Slavs, Avars Burned Down Byzantine City Chrisosotira in Early 7th Century, Digs on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast Reveal

The Early Byzantine city and fortress of Chrisosotira / Talaskara located on Cape Chervenka on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast never recovered from the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars in the first half of the 7th century AD. Sozopol and St. Ivan (St. John) Island are visible in the background. Photo: National Museum of History

The Early Byzantine city of Chrisosotira on Cape Chervenka on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast was most likely sacked by the Slavs and Avars during their invasions of the Byzantine Empire in the first half of the 7th century AD, archaeologists have found in their latest digs there, which have also yielded a number of other discoveries.

The Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress, Chrisosotira (“Golden Savior, Golden Christ”), also known as Talaskara, is located on Cape Chervenka, a small peninsula on Bulgaria’s southern Black Sea coast near the resort town of Chernomorets, and 2 km northwest of the resort town of Sozopol.

Not unlike other small peninsulas in the region, Cape Chervenka has a narrow neck leading to a wider cape.

The fortress walls of Talaskara / Chrisosotira were built as part of the large-scale fortress construction at the time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD).

Excavations by Bulgarian archaeologists of what appears to have been an Early Byzantine building used for economic and commercial activity indicate that the building itself and likely the entire city of Chrisosotira was burned down in the early 7th century, most probably during the known invasions of the Slavs and Avars in the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine city of Chrisosotira on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast has been excavated for the fifth year in a row by a team led by Prof. Ivan Hristov from Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia, the Museum has announced.

The digs in October 2018 have been funded by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and the Museum, and were supported by Infrastructure Agency of Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry since Cape Chervenka was a base of the Bulgarian Navy until 2014.

The archaeological team excavated structures in the western part of the Chrisosotira / Talaskara Fortress, including a large Byzantine military barracks building with an area of 220 square meters located close to one of the fortress towers on the western fortress wall.

During the 2018 excavations of Chrisosotira / Talaskara, the archaeologists explored two Early Byzantine buildings: military barracks and a building which was an economic and commercial facility. Photos: National Museum of History

For the first time during their 2018 excavations, the archaeologists found part of the southern fortress wall of Chrisosotira / Talaskara.

“Until the present stage of the research, there had been no mention of the existence of a southern fortress wall [on the Cape Chervenka fortress], and its existence had been ignored, including on research papers about the site,” says the National Museum of History in Sofia.

The fortress wall on the southern coast of the Black Sea cape near Bulgaria’s Sozopol and Chernomorets has been found behind rocks that seem to have shielded part of it.

The Early Byzantine wall in this part of the peninsula is 1.6 meters wide, and has survived up to a height of 1 meter. It was built of stones and mortar containing crushed construction ceramics.

The wall stands on an archaeological layer containing a variety of finds from the pre-Roman period, the Late Antiquity, and the Middle Ages.

The discovery of the southern fortress wall of the Byzantine city of Chrisosotira / Talaskara on Cape Chervenka has led the archaeologists to revise their understanding of its scope.

Until now, it was thought that the Byzantine fortress had an area of 73 decares (18 acres), whereas now Hristov estimates it actually was about 100 decares (25 acres).

“The most successful moment of the [2018 excavations] of the museum archaeologists has been the discovery of a building (denoted as Building No. 18) near the sea shore, the fortress wall, and harbor area,” Bulgaria’s National Museum of History informs.

The building with an area of 83 square meters was in effect sealed by its own massive roof which collapsed on top of when it was set on fire, and thus sealed it off for well more than a millennium, with its entire inventory surviving inside.

Precisely because of the artifacts discovered in it, the building is thought to have been part of a large commercial complex which is yet to be researched.

The archaeologists have found dozens of intact or fragmented ceramic vessels, intact roof tiles stacked in its northwestern corner, likely for roof repair, iron agricultural tools, and parts from a bronze scale.

The building’s inventory reveals a picture of economic life in a coastal city “on the border between the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages”, the Museum notes.

Various pottery vessels, including two North African amphorae, have been discovered in the newly found commercial building in Chrisosotira. Photo: National Museum of History

The pottery vessels found inside the Early Byzantine building include dozens of amphorae, pots, and jars.

The researchers point out the absence of imported ceramics with the notable exception of two amphorae from North Africa.

North African amphorae (among other “exotic” artifacts) from the Early Byzantine period have been found before in Bulgaria’s coastal regions, including by Hristov’s team in the Talaskara / Chrisosotira Fortress back in 2015.

The two amphorae from North Africa found in the Chrisosotira / Talaskara Fortress are from the Spatheion type which has been found in structures from 602 – 615 AD across the Western Pontus, a region in today’s Turkey, on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea.

The dating of the arson of the newly discovered commercial building on Bulgaria’s Cape Chervenka is also based on the discovery inside of three coin hoards containing about 100 Byzantine bronze coins a total of 10 Byzantine gold coins.

