Gold, Silver Treasure Pot with Tatar Leader’s Plunder Discovered in Kaliakra Fortress on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast

The newly discovered clay treasure pot from Bulgaria’s Kaliakra Fortress is believed to be full of 14th century Tatar plunder. Photo: National Museum of History

A clay treasure pot containing almost 1,000 gold and silver archaeological artifacts believed to have been looted by a Tatar (Mongol) leader, whose horde was eventually subjugated by the Ottomans ca. 1400, has been discovered during excavations in the Kaliakra Fortress on the picturesque cape of the same name on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

The find seems to be connected with tumultuous historical events in all of the Balkans, and especially in today’s Northeast Bulgaria at the very end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century.

More specifically, the events in question include the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) and the Dobrudzha Despotate (also known as the Principality of Karvuna), one of its rump states, the last invasion of the Tatars (Mongols) of the Balkans from the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, and the decades-long campaign of the Ottoman Turks invading from the southeast to conquer Bulgaria, Byzantium, and all other Balkan and European states in their way.

The Kaliakara Cape Fortress in Northeast Bulgaria has been a major stronghold throughout all historical periods ever since the Ancient Thracians first inhabited the site in the 4th century BC.

Today, it is one of Bulgaria’s best known cultural attractions in combination with the beautiful Black Sea coast scenery, and is attracting a growing number of local and foreign tourists.

In 2017, in the Kaliakra Fortress the archaeologists discovered a nephrite 14th century amulet buckle from China in the very same medieval building where the clay pot treasure of Tatar plunder has now been discovered.

The Dobrudzha Despotate, also known as the Principality of Karvuna, was located in the region of Dobrudzha, today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania. It was one of the parts of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) which seceded in the mid and late 14th century, and included the Black Sea fortress of Kaliakra.

The Despots of the Principality of Karvuna were the first Bulgarian rulers to build a major (Black Sea) navy.

The Dobrudzha Despotate itself was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1388 AD. The name of the region of Dobrudzha is believed to have stemmed from the Turkish pronunciation of the name of Despot Debrotitsa (r. 1347-1385 AD), one of its rulers.

The gold and silver treasure pot with Tatar plunder from the end of the 14th century has been discovered by the team of archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Boni Petrunova, who became the new Director of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia over the past winter, and who has been a long-time explorer of the Kaliakra Fortress on the famous Black Sea cape.

The small clay pot was found on August 17, 2018, underneath the floor in a building which was burned down at the end of the 14th century, the National Museum of History in Sofia has announced.

The treasure of what is supposed plunder looted by the Tatars during their very last invasion of the Balkans inside the pot consists of a total of 957 archaeological artifacts.

Almost 1,000 gold, silver, and bronze artifacts have been found inside the Tatar plunder treasure pot from the Kaliakra Fortress, including coins, rings, earrings, and buttons. Photo: National Museum of History

The coins found in the Tatar treasure pot include coins from the Ottoman Empire and the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photo: National Museum of History

The contents of the treasure pot are believed to have been plundered during the last Tatar (Mongol) invasion of medieval Bulgaria, in the 1390s. Photo: National Museum of History

Most of them are coins but the Tatar treasure from Bulgaria’s Kaliakra Fortress is by far not only a coin hoard even though as a coin find in itself it is extremely rich.

It consists of 28 gold coins, 873 silver coins, 11 gold appliques and buckles, 11 gold earrings, 2 rings one of which is gold, four beads made of gold and precious stones, and 28 silver and bronze buttons.

“The newly discovered treasure contains extremely valuable coins," the National Museum of History in Sofia says.

It points out that initial inspection of just a small part of the treasure pot indicates that it includes not just silver coins from the Ottoman Empire but also a large number of coins from the Second Bulgarian Empire.

About 60% of all coins found in the treasure pot of Tatar booty are silver Ottoman coins known as akce.

They were mostly minted by Ottoman Sultan (“emir" prior to 1394) Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402 AD), and some were minted by his predecessor, Murad I (r. 1361 – 1389).

