Small cannonballs from culverines (left) have been found by archaeologists in the 15th-16th century layer at the Zishtova Fortress in Bulgaria’s Svishtov leading to hypotheses that they must be from 1461 – 1462 when Wallachian Voivode Vlad Dracula besieged and conquered briefly the Danube fortress. Photo: Svishtov Municipality
Cannonballs from culverins – primitive early medieval cannons – most probably used in 1461 during the conquest of the Zishtova Fortress by Wallacian Voivode Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, from the Ottoman Turks have been discovered during excavations in Bulgaria’s Danube town of Svishtov.
Another intriguing find from the excavations of the ruins of the Zishtova Fortress is a partially preserved inscription mentioning one of the cohorts of the Roman Empire’s First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica), which was quartered at Novae – a major Ancient Roman military camp and city right outside of today’s town of Svishtov from the 1st century AD until the 4th century AD.
In recent years, in terms of archaeology and history, Bulgaria’s Svishtov, which is located at the southernmost point of the Danube River, has become famous mostly for the thorough archaeological excavations and partial restoration of Novae, which has been researched by Bulgarian and Polish archaeologists for exactly 60 years now. At the same time, its Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Zishtova – which was in use all the way to 1810 and whose ruins appear to be relatively well preserved – has not been the focus of major excavations and research.
The culverin cannonballs purported to be from Vlad Dracula’s siege and conquest of the Zishtova Fortress in the winter of 1461 – 1462, and the inscription mentioning a cohort from the Roman Empire’s First Italian Legion have been found during excavations started less than two weeks ago by a team led by Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
(The Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov is more commonly referred to today as “kaleto" – “kale" is a Turkish word meaning “fortress" left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria, whose proper names are sometimes unknown.)
Lead archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov showcases Vlad Dracula’s alleged culverin cannonballs (above) and other artifacts discovered during the renewed excavations of the Zishtova Fortress in Bulgaria’s Svishtov. Photos: Svishtov Municipality
Ovcharov, who is known for his frequent presentations of archaeological finds to the media, has showcased the finds at a news conference in the Danube town of Svishtov.
“The history of the Svishtov Fortress [Zishtova] is very long. [The artifacts] we see here are just a sample," the archaeologist has told Nova TV.
“We have a partially preserved inscription from the 4th century AD, from the Roman period, about a cohort from the First Italian Legion," Ovcharov explains, revealing that the partially preserved inscription reads only “COR", the abbreviation for “cohort".
“Our hypothesis is that this is from the last period of the Roman presence in this region. We know that they had been quartered at Novae, but towards the 4th – 5th century AD, as a result of the barbarian invasions, it became indefensible, it was abandoned, and the Late Antiquity fortress [that predated the Zishtova Fortress] was built here," he elaborates.
“Then we go to the [medieval] Bulgarian period, the 13th – 14th century when the [existing] fortification was built, [which is represented] with coins of Tsar Ivan Alexander [of the Second Bulgarian Empire] (r. 1331 – 1371), Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 – 1395), and coins of Byzantine emperors," the archaeologist adds.
He then goes on to explain the hypothesized connection of some of the newly discovered artifacts with Wallachian Voivode Vlad Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler (r. 1448, 1456 – 1462, 1476) and his incessant war with the Ottoman Turks who by that time had conquered all of what had been the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422) south of the Danube River – as well as all of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, a conquest sealed with the capturing of Constantinople in 1453.
Namely, cannonballs from culverins which are most likely to be from 1461 – 1462 when Vlad Dracula, the ruler of Wallachia, the late medieval principality located between the Danube and the Carpathian Mountains, briefly captured the Zishtova Fortress (today’s Svishtov) on the southern side of the Danube from the Ottoman Turks. Larger cannonballs from later periods have also been unearthed.
“What’s really interesting is that from the [early] Ottoman period we have found cannonballs. We rejoice at those small cannonballs because they are from culverins. These were the earliest cannons which were for the 15th century, up until the 16th century, they weren’t in use after that. These were still very imperfect cannons. That was precisely the time of Vlad Dracula, there is no doubt that they are connected with the siege [and conquest of the Zishtova Fortress] by Vlad Dracula in 1461," Ovcharov says.
