Decline of Bulgarian, Byzantine Empires before Ottoman Conquest Revealed by Tatar Plunder Treasure Pot from Black Sea Fortress Kaliakra

The 14th century Tatar plunder treasure pot discovered in Bulgaria’s Black Sea fortress Kaliakra contains almost 1,000 various coins and artifacts made of gold, silver, and bronze. Photos: National Museum of History

The contents of the gold and silver treasure pot of plunder of a Tatar (Mongol) leader from ca. 1400, which has recently been discovered in Bulgaria’s Kaliakara Cape Fortress on the Black Sea coast, is a true testimony to the decline of the medieval Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire before the Ottoman conquest.

In this specific find, the decline of the empires of Bulgaria and Byzantium in the Late Middle Ages is evidenced primarily from the really meager silver and gold content in the coins of the Bulgarian Tsars and Byzantine Emperors found in the treasure pot whose contents were seemingly plundered during the last Balkan invasion of the Tatars (Mongols).

The clay treasure pot , which was founded on August 17, 2018, in the Kaliakra Fortress, contains 957 archaeological artifacts from the 14th century, including 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 archaeological artifacts are believed to have been looted by a Tatar (Mongol) leader from Aktav’s Tatars who were the last wave of Mongol invasions in medieval Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula, and were eventually subjugated by the Ottomans ca. 1400.

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 spot where the Tatar plunder treasure pot has been discovered on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Cape of Kaliakra. Photo: National Museum of History

The Tatar plunder treasure pot at the time of its discovery. Photo: National Museum of History.

In much of the 14th century, the Kaliakra Fortress was part of the Dobrudzha Despotate (also known as the Principality of Karvuna), one of the rump states of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) during 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.

As 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, he failed to prevent a number of Bulgarian feudal lords seceding, including the rulers of the Dobrudzha Despotate in the east.

On top of that, Tsar Ivan Alexander 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).

Just two decades later all Bulgarian lands, disunited and even warring among themselves, fell prey to the invading Ottoman Turks, ushering Bulgaria into five centuries known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), and signifying a practically irreversible loss of its former great power status.

Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia, whose Director, archaeologist Boni Petrunova, has discovered the treasure pot of Tatar plunder in the fortress on the Black Sea cape of Kaliakra, has reminded 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).

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 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

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

In its original announcement of the discovery of the 14th century treasure pot of Tatar plunder, the National Museum of History in Sofia said that 60% of all coins found in the treasure pot are silver Ottoman coins known as akce.

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

The Museum has now announced details about the rest of the coins in the Tatar booty from the Black Sea coast which were minted by the Second Bulgarian Empire, its successors, the Tarnovo Tsardom and the Vidin Tsardom, the Byzantine Empire as well as by Venice, which is known to have traded with the ports of the Dobrudzha Despotate in the 14th century and before that.

“The second largest group of coins [in the Tatar plunder treasure pot], which is made up of Bulgarian silver aspers (asprons) minted by Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331 – 1371), has been an extremely pleasant surprise," Bulgaria’s National Museum of History says.

The silver coins (asprons or aspers) of the last relatively strong ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire are about 25% of all coins found in the treasure pot with Tatar booty.

“The coins are well preserved but their quality was compromised at the time when they were hidden," the Museum says.

“In the “Tatar Plunder" treasure we find the smallest coins of this Bulgarian ruler in terms of diameter and weight of 0.5 – 0.6 grams," it adds.

“The [14th century] crisis in the Second Bulgarian Empire was best felt through the currency. For us as researchers, this data is very valuable," the National Museum of History in Sofia states.

It adds that the Tatar plunder treasure pot also contains Bulgarian coins minted after the death of Tsar Ivan Alexander, i.e. under Tsar Ivan Shishman and his downsized Tarnovo Tsardom, which were even minted outside the capital of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo).

Another interesting fact is the presence of a total of nine coins minted by Ivan Alexander’s other son, Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371 – 1396) in his own rump state, the Vidin Tsardom in the west.

“The sample of these coins is small, only 9 of them, and they also demonstrate this effect of inflation in which the diameter and weight of the coins was reduced," the Museum says.

