13th Century Woman Buried in Bulgaria’s Rahovets Fortress Had 12,000-Year-Old Gene Mutation of Europe’s Last Hunter-Gatherers

An aerial shot of some of the ruins of the ancient and medieval Rahovets Fortress. Only a small fraction of them has been excavated, and they are mostly covered with soil and vegetation, are located on the northern slopes of the 100-meter-tall Arbanasi Plateau in Central North Bulgaria, near Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa. Photo: Archaeological team, via National Museum of History

A 13th century woman, whose grave was discovered in 2017 in the Antiquity and medieval Rahovets Fortress in Central North Bulgaria, has turned to carry a 12,000-year-old gene mutation from Europe’s last nomads, hunter-gatherers who wandered through the continent as late as the Mesolithic, genetic testing at the Harvard Medical School has revealed.

The Rahovets Fortress located on the Arbanasi Plateau near the city of Veliko Tarnovo and the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa in North Bulgaria was inhabited from at least the 6th century BC (and probably even much earlier) 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.

Back in 2017, upon the discovery of the 13th century grave which has turned out to be of a woman, and before samples from it had been tested at the Department of Genetics of the Harvard Medical School which have now shown a genetic connection to the hunter-gatherers of Paleolithic Europe, the archaeologists hypothesized that the buried person may have been of Cuman origin.

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.

As the Cumans, who at the time inhabited territories north of the Danube, were known to have been closely allied with the founding dynasty of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the House of Asen (Asen or Asenevtsi Dynasty, r. 1185 – 1257), there have been hypotheses that the Rahovets Fortress just about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the capital Tarnovgrad, might have been inhabited by Cumans.

The genetic testing of the 13th century female remains does not seem to have helped confirm or reject the Cuman hypotheses.

However, it has revealed that the buried woman carried a gene mutation traced to the last Paleolithic nomads in Europe who roamed the continent as hunter-gatherers well into the Mesolithic, before the advent of agriculture, and then retreated north.

“The testing shows that the bearer of this haplogroup, U5B1b, is a descendant of the last Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who withdrew to the north as the earliest Neolithic population arrived [in Bulgaria and Europe] from the southeast,” Iliyan Petrakiev, an archaeologist from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History in charge of the digs at the Rahovets Fortress, has explained, as cited by BTA.

“This gene mutation is from ca. 10,000 BC. This ancient group has not been registered in Bulgaria before,” he adds.

“Nowadays, these gene [mutations] are found in the northernmost population [of Europe] and partly around the Ural Mountains, the Caspian Sea basin, and Central Europe. In Southern Europe [respectively Bulgaria], about 3.5% of the population has genes from the U5B1B haplogroup which is transferred through maternal lineage,” Petrakiev elaborates with respect to the gene mutation linked with Europe’s last hunter-gatherers.

He adds that additional tests are supposed to help establish the ethnicity of the 13th century woman, and hopefully provide more clues about the origin of the population that inhabited the Rahovets Fortress at the time.

Samples from an Iron Age child funeral recently discovered at the Rahovets Fortress are also to be sent to the Department of Genetics of the Harvard Medical School for testing.

Some of the Antiquity and medieval artifacts and coins discovered during the 2018 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress, as presented during a press conference. Photos: Yantra Dnes daily

The grave of the child who was buried in a fetal position is dated by the Bulgarian archaeologists and anthropologies to the Iron Age, and more specifically to the period between 1360 BC and 1120 BC.

After it is thoroughly researched, the Iron Age child skeleton will probably be exhibited with a reconstruction of its burial at the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History.

Samples from another medieval grave that has been found over the 2018 summer excavations outside the walls of the Rahovets Fortress near the child burial will also be sent to the Harvard Medical School for testing.

The fact that two medieval graves have already been discovered right outside of the fortress walls has led the archaeological team to hypothesize that at the end of the 12th – beginning of the 13th century the Rahovets Fortress might have stopped serving its protective function.

Since it likely was not functioning as a fortress at the time that could mean that it might have been badly damaged, possibly by a strong earthquake.

An animal bone fossilized in mortar could be the clue as to when exactly the Rahovets Fortress was built. The bone is to be sent for testing to a laboratory abroad, most probably in Bristol in the UK.

“It will likely be tested through AMS dating. This is a new and precise method that will help date the construction of the fortress wall,” Petrakiev says.

The 2018 archaeological excavations of the Rahovets Fortress, whose results were presented by the archaeological team and the local authorities at a press conference in Veliko Tarnovo, have yielded a wide range of finds, primarily from three time periods – the Iron Age, the 4th – 5th century AD, i.e. the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium, and the 13th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422).

These include household artifacts, ceramic vessels and items, and arrow tips as well as a number of different coins.

The 2018 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress in Central North Bulgaria were co-funded for the first time by the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Part of the archaeological team researching the Rahovets Fortress, including high school students from the Summer Archaeological School of the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History, seen during the 2018 digs. Photos: Archaeological team, via National Museum of History

In a release, the Museum has said its funding has helped expose a new section of the northern fortress wall of Rahovets which has been preserved up to a height of three meters.

Several homes which were inhabited during two different stages of the 13th century have also been excavated and studied together with their inventories.

The most numerous finds among the some 300 artifacts discovered in them are the so called scyphates, or cup-shaped coins, which were minted at the time by the Byzantine Emperors as well as the Tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

An archaeological layer with homes from the Iron Age containing a number of hearths and ceramic fragments has also been researched at the Rahovets Fortress, which is situated on the northern slopes of the Arbanasi Plateau.

“The entire fortress covers a territories of over 20 decares (appr. 5 acres), and so far only a small portion has been researched,” Dobromir Dobrev, Mayor of Gorna Oryahovitsa, has stated during the press conference, pledging further financial support for the site’s archaeological research by Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality.

About 30 middle and high school students from Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo District have taken part in the 2018 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress and the ensuing research of the discovered artifacts in what was the third annual Summer Archaeological School organized by the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum with the support of the local and regional authorities.

The 2018 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress marked the fourth season since they were resumed for the first time since the early 1990s.

The 2018 digs in the Rahovets Fortress have been carried out with a total of BGN 38,000 in funding (appr. EUR 18,000; USD 20,000), of which BGN 20,000 have been provided by Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality, BGN 10,000 from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, and BGN 5,000 from the National Museum of History in Sofia.

(Left to right) Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum Director Plamen Mladenov, Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobromir Dobrev, and archaeologists Hitko Vachev, Iliyan Petrakiev, and Maya Ivanova during the press conference that presented the results from the 2018 excavations of the Rahovets Fortress, the 3rd annual Summer Archaeological School, and the plans for the development of the archaeological site as a cultural tourism destination. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Gorna Oryahovitsa Mayor Dobrev has revealed that the local authorities plan to seek EU funding to turn the Rahovets Fortress into a cultural tourism destination by developing the site with the respective infrastructure.

The project is expected to be developed by October 2018. It will also provide for constructing a building for the archaeological school for schoolchildren.

Plamen Mladenov, Director of the Gorna Oryahovitsa Museum of History, has reminded that in June 2018 his institution opened its fully renovated archaeology exhibition hall, and has since moved to attract families for interactive activities.

One of its newly presented attractions has been the model of a prehistoric vertical loom with 6,000-year-old weights with what seem to be characters from pre-alphabetic writing on them.

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 northern slopes of the Arbanasi Plateau.

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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