The discovered gold coins include seven solidi and three tremisses, and are very well preserved. They were minted by three successive Emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium): Emperor Maurice (Mauricius Tiberius) (r. 582 – 602 AD), Emperor Phocas (r. 602 – 610 AD), and Emperor Heraclius (r. 610 – 641 AD).

Byzantine bronze and gold coins from the early 7th century AD discovered on Bulgaria’s Cape Chervenka peninsula in October 2018. Photo: National Museum of History

Most of the coins, including the bronze ones, feature Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantinus, subsequently Constantine III (r. 641 AD), the shortest reigning Byzantine Emperor).

Other artifacts from the inventory of the commercial building discovered by the archaeologists including a massive bronze lamp and an anthropomorphic bronze scale weight.

“It is very likely that the building, and hence the entire fortified settlement, was ultimately burned down during the large Avar and Slav invasions [of Byzantium] attacking the capital Constantinople,” says Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, explaining further,

“As [chronicler] Isidore of Seville (ca. 560 – 636 AD) informs, in 613 – 615 AD, the Slavs took Greece from the Romans, that is, the European territories of the Empire.

According to [Byzantine poet] George of Pisidia (7th century AD), the Slavs began to navigate the Aegean Sea.

It is known that in 619 AD the Slavs penetrated all the way to the Long Wall of Constantinople (also known as the Long Walls of Thrace or the Anastasian Wall), and on their way back they devastated many settlements in [the region of] Thrace.

Only in 620 AD did the Byzantines manage to strike a peace treaty with the Avars, which allowed them to throw all of their forces in the fight against the Persians.

As was often the case in the 7th century, the peace [with the Avars] turned to be short-lived. In 626 AD, at the height of the Byzantine – Persian War, Constantinople was besieged from two sides by Avars, Ancient Bulgars, Slavs, and Persians.

The siege lasted 10 days, and this time a large number of Slavs took their dugout canoes [over land] to the Golden Horn [inlet of the Bosphorus Strait], and tried to attack Constantinople from the sea.

The siege ended up being unsuccessful, and the allied [attackers] had to retreat.

[7th century AD Byzantine chronicler] John of Antioch writes about the siege of Constantinople of 626 AD that the Khagan [ruler] of the Avars “turned the sea into land” through his “bandit ships”.

In the 670s AD, Byzantium once again controlled the entire Black Sea coast [of today’s Bulgaria] but for the time being there is no data indicating that Chrisosotira was inhabited after the Slav and Avar invasions.”

The National Museum of History points out that unlike other archaeological sites across Bulgaria (which are often looted by treasure hunters), the site of the Early Byzantine city of Chrisosotira / Talaskara on the Black Sea peninsula near Chernomorets and Sozopol, a former naval base, enjoys year-round security by a licensed security company.

A bronze lamp found in the commercial building in Chrisosotira. Photo: National Museum of History

An anthropomorphic bronze scale weight found in the commercial building in Chrisosotira. Photo: National Museum of History

Archaeologist Ivan Hristov specializes in the study of sites on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. He recently published a book entitled “Mare Ponticum. Coastal Fortresses and Harbor Zones in the Province of Haemimontus, 5th – 7th Century AD”, which looks at the Haemimontus province of the Early Byzantine Empire in the Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages.

In August 2018, he discovered a sunken fortress from Ancient Thrace at Sveti Toma (St. Thomas) Island, off the coast of Primorsko.

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Bulgars: Webster’s Timeline History, 354 – 2007

A history of the first Bulgarian empire,

2: Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans (Millennium Studies)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

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Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine fortress Talaskara on Cape Chervenka, also known as Chrisosotira (“Golden Savior, Golden Christ”) is located on a small peninsula on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast near the resort town of Chernomorets, and 2 km northwest of the resort town of Sozopol.

Not unlike the peninsula of the Old Town of Nessebar, another Black Sea resort town, Cape Chervenka has a narrow neck leading to a wider cape with an area of 68 decares (app. 17 acres), which was surrounded with a robust fortress wall with large fortress towers every 30 meters.

The fortress wall of the Byzantine fortress Talaskara on Cape Chervenka (Chrisosotira) is from the 6th century, and was built as part of the large-scale fortress construction at the time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD).

For a long time, Cape Chervenka was a military base of the Bulgarian Navy, and Bulgarian archaeologists gained access to it only in 2014 when a team led by archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Ivan Hristov, Deputy Director of the Bulgarian National Museum of History, conducted drilling excavations with a special permit from Bulgaria’s Defense Ministry.

A large fortress tower with dimensions 5 by 6 meters unearthed by Ivan Hristov’s team in 2014 is taken to indicate that the fortified Byzantine settlement located on Cape Chervenka was a rich city.

The last time the fortress on Chervenka was used was during the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829 when the navy of the Russian Empire used it to set up a base where it accepted tens of thousands of Bulgarian refugees fleeing Ottoman Turkish atrocities who were then transported by sea to the region of Bessarabia (in today’s Moldova and Ukraine), and the Taurica (Crimean) Peninsula, and settled there.

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