Chalcolithic Necropolis of World’s Oldest Gold Treasure Left Dilapidated in Bulgaria’s Black Sea City Varna

The completely abandoned site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis as of August 2018. Photo: bTV

The Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis where the world’s oldest gold treasure was discovered, the impressive Varna Gold Treasure from the 5th millennium BC, has been left dilapidated and unrecognizable for tourists in spite of promises by the local authorities it is become a cultural tourism destination.

While the Varna Gold Treasure has been marveled at in museums around the world, its original home in the Chalcolithic necropolis in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna remains completely neglected.

The spot of the rich necropolis from the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) has been abandoned for decades even though it technically enjoys the status of a monument of culture of national importance, the highest status under the Bulgarian legislation, a report by the private bTV channel raises alarm.

The world’s oldest processed gold, the almost 7,000-year-old Varna Gold Treasure from the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Varna, was first discovered in 1972 during the digs for the infrastructure of a canning factory in Northeast Bulgaria.

Created by the Chalcolithic Varna Culture, the treasure consisting of a wide range of gold artifacts from the funeral inventories of a total of 294 prehistoric graves, including some which seem to have belonged to priest-kings, has been dated to 4560 – 4450 BC. The Varna Gold Treasure weighs a combined total of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds).

The reconstructed grave of a man, likely a king-priest, with burial gifts of copper, flint and jade, ceramics, gold jewelry applications, plates, rings, bracelets, necklaces and watches from spine oyster, red and orange carnelian (a mineral). Mid 5th millennium BC, grave 43 of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, as exhibited at the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Photo: bTV

Today the site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis falls in the Western Industrial Zone of the Black Sea city of Varna.

It turned out to have been private property after the end of the communist regime in Bulgaria in 1989 but in 2012 the Bulgarian government became the exclusive owner.

In October 2015, the Bulgarian Cabinet granted Varna Municipality management rights over the Chalcolithic necropolis and five other major archaeological sites in and around Varna as a measure for promoting cultural tourism.

According to bTV, Varna Municipality has now delegated the management to the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

The reporters managed to find the precise location of the necropolis, which unrecognizable because of the vast vegetation, only thanks to an elderly man mentioned only as “grandpa Neyko" who has been working in the area for the past quarter of a century.

In his words, hundreds of Bulgarian and foreign tourists come to seek the site where world’s oldest gold treasure was discovered.

They are directed to the location through Google’s navigation tools or other GPS tools but all they find is disappointment.

“For the past 46 years, there hasn’t been an institution in Bulgaria on the state or local, or any other level which would invest minimal [efforts in the site]," says Dimitar Dichev from the Varna Chamber of Tourism.

Back in 2015, he sounded more optimistic about Varna Municipality’s plans for the site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis.

Gold artifacts from the Chalcolithic Varna Gold Treasure found in Northeast Bulgaria in 1972 as displayed at the European Parliament building in Brussels in October 2016. Photo: Darik Varna

The official poster for Bulgaria’s exhibition of the Varna Gold Treasure in the European Parliament Building in Brussels. Photo: European Parliament

The initiative to revamp the site for cultural tourism visitors harbored the possibility for further archaeological research of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis because about 30% of its known territory has never been excavated.

In the excavated section of the necropolis back in the 1970s and the 1980s, the archaeologists discovered a total of 294 graves, including 57 graves with no remains of human bones.

The bulk of the some 3,000 gold artifacts found in the necropolis were found in just three of the graves. The gold artifacts themselves are of 38 different kinds.

All finds from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, including the Varna Gold Treasure, are kept at the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

The Varna gold has been exhibited all over the world in the 43 years since its discovery.

Its most recent exhibitions have been the exhibition “Varna – The Oldest Gold Treasure" in October 2015, at the European Parliament’s Altiero Spinelli Building, the Golden Legend exhibit in Japan’s Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and other Japanese cities in 2015 – 2016, and the “Humanity’s First Gold" exhibition in Dordrech, the Netherlands, in 2016 – 2017.

The Varna Gold Treasure might not even be the oldest known gold processed by humans in the world as there have been a number of other extremely old gold artifact finds in Bulgaria: gold beads in the Yunatsite Settlement Mound, the prehistoric gold treasure from the Hotnitsa Settlement Mound, finds from Durankulak, Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit"), and the Sakar – Strandzha Mountain region.

