Archeologists Find Rare 12th Century Lusterware Pottery from Medieval Egypt in Building with Rich Murals, Reveal Medieval Streets in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Archeologists Find Rare 12th Century Lusterware Pottery from Medieval Egypt in Building with Rich Murals, Reveal Medieval Streets in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

This fragment from a 12th-13th century lusterware plate from medieval Egypt has been found in a richly decorated medieval building in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: archaeologist Kamen Stanev; Plovdiv Time

A very rare piece of lusterware, a type of pottery, made in medieval Egypt in the 12th – 13th century AD, has been discovered in a medieval building richly decorated with colorful murals during rescue excavations in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

The rescue digs have been carried out for the past two weeks in what was one of the central quarters of Plovdiv, and so far the archaeologists have explored only the medieval layers, reports local news and culture site Plovdiv Time.

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 during rescue digs at the city’s Antiquity Odeon.

Even more recently, a Roman tomb from the western necropolis of Philipopolis has been unearthed by accident on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University.

The truly impressive lusterware from medieval Egypt has been found in a privately owned plot near the St. Marina (Margaret of Antioch) Church in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv which has been slated for a new construction development.

The rescue excavations on the site, which began two weeks ago, have been led by archaeologist Elena Bozhinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology and Assoc. Prof. Kamen Stanev from the Cyril and Methodius Scientific Center at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia.

The rescue excavations have been carried out on private property in what was one of the main quarters of ancient and medieval Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

The newly discovered piece of pottery from medieval Egypt is a fragment from a plate with a human depiction. It is dated to the end of the 12th – beginning of the 13th century.

This is roughly the time of the re-emergence of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) which had been part of Byzantine Empire prior to 1185. The city of Plovdiv itself changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium a number of times in the High and Late Middle Ages.

The plate from medieval Egypt is of the lusterware type, i.e. a type of ceramics with a metallic glaze.

According to the archaeologists, it is an extremely rare find for Bulgaria because of the fact that it was produced in North Africa, and it does stand out compared with the pottery vessels that were widely spread at the time.

The lusterware plate from medieval Egypt has been discovered in what appears to have been the cellar of a luxurious medieval building built in the second half of the 12th century lavishly decorated with murals in various colors.

“[This is] a cellar in which we have found a large amount of large pieces from murals painted in red, green, blue. Pieces which haven’t been pieced together yet show floral motifs as well as scenes. We hope to find more pieces from the murals, which were laid on wooden planks, in order to be able to study the images as well as possible," archaeologist Kamen Stanev is quoted as saying.

He has pointed out that similar pieces of colorful frescoes have been discovered recently during the excavations in the Nebet Tepe Fortress in Plovdiv led by archaeologist Sofiya Hristeva, in which he also participated.

In addition to the colorful murals and the lusterware plate from medieval Egypt, in the explored cellar room of the luxury 12th century building, the archaeologists have found medieval urban life artifacts such as coins, belt appliques, weights, and architectural fragments.

Colorful mural fragments from the luxury building from the second half of the 12th century which has been discovered in rescue digs in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: archaeologist Kamen Stanev; Plovdiv Time

Other curious finds are fragments from glass bracelets which are typical of the Middle Ages.

“They are very good material for dating since our ancestors were also compliant with certain fashion which changes, as it does today," archaeologist Elena Bozhinova has told Plovdiv Time.

In the plot which is being excavated, the archaeological team has identified six different layers of road pavements from the Middle Ages.

It is noted that Plovdiv’s urban planning in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages did not differ significantly. Whenever Antiquity streets were not used during the Middle Ages, they remained as empty spaces, only to be reused as streets in later medieval periods. That is why many of Plovdiv’s medieval streets lie right on top of streets from the Antiquity period.

Bozhinova emphasizes the Antiquity streets were usually built with large stone slabs, with canals underneath, whereas in the Middle Ages, Plovdiv’s streets were paved with materials such as ceramic fragments, small stones, or mortar from Antiquity buildings.

“The more flourishing the period was, the better the street paving was made. The darker and poorer the centuries were, the more squalid they were. We even have layers where mud can be seen. This makes it clear that for decades that street had not been taken care of, and it was just a river of mud," the archaeologist elaborates.

Her team has also found small fragments from the masonry of medieval homes dating from the 11th century until the beginning of the 13th century.

The medieval houses in question were built of stones and mud, with occasional use of bricks for leveling up.

Parts of Antiquity masonry were also incorporated in some of them, while other parts were torn down in order to be reused as construction material.

The archaeologists conducting the rescue excavations in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv are yet to reach the Antiquity layers. The rescue digs are supposed to be completed whenever they reach a sterile layer, i.e. one without traces of human life.

Archaeologists Kamen Stanev (left) and Elena Bozhinova (right) on the site of the digs. Photo: Plovdiv Time

In the first 2 weeks of their research, the archaeologists have studied the layers from the Middle Ages. Photo: Plovdiv Time

However, it is noted that this rarely happens in Plovdiv because of the really rich archaeological layers, especially from the Antiquity period.

In the part of the city which is now under excavations, the archaeological layers often reach 7 – 8 meters (25 feet) in depth, or even more.

“Very often, we can’t reach a sterile layer. Perhaps even in 99% of the cases. There are several reasons for that, but it is mostly due to the massive type of the structures that we expose, especially from the Antiquity," Bozhinova explains.

“For instance, a Roman street with large stone slabs should not be demolished. And it is very hard to do that anyway. In the small plots where it is allowed to go in depth, at one point the exploration becomes very risky for the researchers, so we terminate it," she adds.

The rescue digs in the plot where the lusterware plate from medieval Egypt has been discovered, however, are expected to continue for the next 1-2 months. The archaeologists expect to reach there a main Antiquity street.

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:

The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture)

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

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

Bulgars: Webster’s Timeline History, 354 – 2007

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)

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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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