Richly Decorated Roman Grave Stele That Was Never Used Found in Kovachevsko Kale Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria

The upper part of the newly discovered grave stele depicts a Roman man in toga holding a codicil together with a woman. Photo: BTA

An Ancient Roman grave stele “with a very interesting iconography" which, however, remained unfinished and was never used has been discovered by archaeologists during excavations in the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Popovo in Northeast Bulgaria.

The Late Roman grave stele has been discovered in the first day of the 2018 summer digs at the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress, which have also yielded a large number of other artifacts from the 4th and th 5th century AD.

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress is believed to have been built between 308 and 324 AD, during the reigns of Roman Emperors Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), and Licinius (r. 308-324 AD) who ruled the Roman Empire together as rivaling Augusti under the Tetrarchy system.

What is known today with its Bulgarian name, Kovachevsko Kale, was a medium-sized Roman city whose real name remains unknown.

However, it had impressive fortifications which were supposed to protect it against the barbarian invasions targeting the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (Lower Moesia, today’s Northern and Northeast Bulgaria) from the lands north of the Danube.

(Learn more about the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!)

The city and the fortress were badly damaged in the invasions of the Goths in the 4th century and the Huns of Attila in the 5th century, and were ultimately destroyed for good in the invasion of Slavs and Avars at the end of the 6th century AD.

Back in 2015, the excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress have led to the discovery of a huge Ancient Roman building from the 4th century AD which appears to have been a horreum (i.e. a granary), and the conclusion that the city was settled en masse by Visigoths in the late 4th century.

And in 2016, the Popovo Museum of History announced that coins of a total of 42 Roman and Byzantine emperors and a number of other rulers from the Antiquity period had been discovered at the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress until then.

The Roman grave stele found at the start of the 2018 summer excavations in Kovachevsko Kale is a stone slab that is 110 centimeters (3.6 feet) tall, 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) wide, and 30 centimeters (1 foot) thick, reports BTA.

The iconography, i.e. the decoration of the Roman grave stele is typical of the 4th century AD, according to Plamen Sabev, Director of the Popovo Museum of History.

The image on the stele depicts a man and a woman. The man is shown with attributes symbolizing power – he wears a toga, and holds in his hand a codicil, a testamentary document.

According to the archaeologists, that means that a Roman Emperor granted him powers at the respective location.

However, the Roman grave stele seemingly remained unfinished because the space intended for an inscription was never filled.

The lower part of the Roman stele found in Kovachevsko Kale contains blank space that was intended for an inscription. Photo: BTA

According to Prof. Oleg Alexandrov from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius", the lead archaeologists for the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress digs, the man depicted on the grave stele probably did not die in that place.

Thus, the Roman grave stele which had been prepared in advance for his burial was never put to use.

Another interesting 4th century AD artifact discovered at Kovachevsko Kale since the start of the 2018 excavations is a pair of bronze tweezers.

The archaeological team has also found over 120 Roman and Byzantine coins from the 4th and the 5th century AD which are proving of great use for the researchers in the dating of the Late Roman / Early Byzantine fortress.

The 2018 excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress are focused on the further study of the Roman thermae (public baths). About two-thirds of the building were exposed during the 2017 digs.

The archaeological team is also looking for a temple which they believe existed in the fortress.

“If we discover it, the 2019 excavations will be re-oriented, and the newly exposed structures will be conserved in order to make them accessible for visitors," Sabev says.

The 2018 excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria’s Popovo continue exposing the site’s Ancient Roman thermae (public baths). Photo: BTA

Lead archaeologist Oleg Alexandrov has been in charge of the digs at the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress near Bulgaria’s Popovo for the past four years.

The 2018 excavations have been funded by Popovo Municipality with a total of BGN 20,000 (appr. EUR 10,000; USD 12,000).

Background Infonotes:

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress is a Late Antiquity and Late Roman fortress located 6 km west of the town of Popovo, Targovishte District, in Northeast Bulgaria. (“Kale" is a Turkish word meaning “fortress" left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria whose proper names are sometimes unknown.) Its present-day name comes from the names of the nearby town of Kovachovets and the Kovachevska River.