“Th[ese coins] are a great example of how the Bulgarian coins participated in a common trade flow, and how they were used in [business] interactions in large commercial centers such as Kaliakra which served hundreds of trade deals," it elaborates.

The coins and gold, silver, and bronze jewels found in the Tatar plunder treasure pot from Kaliakra are both impressive and scientifically valuable. Photos: National Museum of History

The coins from the Tatar plunder treasure pot discovered in the Kaliakra Cape Fortress, however, also testify to the decline of whatever was left of the Byzantine Empire, technically the Eastern Roman Empire, in the period before it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

“Of course, invariably, in these types of large treasures [coin hoards] discovered on [Bulgaria’s Black Sea] coast, it is logical to find currency from the Byzantine Empire," the National Museum of History in Sofia notes.

It reveals that the Kaliakra treasure pot contains a total of 20 hyperpyrons, late Byzantine gold coins, some of the last gold coins minted by Byzantium.

However, the gold Byzantine coins in question demonstrate signs of coin debasement, i.e. reducing the gold content while still circulating them at face value, including through coin clipping (the shaving of metal from the coin’s circumference).

“The [Byzantine gold coins in question] were clipped so much, and with such a reduced gold content that it is even hard to identify them," the Museum explains.

Nonetheless, the numismatists have been able to determine that the Byzantine gold coins from the Tatar plunder treasure pot found in the Kaliakra Fortress were minted by Byzantine Emperors John V Palaeologus (r. 1341 – 1376; 1379 – 1390 / 1391) and his regent, Byzantine Empress consort Anna (Giovanna) of Savoy (r. 1341 – 1347); Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus (Kantakouzenos, Cantacuzene) (r. 1347 – 1354), at first also a regent of John V Palaeologus; and by Emperors Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328) and Andronicus III Palaeologus (r. 1328 – 1341).

In addition to the debased late Byzantine gold coins, including through clipping, the treasure pot from the Kaliakra Fortress also contains several stavratons (stauratons) – a silver coin used in the last century of the existence of Byzantine Empire before it was irrevocably conquered by the Ottomans.

“After the minting of gold coins was terminated for good, the Byzantine [capital] Constantinople shifted to a silver standard. The highest face value because half a silver hyperpyron, a large silver coin called stavraton (stauraton) and its smaller nominals. The find from Kaliakra also contains several of these rare samples," Bulgaria’s National Museum of History explains.

The 14th century Tatar booty treasure pot from Bulgaria’s Cape Kaliakra also contains 8 gold coins minted by the Republic of Venice, a major trading partner of the Second Bulgarian Empire as well as Byzantium.

The Venetian gold coins in question are known as gold ducats or sequins (zecchino d’oro). They weigh 3.5 grams (0.12 oz), and are made of extremely high-quality 23.5-karat gold.

The Republic of Venice gold coins in question were minted at the time of Doge Andrea Dandolo (in office 1342 – 1354) and Doge Marco Cornaro (in office 1365 – 1367).

The Venetian gold ducats are especially notable because they are a rather rare find as far as Bulgaria’s territory is concerned.

The treasure pot from the Kaliakra Fortress also contains coins from Wallachia, the principality north of the Danube allied with the Second Bulgarian Empire at the time, with inscriptions in Bulgarian, and a single Tatar (Mongol) coin.

“Of course, Wallachian coins and a Tatar coin are also present but these are part of the invariable money flow needed for the markets in those times to operate," the Museum says.

“This small [treasure pot] vessel gathered a variety of gold and silver coins and artifacts. The treasure stands out with its glamor but it is also captivating because of the amount and variety of data that it has to offer," the National Museum of History in Sofia concludes.

“This [discovery] is like we’ve received an SMS Text message from the 14th century," archaeologist Boni Petrunova has told a news conference in the Black Sea town of Kavarna which is located near the Kaliakra Cape Fortress.

“This is a huge find which is yet to be carefully and thoroughly processed in order to derive from it all the scientific data that we can," she adds, as cited by local news site Kavarna Dnes.

She points out the value of the golden earrings found in the Tatar plunder treasure pot.

“They are jewelry works of the highest class, of the type that have been found only around Veliko Tarnovo," Petrunova stresses, referring to Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

“This means that the Dobrudzha Despotate was no less rich than the Tarnovo Tsardom and the Vidin Tsardom," she adds, referring to the three largest rump states that succeeded the Second Bulgarian Empire after the death of Tsar Ivan Alexander in 1371.

