Bulgaria’s Largest Thracian Mound Proves to Be Tower Tomb Like in Petra, Palmyra, Likely of Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab
The massive 3rd century AD Antiquity building exposed in July 2018 underneath the Maltepe Mound, Bulgaria’s largest Ancient Thracian burial mound ever, has turned out to be a tower tomb like the ones in ancient Middle East cities such as Petra and Palmyra, and could contain the remains of Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab (r. 244 – 249 AD).
The tomb, which has proved to be shaped like a Middle Eastern pyramid, i.e. a ziggurat, and appearts to be a so called tower tomb has not been opened yet.
For the time being the archaeological team led by Assoc. Prof. Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Museum of Archaeology in the Southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, is abstaining from that in order to research in full the Roman Era building and the rest of the mound cover it.
In 2018, archaeologists began excavating the huge Ancient Thracian burial mound from the top down, and at first exposed only the roof of the building found underneath, which they said was of a square building, nearly 7 meters wide and nearly 7 meters long, and about 7-8 meters in height.
That is why, at first the archaeologists said the tomb probably belonged to some prominent Ancient Thracian aristocrat from the Roman period, i.e. after Ancient Thrace was conquered by the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD.
Now that the excavations have progressed substantially, however, Kisyov has revealed that the building underneath the Maltepe Burial Mound near the town of Manole, Plovdiv District, is about 20 meters wide.
The supposed tomb of Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab resembles a tower tomb from Petra, Jordan, or Palmyra, Syria, where, unfortunately, dozens of such ancient tower tombs were blown up by the Islamic State (ISIS).
The tower tomb from Manole, Maritsa Municipality, Plovdiv District, roughly has the shape of a pyramid, or, more specifically, its Middle Eastern variant, a ziggurat.
The ziggurat and tower tomb architecture is completely untypical for the Ancient Thracians, or for the European provinces of the Roman Empire. Even before the roof of the Antiquity building got exposed, the Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology was confident in promising that the upcoming discovery would make global headlines.
He is reiterating that with certainty, now that the extremely untypical architecture and the size of the 3rd century AD from the Maltepe Burial Mound near Manole have become known.
“I claim to know well the Ancient Greek (Hellenic), Macedon, Thracian cultures throughout their different time periods. I have worked on archaeological sites in Bulgaria and other countries, and my specialty is the burial practices of the Thracians and Antiquity burial practices in general. The burial mound and the tomb itself are so grandiose that they have no analogies in Europe, and not only,” Kisyov has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time.
He points out that the massive size of the Maltepe Burial Mound was noted at the end of 19th century by Karel Skorpil, one of the Czech-Bulgarian Skorpil brothers known as the fathers of Bulgarian archaeology. The mound measured up to 140 meters in diameter, and 23 meters in height.
Kisyov reveals that his team decided to excavate the mound from the top down because it had already been targeted by treasure hunters hoping to find treasures underneath and steal them.
They had dug up a huge pit on top of the mound, which was 20 meters in diameter and 7 meters deep.
“I wanted to study the top of the mound first because of the treasure hunters’ pit. We had to make sure whether it was indeed a pit dug by treasure hunters, or whether the soil might have just collapsed since there were stories told in the town of Manole that there used to be an ancient tomb there that had collapsed. Plus, from some of my geophysicist colleagues, I had learned that the military used to dig trenches on top of some of the Ancient Thracian burial mounds in order to install anti-missile complexes there,” the archaeologist explains.
He notes that the earliest excavations in the periphery of the Maltepe Burial Mound (not to be confused with another mound of the same name located in Southeast Bulgaria) near Manole had led to the discovery of a total of 15 medieval graves from the 11th – 12th century, 12 of which were intact, while three had been compromised. The people in the Middle Ages used the edges of the mound for their own burials.
As the archaeologists progressed with their digs from the top down, they were able to verify that what was there was a huge treasure hunters’ pit.
