The two gold-plated tesserae, or mosaic cubs, from an Early Christian decoration which have been discovered in ancient Agathopolis on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Photo: e-Burgas
Two small gold-coated mosaic cubes, also known as tesserae, from the Early Christian period are the most interesting find from the 2018 summer excavations in the ancient Black Sea town of Agathopolis near today’s Bulgarian town of Ahtopol, according to the lead researcher.
The team led by Prof. Diana Gergova has also discovered evidence that Agathopolis was a town founded by the Ancient Thracians at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, rather than by the Ancient Greeks in 430 BC, as previously thought.
The small Ahtopol Peninsula, which is 300 meters long and 150 meters wide, has had traces of civilized life going back as early as the Neolithic.
During the Iron Age, it was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe Thyni. It was colonized by the Romans in the 2nd century AD.
The fortress of Agathopolis was built by the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD.
“Our smallest find from this season is also our biggest discovery," Gergova, a long-time researcher of ancient Agathopolis, has told local news site e-Burgas in an interview.
“These are two small mosaic cubes – tesserae – with goat plating on one of their sides – a sparkling trace from the Early Christian past of the town and its splendor which until now was suggested only by marble architectural details found by accident," the lead archaeologist explains.
She adds that the traces from the Early Christian period were “irrevocably destroyed" alongside the architecture from Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century) in a fire which burned down Ahtopol in the early 20th century.
“However, the two small gild cubes tell us that those [Early Christian] temples had mosaic decorations or icons which were plated with gold. And that the most monumental of those temples was apparently located right here, at the highest point of the town," Gergova elaborates.
She explains that during the 2018 summer season her team is once again dealing with “unusual archaeology in the very heart of ancient Agathopolis".
That is, they have been exploring an archaeological layer which has been overturned after its illegal destruction during construction on private property.
“Those who destroyed it were unable to continue the development, and we’ve been left with the obligation to extract the valuable finds from the many cubic meters of soil. This is much harder than doing systematic excavations because the ancient finds are mixed with lots of modern-day construction rubble," Gergova says.
She points out that the archaeological layer in question is located at the highest point of the ancient town of Agathopolis. Several years earlier, the archaeologists managed to study the most representative stratigraphy of the town’s development precisely there.
“Today, only the mighty fortress walls from the Late Antiquity Ear are visible in the town [of Ahtopol]," the archaeologist notes.
She also emphasizes that one of her main tasks for as long as she has been involved in the study of Agathopolis has been to find information about the earlier periods in the town’s history.
“Our discoveries continue to demonstrate that Agathopolis is a Thracian town established at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the time of the Trojan War," Gergova states.
The site of the 2018 excavations of ancient Agathopolis on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria’s Ahtopol. Photos: e-Burgas
“We are finding ceramic fragments from the Late Bronze Age, typical Thracian pottery, and wonderful fragments from imported red-figure ceramics, from Megara cups decorated with relief scenes," she says.
“The amphorae material from the Hellenistic until the Late Antiquity Era is also plentiful [which is] a testimony to the town’s active sea trade ties. The large amounts of Antiquity tiles together with the decorative architectural elements preserved in the town’s Greek school speak of the existence of stable buildings from the Hellenistic period. The few fragments from luxury pottery and lamps from the Roman Age are very valuable. The coins date from the Hellenistic Age to the Middle Ages," the archaeologist explains.
Pottery fragments from different historical periods which have been discovered during the 2018 excavations in ancient Agathopolis. Photos: e-Burgas
Her team has also found a large amount of ceramics from the Middles, including a cross from the 14th – 15th century with a monogram on its bottom, as well as glass bracelets, bronze rings, and other artifacts.
The Ottoman period is also represented in their finds with pottery, pipes, bullet casting molds, and projectiles.
The period of the early Third Bulgarian Tsardom (Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 / 1908) is represented with imported Western European ceramics from the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, including a vessel bottom with a stamp from London.
“I think that when the new museum of the town of Ahtopol opens in the upcoming years, it will be interesting for everybody to see the rescued relics from the town’s glorious past," Gergova concludes.
