Early Ottoman Era looters broke into the 20-meter-tall 3rd century AD Roman tower tomb underneath Bulgaria’s largest Thracian burial mound in Bulgaria’s Manole through the structure’s southeastern corner. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology/Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
A huge tunnel for looting that fit large draft animals and was dug up in the 16th century, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1521 – 1566) has been discovered by archaeologists inside the 3rd century AD Middle Eastern-style tower tomb found underneath Bulgaria’s largest Thracian burial mound that might prove to contain the remains of Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab (r. 244 – 249 AD).
The Middle Eastern style tower tomb from the 3rd century AD was discovered unexpectedly underneath the Maltepe Burial Mound near the town of Manole, Maritsa Municipality, Plovdiv District, in Central South Bulgaria.
Because of its architectural style similar tower tombs in ancient Middle East cities such as Petra and Palmyra, and because of its monumental size and scope archaeologists have hypothesized it could be the resting place of Roman Emperor Philip I the Arab, or, alternatively, of Teres, an Ancient Thracian dignitary who ruled the Roman province of Thracia in the 3rd century AD.
Starting from the top of the huge mound and going down, the archaeologists from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology led by its Director, Assoc. Prof. Kostadin Kisyov, have exposed 20 meters (60 feet) of the Antiquity building. For the time being, the researcher have chosen not to open the massive tower tomb until they expose it in full.
Literally all of Bulgaria’s many thousands of archaeological and historical sites are being targeted by modern-day treasure hunters on a daily basis, with probably 90% of the “mined" artifacts trafficked abroad in a criminal industry worth up to USD 1 billion per year.
Many of Bulgaria’s Ancient Thracian burial mounds have been destroyed by treasure hunters, and it was modern-day treasure hunting raids that prompted the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology to hurry up with the excavations of the largest one, the Maltepe Mound.
This is what the 23-meter-tall Maltepe Burial Mound looked liked for nearly two millennia before it was first excavated in 2016 – similar to thousands of other Ancient Thracian burial mounds dotting the landscape in much of Southern and Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Maltepe Open Air Museum
The gradual exposing of the tower tomb from the top down of the burial mound during the 2018 excavations. Photo: Plovdiv Time
The tower tomb beneath the Maltepe Mound in Bulgaria’s Manole partly exposed after the end of the 2018 excavations. Photo: Stoilka Ignatova via Plovdiv Time
Going several meters deeper in late June and early July 2019, the archaeologists have discovered the entrance of the huge Ottoman looting tunnel at the southeastern corner of the Roman Era structure. Photo: Stoilka Ignatova via Plovdiv Time
The entrance of the massive Ottoman looting tunnel from the 16th century – local legends telling of a Turkish princess who had her aides try to plunder the Maltepe Mound might turn out to be true. Photo: Plovdvi Museum of Archaeology / Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
With the resumption in June 2019 of the digs at the tower tomb surprisingly found beneath the man-made hill, however, the archaeologists have discovered the entrance and the entire length of a huge treasure hunting tunnel dug up to loot the ancient burial site.
Even more intriguingly, though, they have found categorical evidence that the 40-meter-long tunnel, which was built so that it would fit draft animals such as horses, donkeys, or mules, was in fact dug up and used in the 16th century, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1521 – 1566). (Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, a period known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878/1912).
At first the team of lead archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov discovered the entrance of the treasure hunting tunnel, a break-in in the southeastern corner of the third section of the ancient tower tomb beneath the Maltepe Mound from the Thracian – Roman period, reports local news and culture site Plovdiv Time.
Shortly after that, however, as they explored the tunnel, the researchers found definitive evidence when it had been built, and that it had been sealed, and not entered any more since that time – the 16th century.
“We registered the large-scale treasure hunting tunnel as early as last year. Back then we reached it but we didn’t explore it because it was dangerous," lead archaeologist Kisyov explains.
