Archaeologists Find Late Roman Tomb with Murals, 26 Other Graves from Ancient City Augusta Traiana in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora

Part of the surviving murals of the newly discovered Ancient Roman tomb from the city of Augusta Traiana in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora. Photo: Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History

Archaeologists excavating the main square in the southern Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora have discovered a total of 27 tombs and graves from a necropolis of the large Ancient Roman city of Augusta Traiana dating from the 2nd – 4th century AD, including one Roman tomb decorated with murals on the inside.

The excavations of what was the southwestern necropolis of Augusta Traiana – located on a downtown square before the administrative building of the local municipality began in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora in January 2018.

The latest finds are two Late Roman tombs built with bricks and covered with tombstones, one of which features mural decorations, lead archaeologist Assist. Prof. Mariya Kamisheva from the Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History.

The Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Augusta Traiana was probably founded ca. 107 AD by Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) (after whom it was named) on the site of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement called Beroe. (Some recent research indicates it might have been founded by Trajan’s successor, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD).) It quickly became the second most important city in the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace) after Philipopolis (Trimontium), today’s Plovdiv.

Learn more about the history of Augusta Traiana (known as Vereia in the Middle Ages) in the Background Infonotes below!

In 2016, excavations in Stara Zagora led to the discovery of two huge family tomb sarcophagi and the discovery of Ancient Roman floor mosaics.

Only one of the 27 newly found tombs and graves bears traces of cremation, the corpses of the deceased Roman Era residents were placed in the others.

The Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History points out the diversity of the discovered Roman burial facilities from the 2nd – 4th century AD.

In addition to the two brick masonry tombs, a total of 19 of them are regular grave pits covered with tiles in the shape of roofs; three are grave pits covered with bricks and stone slabs, and three are grave pits without any lids.

Inside both of the two brick tombs, the archaeologists have found the remains of more than one person.

“It can be assumed that these types of graves were used as family [tombs] and the buried people were relatives," the Museum says.

Both Roman tombs in question are plastered with white plaster on the inside but one of them also has colorful murals painted with Pompeian red, orange – brown and blue – black colors.

The northern and western wall of the Roman tomb from the southwestern necropolis of the city of Augusta Traiana in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora is decorated with the images of tree branches with leaves, candelabra (candle holders), garlands, and floral motifs.

The newly discovered Ancient Roman tomb from the 4th century AD with whatever is left of its colorful murals. Photos: Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History

The top of the walls is decorated with a wide line of Pompeian red, about 8 centimeters (3 inches) wide.

“The murals are very badly preserved, and most of them have collapsed on the floor of the tomb. Bones from several persons can be seen on the bottom of this burial facility," the Museum says.

It notes that in terms of dating the newly discovered graves are no different from the other known graves from the southwestern necropolis of the Roman city of Augusta Traiana in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora, namely, they are from the 2nd – 4th century AD.

“Many of the [burial facilities] have more than one person in them and are considered mass graves. Our colleagues dealing with anthropological analysis will be able to tell us if those had to do with an epidemic or with military actions," archaeologist Kamisheva has told BNR.

For the time being, the archaeologists think that the tomb with the murals contains the bones of a total of three people – two men and a woman.

The lead archaeologist notes that the newly found tombs are probably from the beginning of the 4th century AD but more précising dating is yet to be decided upon.

A total of over 1,000 tombs and graves from the Antiquity city of Augusta Traiana have been discovered so far during the decades of archaeological research in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora.

Lead archaeologist Mariya Kamisheva (left) is seen here exploring the newly discovered mural-decorated Roman tomb in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora. Photos: Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History

“The [tomb] murals are in a bad condition, most of them have collapsed on the floor, and we have a lot of work to do to restore them," says Dr. Ivan Vanev from the Institute of Art Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia.

He reminds that similar Roman tombs decorated on the inside with murals from ancient after Serdica were discovered in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia as early as the 19th century. Some of them are presently exhibited in situ, especially in the underground museum beneath the 4th century AD St. Sophia Basilica.

Petar Kalchev, Director of the Stara Zagora Regional Museum of History, has said his institution hopes that the newly discovered Ancient Roman archaeological structures will be exhibited in situ in the city’s downtown together with a tomb discovered in 1986.

“We hope that a very nice site will emerge together with the 1986 tomb. It will feature a map of what has been discovered in ancient Augusta Traiana so far. Our idea is to preserve the site in situ so that it will become a truly unique place of interest for Stara Zagora’s residents and visitors," Kalchev says.

The rescue excavations on the main square before the Stara Zagora Municipality building have been funded by the investor in the square rehabilitation project as required by the Bulgarian legislation.

Stara Zagora Municipality itself has provided BGN 12,000 (appr. EUR 6,000, USD 7,500) in additional funding for the digs.

Another recent discovery of an Ancient Roman tomb, and at that one containing tortoise shells, has been made in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

Background Infonotes:

The Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora features the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Augusta Traiana founded by Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) (after whom it was named) on the site of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement called Beroe. (Some recent research indicates it might have been founded by Trajan’s successor, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD).)

It saw its greatest urban development later under Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD). It quickly became the second most important city in the Roman province of Thrace after Philipopolis (Trimontium), today’s Plovdiv.

The Roman city of Augusta Traiana covered a territory of about 500 decares (app. 125 acres). During the Late Antiquity, it was visited by several Roman Emperors including Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD), Caracalla (r. 211-217 AD), and Diocletian (r. 294-305 AD), which is seen as a testimony to its importance.

In the 2nd-3rd century, Augusta Traiana minted its own coins (a total of 874 of them have been found, as of 2016); it is known to have had commercial contacts with faraway regions and cities such as Sparta, Aquincum (today’s Budapest in Hungary), and the province of Syria.

In the middle of the 4th century, Augusta Traiana became one of the major Early Christian centers in the Balkans.

In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century) the city of Augusta Traiana was once again known under its original Thracian name of Beroe. Much of it was destroyed by barbarian invasions – by the Goths in the 4th century, the Huns in the 5th century, and later by the Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars. The invasions of the Bulgars and Slavs in the late 7th century, around the time of the two peoples formed the First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD), effectively ended the life of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Beroe / Augustra Traiana as it was.

It became part of Bulgaria under Khan Tervel (r. 700-718 AD), who called it Boruy. The city was a major bone of contention during the numerous wars between Bulgaria and Byzantium and became known as Vereia after Byzantium conquered the eastern parts of the First Bulgarian Empire in the late 10th century. Bulgaria reconquered it during the early years of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).

In addition to its Neolithic, Ancient Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian heritage, the territory of the city of Stara Zagora is dotted with Ancient Thracian archaeological sites, including more than 30 known temples of the main god according to Thracian mythology, the Thracian Horseman.

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