Silver Tornese Coins from Crusaders’ Principality of Achaea (Morea) Found by Archaeologists in Bulgaria’s Rusocastro Fortress

The tornese silver coins from the Principality of Achaea found in Bulgaria’s Rusocastro Fortress depict a cross and a tower of a Catholic cathedral. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

A hoard of seven silver coins minted in the Principality of Achaea, also known as Morea, a 13th century successor state of Byzantium founded by the Crusaders from the Fourth Crusade, has been discovered by archaeologists in the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria.

The new coin hoard discovery in Rusocastro announced by the Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Burgas comes days after the discovery of an unknown 4th century AD fortress tower and a 14th century a Byzantine gold coin of Byzantine Emperors Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328) and Andronicus III Palaeologus (r. 1328 – 1341).

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).

The seven newly discovered silver coins from the Rusocastro Fortress were minted in the Principality of Achaea, also known as the Principality of Morea, the Burgas Museum of History has announced.

It says the silver coins in question are known as tornese (or tornesel), colloqually known as groschen.

The Principality of Achaea / Morea was established on the Peloponnese Peninsula in today’s Southern Greece in 1205, after in 1204 the Crusader knights from the 4th Crusade captured and plundered Byzantium’s capital Constantinople.

They replaced the Byzantine Empire with what became known as the Latin Empire (of Constantinople) (1204 – 1261) on part of the Byzantine territories, with the Kingdom of Thessalonica (Thessaloniki), the Duchy of Athens (silver coins from the Duchy of Athens were found in Rusocastro in 2017), and the Principality of Achaea (Morea) becoming its Western European-type vassal states.

The former Byzantine territories, which were not conquered by the Crusaders, gave birth to three Byzantine successor states – the Despotate of Epirus, the Empire of Trebizund, and the Empire of Nicaea, which the third one eventually managing to restore the Byzantine Empire in 1261 by reconquering Constantinople.

The Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396 / 1422), which saw its height in the first half of the 13th century, for the most part had stormy relations with the Latin Empire of the Western European Crusaders, the most notable example being the 1205 Battle of Adrianople in which the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197 – 1207) routed the Crusaders and even captured alive the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin I of Flanders.

A map of the Latin Empire and the successor states of the Byzantine Empire after the conquest of Constantinople by the knights from the Fourth Crusade in 1205. Map: Wikipedia

The Principality of Achaea (Morea) itself was established in 1205 by French knights from the 4th Crusade William I of Champlitte and Geoffrey I of Villehardouin who set out to conquer the Peloponnese Peninsula in today’s Southern Greece on behalf of Boniface I of Montferrat, the King of the Kingdom of Thessalonica (Thessaloniki).

The seven tornese silver coins from the Principality of Achaea discovered in the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria were discovered together. Each of them weighs about 0.9 grams.

Their obverse features a cross with four equal arms, and their reverse depicts a tower of a Catholic cathedral, the Burgas Museum explains.

“The treasure [the tornese silver coin hoard from the Rusocastro Fortress] has been discovered during the excavations of a palace-type monumental building which is 20 meters (appr. 60 feet) long and 8 meters (appr. 24 feet) wide, in which three massive stone columns were erected to support arches as well as a second floor," the Museum reveals.

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.

A hoard of a total of seven silver tornese coins from the 13th century Principality of Achaea (Morea) have been found in the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria. Photos: Burgas Regional Museum of History

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

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).

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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