Extinct Wild Cattle Aurochs Survived until 13th-14th Century in Today’s Bulgaria, Bones from Medieval Rusocastro Fortress Show

A painting thought to either depict an aurochs, a cattle/aurochs cross, or simply an aurochs like cattle breed.[1] This painting is a copy of the original that was present at a merchant in Augsburg in the 19th century. The original probably dates from the 16th century. It is not known if the original as well the copy still exist somewhere (Van Vuure, 2003). Photo: Wikipedia

The aurochs, the large species of wild cattle which is the ancestor of today’s domestic cattle, survived in today’s Bulgaria well into the 13th-14th century when it was still hunted for meat, bones recently found in the large fortress Rusocastro in Southeast Bulgaria have demonstrated.

Up until now, the aurochs had been thought to have gone extinct in Bulgaria in the 12th century at the latest.

While it used to be prevalent in Europe, much of Asia, and North Africa in prehistoric times, the last wild aurochs died in the Jaktorow Fortrest in Poland in 1627.

A huge share of the meat consumed by the inhabitants of the large fortress Rusocastro in Southeast Bulgaria in the 13th-14th century, i.e. the time of Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422), came from hunting, including of the now long extinct aurochs, the analysis of recently discovered animal bones has revealed.

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).

A total of 662 animal bones were discovered during the 2017 archaeological excavations of Rusocastro, a major stronghold which changed hands many times between the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires in the Middle Ages, and whose ruins are stiuated in today’s Burgas District.

The 662 animal bones found at Rusocastro in 2017 have been studied by archaeozoologist Georgi Ribarov who established that the residents of the fortress consumed meat from a wide range of wild and domestic animal species in the 13th-14th century.

An entire 25% of all animal bones have been found to be of wild animals, indicating that hunting had a very substantial role for the diet in the Rusocastro Fortress even in the High and Late Middle Ages.

The wild species which were hunted for meat by its inhabitants included wild boar, red deer, European roe deer, wild rabbit, pheasant, swan, and, last but not least, the large wild cattle aurochs, the ancestor of today’s domestic cattle.

The aurochs, which reached a weight of up to 1,100 kg, and a height of over 1.80 centimeters, had been believed to have survived only in today’s Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania by the Late Middle Ages.

The bones discovered in the Rusocastro appear to demonstrate that by that time it was still hunted in Bulgaria. The Burgas Museum of History points out that the hunting of aurochs was deemed especially dangerous.

The domestic animals whose bones were found in the Rusocastro Fortress in 2017 include pig, cattle, ox, goat, sheep, and goose. The largest number of bones are from pigs, and especially from 6-8-month-old ones. Sheep were more popular than goats, judging by the number of bones from each species.

A charred shell from a sea mollusk indicates that mollusks were also part of the diet of the medieval residents of the Rusocastro Fortress which is located some 20 km away from the Black Sea coast.

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A quarter of the meat in the medieval Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria was procured through hunting. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

The horse bones discovered in the Rusocastro Fortress have revealed “very important information," the Burgas Museum notes.

“They came from selected breeds used for riding, not for horse power, i.e. as draught animals," it adds.

“Based on their characteristics, they come close to the horse bones discovered in the Tsarevets Fortress (in the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) – editor’s note). These were animals raised for military purposes, and under no circumstances were they used for agriculture and in farms," the Museum elaborates.

The 2017 archaeological excavations took place in June – October of last year. They were carried out by the Burgas Regional Museum of History led by its Director Milen Nikolov, with funding from Kameno Municipality, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Rusocastro is the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, and is said to have had the largest castle in the region.

In November 2017, the Burgas Regional Museum of History announced the discovery of a huge water cistern plastered on the inside with pink waterproof mortar in the fortress, and in September 2017, it announced the discovery of the “monumental" staircase leading up to the castle of the Rusocastro Fortress.

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 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.

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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