“This year, as we were descending and clearing up the southern side [of the tower tomb] in depth, we reached the level of the treasure hunting destruction resulting from the 40-meter-long tunnel," he adds.
“The treasure hunters penetrated from the eastern side digging up a tunnel that leads directly to the southeastern foundation in the third section of the tower. Upon reaching the [architectural] structure, they began to extract stones. That was how they shattered the entire southeastern corner of the third section of the tower. They extracted stones that covered an area that was 4.5 meters by 4.5 meters. Almost the half of the structure of that third section [of the tower tomb] was dug up, and stones were tossed around in the periphery [of the mound]. We have found them," the archaeologist elaborates.
During their 2018 excavations, Kisyov’s team found some indications that the huge tunnel they came across was not built by modern-day treasure hunters but was dug up much earlier.
Lead archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, is seen here at the entrance of the 16th century Ottoman looting tunnel. Photo: Stoilka Ignatova via Plovdiv Time
At one point inside the tunnel, the 16th century wannabe looters began kept digging downwards for about 2.5 meters until they gave up, and continued forward and then upwards. They filled up the 2.5-meter-deep pit with sand. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology / Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
They found the stones extracted from the structure beneath the mound under a turf that was 35-40 centimeters deep. Now they have found convincing evidence the tunnel was dug up in the 16th century, the early Ottoman period, at the time of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and that it had been sealed ever since.
“When we found the demolition of the southeast corner, in daylight and with additional lighting we carried out a thorough inspection inside in order to find out when it was created. In my work, I have many cases of [encountering] treasure hunting tunnels and shafts, in which we have found all kinds of items left behind – batteries, cigarettes, bottle caps, etc., thanks to which we would establish when the respective archaeological monument had been broken into," Kisyov says.
“Last year we couldn’t do that in Maltepe, but it was one of the first things on my to-do list for the new archaeological season. We just had to find out what had been destroyed, and if there was a risk about the structure of the tower, and only then we would have been able to keep excavating," he adds.
The archaeologist points out that the entire treasure hunting tunnel dug up to loot the Ancient Thracian – Roman Middle Eastern-style tower tomb has been inspected by his team, which includes, among other experts, former and current speleologists and cave exploration enthusiasts. The inspection also included searching the entire tunnel with a metal detector.
“We have established two circumstances. First, after [the looters] dug it up and created something similar to a room [inside the mound, they saw that there was nothing there, and started digging vertically downwards. [From there] they extracted stones as well. That pit had been filled up with soil when we found it, and was 2.5 meters deep," Kisyov reveals.
“After they gave up digging further downwards, they proceeded shattering the southern side [of the tower tomb], and kept [digging] upwards, with a 7-meter shaft. This entire situation was really interesting because we had to figure out where they entered, where they started, and what they did. That was precisely the zone where we discovered finds allowing us to date the building of the tunnel. We have found the tunnel sealed, no other people had entered it since the treasure hunters," the archaeologist elaborates.
The 40-meter-long looting tunnel from the time of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent inside the 3rd century AD Roman – Thracian tower tomb was wide and tall enough to fit hinnies and mules used for extracting the demolished construction materials. Photos: Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology/Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
The artifacts left behind by the 16th century treasure hunters who tried to plunder the 3rd century tower tomb include an Ottoman coin minted by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520 – 1566), which was discovered at the entrance level inside the tunnel.
Two more Ottoman coins have been found outside the tower tomb tunnel, in the periphery of the Thracian – Roman Era burial mound. Those are the so called mangir coins which were low-value coins used by the poorer population, and were minted by Ottoman Sultan Murad I (r. 1421 – 1451).
While these two coins are earlier than the one found inside the tunnel, the mangirs were also in circulation at the time of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent a century later.
Another crucial artifact found inside the treasure hunting tunnel dug up in the Thracian – Roman Era burial mound and inside the tower tomb is a metal bridle bit of a type probably used for mules and hinnies.
What is more, inside the tunnel, the archaeologists have found traces of excrements from the respective draft animals.
