Archaeologist Indignant over Damage Done by Tourists, Locals to Ancient, Medieval Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

The 2017 archaeological excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

Lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva has called for ending the unlimited access of tourists and locals to the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv because of the damages caused constantly to the top archaeological, historical, and cultural site.

The results from the ongoing excavations on the Nebet Tepe hill, which were renewed in 2016 for the first time since the 1970s, have now questioned the status of Plovdiv as the oldest city in Europe, according to lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

The 2017 archaeological excavations there have produced a wide range of exciting discoveries.

These include a previously unknown Roman fortress tower, a storage facility containing a barrel with preserved wheat, 50 bronze horse harness appliques, and a weird medieval funeral in which a woman was buried face down, with hands tied on her back.

Nebet Tepe has not been fenced off and is a top spot in Plovdiv’s Old Town for walks and even picnics.

“Unfortunately, most tourists climb on top of the walls. Sure, the view is marvelous but every time someone climbs up there, they knock down one or two stones. This encroaches upon the site’s integrity," the archaeologist has told news and cultural site Plovdiv Time in an interview.

She insists that the Nebet Tepe Fortress be fenced off, and that visitors be admitted in a controlled manner.

“Presently, the site is used as a zone for recreation, beer drinking, and picnicking. That must be banned categorically because only in this way the monument of culture can be preserved," Hristeva says.

She adds that the authorities in Bulgaria and in Plovdiv must take after policies in countries elsewhere in Europe and even in Asia and Africa on how to preserve the cultural and historical heritage.

“Everywhere such sites have security, entrances, and are places with limited access. Tourists walk along specific alleys in order to see them. [Introducing that] will keep out the people who come here just to have fun, and not because they care about archaeology. Besides, the entrance fees will provide maintenance funding for the site," the archaeologist argues.

She says that the upper section of the archaeological site could be fenced off and shaped into a cultural landmark with controlled access, including by removing rabble from the previous excavations in the 1970s, putting part of the collapsed stones in their original places, building walking alleys, removing the excess vegetation, and adding information boards. Part of the site already has lights but additional lighting needs to be installed in the other sections.

In her words, all this could be done relatively easily and quickly, by 2019. In 2019, Bulgaria’s Plovdiv will be the European Capital of Culture for that year.

Archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva (left) during the 2017 excavations of the Nebet Tepe Fortress. Photo: Plovdiv Time

Hristeva has expressed her indignation over the piles of trash that now get left behind amid the ruins of the Nebet Tepe Fortress on a daily basis.

In 2017, her team worked at the lowest part of the site, and wind would blow down to them all kinds of waste such as empty beer cans and plastic bottles, plastic cups, and cigarette butts.

In the archaeologist’s words, regardless of their efforts, the Plovdiv Municipality employees cleaning the site every day barely manage to remove the fresh piles of trash.

“It must be understood that archaeological sites, parks, and street spaces aren’t pubs or trash bins. Let’s not forget that Plovdiv has the image of a cultural center mostly thanks to archaeology," Hristeva says.

The ruins of the ancient and medieval fortress Nebet Tepe also get damaged by graffiti artists.

“They don’t stop scribbling on the walls. How is it that they don’t understand that this is 2,400-year-old cultural and historical heritage? There are so many ugly apartment buildings where they can do that. The big problem is that the detergent that has to be used to clean up the graffiti destroys the stones," the archaeologist explains.

Hristeva has also expressed her worries over the possibility that visitors of the Nebet Tepe site might get hurt by falling or by getting hit by falling stones.

“Of course, it is dangerous. Any single stone could kill some of the people on the ground. Some spots are up to 7 meters high. That’s why we had to turn into caretakers: “Don’t leave trash, don’t climb, don’t knock over the fence." We’ve put signs in Bulgarian and English that entering [the excavation site] is forbidden. But even that doesn’t stop them," she says.

The archaeologist shares that tourists rarely ask her team about their world on the ground but visiting archaeologists from other countries often do.

The 2017 archaeological excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

In her view, as 2018 is going to be the last of the three planned seasons of renewed excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress, it would be nice to excavate the lower part of the site, which could be done even as it is an operational tourist landmark. The excavations could even be seen as an attraction as the tourists will be able to observe the digs.

Hristeva has declared herself against any archaeological restorations on the Nebet Tepe hill as archaeological restorations in Bulgaria in recent years have often been botched, questionable, or unfounded.

She believes all that is needed is to put back to their places those architectural fragments that have been knocked down, and to protect the site from further destruction.

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Background Infonotes:

According to the pre-1980 excavations, the history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe" is the Turkishword for “hill"), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city" (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta", are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills") as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills").

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.

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