Latest Discoveries in Nebet Tepe Fortress Cast Doubt on Status of Bulgaria’s Plovdiv as Oldest City in Europe

The historic hill of the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, and the spot which was excavated in 2017 (in the lower right-hand corner). Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

The latest excavations of the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv have revealed issues with earlier archaeological research casting doubt on whether Plovdiv indeed was the oldest city in Europe, while not denying the exquisite historical, archaeological, and cultural value of the site.

The 2017 archaeological digs have marked the second consecutive season since the renewal of the research of Plovdiv’s Nebet Tepe Fortress in the 2016 excavations, more than 35 years after the previous excavations were completed in the 1970s.

Because of those previous excavations on the Nebet Tepe Hill, Plovdiv has claimed the title of “Europe’s oldest city" (and the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

Bulgaria’s Plovdiv has seven historic hills, not unlike Rome. They are still known as “tepeta", i.e. 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.

According to the findings from the previous archaeological excavations between 1930 and 1980, 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.

Later, in the Antiquity period, the city was known as Philipopolis (named after King Philip II of Macedon), and Trimontium (after its conquest by the Roman Empire).

Learn more about the history of Plovdiv and Nebet Tebe in the Background Infonotes below! (Based on the pre-1980 excavations.)

The latest findings from the 2017 excavations of the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, however, now question many of the hypotheses about the really early urban character of the Nebet Tepe settlement, according to lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

In 2015, a controversial project for archaeological restorations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress caused a public scandal, and paved the way for renewing the research.

It has also been revealed that the paperwork documenting the large-scale excavations there in the 1970s by archaeologist Atanas Peykov (who passed away in 2012) is missing.

“Nebet Tepe was [last] researched 30 years ago. Our colleagues back then did not have the technical capabilities that we have now," lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva has told news and cultural website Plovdiv Time.

“They allow us to carry out more precise research and present specific data on the issue of when Plovdiv emerged as a city since so far, based on what we are finding, a lot of the [earlier] hypotheses are falling through," she has explained.

“According to our findings, the larger-scale construction on Nebet Tepe occurred during the Early Roman Empire period – 1st – 2nd century AD," the archaeologist is quoted as saying.

Thus, the hypotheses of the team led by Hristeva, Assist. Prof. Bozhidar Draganov from Plovdiv University “Paisiy Hilendarski" and Assoc. Prof. Kamen Stanev from the Cyril and Methodius Scientific Center at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia seem to change the dating of Plovdiv’s emergence as an urban settlement.

Their results indicate that the earliest fortress on the Nebet Tepe Hill was built in the 4th century BC but it was much smaller than previously thought, and located on the top part of the hill.

The section of the Nebet Tepe Fortress excavated in 2017 includes early street pavement, a fortress wall from the 1st century AD, a Roman fortress tower from the 1st century AD, a storage facility from the second half of the 3rd century AD, a room tiled with marble from the second half of the 3rd century AD, a perpendicular fortress wall with a gate from after the end of the 3rd century AD, and an Early Byzantine building. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

The larger fortress wall encompassing the hill was built in the 1st century AD, and any earlier fortress wall that might have existed must have been destroyed.

According to Hristeva, however, there probably wasn’t an earlier fortress wall, and the fortress wall around the so called Three Hills was probably built only in the 1st century AD.

The Three Hills (Nebet Tepe, Dzhambaz Tepe, and Taxim Tepe) refer to the Old Plovdiv Architectural and Historical Preserve (also known as the Old Town or Old Plovdiv) with a territory of 35 hectares (86.5 acres).

The renewed research confirm that the site had an urban structure but it did not cover the entirety of the Three Hills.

Unfortunately, the research is hurdled by the fact that part of the archaeological layers on the site were destroyed during the previous excavations.

“Our colleague who worked here more than anybody else and studied the largest area “shoveled out" a large part of the later periods. He removed [the archaeological layers from] the entire Roman period, we find a large part of the road paving tossed out at the slope of the hill. He removed [the archaeological layers from] the entire Middle Ages, the entire Byzantine period. He had the ambition [to prove] that Plovdiv, Philipopolis, was synchronous with the palaces of [Ancient] Mycenae, and that this site had a palace similar to them," Hristeva elaborates.

“That is not true at all. And in order to prove his claims and ambitions, he tossed out all later periods. He didn’t document them. He brought to the surface earlier materials. However, it is now known whether they have anything to do with fortress building. Practically, the previous research didn’t make the connection between the architecture and the finds because the aim was to “fix" the history in the period of the 12th century BC," the lead archaeologist adds.

Her team presumes the possibility that a shrine or a small settlement existed at the Nebet Tepe Hill at the end of the 2nd – beginning of the 1st millennium BC, but not a fortress (wall) surrounding the Three Hills.

“Our excavations show that larger-scale construction happened in the Early Roman period, 1st – 2nd century AD. In the 4th century BC, there was a small fortress but it was located on the highest part of the hill. We can hypothesize that this was precisely when Philipopolis (Plovdiv) emerged as a city," Hristeva explains.

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

The new dating of the fortress does not change the fact that the cultural and historical monument is of exceptional value, as confirmed by the new archaeological findings.

(Nonetheless, Bulgaria does boast the oldest town in Europe – the prehistoric town of Provadiya – Solnitsata, i.e. “The Salt Pit", who ruins are being excavated at a settlement mound near today’s Provadiya in Northeast Bulgaria.)

While they may have cast doubt on Plovdiv’s status as the oldest city in Europe, the renewed archaeological excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress have confirmed that the earliest traces of civilized human life there date back to the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) in the 5th – 4th millennium BC, and continued into the Bronze Age (3rd – 2nd millennium BC), and the Iron Age (11th – 10th century BC.

The very top of the Nebet Tepe hill was fortified in the 4th century BC, and life there continued into the Hellenistic Age and then the Roman period when the massive fortress walls were built, and the Middle Ages.

In addition to challenging the existing hypotheses about the Nebet Tepe Fortress and Plovdiv’s early urban development, 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.

Lead archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva has also expressed her indignation over the unhindered access of tourists and locals to the Nebet Tepe site because of the damage they cause and the trash they leave behind.

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Top 12 Places to Visit in Bulgaria – Top 12 Bulgaria Travel Guide (Includes Sofia, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, Belogradchik & More)

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Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics

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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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