First Ever Gold Coin Found in Bulgaria’s Lyutitsa Fortress, of Byzantine (Nicaean) Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes

First Ever Gold Coin Found in Bulgaria’s Lyutitsa Fortress, of Byzantine (Nicaean) Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes

The first gold coin to be found in Bulgaria’s Lyutitsa Fortress is of the type minted by Nicaean Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes who struggled to regain Constantinonple from the Crusaders and restore Byzantium. Photo: National Museum of History

A gold coin has been discovered for the first time by the archaeologists excavating the medieval fortress Lyutitsa near the town of Ivaylovgrad in Southern Bulgaria – it is from the mid-13th century, and of the type minted by Byzantine, or, technically, Nicaean, Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes (r. 1222 – 1254).

The discovery of the gold coin from the Empire of Nicaea, a successor state of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders from the Third Crusade in 1204, has been announced by Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia.

It comes after in July 2018, the Museum announced the discovery of a a lead seal of Yolande of Montferrat, Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire, the second wife of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328), in the Lyutitsa Fortress.

Lyutitsa, which is one of the best preserved fortresses from the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium a number of times. It is located in near Ivaylovgrad in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.

The gold coin of Byzantine Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes has been found by a team led by Assoc. Prof. Boni Petrunova, Director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who made global headlines earlier this summer with the discovery of a 14th century treasure pot containing gold and silver Tatar plunder made in the Black Sea fortress on Cape Kaliakra.

John III Ducas Vatatzes (r. 1222 – 1254) was the longest serving ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, a temporary rump state of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor that emerged after in 1204 the Crusader knights from the 4th Crusade captured and plundered Byzantium’s capital Constantinople.

The Crusaders replaced the Byzantine Empire with what became known as the Latin Empire (of Constantinople) (1204 – 1261) on part of the Byzantine territories.

The newly discovered Byzantine / Nicaean gold coin from Lyutitsa is dated to the period between 1240 and 1260. Photos: National Museum of History

The former Byzantine territories, which were not conquered by the Crusaders, gave birth to three Byzantine successor states – the Despotate of Epirus, the Empire of Trebizund, and the Empire of Nicaea, with the Nicaean Empire eventually managing to restore the Byzantine Empire in 1261 by reconquering Constantinople.

According to numismatist Prof. Konstantin Dochev, the gold coin found in the Lyutitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Haskovo District dates more specifically to the period 1240 – 1260.

“The coin is of the John III Ducas Vatatzes type, and is attributed to this Nicaean Emperor, and a period on intensive gold and copper coin minting carried out by the Venetians in Constantinople,” the National Museum of History in Sofia says.

The Byzantine gold coin from the Lyutitsa Fortress was not in circulation for a long time but it seems to have changed hands among money changers judging from graffiti left on its surface.

The discovery of the John III Ducas Vatatzes gold coin shortly after the finding of the seal of Yolande of Montferrat, Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire, is taken as a testimony to the valuable archaeological and historical data that can be derived from the further exploration of Bulgaria’s Lyutitsa Fortress.

During the 2017 excavations, the archaeologists excavating it discovered there a rare coin of a Bulgarian Emperor, Tsar Ivan Asen II of the Second Bulgarian Empire (r. 1218 – 1241).

Learn more about the Lyutitsa Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!

A map of the Latin Empire and the successor states of the Byzantine Empire after the conquest of Constantinople by the knights from the Fourth Crusade in 1205. Map: Wikipedia

An aerial view of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad. Photo:

Background Infonotes:

The Lyutitsa Fortress is a Late Antiquity / Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains near the town of Ivaylovgrad (and the depopulated town of Rogozovo (or Rogozino)), Haskovo District, in Southern Bulgaria.

It has a total area of 26 decares (app. 6.4 acres), and is also known as the Marble City (because its fortress walls are made of white marble), and as Kaloyan’s Citadel (after Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire).

Even though its research is still in its early stages, there is archaeological evidence to believe that this particular fortress is the rich medieval city Lyutitsa which is mentioned in numerous historical sources. In the 9th-17th century, Lyutitsa was the center of a bishopric, and in the 17th-18th century – of an archbishopric.

Lyutitsa is one of the best preserved Bulgarian fortresses from the Middle Ages; in that, it is comparable to other well preserved medieval fortresses in Southern and Southeast Bulgaria such as the Mezek Fortress and the Matochina Fortress. Its fortress walls and towers have been preserved up to a height of 6-10 meters. It has 12 fortress towers, 9 of which have survived.

The Lyutitsa Fortress is also located close to another popular archaeological landmark, the Ancient Roman villa Armira which has been restored and has emerged as a well-known cultural tourism site.

Archaeological finds such as pottery, coins, decorations, household items made of metal and bone indicate that the location of Lyutitsa was inhabited as early as the 1st millennium BC, (starting in the Late Bronze Age), i.e. the time of Ancient Thrace.

The first time Lyutitsa was mentioned in historical sources goes back to the 9th-10th century when its name appears as a bishopric in the parish lists of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Nicholas I Mysticus (901-907; 912-925), and then again in 940 under Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII the Purple-born (r. 913-959). It was also mentioned in the memoires of Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene (r. 1347-1354) who reveals that the city of Lyutitsa was destroyed in the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans in the 14th century. While its name was not mentioned explicitly, it is also believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress was referred to by French knight and historian Geoffrey of Villehardouin of the Fourth Crusade who speaks of a fortress where Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire stationed his troops after the siege of Dimotika (Didymoteicho) in 1207.

Based on historical and archaeological research, it is believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) in the 9th century when it was located in the area of the border with Byzantium, and subsequently changed hands numerous times.

The fortress walls of Lyutitsa date back to the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century), i.e. the Early Byzantine period. They were destroyed several times, and today’s surviving fortress walls and towers are believed to have been erected in the 12th-13th century. The fortress was in use during the time of Early Byzantium and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and even survived well into the Ottoman period and Late Middle Ages, i.e. up until the end of the 18th century when its residents abandoned it, and settled at nearby mineral springs founding a town called Ladzha (today a quarter of Ivaylovgrad).

Lyutitsa’s fortress wall has a total length of 600 meters. It features one octagonal, two round, and nine rectangular fortress towers. Inside the fortress, archaeologists have found the ruins of two churches (dating back to the 10th and 15th-16th century, respectively), the keep of the fortress, a well, a water reservoir hewn into the rocks (with Thracian finds discovered on its bottom), a sewerage system as well as a medieval necropolis with 15 graves.

The 10th century bishopric church was built of marble, and had three naves and a very rich decoration of both murals and marble reliefs.

The most interesting finds include: Ancient Bulgar / medieval Bulgarian pottery identical with the pottery from Pliska (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893) and Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893-970), which is a testimony to the importance of the Lyutitsa Fortress for medieval Bulgaria and its high culture; a very rare coin of Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus; as well as two medieval fragments from vessels for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and the Balkans (found in 2011 and 2015).

In 2006, the archaeologists found in Lyutitsa the grave of one of the medieval bishops of the city who was buried in a sitting position, holding a magnificent silver-coated bronze cross in his right hand.

The Lyutitsa Fortress was first excavated in 2002, and then again in 2004-2011 under the leardership of Assoc Prof. Boni Petrunova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Subsequently, the excavations of Lyutitsa have been conducted by archaeologist Filip Petrunov (who is Petrunova’s son) from the National Museum of History in Sofia. Many of the artifacts discovered in the Lyutitsa Fortress are exhibited in the Ivaylovgrad Museum of History.


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