However, thanks to its scope and size and the fact that it was found in a large-scale necropolis, the Varna Gold Treasure is considered most representative of the advanced Chalcolithic civilization that inhabited Bulgaria and much of Southeast Europe in the 5th millennium BC.

Learn more about the Varna Gold Treasure and the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

Bulgaria’s Varna Gold Treasure is considered the oldest processed gold in the world dating back to the time of the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) Varna Culture (usually dated to 4400-4100 BC), part of the advanced Chalcolithic civilization of Southeast Europe.

It was discovered in 1972 in the so called Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis during the construction of a canning factory. It was the operator of an excavator, Raycho Marinov, then aged 22, who stumbled upon several artifacts, collected them in a shoe box, and took them to his home. A couple of days later he informed the local archaeologists. For his discovery back then, Marinov was awarded BGN 500, a substantial sum for the time equaling several monthly salaries. However, the intelligence services of the Bulgarian communist regime followed him around for a while to make sure he had not kept any artifacts for himself in order to sell them.

A total of 294 Chalcolithic graves were unearthed at the necropolis which was excavated by Bulgarian archaeologists Mihail Lazarov (in 1972–1976) and Ivan Ivanov (in 1972–1991). About 30% of the estimated territory of the necropolis is yet to be excavated.

Using radiocarbon dating, in 2006, the Chalcolithic graves where the Varna Gold Treasure was found were dated to 4560-4450 BC.

The discoveries from the necropolis indicate that the Varna Culture had trade relations with distant Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. It likely exported rock salt from the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") rock salt mine.

The shells of the Mediterranean mollusk Spondylus found in the graves in the Varna Necropolis and at other Chalcolithic sites in Northern Bulgaria may have been used as a form of currency.

Among the graves, several featured a wealth of gold artifacts indicating that as early as the Chalcolithic the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe) already had some form of statehood and a royal institution.

The gold artifacts from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis were found in graves with skeletons (mostly male) as well as in symbolic graves without human remains.

One of the most interesting inventories was found in the so called Grave No. 43 which was unearthed in the central part of the Varna Necropolis in 1974. It belonged to a male aged 40-45 but of rather substantial size for the time, 1.70-1.75 meters tall (app. 5 feet 6 – 8 inches).

The numerous gold artifacts discovered in Grave No. 43 near Bulgaria’s Varna weighbb a total of 1.5 kg which one of the reasons to believe that the buried man was a very important member of his community.

The gold items include 10 large applications, a high number of rings some which were on strings, two necklaces, an item believed to be a gold phallus, beads, golden decorations for a bow, a stone ax and a copper ax with gold decorations, a bow with gold applications.

The funeral inventory also includes a large number copper artifacts such as a copper ax, a copper claw hammer, a copper chisel and a copper awl as well as lots of stone, flint, seashell, and bone artifacts including bracelets from the Spondylus mollusk, and 11 ornately decorated ceramic vessels.

In another grave of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis, Grave No. 36, a symbolic grave, the archaeologists found over 850 gold items – a tiara, earrings, a necklace, a breastplate, bracelets, a belt, a gold hammer-scepter, a good model of a sickle, two gold lamellas representing animals, 30 models of heads of horned animals.

The artifacts were found covered with a gold-laced cloth. The gold items lined the contours of a human body with more artifacts on the right side which is deemed to signify that the grave contained a male funeral. The gold artifacts are interpreted as royal insignia.

Similar “royal" burials have also been found in graves No. 1, 4, and 5 of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis.

Another type of graves in the necropolis contains clay masks of human faces where the eyes, mouths, teeth, and noses are depicted with gold. Unlike the graves described above which contain smith tools, the graves with the mask contain clay vases, cups, and needles. That is why these are interpreted as female funerals depicting the Mother Goddess.

The closeness of the “female" symbolic graves No. 2, 3, and 15 with the symbolic royal graves No. 1, 4, and 5 are interpreted as ritual representations of holy marriages between a king and the Mother Goddess. These six funerals are believed to have been the core of the Chalcolithic Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Varna, and to have predated the rest of the graves.

Much of the meaning of the finds from the necropolis is seen as celebrating the role of the smith who in his role as a creator is seen as supplanting the role of the Mother Goddess transforming the matriarchal world into a patriarchal one.

The position of the smith in the Chalcolithic culture is seen as comparable to that of the king because during the Chalcolithic period metal was more of a status symbol than an economic means.

The Varna Gold Treasure is part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

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