Ancient Roman Tomb Discovered by Accident in Medical University in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

The newly discovered Roman tomb in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was a family tomb from the western necropolis of ancient Philipopolis used in the 1st – 3rd century AD. Photo: Plovdiv Medical University

An Ancient Roman tomb from the 1st – 3rd century AD has been discovered by accident in the campus of the Medical University in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

The tomb has been uncovered during construction works behind the President’s office, Plovdiv Medical University has announced.

The Roman Era tomb appears to have been part of the so called western necropolis of the ancient city of Philipopolis, Plovdiv’s predecessor.

Prehistoric, Antiquity, and medieval finds keep springing up across Plovdiv as the city’s vast cultural heritage is still being researched.

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.

Because of previous excavations on the Nebet Tepe Hill in the 1970s, Plovdiv has claimed the title of “Europe’s oldest city" (and the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

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

In the most recent archaeological excavations in Plovdiv, the archaeologists have found traces from the Goth invasion of the Roman Empire in 251 AD.

In the Roman Era, Plovdiv (Philipopolis, Trimontium) is known to have had a total of four necropolises, and the campus of Plovdiv Medical University is located on top of the western necropolis, which results in frequent accidental archaeological discoveries.

The 2nd – 3rd century AD Roman tomb found by chance at the university has been visited immediately by archaeologist Zdravka Korkutova from Plovdiv University “St. Paisiy Hilendarski" and Assoc. Prof. Georgi Tomov from Plovdiv Medical University, who has degrees in both medicine and archaeology.

In his words, what has been discovered is a fully preserved one-chamber Roman tomb made of brick and mortar. It is covered with a granite slab.

Professor of medicine and archaeologist Georgi Tomov showing the newly unearthed Roman tomb. Photo: Plovdiv Medical University

Within the first several hours of their rescue work, the archaeologists have unearthed inside the tomb a skull and leg bones.

“The Roman tomb is probably from the 2nd-3rd century AD, and more than one person was buried in it, i.e. it was a family tomb," Tomov is quoted as saying.

“That will become known for sure after the anthropological tests. When we study the skeletons, we will get information about the age and sex of those who were buried in it, and about their health condition," he adds.

Plovdiv Medical University points out that in the age of the Roman Empire, the four necropolises of Plovdiv (Philipopolis) were located around the main roads in and out of the city.

The necropolis west of ancient Philipopolis (where the university campus stands today) was the largest one. It emerged at the end of the 1st century AD between two hills, known today as Bunardzhik and Dzhendem Tepe. (Plovdiv’s seven historic hills are still popularly referred to by their Ottoman Era names in Turkish.)

It is noted that as the originally Ancient Thracian and then Roman city flourished in the 2nd – 3rd century AD, the western necropolis of Plovdiv kept expanding to the west, at the foot of the Dzhendem Tepe hill, the tallest of the city’s seven hills.

The location in question was probably deemed sacred because the top of the hill housed the temple of the protector deity of ancient Philipopolis, Apollo Kendrisos.

“Kendrisos" being a Thracian epithet, the image of Apollo Kendrisos is considered to have been somewhat of a merger between the ancient (Greek) sun god Apollo and the Thracian Horseman, the supreme deity of the Ancient Thracians.

As it is increasingly turning out, the Ancient Greek mythology and the Ancient Thracian mythology had a lot in common.

“The graves and tombs also show how the economy of the city [of Philipopolis] and of the [Roman] Empire was evolving," Plovdiv Medical University says.

“The western necropolis is a good example. During the successful 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the wealthy residents were buried in expensive and well-designed tombs of bricks and mortar. In the uncertain 4th century AD, the tombs became more modest, and were made of remains from earlier buildings," the university elaborates.

It further explains that the burials also revealed a more information about the residents of ancient Philipopolis, including their ethnic origin.

“The Thracians were usually cremated and buried in a burial mound (tumulus). The bodies of the Greek and Italian settlers were laid underneath tombstones, in stone sarcophagi or tombs. Of course, over time, as life changed, the rituals began to evolve. Under the influence of the Roman civilization, the rich Thracians would substitute their burial mounds for tombstones, sarcophagi, and tombs," the university concludes.

The granite slab that covered the Roman tomb discovered on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

Medical professor and archaeologist Georgi Tomov emphasizes that whenever construction or repairs works are carried out on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University, archaeological artifacts from the western necropolis of Roman Plovdiv are bound to pop up.

Shortly after the start of the rescue excavations, the team has also exposed the walls of a neighboring tomb.

“We can see the walls of a neighboring burial complex. That verifies the already known fact that we are on the territory of a large necropolis," Tomov has told BNT2.

Any archaeological artifacts discovered during the rescue digs of the Roman tomb will become the property of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

The newly found Roman tomb, however, is most probably going to be dismantled, and then re-assembled and exhibited in the future Museum of Medicine at the Medical University in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv.

University President Prof. Stefan Kostyanev is quoted as saying he hopes the Roman tomb will find its home in the future museum.

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.

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

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Relevant Books:

Ancient Rome: A Complete History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chronicling the Story of the Most Important and Influential Civilization the World Has Ever Known

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of An Empire

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

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

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

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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