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress is located at the junction of the small river Chepez Dere and the Kovachevska River, in a small plain, near three relatively large plateaus.

During the Cretaceous of the Mesosoic Era, the region was the bottom of a warm tropical sea, a fact testified to by the numerous finds of belemnite fossils.

The Late Roman fortress Kovachevsko Kale near Bulgaria’s Popovo was built in the 4th century AD fortifying a medium-sized Roman city. Based on the numerous coins, the bricks with imperial seals, and the construction technology, the archaeologists believe that impressive fortifications were erected between 308 and 324 AD, during the reigns of Roman Emperors Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD), and Licinius (r. 308-324 AD) who ruled the Roman Empire together as rivaling Augusti under the Tetrarchy system. (Licinius was defeated and later executed by Constantine in the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324 AD.)

The Kovachevsko Kale features a mighty fortress wall which was about 3.2 meters wide, and encompassed an area of more than 40 decares (app. 10 acres). It had 17 towers sticking out of the fortress wall, including 4 round towers at its corners, two gates, a bridge over the Chepez Dere river, and a underground water bmade of clay pipes.

The archaeological excavations of the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress started in 1990, and have been in progress ever since. The archaeologists have excavated a total of five fortress towers – two on the northern fortress wall, two on the western gate, and one on the western fortress wall.

Other finds from the excavations include the ruins of a pagan shrine and a building next to it, a large building from the Byzantine period as well as two buildings from the 4th century AD located in the southern part of the fortress.

During the excavations, the archaeologists have discovered a total of three archaeological layers formed as a result of the construction and collapse of the Roman structures as well as an earlier layer predating the construction of the Roman fortress by several centuries which dates back to the Late Iron Age, i.e. the period of Ancient Thrace but has not been explored yet.

The first period of the life of the Roman fortress Kovachevsko Kale ended when the city was set on fire in the Second Gothic War of 376-382 AD, and life was not restored to the city immediately. The second period refers to the time until the invasions of the Huns led by Attila around 447 AD. The third period was ended by the destruction caused by the invasion of the Slavs and Avars in the 580s.

The latest Byzantine coins to have been found in Kovachevsko Kale were mined by Byzantine Emperor Justin II (565-578 AD) in 578 AD. Coins from other times periods that have been found in or around the fortress – from the 3rd, 10th and 11th century, are said to be unrelated to the history of the city.

The Kovachevsko Kale Fortress was first explored by Bulgarian-Czech archaeologist Karel Skorpil at the end of the 19th century who found that Kovachevsko Kale was the second road station on the Roman road from Marcianopolis (today’s Devnya) to Nicopolis ad Istrum (today’s Nikyup).

The first archaeological digs there were rescue excavations during a reconstruction of the PopovoByala Road in 1965. Regular excavations started only in 1990, and have been carried out by archaeologists from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius".

During the digs in 1993-1995, in one of the fortress towers, the archaeologists found the skeletons of three people which are believed to have been killed by a strong earthquake which destroyed the inside structures of the tower. In 1998, on the outer side of the fortress wall near the same tower, the archaeologists discovered a construction inscription in Latin which has not been fully deciphered.

All five of the excavated fortress towers in Kovachevsko Kale had three stories and roofs made of wood and covered with large clay roof tiles (tegulae).

The numerous coins discovered in the fortress include coins of at least 29 Roman and Byzantine Emperors, 5 empresses, and even several bronze coins of King Philip II of Macedon. The coins have been minted in at least 13 cities in the Roman Empire – Alexandria, Antioch, Cyzicus, Constantinople, Nicomedia, Rome, Ticinum, Augusta Treverorum, Aquileia, Sirmium, Siscia, Thessaloniki, and Heraclea. There are also individual coins from the 3rd century AD from the cities Marcianopolis, Odessos, and Nicopolis ad Istrum.

Bulgaria declared the Kovachevsko Kale Fortress a monument of culture in 1976. In 2010, the Bulgarian government granted Popovo Municipality management rights for the 40 decares (10 acres) of the fortress. Subsequently, in 2013, a partial archaeological restoration carried out with EU funding (almost BGN 4 million (app. EUR 2 million)) has turned Kovachevsko Kale into a cultural tourism attraction called “Archaeopolis".

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