The ruins of the Zishtova (Kaleto) Fortress in Svishtov are among the tallest surviving ruins of medieval fortresses in Bulgaria. Photos: Svishtov Municipality
A map showing the locations of the Zishtova (Kaleto) Fortress and the Ancient Roman camp and city Novae in Bulgaria’s Svishtov. Map: Hartamea
A map showing the location of Svishtov (with its Zishtova Fortress and the Roman city of Novae) at the southernmost point of the Danube River in Europe. Map: Port Svishtov
He points out that there are many authentic historical sources about the Zishtova Fortress from the late medieval period and the time of the Ottoman invasion and conquest of Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula, the earliest being from 1385, when Svishtov was part of the so called Tarnovo Tsardom, a rump state of the Second Bulgarian Empire ruled by Tsar Ivan Shishman (1371 – 1389).
“At the end of the 14th century, during its siege by the Ottoman Turks, the Bulgarian voivode of the fortress was one of those who resisted the invasion till the very end. Then, after it had become a Turkish fortress, from February 1462, we have a letter by Vlad Dracula to the King of Hungary, in which he boasted that he had taken [the Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov] after a fierce battle, and that about 410 Turks were killed during the siege. Some of them were probably impaled, in his style. Probably during that winter of 1461 – 1462 that was the castle where he resided because, apparently, he had not gone back to Wallachia [north of the Danube] yet," Ovcharov elaborates.
He emphasizes that the Zishtova Fortress, today’s Svishtov, was a major battleground in the 15th – 16th century between Ottoman Turkey and the Voivodeship of Wallachia, the predecessor of today’s Romania.
“It is no accident that a lot of dramatic battles played out around Svishtov in the 15th – 16th century, when was the big clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Wallachian Voivodeship, which grew stronger during that period," he notes.
“There was another Wallachian voivode, Michael II the Brave (r. 1593 – 1601) who in the 16th century captured the Svishtov Fortress twice," the archaeologist says.
He says he has even looked into local legends that Vlad Dracula even had a child with a local woman after he conquered Svishtov in 1461 – 1462 but those have turned to be “the results of modern-day interpretations".
“The truth is that Vlad Dracula besieged this place, conquered it, and most probably also resided here [briefly]," Ovcharov concludes, while commenting further on the legends about Vlad the Impaler.
“Dracula, Vlad Tsepesh, was not a vampire at all, of course. He was one of the most meticulous fighters against the Ottoman invasion. He was cruel but, at the end of the day, that was the Middle Ages, and he was allowed those things. All the vampire stories date from the time of Bram Stoker’s books onwards," he adds, referring to Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula", which created the popular culture image of the world’s best known “vampire".
Three engravings printed in the Austrian Empire’s capital Vienna in 1826 show what the Zishtova Fortress looked at the time, after it was burned down by Russian troops in 1810. Photos: Svishtov Municipality
The archaeologist has made clear his ashtonishment that the medieval Zishtova Fortress in Bulgaria’s Danube town of Svishtov is so well preserved.
“On the 10th day of our excavations, we can see how well this fortress has been preserved. In Bulgaria, we basically have no fortresses [whose walls have been] preserved up to a height of 10 meters, and this fortress here is indeed one of the best preserved," he stresses.
“By the way, the Svishtov Fortress was burned down by the Russians in 1810 – that was actually its end – when during one of the Russian – Turkish Wars, they had gone inside [Ottoman territory] and then they had to retreat. The Russians burned it down so that it couldn’t be used by the Turks as a stronghold any more. For a long time, I had thought that this fortress would be in an extremely severe condition but it has turned that they didn’t manage to do that much damage, and its level of preservation is rather good," Ovcharov elaborates.
He explains that his team has first excavated a pavement from the beginning of the 19th century, with the layers from the 1810 fire coming underneath it. The culverin cannonballs have been found in the layer from the 15th – 16th century. The start of the excavations of the layer from the medieval Bulgarian Empire has exposed the Bulgarian coins as well as coins of Byzantine Emperors Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328) and his son and Co-Emperor Michael IX Palaeologus (r. 1294 – 1320). Ceramic artifacts “proving the intensive life in the fortress" have also been found.
