Second Tortoise Shell Found in Roman Tomb in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, Deemed Linked with God Hermes, Ancient Afterlife Beliefs

A total of two tortoise were laid in the newly discovered 3rd century AD Roman tomb on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University. Photo: archaeologist Maya Martinova / Plovdiv Time

The shell of a second tortoise have been found inside the Ancient Roman tomb, which has recently been discovered on the campus of the Medical University in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, after the original tortoise discovery baffled the archaeologists.

The Roman tomb which has now been dated more precisely, namely, to 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.

The remains of the first tortoise were found laid right next to the head of one of the buried persons in the Roman tomb, and the archaeologists at first abstained from offering an explanation until the digs had been wrapped up.

Now the archaeological team led by archaeologist Maya Martinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology and archaeologist Zdravka Korkutova from Plovdiv University “St. Paisiy Hilendarski" has put forth its leading hypothesis about the tortoise discoveries.

Their leading hypothesis is that the Antiquity people deemed the tortoise a symbol of ancient god Hermes, and a creature connected with the underworld in that it migrated to the afterlife after its death, not unlike the deceased humans.

“[The second tortoise in the Roman tomb] is smaller [than the first one], and [its remains] are not so well preserved," Kortukova has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time, emphasizing that the tortoise tomb find is the first such archaeological discovery in Bulgaria.

The shell of the first tortoise found in the Roman tomb is larger and better preserved. Photo: Plovdiv Time

“In the perceptions of our ancient predecessors, the tortoise is connected with god Hermes in his chthonic (underworld) aspect," says in turn Martinova.

“Some researchers think that the depictions of Hermes with a tortoise in his hand is connected with the belief that the dead tortoise, not unlike the deceased [human]’s soul, moved to the afterlife," she elaborates.

“That is, the tortoise is directly connected with Hermes Psychopompos and the immortality of the soul," stresses the archaeologist.

She has referred to one of ancient deity Hermes’ functions in (Ancient Greek but also Thracian and Roman) mythology, namely, that of a psychopomp, a conveyor or conductor of souls who escorts newly deceased souls from the Earth to the afterlife.

As early as the finding of the first tortoise shell inside the Roman Era tomb in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, the discovery has also been covered by media in Turkey.

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.

The Roman tomb found on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University has been dated more precisely, to the 3rd century AD, thanks to the discovery of coins minted in Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) and Traianopolis (today in Alexandroupoli Municipality in Northeast Greece).

The coins date back to the reigns of Roman Emperors Caracalla (r. 198 – 217 AD) and Elagabalus (r. 218 – 222 AD).

The archaeologists have now found the bones of a total of three people inside the 3rd century Roman tomb – two adults and a child, who probably were a family.

Adjacent to the tomb, the researchers have discover four more graves from the western necropolis of ancient Philipopolis as well as a large masonry wall from a building whose nature remains unknown since the rest of it continues underneath the university’s Children’s Clinic.


Coins minted in Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) and Traianopolis (today in Alexandroupoli Municipality in Northeast Greece) have been found in the tomb. They date back to the reigns of Roman Emperors Caracalla (r. 198 – 217 AD) and Elagabalus (r. 218 – 222 AD). Photos: archaeologist Maya Martinova

Archaeologist Maya Martinova reminds that last year (2017) a total of five Roman Era graves were discovered on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University but they had been damaged substantially.

“This year we have come across a much better preserved funeral facility. These discoveries are not surprising because this property is part of the western necropolis of Philipopolis," Martinova points out.

She reminds that back in 1965 archaeologist Lilya Botusharova found on the Plovdiv Medical University campus a tomb containing a chariot, the skeletons of the horses, an applique with depictions of Roman Emperor Caracalla and Hercules (Heracles), and two bronze depictions of Dionysus.

“The grave which we have unearthed this year is of the most widespread type of burial facility – a grave of brick masonry with a flat lid, in this case made of flat gneiss slabs. It is oriented north – south, with a little deviation to the northeast. On the bottom [of the tomb], there was a “pillow" made of tilted bricks," Martinova reveals.

“Our first impression was that the grave had not been opened but after we expanded the research spot, and unearthed the entire facility, it turned out that the lid had been compromised in the southern section, so someone had been here before us. This probably happened back in the Antiquity," she adds.

The remains of the people in the tomb have been found scrambled but the researchers eventually figured out they belonged to two adults and a child about 10-11 years of age.

“This gives us grounds to conclude that this was the burial facility of a family but only a DNA test can verify that," the archaeologist concludes.

The discovery of the Ancient Roman tombs have led to the exposure of several adjacent Antiquity graves and an Antiquity building. Photo: 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, 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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