The clay treasure pot with the precious gold, silver, and bronze archaeological artifacts in it was “hidden at the end of the 14th century, during some of the dramatic attacks against the capital of the Dobrudzha Despotate," the National Museum of History in Sofia says.

It reminds that one of the late medieval chronicles narrates how in 1399 Tatars from the horde of their leader Aktav attacked the cities along what is today Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast (i.e. the Black Sea coast between the Balkan Mountains and today’s border with Romania), include Varna (ancient Odessos).

The picturesque Cape of Kaliakra sticking into the Black Sea in Northeast Bulgaria was a home to a glorious fortress and city in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Photos & Map: Wikipedia

Aktav himself became known as the “Dobrudzha Tatar", and his horde, the Aktav Tatars, were subjugated with great effort by the Ottoman Turks.

Eventually, the Ottomans managed to defeat the Aktav Tatars and in 1401 resettled them in various parts of today’s Bulgaria such as Provadiya and Rusocastro.

The name of the city of Pazardzhik in today’s Southern Bulgaria is also believed to be associated with them – the city was known as Tatar Pazardzhik during the Ottoman period (until Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (1912 for some territories)).

“It is possible that one of the military leaders of the Aktav Tatars may have gathered the treasure discovered in the Kaliakra Fortress," Bulgaria’s National Museum of History says.

“Apparently, he plundered it from various people and places, and then hid it underneath the building floor shortly before it was burned down," the Museum adds.

The Aktar Tatars, which came to the Balkans in the 1390s, were the last “wave" of the Tatar (Mongol) Invasions experienced by the Second Bulgarian Empire for the first time ca. 1240.

The Dobrudzha Despotate (Principality of Karvuna) was one of the rump states of the disintegrating Second Bulgarian Empire. It survived for a few decades in the 14th century, and even thrived briefly, before being overrun by the Ottomans and Aktav’s Tatars. Maps: Wikipedia

The Aktar Tatars at the time were actually fleeing from Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlan (r. 1370 – 1405), who dreamed of resurrecting the Mongon Empire of Genghiz Khan (r. 1206 – 1227).

In 1395, Timur ransacked the city of Sarai on the Volga River in today’s Russia, the capital of the Golden Horde, itself a Mongol (Tatar) state, a rump state of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, looted the Crimean Peninsula, and reached Kiev (Kyiv).

Aktav’s Tatars headed southwest towards the Lower Danube Valley in today’s Bulgaria and Romania in order to settle in the historical region of Thrace.

At the time, the Second Bulgarian Empire was already in ruins, having suffered first internal strife and feudal disintegration into warring states, and then the constants strikes of the Ottoman Turks invading from the southeast.

Aktav’s Tatars thus completely wiped out whatever might have been left of the Dobrudzha Despotate in today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania. They were the first to ransack the crucial Black Sea city of Varna, which was conquered by the Ottomans after that.

Even after the Ottoman Empire subjugated Aktav’s Tatars and resettled them, the territory of the Dobrudzha Despotate remained a battlefield for nearly two more decades, as it was fully or partly liberated a couple of times by Mircea the Elder, Voivode of Wallachia north of the Danube (r. 1386 – 1418), a close ally of the Bulgarians, including Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 – 1395), the last to be based in the Bulgarian of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), and the very last Bulgarian Tsars, Ivan Shishman’s son Fruzhin and nephew, Konstantin II Asen (r. 1396 – 1422).

The newly discovered gold and silver treasure pot from Tatar plunder has actually been found in the same building where in 2017 the archaeologists found the medieval nephrite amulet buckle from China, also believed to have been brought to the Dobrudzha Despotate by the Tatars, possibly as a gift to one of the despots who ruled it.

Archaeologist Boni Petrunova, long-time researcher of the Kaliakra Fortress on the Black Sea coast, and Director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, showcases the precious artifacts found inside the Tatar plunder treasure pot. Photos: National Museum of History

In the same building, in 2014 – 2016, the archaeological team discovered a hoard of 26 “mangars" – petty copper coins – minted by Ottoman ruler Bayezid I, as well as the silver casing of a medieval book.

