Puzzling Burial with Tortoise Shell Discovered in Ancient Roman Tomb on Medical University Campus in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

This well-preserved tortoise shell has been found next to the head of one of the two burial people in the newly discovered Ancient Roman tomb from ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

A perplexing ancient burial in which a tortoise was laid right next to the head of the buried person has been found by archaeologists inside the Ancient Roman tomb, which has recently been discovered by accident on the campus of the Medical University in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

The Roman tomb which is still dated to the period between the 1st and the 3rd century AD was uncovered at the end of March during construction works behind the President’s office on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University.

In the Roman Era, Plovdiv, then called Philipopolis or 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.

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

As the rescue excavations of the Roman tomb have advanced, the team led by archaeologist Maya Martinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology and archaeologist Zdravka Korkutova from Plovdiv University “St. Paisiy Hilendarski" has found the bones of a total of two people inside it.

The most bewildering find, however, has been a very well preserved tortoise shell right next to the head of one of the people buried inside the Roman tomb, reports local news and culture site Plovdiv Time.

It is pointed out that the “unique funeral ritual has seriously perplexed the researchers" on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University.

“We cannot explain yet why the tortoise was placed in the grave. We are considering various hypotheses, and we will come up with a position in the upcoming days," archaeologist Zdravka Korkutova is quoted as saying.

No jewelry or coins have been discovered in the Roman tomb, the archaeologists have only come across small fragments from Antiquity pottery.

The archaeologists have not offered an explanation for the time being for the tortoise shell discovery in the Roman tomb in Plovdiv. Photos: Plovdiv Time

The tomb, which was found during construction digs for the heating installation of the medical university clinics, has turned out to be intact since the time it was built.

It is 2 meters long and 1 meters wide, and was built of square bricks and white mortar, and plastered on the inside.

The discovery of a tortoise shell inside the Roman Era tomb in Plovdiv has also been covered by media in Turkey.

With respect to the bewildering find, Turkish archaeologist Murat Sav has noted that tortoises symbolized mythological gods, as cited by the Daily Sabah.

In his words, this could imply that there was a relation between the deceased person’s beliefs and the tortoise representing that god.

It is pointed out that the find in the Ancient Roman tomb in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv is not the first time archaeologists discover tortoise shells inside burial chambers.

Another similar case was when 21 tortoise fossils were found inside a cemetery in an ancient Assyrian settlement mound located in Turkey’s southeastern Diyarbakır province.

Not unlike other parts of Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, the campus of the city’s medical university often reveals intriguing ancient discoveries.

In 2017, construction works on campus exposed two Antiquity graves which were explored by archaeologist Maya Martinova but were found to have been destroyed.

During the rescue excavations of the Roman tomb in Plovdiv, the archaeologists have exposed the walls of neighboring tombs from the western necropolis of ancient Philipopolis. Photo: Plovdiv Time

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, as well as a ceramic plate from medieval Egypt.

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.)

Also check out this listicle:

8 Marvelous Artifacts from Exotic Places Discovered by Archaeologists in Bulgaria Recently and How They Got There

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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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