a distant location," elaborates the consultant to the digs.
“All these things must be resurrected so that we can present what life was 10 centuries ago. 1,000 years separate us from this bracelet but it shows that even back then people had the same desire to keep their children safe [as we do today]," concludes Vaklinova who herself has participated in the excavations of Momchil’s Fortress in Bulgaria’s Western Rhodope Mountains for decades.
Lead archaeologist Nikolay Boyadzhiev presents the 47 artifacts from different ages discovered at Momchil’s Fortress. Photo: Maritsa daily
The archaeologists have already studied a 80-meter-long section of the fortress wall, with archaeological layers reaching a depth of 1.6 meters.
In addition to the medieval child’s bracelet featuring the image of the Virgin Mary, the September 2017 excavations at Momchil’s fortress have also resulted in the discovery of a number of other intriguing artifacts from various ages.
These include a stone ax from the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age), knives from the 3rd-4th century AD, a key from the 6th century AD, arrow tips and ceramic vessels from the Late Middle Ages. Wooden floors from homes from the same period – the 13th-14th century – have also been exposed.
Vaklinova notes that Momchil’s Fortress was completely burned down in the 6th century during an invasion of the Slavs, and other traces also point to attacks during invasions by the Goths and the Avars.
After that, it ceased to exist for centuries, and was only restored in the 11th century – which is also the time when Byzantium managed to destroy and conquer the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018).
“We have managed to research about 80 meters of the fortress walls so far. There is about as much left to be studied, with the possibility of yielding great results," Vaklinova says.
She points out that Momchil’s Fortress has an area of 4 decares (app. 1 acre). In her words, the further research will boost the fortress’s popularity as a cultural tourism site that it has been gaining since 2007 when Smolyan Municipality first began to restore and promote it with EU funding.
The ruins of Momchil’s Fortress (Momchilova Krepost) are located near the town of Gradat, Smolyan Municipality, in the Western Rhodope Mountains, in Southern Bulgaria.
The site of Momchil’s Fortress hosted a prehistoric and then Ancient Thracian rock shrine starting at the end of the 5th millennium BC.
The highest point of Momchil’s Fortress has a rock niche which is 3 meters deep and 2.5 meters wide. Inside it, archaeologists have found prehistoric finds items such as pottery from the Late Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age).
It has a view towards the Golyam Perelik Mount, which is the tallest peak in the Rhodope Mountains at 2,191 meters.
The numerous pottery finds there also date from the Late Bronze Age (Thracian period) (1,500-300 BC), Late Antiquity (6th century AD), and the High and Late Middle Ages (13th-14th century).
Momchil’s Fortress was built as an Early Byzantine fortification under Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD).
Two other fortresses were built nearby at about the same time – the Koznik Fortress located south of the town of Rudozem, and the Kaleto Fortress in the area known as Turluka (not to be confused with the Kaleto Fortress near the town of Koshnitsa, also located in the same region).
(“Kale" is a Turkish word meaning “fortress" left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria whose real names are usually unknown).
The mounts of these two other Early Byzantine strongholds, Koshnitsa and Turluka, are situated are visible from Momchil’s Fortress.
The existence of Momchil’s Fortress in the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages was relatively brief. It was burned down by the Slavs in a barbarian invasion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
The fortress was rebuilt once again by Byzantium in the 11th century, and was used by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422); it was an important defensive fort until the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century when it was known as Podvis. Numerous arrow tips discovered at the fortress testify to the battle in which it was conquered.
In 1343 AD, the fortress became part of the estate of Momchil (after whom it was named later), an independent Bulgarian feudal lord in the Rhodope Mountains who intervened in the strife for the Byzantine throne.
He was given the titles of “despot" by Byzantine Empress Consort Anna of Savoy (r. 1326-1341), and the title of “sebastokrator" by Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus (Kantakouzenos) (r. 1347-1354), from whom Momchil received the fortress of Podvis and St. Irene.
Momchil also captured the fortress of Tsarevo (today’s city of Xanthi in Northern Greece), and made it his capital.
Momchil is credited as being the first Bulgarian and Balkan (and European, for that matter) ruler ever who realized the magnitude of the threat that the Ottoman Turks posed even though at the time they were fighting in the Balkans (Europe) only as Byzantine mercenaries.
He started fighting against the Turks on his own, defeating them in the Battle of Abdera (today in Northern Greece).
However, in the Battle of Burugrad (a fortress also known as Peritor, Peritherion, or Anastasiopolis, today in Northern Greece) in July 1345, the Ottoman-Byzantine forces outnumbered Momchil’s more than 4 to 1. Momchil’s troups were routed, and he perished in the battle.
Because of his heroism and foresight in trying to stop the invading Ottoman Turks, Momchil has been glorified as a hero in Bulgaria’s national folklore songs and tales.
His fears materialized 50 years after his death when all of the Second Bulgarian Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, ushering into the darkest period in Bulgarian history (alongside the communist period in the 20th century), which is known as the Ottoman Yoke and lasted until 1878 (1912 in the Rhodope Mountains).
The archaeological excavations of Momchil’s Fortress began in 1986. The archaeologists found that the fortress walled off the mountain peak from three sides – west, north, and east. The wall has a combined total length of 160 meters, and has been preserved at a height of between 0.5 meters and 2.1 meters.
The excavations were carried out further together with partial archaeological restoration in 2007 and 2012-2013 by Smolyan Municipality with EU funding, making Momchil’s Fortress a well-known place for cultural tourism.