Before the start of the excavations, geophysical surveying had revealed an “anomaly”, i.e. a stone structure inside the mound.
“As we got about 5 meters in depth, the geophysicist discovered another anomaly 2 meters below us. This totally confused us. Was it possible that there were two tombs, one on top of the other? We had never heard of anything like this before,” Kisyov explains the story of the excavations.
As they reached the ceiling of the actual tomb, they found there debris from walls made of crushed stones and mortar and 6 huge marble quadrae (stone blocks), each weighing about 300 – 400 kilograms. It seemed as though they had been parts of a smaller building, or tomb, lying on top of the one beneath.
It turned out that there had not been a smaller building, or tomb, on top of the large one, but instead, there had been a three-level pedestal on the highest level of what subsequently has turned out to be a pyramid – shaped tower tomb, ziggurat style.
“This pedestal supported a statue or a group of statues because when these huge stone blocks are rearranged, in there center where the statue stood, there is an indent. We are talking here of a huge monument, which, unfortunately, has not survived,” the lead archaeologist explains.
“We carried on, exposed the uppermost section down to a depth of 1.5 meters, and we started descending from the southern side [of the tomb] so as to reach the bottom of the [geophysical] “anomaly”, which was supposed to be 5 meters beneath us. We kept on digging downwards, and the wall would just never end! All of sudden, as we were clearing up the wall, one of our guys fell through. We caught him [on time], and we saw that we had opened up a vertical pit whose bottom we couldn’t see. It turned out to be 7 meters deep. When I descended inside it, I ended up at a spot where a year earlier we had been studying the eastern periphery of the burial mound,” Kisyov reveals.
“There we’ve discovered a total of 32 ritual pits for depositing gifts for honoring the buried person. There were fragments from vessels, lots of coins laid in a circle. Horizontally, we also found marble quadrae but only in the foundation. These were the debris of a huge stone fence [for the tomb] which was 400 meters long, and towering to a height of 2 meters. Since it had been in the open, that fence was plundered,” the researcher elaborates.
As early as 2017, his team found that the treasure hunters had also tried to penetrate the tomb inside the Maltepe Burial Mound from the side, and had dug up a 40-meter-long tunnel reaching a wall of crushed stones and mortar. After that, they had started to dig up hoping to get inside the tomb.
However, since the tomb under the burial mound was covered primarily with clay and sand, as they were digging upwards, the treasure hunters came across a sand layer which started to collapse so they “got scared off and left it”, the archaeologist believes.
“As we continued our excavations [of the Maltepe Burial Mound] in 2018, I found out that there weren’t two different tombs inside, there was one huge building. Together with architect Daniela Stoyanova, one of [Bulgaria’s] best experts in Antiquity architecture and a professor at Sofia University, we were dazzled. It’s funny that before that we kept joking, “Can you imagine if it’s really just one building in there?!” At the end, it really turned out that there is one building which is 20 meters tall in situ, which starts at ground zero and goes all the way to the top [of the mound],” Kisyov reveals.
When they had exposed the southern side of the 3rd century AD building down to depth of 8 meters counting from its ceiling, the archaeologist could see that the structure was one huge building.
“I found out that the actual architecture is that of a tower tomb, a pyramid, like a ziggurat… [going from the top down] every row is wider than the previous one by 3 centimeters in all four directions,” the archaeologists emphasizes.
“[The building is actually made up of four cubes with differing width of their foundations. The uppermost cube is 6.6 meters wide and 6.6 meters long, while the lowest is 9.6 meters by 9.6 meters. In terms of architecture, that is indeed a pyramid,” he adds.
“Then after the shock from the huge size of the building, [we’ve been faced with] a new mystery that is still on our agenda. Why is this tower shaped like a pyramid (ziggurat)?! In Thracian, Hellenic, and Roman [architectural] practices there is no such building! First, not with such a shape, and, second, not of such scale!” Kisyov explains.
