International Mission Starts Research of Roman, Byzantine City Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria Funded by Canada and France

International Mission Starts Research of Roman, Byzantine City Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria Funded by Canada and France

A map of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa drafted by Brahim M’Barek with Dominic Moreau collaboration. Provided by Dominic Moreau

The first International Mission comprising scholars from six different countries has started its archaeological research of the major but little explored Late Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria under a five-year project.

The International Mission includes a total of 14 scholars from Albania, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Italy, and the UK.

They will carry out field work in Zaldapa between July 9 and August 3, 2018, Assoc. Prof. Dominic Moreau, historian and archaeologist from the University of Lille, France, who spearheaded the international research project, has told

He has provided a map of the major Late Roman and Early Byzantine city drafted by Brahim M’Barek, with Moreau’s collaboration.

The ruins of Zaldapa, originally an Ancient Thracian settlement, and later the largest Late Roman and Early Byzantine city between the Danube and the Black Sea in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, and one of the largest in the Roman province of Scythia Minor, are located near the town of Abrit, Krushari Municipality.

Over the recent years, alongside the renewed general interest in Zaldapa’s exploration, the excavations there made headlines with an Early Christian crypt was found there in 2015, and an even larger crypt was discovered in 2016.

For the first year, the International Mission is focusing its efforts on Basilica No. 2 and on the Northern Gate of Zaldapa.

“Completing the work of the Bulgarian team, which has been exploring Basilica No. 3 since 2014, our mission seeks to deliver a dynamic portrait of Zaldapa’s urban landscape, of its economy, and of its religious and military environments during the Late Antiquity,” Moreau says.

“The exceptional preservation of the site, most probably deserted after Antiquity, is expected to yield a rich archaeological archive in an area where well-documented sites remain rare,” he adds.

He points out that the International Mission’s research project will allow “an assessment of the combined effects of militarization and Christianization on the urban forms and functions of a city of the Danubian hinterland, which has been less explored than the front line of the limes.”

The so called Limes Moesiae was the system of frontier fortifications that the Roman Empire built along the Lower Danube as a defensive measure against barbarian invasions.

Moreau also notes that the International Mission’s research will allow a “critical assessment of models in which the [Roman] army would have been the main vehicle of Christianity along the frontier.”

“The study of that fortified possible bishopric of the hinterland will thus offer an original parallel to that of the great forts of the Danube and usefully complement the documented sites of the hinterland,” the archaeologist explains.

Archaeologists Nicolas Beaudry and Ivan Gargano from the International Mission are seen at work during the mission’s first archaeological season in Zaldapa. Photo: Dominic Moreau

The ambitious five-year international research project in Zaldapa is framed by an official agreement between Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, the Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria’s Dobrich, the University of Quebec in Rimouski, Canada, and the University of Lille, France.

The project is mainly funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

It is also part of the DANUBIUS project of the HALMA-UMR 8164 research center that will be funded by next fall by the I-SITE ULNE Foundation of the University of Lille and by the French National Research Agency.

The members of the 1st International Mission at Zaldapa are:

Prof. Georgi Atanasov from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, Bulgaria (First Field Director)

Prof. Nicolas Beaudry from the University of Quebec in Rimouski, Canada (Second Field Director)

Dr. Dominic Moreau from the University of Lille, France

Dr. Albena Milanova from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

Dr. Ioto Valeriev from Burgas University “Prof. Asen Zlatarov”

Boyan Totev from the Dobrich Regional Museum of History

Dr. Phil Mills from the University of Leicester, United Kingdom

Dr. Slavtcho Kirov from the University of Bordeaux, France

Brahim M’Barek from EVEHA, France

Dr. Elio Hobdari from the Archaeological Institute of Tirana, Albania

Dr. Ivan Gargano from the University of Lille, France, and Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, Italy

Alexander Ivanov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

David Tremblay from the University of Quebec in Rimouski, Canada

Jérémy Gribaut from the University of Lille, France

In their first year, the international archaeological team exploring the Roman and Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria has set up its archaeological base in the town of Krushari with the cooperation of the local municipal authorities.