“The building itself was built on top of the ruins of Antiquity structures, and rich burials from the 14th century have been found around it," says the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Back in 2014, in one of the graves around the building, the researchers discovered three gold Byzantine hyperpyron coins minted by Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes (r. 1222 – 1254).

John III Ducas Vatatzes was Emperor of the Empire of Nicaea, one of the three successor states of the Byzantine Empire, together with the Despotate of Epirus and the Empire of Trebizund, after the Western European knights from the Fourth Crusade conquered and looted Constantinople in 1204, estabilishing the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204 – 1261). It was the Empire of Nicaea which managed to retake Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire in 1261, at least in title.

In light of the discovery of the Tatar treasure pot, Bulgaria’s National Museum of History reminds that over the years, two smaller treasures, coins hoards, have been discovered in the Kaliakra Cape Fortress on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

One of them is a coin hoard of 60 akce coins of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, which were found scattered on the floor of a charred medieval home.

The second one was discovered hidden in a small pottery jug. It consisted of a coin hoard of 80 coins of Ottoman ruler Bayezid I and one Serbian groschen coin, but also several gold earrings, including two pairs, and other petty jewelry.

Summer 2018 saw the 15th consecutive season of archaeological excavations in Bulgaria’s Kaliakra Cape Fortress on the Black Sea coast.

The digs have been funded by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, the National Museum of History in Sofia, and Kavarna Municipality, and have been carried out by archaeologists from the National Museum of History and the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, archaeology graduates from Plovdiv University “St. Paisiy Hilendarski" and Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski, and archaeology students from New Bulgarian University in Sofia and Shumen University “Bishop Konstantin Preslavski".

Also check out this story about a treasure pot discovery, an Ancient Roman one from Serdica (today’s Sofia):

Archaeologists Discover Treasure of Silver Roman Coins during Excavations of Ancient Serdica in Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia

Learn more about the history of the Kaliakra Cape Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The Kaliakra Fortress is located on Cape Kaliakra on the Black Sea coast in Northeast Bulgaria (the region known as Dobrudzha). Cape Kaliakra is a 2 km long narrow headland towering about 70 meters above the sea level. The Kaliakra Fortress is part of the Kaliakra Archaeological Preserve, whereas the cape, the coast, and their hinterland are a nature preserve, home to rare birds and fish. It is located in Kavarna Municipality, near the towns of Kavarna, Balgarevo, and Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas).

The earliest traces of human settlement on the territory of Cape Kaliakra and the Kaliakra Fortress date back to the 4th century BC when the region was inhabited by the Ancient Thracian tribe Tirizi or Tirici, a subgroup of the Getae (Gets); respectively, the earliest known name of the settlement was Tirizis (Tirissa in Latin). The name “Kaliakra” is believed to come from the Byzantine period and is translated from Greek as meaning “beautiful headland” (or “beautiful fortress”).

Ancient Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC – ca. 24 AD) wrote that Kaliakra was the capital of Lysimachus (r. 306-281 BC), one of Alexander I the Great’s generals, and one of his diadochi (successors) who became King of Macedon, Thrace, and Asia Minor, and used the caves of Cape Kaliakra to hide treasures that he amassed during the campaigns against Persia.

The first fortifications on Cape Kaliakra were built by the Ancient Thracians, with a second fortress wall added during the Hellenistic Period (3rd-1st century BC). Another expansion of the Kaliakra Fortress was made during the Roman Period. By the middle of the 4th century AD, the fortress already had an inner and outer city, with round fortress towers built in 341-342 AD. A third and stiller outer fortress wall was built in the second half of the 4th century AD. It was 10 meters tall about almost 3 meters wide.

According to 6th century AD Byzantine geographer Hierocles (author of the Synecdemus), in the 5th-6th century, the Kaliakra Fortress was a major stronghold of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire against the barbarian peoples invading from the north.

In 513 AD, Kaliakra was the site of a battle between the forces of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520), a native of the city of Zaldapa (in today’s Krushari Municipality in Northeast Bulgaria) and Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). Vitalian’s rebellion grew into a 5-year civil war.

At the end of the 7th century, the region of the Kaliakra Fortress was conquered by the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). Sources from the 10th century mention the fortress with the Slavic name Tetrasida.

