Fortress Tower of Ancient Odessos Found by Chance in Bulgaria’s Varna Affirms Data about Odd Early Byzantine District Quaestura Exercitus

Part of a U-shape fortress tower from the Late Antiquity fortress wall of ancient Odessos (Odessus) has been discovered in the cellar of a house in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology

A Late Antiquity fortress wall tower from the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus) has been discovered by accident in the Black Sea city of Varna, with rescue archaeological excavations affirming data about the existence of Quaestura Exercitus, a peculiar administrative district in 6th century AD Byzantium (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire), under Emperor Justinian I the Great, uniting much of today’s Northern Bulgaria with Cyprus, parts of Anatolia, and the Cyclades.

Parts of a U-shaped fortress tower have been discovered by accident in the cellar of a house at 13 Voden Street in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna, within the Odessos Archaeological Preserve.

Ensuing rescue excavations have explored the ruins of the tower, which has been found to be part of one of the known fortress walls of ancient Odessos, the Varna Museum of Archaeology has announced, as cited by local news site Varna24.

The Museum has emphasized that the discovery of numerous Byzantine amphorae from the Eastern Mediterranean at the site of the tower but the lack of amphorae from North Africa seems to be line with the known data about the existence of Quaestura Exercitus in the 6th century AD.

Quaestura Exercitus was a peculiar administrative entity in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) established by Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527 – 565) centered in Odessos (Varna) which, weirdly, brought together the Roman provinces of Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor in today’s Northern Bulgaria with the provinces of Cyrpus, Caria in Anatolia (on the Asia Minor Peninsula), and the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea.

Quaestura Exercitus was established on May 18, 536. It was ruled over by a quaestor exercitus (“quaestor of the army").

The administrative district uniting the Lower Danube provinces and parts of the Eastern Mediterranean was designed to support the troops stationed in the former with supplies transported via the Black Sea since today’s Northern Bulgaria had been economically destitute and had suffered from repeated barbarian attacks from the northeast and the north, across the Danube River.

The existence of the position of quaestor until the 570s is taken as indication that the Quaestura Exercitus administrative district of the early Byzantine Empire might have survived until then.

The Byzantine provinces of the Lower Danube were nonetheless overrun in the barbarian invasions of Slavs and Avars at the end of the 6th century, and then in the 7th century. At the end of the 7th century, they became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018) which subsequently established its heartland in the Lower Danube Plain.

During their rescue excavations, the archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology managed to explore the western half of the front part of the accidentally discovered U-shared fortress tower from ancient Odessos. The rest of the tower ruins remain under a modern-day street and square.

The façade of the fortress tower was built of large quadrae (stone blocks), with a smooth frontal surface, the inside tower wall was made of smaller and cruder stones, while the space inbetween was filled with emplecton.

The archaeological layer around and over the ruins of the Odessos fortress tower accrued in the 6th century AD, the Varna Museum of Archaeology says.

Another layer is from the Late Middle Ages, more specifically, the 17th century, i.e. the period of the Ottoman Empire. It contains part of a masonry wall situated right to the northwest of the 6th century AD tower as well as household pottery.

The Early Byzantine archaeological layer from the 6th century AD contains no household ceramics.

“[That] and the very modest amount of table pottery from the period of the Late Antiquity deserve attention. This is an indirect indication that the perimeter probably wasn’t used intensively for residential purposes," the Varna Museum says.

“On the other hand, the considerable number of amphorae, and especially those of Eastern Mediterranean origin, is fully in line with the historical data about Quaestura Exercitus, and the role of Odessos as the capital of the administrative structure, and a main redistribution center for supplies arriving by sea, predominantly from the Eastern Mediterranean," the archaeologists elaborate.

“The lack of African amphorae from that period can also be attributed to the same reason," they point out.

“The latest ceramic material from this period are from the first decades of the 7th century, and in line with the data about the abandonment of the city [of Odessos] at the time. After that date, there are no structures, ceramics, and other finds, up until the time of the Late Middle Ages," they add.

The next historical period in which the location of the newly discovered Odessos fortress tower was precisely the Ottoman period, and more specifically the 17th century.

“The second large group of ceramic [items] discovered during the excavations comes from this period. It is much more homogenous and is represented mainly by kitchen and table vessels – part of the ceramic set of a residential building from the 17th century," the Varna Museum of Archaeology says.

The Museum also explains that some 40 years ago, to the west of the newly found fortress tower, along the fortress wall in question, another fortress was discovered.

It was rectangular and of large size, of the phrourion type, and it was built using the same construction techniques as the ones observed in the newly discovered tower. It had at least four and possibly five floors.

“The architectural concept of the two explored towers on the northern fortress wall of Odessos in question reveals that complete similarity to sectors from the fortification system of Late Roman fortified residential, military, administrative, and urban centers on the Lower Danube Limes and in the interior of the provinces Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor," the Varna Museum explains.

It refers to the so called Limes Moesiae, the system of frontier fortifications that the Roman Empire built along the Lower Danube as a defensive measure against barbarian invasions.

“The U-shaped fortress towers fully projected before the fortress wall (in combination with horseshoe-shaped or fan-shaped towers at the angles) and rectangular towers of large size (phrourion) are part of a very specific Late Roman fortification system. The latest research of this type of a fortification system offer more precise dating of the fortification – after 324 AD (after the beginning of the second quarter of the 4th century)," the Varna Museum of Archaeology concludes.

Ancient Odessos had a total of three different fortress walls. In March 2015, construction workers discovered by accident an unknown section of the Late Antiquity fortress wall.

The discovery even made international headlines with the finding of a tall man’s skeleton buried right under the Late Antiquity fortress wall of Odessos. Later, it turned out that the ancient man was only 165 cm (about 5 feet 4 inches) tall.

Three more skeletons were also found in what turned out to have been a small Early Christian necropolis.

Learn more about ancient Odessos (Odessus) in the Background Infonotes below!

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Background Infonotes:

The dawn of Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts which date back to the 5th millenium BC (the Varna Gold Treasure).

Ancient Odessos (known as Odessus in Roman times) is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC.

However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia.

Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century.

It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The wall (rampart) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing.

Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.


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