“Our project is the result of several years of preparation. At the invitation of Bulgarian colleagues, Nicolas Beaudry and I visited the site [of Zaldapa], with some colleagues and students, in 2015 and in 2016. The year 2017 was devoted to negotiations,” archaeologist Dominic Moreau explains.

“The prospects for our collaboration are very important, especially given the international nature of the team, and we really hope that the project will last several years. Especially, we hope to be able to invite more students from Bulgaria, Canada, France, and, perhaps, elsewhere, as soon as the next year,” he elaborates.

Learn more about the Late Roman and Early Byzantine city of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian, Ancient Roman, and Early Byzantine fortress of Zaldapa located between the towns of Abrit and Dobrin, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria, is said to be the largest fortified settlement in the geographic region of Dobrudzha (covering much of Northeast Bulgaria). Because of the name of the town of Abrit, for a long time, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Bulgarian archaeologists and historians thought the Zaldapa Fortress was in fact the legendary ancient city of Abritus – until the ruins of Abritus were discovered some 100 km to the southwest, near the city of Razgrad, in 1953.

Zaldapa (meaning “yellow water”) was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement founded in the 8th century BC. It is located on a large peninsula-shaped plateau with a length of 1.2 km and a width of 500 meters (totaling 0.6 square km). Archaeological observations indicate that Zaldapa was densely built-up and populated. The entire settlement covered an area of 35 hectares (app. 86 acres). Zaldapa’s fortress wall appears homogenous meaning it was probably constructed in a single campaign, without major reconstructions in subsequent periods. It has a lot of straight sections as well as a total of 32 fortress towers of various shape and size, as well as 3 main and 2 smaller gates. The type of the fortification indicates that it was built in the Late Antiquity, i.e. the Late Roman period, most probably in the second half of the 4th century AD.

Zaldapa was first explored in 1906-1910 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, one of the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Later archaeological exploration has been reduced to terrain observations. Between World War I and World War II, when the region of Southern Dobrudzha was part of Romania, Zaldapa was also researched by Romanian archaeologists any findings they might have had have not made it to the Bulgarian archaeologists. Proper archaeological excavations at Zaldapa were carried out for the first time in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History). Unfortunately, since the end of the 19th century the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Zaldapa has been targeted by looters and treasure hunters. All archaeological explorations there to date have studied part of the fortifications, a Roman civic basilica, an Early Christian basilica, and a huge water reservoir.

The so called Roman civic basilica was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil in the first decade of the 20th century. It is located in the center of Zaldapa, and has dimensions of 101 by 18 meters. Its walls are constructed according to the Roman style opus implectum, and its floor is tiled with bricks. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, the basilica was probably an entire architectural complex consisting of two basilicas with a common entryway; it was a Roman public building with judicial and commercial functions.

In 1906, Karel Skorpil also explored an Early Christian church, a three-nave, one-apse basilica with dimensions 27 meters by 16 meters, situation in the east-west direction. It was built in the same style as the fortress wall and the civic basilica, most probably at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). A bishop’s basilica was discovered at Zaldapa in the first regular excavations in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by Prof. Georgi Atanasov and Prof. Valeri Yotov.

The water reservoir of the Zaldapa fortress was discovered in 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. It is located northwest of the fortress itself. It was a rather complex engineering facility consisting of two spaces. The water reservoir was connected with the fortress with a secret passage, a rock tunnel which is 3 meters wide and 3 meters tall. The Bulgarian archaeologists believed that because of its vulnerable location outside the fortress wall and the secret passage, it was covered with earth immediately after its construction to hide it from the enemy forces. The water reservoir was likely constructed in the second quarter of the 4th century AD together with other Late Roman urban infrastructure in the city of Zaldapa.

According to the works of 7th century AD Byzantine chronicler John of Antioch, the city of Zaldapa was the birthplace of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520) who led a rebellion against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius which grew into a 5-year civil war. The city of Zaldapa is also found in the list of fortifications renovated during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD) where it was also mentioned as the seat of a Christian bishop under the diocese of the metropolitan in Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). The fortress of Zaldapa was in use by the Later Roman Empire and Early Byzantine Empire (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire) for about 250 years – between the second half of the 4th century AD, and the end of the 6th century AD when the city of Zaldapa was depopulated as a result of the great barbarian invasion of the Avars in 585 AD.


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