The earliest Western European source to mention the Kaliakra Fortress is a map by Italian cartographer Petrus Visconte from 1318 AD. The city of the Kaliakra Fortress saw its height in the second half of the 14th century, the same period that saw the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396)

Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD) lost his two eldest sons (Ivan in 1349 AD and Mihail in 1355 AD) in battles with the Ottoman Turks, failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords from seceding, and on top of that divided the remainder of the Second Bulgarian Empire between his two surviving sons.

His third son Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396) received the smaller so called Vidin Tsardom, with the Danube city of Bdin (Vidin) as its capital, and his fourth son Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) received the rest, the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, with the capital proper of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).

Bulgarian boyar Balik (r. ca. 1337-1366 AD), a powerful feudal lord, acquired independence from the Bulgarian Tsars setting up the so called Dobrudzha Despotate, also known as the Principality of Karvuna, in the region of Dobrudzha, today’s Northeast Bulgaria and Southeast Romania, which included the city and fortress of Kaliakra. He was succeeded by his co-ruler and brother, Despot Dobrotitsa (r. 1347-1385 AD).

The Dobrudzha Despotate itself was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1388 AD. The name of the region of Dobrudzha is believed to have stemmed from the Turkish pronunciation of the name of Despot Dobrotitsa.

The Despots of the Principality of Karvuna were the first Bulgarian rulers to build a major (Black Sea) navy.

Wallachian Voivode Mircea the Elder, whose documents were written in Bulgarian, in the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet, was first an ally of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Shishman, with whose aid he even came to control briefly parts of the Dobrudzha Despotate, styling himself “master of Silistra and the lands of Despot Dobrotitsa” in 1390-1391. He regained the region around Kaliakra in 1402 but lost it again to the Ottoman Turks in 1403.

In 1444, the crusaders of Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello, also known as Varnenchik, King of Poland and Hungary, camped near the Kaliakra Fortress during his second campaigns against the Ottoman Empire (a few decades after it had conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire), shortly before the Battle of Varna.

The Kaliakra Fortress and Cape Kaliakra are also known as the site of the largest naval battle to ever take place in the Black Sea – the Battle of Cape Kaliakra in the summer of 1791. It was the last naval battle of the Russian-Turkish War of 1787-1792, in which the Russian Navy under Admiral Fyodor Ushakov won a victory against the Ottoman Navy led by Hussein Pasha.

During the period of the Ottoman Empire, a place at the Kaliakra Cape connected with the legend of St. Nicholas (see below) is believed to have been the site of a dervish monastery keeping the relics of Muslim Bektashi Saint Sari Saltik.

The first modern lighthouse on Cape Kaliakra was built in 1866 by the Compagnie des Phares de l’Empire Ottomane; the present lighthouse was erected in 1901, during the period of the Third Bulgarian Tsardom (1878-1946).

Cape Kaliakra and the fortress are connected with a lot of legends. The most famous is the one about the 40 Bulgarian maidens who tied their hair together, and committed suicide by jumping into the Black Sea off the 70-meter-tall cliffs in order to avoid being captured and raped by the Ottomans. An obelisk called “The Gate of the Forty Maidens” has been erected at the entrance of the cape in dedication of this legend.

According to another major legend, Cape Kaliakra was created by God in order to rescue St. Nicholas from the Ottomans by extending the ground under his feet while he was running from them. He was eventually caught, and a chapel exists today on the alleged spot of his capture.

A third major legend about Kaliakra has it that Lysimachus perished there with his entire fleet, having escaped there with the treasure of Alexander the Great.

The archaeological excavations on Cape Kaliakra have also revealed ancient and Early Christian necropolises.

The Late Antiquity fortress on Cape Kaliakra had a territory of about 250 decares (app. 62 acres). The third and outermost fortress wall is 1.25 km away from the end of the cape, and is 422 meters long; it had 5 fortress towers. The middle fortress wall is located 400 meters away, and is 162 meters long, and also had a moat. The innermost fortress wall is located 325 meters away from the middle wall, and is 30 meters long.

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