2018 Excavations of Medieval Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria to Focus on Citadel

The stone staircase discovered in 2017 was the only way into the castle of the Rusocastro Fortress, a major stronghold in medieval Bulgaria and Byzantium. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

The Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas has announced the start and objectives of the 2018 archaeological excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress, the largest medieval fortress and castle in Southeast Bulgaria.

The Rusocastro Fortress is best known for the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD. It was the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

In it, Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire defeated Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD).

“This summer the archaeologists are going to continue their research on the citadel, the water cistern, and a monumental two-floor building in order to reach the stage of ensuing conservation and restoration of those structures,” the Burgas Museum has said.

“The idea is to turn the Rusocastro Fortress in a cultural tourism site comparable to Tsarevets, Trapesitsa, and Cherven, since there is no other medieval site with such characteristics in Southern Bulgaria,” it adds.

It refers to the two citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire), Tsarevets, which is the most visited cultural tourism spot in Bulgaria today, and Trapesitsa, as well as the large medieval city of Cherven, a center of the Bulgarian nobility and clergy in the Late Middle Ages.

The excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress are led by Milen Nikolov, Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History, and consulted by Prof. Konstantin Totev, an expert in medieval archaeology from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

The 2018 excavations in Rusocastro are once again funded by both Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and the local authorities from Kameno Municipality.

Thanks to bones discovered during the 2017 excavations in Rusocastro, the archaeologists found out that the aurochs, the wild cattle which is the ancestor of today’s domestic cows, survived in today’s Bulgaria well into the 13th-14th century when it was still hunted for meat. It was previously thought to have gone extinct in the 12th century at the latest.

In November 2017, the Burgas Regional Museum of History announced the discovery of a huge water cistern plastered on the inside with pink waterproof mortar in the fortress, and in September 2017, it announced the discovery of the “monumental” staircase leading up to the castle of the Rusocastro Fortress.

In July 2017, the archaeological team excavating the major fortress discovered a rare 10th century ivory icon believed to have belonged to a Byzantine Emperor or a member of the Byzantine imperial family, and to have been made in Constantinople.

Before that, the Burgas Museum had just announced the discovery of a 7th century gold coin of Early Byzantine Emperor Phocas (r. 602-610 AD).

The Rusocastro Fortress had a territory of 52 decares (app. 13 acres), making it the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southern Bulgaria, and comparable in size to the key medieval fortress in today’s Northern Bulgaria such as the citadels of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), Tsarevets and Trapesitsa, and the cities of Cherven and Kaliakra.

The walls of the Rusocastro Fortress have been preserved up to a height of 5 meters.

Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity (Early Byzantine) and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro (Rusocastron) is located in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Black Sea city of Burgas. Rusocastro was also known as “The Red Fortress” because of the red stones it was built of.

In the 2nd millennium BC, the Ancient Thracians set up a shrine of the Sun God, the Mother Goddess, and the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, near the legendary cave known today as Rusina Cave or Rusa’s Hole. Its site was settled in the period of Ancient Thrace, and was an important center in the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.

The fortress itself was built in the 5th century AD on a strategically located hill. The Early Byzantine fortress was most probably destroyed in the Slavic and Avar invasions in the 7th century. The Rusocastro Fortress was rebuilt by the Bulgars in the 9th century, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), at the time of the construction of the Bulgarian border rampart known as Erkesiya (in use in the 9th-11th century), and was a major stronghold in the geographic region of Thrace during the High Middle Ages.

The earliest written information about the Rusocastro Fortress comes from a 6th century epigraphic monument dedicated to Byzantine military commander Justin, who, according to some Bulgarian scholars, was the great-grandson of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 AD), the uncle of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD). The name Rusocastro was first used in the 12th century by Arab geographer El Idrisi in his work “Geography of the World”, where Rusocastro is described as a large and crowded city. The fortress was also mentioned in a number of Byzantine sources from the 14th century relevant to current events.

The Rusocastro Fortress is famous in Bulgarian history for the Rusocastro Battle in which the army of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD) in 1332 AD.

The Battle of Rusocastro is often referred to as the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

Tsar Ivan Alexander’s victory at Rusocastro is considered the last major military victory of the Bulgarian Empire before its decline in the second half of the 14th century, and its conquest by the Ottoman Turks that ushered in the darkest page in Bulgaria’s history, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912). The Rusocastro Fortress was ultimately destroyed in Ottoman campaigns in 1443.

Rusocastro has been excavated by archaeologists Milen Nikolov and Tsanya Drazheva from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated several churches there including a monastery named after St. George, which existed in the 11th-14th century. Unfortunately, a Christian necropolis in the Rusocastro Fortress was partly destroyed in the largest military drills dubbed “Shield” of the countries from the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact that took place in Eastern Bulgaria in 1982.

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