Latest Finds from Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv: Roman Fortress Tower, Bronze Horse Harness Appliques, 2,000-Year-Old Wheat Barrel

A charred storage facility from the second half of the 3rd century containing a preserved barrel of wheat is among the most intriguing finds from the 2017 archaeological excavations of the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

A number of intriguing archaeological structures and artifacts have been found during the 2017 excavations of the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, including a previously unknown Roman fortress tower, a storage facility with 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.

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, as cited by news and cultural website Plovdiv Time.

The newly discovered Roman fortress tower on the Nebet Tepe hill is smaller than the already known one, and inside it the archaeologists have found a hoard of Roman denarii (silver coins) from the 1st century AD as well as bronze lamps, jugs, and other vessels. Parts of arrows and axes have also been found nearby.

Roman silver coins discovered in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Plovdiv in 2017, as displayed in the 2017 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

#12 is a glass bead with an image of the Gorgon Medusa, and #13 is a torso of a Roman deity. Both are 2nd – 3rd century AD finds from the Nebet Tepe Fortress, as displayed in the 2017 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

A votive tablet with goddess Cybele discovered in the Nebet Tepe Fortress during the 2017 digs. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

The Roman tower building is said to be extremely intriguing because it was massive and plastered with a technique differing from those used in other sections of the fortress wall of Nebet Tepe.

During the 2017 archaeological season, the research team discovered on Nebet Tepe over 300 coins from different time periods – Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Ottoman.

The archaeologists have also found tools for the making of metal vessels, and a stamp depicting the Gorgon Medusa, which are said to be extremely rare finds. A votive tablet with goddess Cybele from the 2nd – 3rd century AD has also been discovered.

Another intriguing discovery are parts of amphorae with seals which indicate commercial connections with the Central Mediterranean.

Still another major find from the 2017 excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Plovdiv is a storage facility from the second half of the 3rd century AD which is situated close to the newly found fortress tower.

Even though it has suffered a fire, possibly after some of the barbarian invasions of the Goths, it contains a preserved wooden barrel filled with wheat. The wooden barrel is about 45 cm (1.5 feet) tall.

The archaeologists have also found an iron sickle, two iron axes, a spear, several bronze coins, several awls, and about 50 bronze appliques for horse harnesses.

The floor of the newly discovered storage facility in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv has been preserved, and so are the rest of the finds even though they are charred. They probably survived because the collapsing walls collapsed they extinguished the fire.

#8 is an amphora fragment with a stamp from the time of Roman Emperor Severus Alexander (r. 222 – 235 AD). #9 Fragment from a pottery vessel with a coin stuck in the clay. #10 is a stamp with the image of a female head from the 4th – 3rd century BC. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

According to the lead archaeologist, the most valuable find are the 50 bronze appliques for decorating horse harnesses.

Some of them are 6 cm in diameter, others are about 3 cm. Upon their discovery, the archaeologists found that the bronze appliques are decorated but the fact that they were covered in wheat made it hard to distinguish the depictions.

“This is an exceptional find for Plovdiv. As far as I know, such horse harness appliques haven’t been found here. The room itself was a probably a storage connected with the life in the fortress tower," Hristeva says.

“We hope that at some point the second fortress tower will be properly conserved and exhibited in a proper way because it is of great exposition worth," she adds.

Her team has also come across part of a building tiled on the inside with colorful marbles. The archaeologists have not been able to tell its function because they only excavated half a square meter from it.

During their 2017 excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, the archaeologists also continued researching a medieval necropolis they had found in 2016.

Among the several graves they excavated over the past season, they have found 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.

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.

They have been conducted by a 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.

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

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.)

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.

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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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