He notes that the largest known ancient tomb in the Balkan Peninsula so far is that of Atreus, King of Mycenae, in Greece which is 14 meters tall from ground zero to the top of its dome. In comparison, the newly uncovered tomb in Bulgaria’s Maltepe Burial Mound near Plovdiv is at least 20 meters tall in situ, not to mention 3 meters destroyed by the treasure hunters on its top.
Regarding the supposed statue or group of statues that used to decorate the roof of the 3rd century AD tomb on top of a massive pedestal, Kisyov says his team has not discovered any statue fragments whatsoever.
No fragments have been found in the pit dug up by the treasure hunters, either, which would have allowed the archaeologists to figure out when it was made.
“I don’t rule the possibility that the statue was tall and could be seen from very far on top of the mound. It might have also been destroyed during the times when the Christians began to demolish pagan monuments. Or it might have been destroyed during some of the Gothic invasions which became permanent after the 3rd century AD. We have no way of knowing its fate for sure, we can only guess. But it is certain that treasure hunters penetrated the burial mound,” the archaeologist hypothesizes.
He points out that the uppermost section, or cube, of the pyramid, or ziggurat type tomb near Bulgaria’s Manole, which is 6.6 by 6.6 meters, a square, is thick, and there are no hollow spaces inside it.
It was built with thick horizontal rows of stones with mortar. Its corners have brick structures that help sustain the weight of the statue on the roof.
“As a matter of fact, the treasure hunters drilled through this entire top section of the tomb [from the top down], removed the stones, and penetrated down into the second section to a depth of 2 meters. It is possible that the second section is also thick, without any hollow chambers inside. We are yet to study it downwards but I think that will be the case,” Kisyov says.
He also discloses how he started to search for similar known buildings throughout the Antiquity world given the unprecedented size and shape of the pyramid, or ziggurat – style tomb.
“It was clear that there are no similar burial bounds in the Balkans. I was looking at Rome and the Middle East. It turns out that in Italy, along Via Latina (the Latin Road) and Via Apia (the Appian Road), two of the most important roads in Rome, they erected similar towers but those were straight, and only up to 4 meters in height. In them, every floor was an empty chamber that could be accessed via stairs. The chambers were decorated with murals and presented the home of the deceased. The patricians and senators, the wealthy people of Rome, were buried in these tombs,” the researcher explains.
He stresses that the closest parallels to the Maltepe Burial Mound tomb he has discovered come from Palmyra, the ancient Semitic city in today’s Syria.
“In the 1st – 4th century AD, Palmyra, as well as Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) was part of the Roman Empire. There were dozens of such tower tombs built in the 2nd – 3rd century AD. However, none of them are left any more since the Islamic State has destroyed all of them recently. According to unconfirmed data, one of those tombs was 60 meters tall,” says the Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.
“In these tower tombs in Palmyra, however, the structure was different from ours at Maltepe because every section had stairs, a corridor, and niches where the members of the rich families were put to rest. The niches were decorated with murals and inscriptions,” he adds.
“As a type, there are similar burial complexes in Syria, Iran, and Egypt. In the rock tombs in Petra, Jordan, there are ones that are completely identical with ours in terms of architecture. There the sections are thick, as is the case with the Maltepe Burial Mound, and the burial chambers are underground,” the researcher elaborates.
“It was very important to see where the model comes from. [An architectural model] that was unknown to the Thracian culture and the cultures of its immediate neighbors. Back then, as it is today, the architecture was based on models. The person who commissioned the building wanted it to follow a certain model,” he adds.
Kisyov goes on to outline the reasoning behind his and his colleagues’ leading hypothesis that the person buried inside the newly discovered tower tomb near Bulgaria’s Plovdiv similar to tower tombs in Petra and Palmyra must be Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab. Or at least a person close to him, a deputy he put in charge of the Roman province of Thrace (Thracia).