The 2018 excavations of ancient Agathopolis on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast have been funded by engineer Petar Kanev, a local public figure, and supported by the town mayor Stanislav Dimitrov.
A total of 13 international volunteers from Spain, Luxembourg, France, the UK, Poland, Turkey, and Japan are also part of the researcher’s team.
They participate in archaeologist Diana Gergova’s digs at both Agathopolis and the Sboryanovo Archaeological Preserve near Svetshtari in Northeast Bulgaria where the mighty kingdom of the Ancient Thracian tribe of the Getae (Gets) was located.
Gergova says her team will need one more season in order to be able to complete its work at the spot excavated in 2018 at the highest point of ancient Agathopolis.
The northern gate of the Late Antiquity fortress of Agathopolis was excavated back in 2015 by another archaeological team.
The ruins of the ancient city of Agathopolis, today’s Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Ahtopol in Tsarevo Municipality, Burgas District, are located on the Ahtopol Peninsula which is about 300 meters long and 150 meters wide, at the foot of the Strandzha Mountain.
The site’s civilized life goes back to the Neolithic. During the Iron Age, the area was populated by the Ancient Thracian tribe Thyni. The discovery of a votive tablet with an inscription and the image of Heros, also known as the Thracian Horseman, the supreme god in the Thracian mythology, attests to their presence.
According to results from the excavations carried out by archaeologist Prof. Diana Gergova prior to 201, the city was founded by Ancient Thracians at the end of 2nd millenium BC, the Late Bronze Age.
Earlier hypotheses had it that it was most probably founded in 430 BC by Ancient Greek colonists from Athens, potentially as part of Pericles’ actions in the Black Sea during the Peloponnesian War. The Ancient Greek polis had its own mint and coins.
While it was part of the Roman Empire (1st-4th century AD), the city was called Peronticus. Later, as part of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, it suffered destruction in the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs in the 5th-7th century AD, it was rebuilt by Byzantine general Agathon. Some hypotheses say that he named the city after himself but others say that it was called Agathopolis much earlier, at least since 323 BC.
According to one legend, Agathopolis was first established as the home of Delphin, son of Poseidon, and Agatha, daughter of Zeus. Zeus was angered by their relationship so he dispatched an army against them but a burrowing owl woke them up and saved them. Thus, Delphin killed the enemies and founded a city called Agapi-polis (city of love) on the Black Sea coast.
In 131 AD, Ahtopol was mentioned as Auleuteichos in the Perlus of the Euxine Sea, a guidebook of the Black Sea towns, by Greco-Roman historian Arrian of Nicomedia, as being located 43.5 km away from Chersonesus (another Ancient Greek city on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast with the same name as the Ancient Greek colony on the Crimean (Taurica) Peninsula).
In the 6th century AD, a fortress wall was built to defend the city against the barbarian invasions, possibly during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD) or Emperor Justine I (r. 518-527 AD). Parts of this Late Antiquity Fortress wall are still preserved up to a height of 3-4 meters; the walls are thick between 1.5 and 2.8 meters.
Agathopolis was first conquered by the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) under Khan Krum (r. 802-813 AD) in 812 AD. It was settled with Slavs under his successor, Khan Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD). Subsequently, during the Middle Ages, the city changed hands between the Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire numerous times.
It was part of Bulgaria until 864 AD, and then again from 894 until 970 AD. Arab geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi mentioned Agathopolis as a major city in 1150 AD. At the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), the region of Agathopolis was reconquered by the Bulgarians in the Uprising of Asen and Petar in 1185. It was part of Bulgaria until 1263, and was then reconquered in 1304, in the Battle of Skafida near Poros (Burgos, today’s Burgas).
The city changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several more times until the end of the 14th century. Before that, in 1366 AD, the Count of Savoy Amadeus IV (r. 1343-1383) conquered Ahtopol and the other cities on Bulgaria’s southern Black Sea coast for five months. It was ultimately conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, together with the conquest of Constantinople and the other surviving Byzantine ports in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
During the period of Ottoman Yoke, i.e. when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Ahtopol remained an important port. Ahtopol was visited in 1663 by Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi, and was mentioned in his books of travels as “Ahtabolu". It was liberated by Bulgaria in the Balkan War of 1912.