Archaeologists Find 3,000-Year-Old Likely Thracian Child Burial in Bulgaria’s Rahovets Fortress

Archaeologists Find 3,000-Year-Old Likely Thracian Child Burial in Bulgaria’s Rahovets Fortress

An aerial view of an excavated section of the Rahovets Fortress in Central North Bulgaria. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History

A 3,000-year-old child burial, most likely Ancient Thracian, has been discovered at the Antiquity and medieval fortress of Rahovets near Gorna Oryahovitsa in Central North Bulgaria, providing more evidence the site had been inhabited earlier than originally thought.

Before the discovery of the child graving dating back to before 1,000 BC, Rahovets was known to have existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD.

It was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

It was excavated by archaeologists between 1985 and 1991, and again since 2015. The 2015 excavations in the fortress were notable because they led to the discovery of a Bronze Age home and an Ancient Thracian Antiquity fortress wall leading to a hypothesis that medieval Rahovets may in fact have been the successor of the Ancient Thracian fortress Zikideva.

In 2016, the archaeologists discovered the medieval marketplace of the Rahovets Fortress.

In the High and Late Middle Ages, the Rahovets Fortress was a major stronghold in close proximity to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The fourth consecutive archaeological season since the digs in the Rahovets Fortress were restarted in 2015 began in June 2018, and has already produced intriguing discoveries.

The archaeological team led by Iliyan Petrakiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Museum of History decided to expose part of the outer side of the fortress wall, and as a result have come across two graves right outside of it, the Trud daily reports.

The more ancient one is that of a child who was buried more than 3,000 years ago in a fetal position.

“We believe that the grave dates back to the Early Iron Age, and is thus over 3,000 years old,” lead archaeologist Petrakiev is quoted as saying.

He notes that the sex and age of the buried child, whose grave is oriented north to south, are yet to be determined through anthropological and DNA analyses.

Just centimeters away from the Iron Age child burial, his team stumbled upon another burial in a higher archaeological layer from the Middle Ages. The adult person in question was buried according to the Christian customs, and their grave is oriented east to west.

“It is interesting that for a second year in a row we are coming across graves north of the residential area [of the fortress], and it is surprising that we are finding them outside the fortress wall. The conclusion we draw is that the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited as early as the Early Iron Age,” Petrakiev elaborates.

For the time being, the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History and Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality have not published any photos of the newly discovered burials in the Rahovets Fortress.

“[This season] we’ve continued to work on the sections that we had already researched but our goal was to go deeper, beneath the layers that have been exposed so far,” the archaeologist explains.

He made it clear that the team intended to reach the earliest traces of human settlement in the Rahovets Fortress.

In 2017, the archaeologists discovered a skeleton who is believed to have belonged to a person of Cuman origin.

Samples from it have been sent for analysis to the Department of Genetics of Harvard Medical School as part of a project studying human remains from Paleolithic settlements. The supposedly Cuman skeleton was also include in the project even though it is from the Middle Ages.

The oldest finds at the Rahovets Fortress so far are from the Bronze Age. Photo: Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History

If the person’s Cuman origin is proven, that will lend credibility to a hypothesis that during the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited by Cumans, close allies of Bulgaria’s Asenevtsi Dynasty (“House of Asen”).

The 2018 archaeological excavations of the Rahovets Fortress have been carried out with a total of BGN 38,000 (appr. EUR 20,000) of funding, including BGN 20,000 from Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality, BGN 13,000 from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and BGN 5,000 from the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval settlement and fortress of Rahovets is located near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa and the city of Veliko Tarnovo, in Veliko Tarnovo District, Northern Bulgaria. It existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD, and was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Rahovets Fortress is located at a curve of the Yantra River, on a hill towering about 100 meters over the surrounding area.

The site of the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited by the Ancient Thracians, during the Iron Age, as early as the 6th century BC. Some Bulgarian scholars have hypothesized that the settlement that later became known as the Rahovets Fortress was part of a huge regional fortification system in Thracian times, and/or that Rahovets was in fact the ancient city Beripara, the alleged capital of the Thracian tribe Krobyzoi (which might have belonged to the Thracian tribes of the Gets (Getae) or the Dacians), or that it was the legendary Thracian fortress Zekideva. However, these hypotheses have not been proven. The Roman Fortress of Rahova, later called Rahovets, was built in the 3rd-4th century AD as part of the fortification system guarding the roads in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor).

Rahovets remained an important fortress during the period of the Early Byzantine Empire (Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages), during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), then again during the period of Byzantine domination over Bulgaria (1018-1185 AD). It became especially important during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which was created after the Uprising of Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV) against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD when Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) was declared capital of Bulgaria.

It became part of a set of fortifications which protected Tarnovgrad from the north. There are hypotheses that Rahovets used to be the locations of the coin mint of the Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire, and while these hypotheses have not been confirmed, Bulgarian archaeologists have indeed discovered there evidence of metal smelting during the Middle Ages. They have also found a residential area outside of the fortress, between the fortress wall and the Yantra River, known as the Dark City, meaning that it might have been the site of a large medieval city, where the Rahovets Fortress had the role of a citadel.

After the invading Ottoman Turks conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century, they continued to use the Rahovets Fortress. The fortress was destroyed only in 1444 AD by the forces of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III ((r. 1424-1444 AD) who launched two unsuccessful Crusades against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 AD and 1444 AD (he is also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD).

After that, the Turks abandoned the Rahovets Fortress completely. While much of the archaeological structures at the Rahovets Fortress had survived until the beginning of the 20th century (including fortress walls, towers, and gates described by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil), those were destroyed in 1913 by a strong earthquake with an epicenter in the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa.

The Rahovets Fortress was first mentioned in historical sources by Byzantine chronicler George Pachymeres (1242-1310) in 1304 AD, and again in 1460 AD by German wandering singer Michael Beheim (1416-ca. 1472) in a poem based on the story of a crusader knight from the second Crusade of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III against the Ottoman Empire aiming the liberation of Bulgaria and the other Balkan Christian nations in 1444 AD. In the early 20th century, Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil drafted a blueprint of the preserved ruins of the Rahovets Fortress, which, however, were destroyed further by an earthquake in 1913.

The Rahovets Fortress was excavated only between 1985 and 1991 by Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists Yordan Aleksiev, Ivan Bachvarov, and Hitko Vatchev. They excavated partly the western, northern, and eastern fortress wall, which were about 3 meters thick. The archaeological digs at the fortress confirmed not only its significance during the Second Bulgarian Empire but also the fact that as a settlement it is really ancient: the Bulgarian archaeologists found a large amount of Ancient Thracian ceramics, and amphora seals testifying about the connections with the Hellenic world. They also discovered the nearby remains of a rural Ancient Roman villa (known as villa rustica) from the 3rd-4th century AD, ancient coins, decorations, and tools as well as artifacts and arms from the Second Bulgarian Empire.


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