“So we have this huge building typical of the Middle East. Whoever ordered it, must be from there. Not just to have seen it because the Roman Emperors waged wars against the Sassanian Empire (Persia) at the time, and had likely seen those tower tombs. Yet, they weren’t bearers of the respective culture. That is how came the supposition that the burial complex at the Maltepe Mound was built for a person who came from there [the Middle East],” the archaeologist reveals.
He notes that, based on the finds discovered in 2017 in the 32 pits where there were 40 coins, plus 7 more in the upper layers, plus a bell and a bronze figurine typical of the Goths, the archaeological team at this point holds the hypothesis that the Maltepe burial complex dates back to the 3rd century AD.
“Together with our colleagues epigraphists and historians we began to ponder over who lived in that time. Besides that, whoever was buried in Maltepe, must have owned some kind of a family estate in the region, and also governed Philipopolis. Comparing chronologically the materials, the form of the tomb, our pick is Philip I the Arab. It is known that he was one of the senior emperors. His deputy was the richest person in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and he also resided in Philipopolis. So the tower tomb was built either for Philip the Arab himself, or for his deputy who also came from the Middle East,” Kisyov reveals.
“These are the most logical working hypotheses, although, personally, I am reserved [with respect to the possibility] that this was built for his deputy. My argument is the huge size of the burial complex. These are our working hypotheses for the time being,” he adds.
During their excavations, the archaeologist have established with “100% certainty” that the tower tomb was built simultaneously with the mound covering it.
That is, unlike the tower tombs in Palmyra, which were standing in the open up until ISIS destroyed them in 2015, the tower tomb outside of the ancient Thracian and Roman city of Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) was buried underneath a huge burial mound, just like thousands of Ancient Thracian burial mounds from the Early to Late Antiquity which are dotting the landscapes in much of Southern and Northeast Bulgaria to this day.
“That is one of the surest ways to find out and reconstruct the past. Since, if the tower tomb and the burial mound had been erected at different times, there would have been a possibility that the tower was built first, it stood in the open, and was then covered up. In that case, the tomb would have dated to an earlier period. But here, every 3 meters we find mortar batches. So they would build up, bury what they had built, and then keep going up. They used the mound as scaffold,” Kisyov elaborates.
He notes that his team has been cooperating with epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov and Egyptologist Vasil Dobrev as well as many other Bulgarian archaeologists who have visited the excavation site.
For the time being, the Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology is unable to say when the tower tomb – formerly deemed an Ancient Thracian burial mound – would be opened.
The options are to excavate the rest of the mound in full, or to start seek the tomb’s entrance. The decision on the course of action will be made in the course of the 2019 excavations, including depending on the further geophysical surveying of the site.
“We are not sure whether there isn’t anything else in the mound’s periphery. It might turn out to be a grandiose building with columns underneath, and in that case we would go for its excavation in full… It is not very likely that we will expose the entire building in 2019 but at least we will be aware of what it is like in its foundation: whether the burial chamber lies there, how it was structured in its lower part to be able to sustain such huge weight. There will also be a procedure to declare the burial mound a national monument of culture,” Kisyov says.
He has stated that for the first time in his 33-year career as an archaeologist he is certain there would be sufficient government funding for the excavations of the Maltepe Burial Mound with its tower tomb “because this really is an archaeological site without any analogy in Europe”.
A Maltepe Burial Mound Open Air Museum was built outside the mound even before the start of the main excavations with funding from the Norwegian / EEA Grants because of the promise for a major archaeological discovery.
Back in 2016, a large Ancient Roman pillar with an inscription honoring Emperor Philip I the Arab was discovered at the Sostra Fortress and road station near Bulgaria’s Troyan, a couple of hundred kilometers north of the Maltepe Burial Mound.
In 2015, a marble bust the Bulgarian police seized from treasure hunters was hypothesize to depict either Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab, or, more likely, his predecessor, Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238 – 244 AD).
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