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

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

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

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

Petrunova has also revealed more details about how the Tatar plunder treasure pot has been discovered on the Kaliakra Cape Fortress on the Black Sea coast – to some extent by accident, as it turns out.

“During this year’s 15th consecutive archaeological season, we decided to work in what we have codenamed Sector 83 [of the Kaliakra Fortress]. Its discovery was by accident, we had intended to work on other sections of Kaliakra’s inner city. However, [a few years ago] a concerned visitor told us that a skull had been exposed on the eastern coast of the fortress. We went to check it out, and thus in 2014, we discovered a representative necropolis. In some of the graves, there were gold coins placed on the eyes of those who were buried. It turned out that we had stumbled upon one of the numerous rich necropolises at Kaliakra, which gave us a reason to expand our research," explains Petrunova who became the Director of the National Museum of History in Sofia over the past winter.

In 2017 and then again in 2018, the archaeological team continued the research of a late medieval building erected on top of the medieval Christian graves which has been dubbed “the Tatar house" by Petrunova. The treasure pot of Tatar plunder has been found underneath the stone slabs covering the floor.

The archaeologists believe that the home on top of the necropolis was owned by a Tatar chieftain and was built in a hasty fashion. And underneath the necropolis, the researchers reached Late Antiquity structures from the 5th – 6th century AD.

“The discovered treasure is not made up of family jewels. Rather, it is booty from military looting collected over a brief period of time," Petrunova says.

“Some of the most interesting items from the treasure pot are the Venetian ducats. They have rarely been found in Bulgaria, for example, around Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 10th century)," she adds.

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, and in 2017, also there the archaeologists discovered a nephrite 14th century amulet buckle from China.

“We have also called the Tatar plunder hoard Ali Baba’s treasure because gold and silver coins and jewels kept popping up as we were digging," Petrunova says, as she elaborates on her main hypothesis about the treasure pot’s origin,

“In 1393, the Tatars [from the Golden Horder] suffered a horrendous defeat by [the] Mongols [of Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlan (r. 1370 – 1405), who dreamed of resurrecting the Mongon Empire of Genghiz Khan (r. 1206 – 1227)]. That pushed them out of the steppes, they fled south of the Danube and started plundering all of Northern Dobrudzha (i.e. the region between the Danube and the Black Sea). It is known with certainty that they conquered Varna and looted it. There is no way they might have missed Kaliakra. Apparently, some of their more prominent chieftains settled in the inner city of Kaliakra, built a house, not a very refined one, which I refer to as “the Tatar house", and gathered there his booty. However, in 1399, the Tatars were chased away from all of Northern Dobrudzhe [by the Ottoman Turks] and resettled in various places. That was probably when the Tatar house was burned down, and its owner, as he was about to flee, lifted up one of the floor slabs, and hid the treasure pot, most likely hoping to come back one day and collect it," the lead archaeologist elaborates.

The hypothesis about the hasty escape of a Tatar chieftain is also supported by the fact that the silver and bronze buttons found in the treasure pot in Kaliakra were put in there together with threads, which means that they were cut or ripped off in a hurry.

The Tatar plunder treasure pot from Bulgaria’s Black Sea Kaliakra Fortress is to be researched for at least a year before it is exhibited for the public.

“What makes this find of really great value is the fact that the treasure is a combination of various items. Archaeologists usually find “uniform" treasures consisting only of coins, or only of jewels, or only of gold items, or only of silver items, whereas here we have a great variety of artifacts discovered together," says archaeologist Rosen Peevski.

The press conference in the Black Sea town of Kavarna presenting the discovery of the Tatar plunder treasure pot. Photo: Kavarna Dnes

The first exhibition of the Tatar plunder treasure pot from the Kaliakra Cape Fortress will most probably be in the nearest Black Sea town of Kavarna.

Until then, the Kavarna Museum of History will improve substantially its security and procure new exhibition equipment, its Director Penko Georgiev has vowed.

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".

Check out the original story about the discovery of the Tatar plunder treasure pot from Kaliakra:

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

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 Debrotitsa.

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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