“I assume that a church might be unearthed based on a piece of a cornice that we have just found," the lead archaeologist says.
Ovcharov points out that three engravings printed in Vienna, then capital of the Austrian Empire, in 1826, depict very vividly the condition of the Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov at the beginning of the 19th century.
In the 17th century, Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi wrote that the castle in Svishtov, the Zishtova Fortress, had seven towers, a water cistern, a house for its commander, and a mosque. The mosque in question might have originally been a church, the archaeologist hypothesizes.
The Zishtova Fortress in Bulgaria’s Danube town of Svishtov had been excavated only once before the start of the present excavations, back in 1961 by archaeologist Valo Valov, known as the discoverer of the grave of Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197 – 1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Veliko Tarnovo (Valov himself disagreed that the grave was indeed that of Tsar Kaloyan).
The present excavations of the Kaleto (Zishtova) Fortress are funded only by Svishtov Municipality, with a total of BGN 30,000 (appr. EUR 15,000).
The Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov has been excavated only once before, back in 1961, 400 years after it was taken by Vlad Dracula from the Ottoman Turks. Photos: Svishtov Municipality
“Together with Svishtov Municipality, we are conducting very serious excavations which aim to allow the exhibition of the fortress as a site for cultural tourism. Svishtov has the Roman city of Novae, it has some wonderful architecture from Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century), and this medieval fortress, and if we manage to complete its research, there will be a wonderful tourist product," Ovcharov explains.
The archaeologist says that the present excavations at the fortress will continue until June 15, 2019, and the all-out exploration would likely take 1-2 more years, after which the Svishtov Fortress would be restored.
“The present excavations are a first step in the research of the fortress, and I hope that based on the engravings, which are literally like photographs, we will be able to do a very pleasant restoration, and will have one of the last fortresses of Tsar Ivan Shishman [before the Ottoman conquest], and a residence where Vlad Dracula stayed," Ovcharov reveals.
The Roman Military Camp and Late Antiquity City of Novae is located 4 km east of the Bulgarian Danube city of Svishtov in an area called Staklen (meaning “made of glass" – because of the Ancient Roman glass fragments on the site).
It was a legionary base and a Late Roman city which formed around its canabae, a civilian settlement near a Roman military camp, housing dependents, in the Roman province Moesia Inferior, later Moesia II, set up after the Roman Empire conquered Ancient Thrace south of the Danube in 46 AD. It had a total area of 44 hectares (108 acres), according to a decree of Roman Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD).
Novae is located near the southernmost point of the Danube where in 48 AD the 8th August Legion (Legio VIII Augusta) was stationed after participating in the suppression of a Thracian uprising.
In 69 AD, it was replaced by the First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica), which was headquartered there for the next almost 4 centuries, at least until the 430s AD, and was a major force in the defense of the so called Lower Danube Limes (frontier) against barbarian invasions together with other Roman strongholds such as Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse), Durostorum (today’s Silistra), and Ratiaria (today’s Archar).
A testimony to the importance of Novae was that it was visited by three Roman Emperors: Trajan (r. 98-117 AD), Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), and Caracalla (r. 198-217 AD). The most prosperous times for Novae was during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD).
In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae; regardless of the siege, however, the fortress of Novea did not fall into the hands of the Goths. With the continuing Goth invasions and settlement in the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire and East Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 4th and the 5th century AD, in 418-451 AD Novae became the residence of Ostrogoth Chieftain Theodoric Strabo who was a rival of his kinsman, Theodoric the Great, King of the Germanic Ostrogoths (r. 475-526 AD).
The last traces of major construction at Novae date to the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD). At the end of the 6th and the early 7th century Novae was attacked by the Avars and the Slavs which led the Ancient Roman and Byzantine city to decline. In the late 5th and 6th centuries Novae was the center of a bishopric. Novae was last mentioned as a city in written sources in the 7th century AD. In 2014, the local authorities in Svishtov unveiled the partial restoration of the ruins of Novae with almost BGN 6 million (app. EUR 3.1 million) of EU funding.