The bridal bit and the excrements demonstrate that the 16th century treasure hunters used draft animals, most probably mules or hinnies, maybe even horses, in order to extract the soil and stones left from the tunnel digging.
The use of draft animals answers the question why the tunnel is so large – it is up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall, and 70 – 80 centimeters (between 2 and 3 feet) wide.
The archaeologists have also found that the ceiling of the tunnel was burned with torches or lamps fueled with animal fat or olive oil that the treasure hunters used for lighting. The researchers are yet to have the soot analyzed.
A coin minted by Suleiman the Magnificent, a bridle pit, and traces of draft animal manure have been found by the archaeologists inside the looting tunnel sealed since the 16th century. Photo: Stoilka Ignatova via Plovdiv Time
The research team is unable to say for the time being whether there were other treasure hunting attempts to loot the Middle Eastern-style tower tomb found beneath Bulgaria’s largest Thracian burial mound.
That will be established as the archaeologists expose the rest of the tower tomb that is very reminiscent of similar tombs in Petra and Palmyra, an ancient architectural style that is not at all typical of Ancient Thrace and Ancient Rome in the Balkan Peninsula and the rest of Europe.
Kisyov’s team is yet to reach ground zero estimated to be 6 meters below the current level, and to establish the foundations supporting the impressive 20-meter-tall tower, which is about the height of an 8-storey building. The weight of the entire tower is estimated at 1,200 metric tons.
“Apart from that, on the top of the tower there was a pedestal on five levels which weighed about 15 metric tons. On its very top, there was some kind of a statue of which we have found no fragments whatsoever. The tower was designed so that it would hold that pedestal and that statue," the archaeologist told Nova TV.
He has reiterated his and his team’s hypothesis that the person buried inside the Maltepe tower tomb exposed from underneath Bulgaria’s largest Thracian burial mound was most probably a (Roman) Emperor, likely Philip I the Arab judging from the highly unusual architectural style of the structure.
“However, I don’t rule out the possibility that an Odrysian aristocrat might be buried in it, such as Teres, who was a proxy for the Emperor, and governed the entire Roman province of Thracia," Kisyov says, referring to the fate of the successors of the ruling dynasty of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom after it (and all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube) was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.
Since the resumption of the excavations a couple of weeks ago, the team has found artifacts such as coins and pottery dating towards the end of the 3rd century AD.
“That is archaeological material showing that the mound is from the 3rd century BC. That, however, doesn’t mean that the tower itself was not constructed earlier. Its dating and the person the tomb belongs to will be established after we enter inside it. What’s 100% sure is that this tower, which we first expected to be a tomb, consists of sections, filled up with crushed stones, mortar and cement. In effect, it was built in order to support the marble pedestal on top of it from which we have found many quadrae, and the statue from which we haven’t found anything," the lead archaeologist elaborates.
Task number one in the continuation of the excavations will be to reinforce the southeastern wall of the tower tomb partly destroyed during the digging of the treasure hunting tunnel in the 16th century.
For the time being, the ancient tower tomb is not in danger of collapsing because it is still supported by soil on three sides. However, the risk will become grave once the archaeological team exposes it from all sides.
That is why a commission from the Inspectorate of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has prescribed its reinforcing. As the archaeological monument gets restored and conserved, the 16th century treasure hunting tunnel will be filled up.
The researchers have noted the remarkable craftsmanship of the masonry of the massive structure.
The Tower of Maltepe is going to become an archaeological [and cultural tourism] site of global significance, I can guarantee that. What is being discovered has no analogies in the [European part] of the former Roman Empire," Kisyov emphasizes, reiterating his earlier predictions.
He hopes that by the beginning of August his team would have exposed all of the southern side of the tower.
The three Ottoman coins found in the renewed Maltepe tower tomb digs: the 16th century coin of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from inside the looting tunnel, and two manir coins minted by 15th century Sultan Murad II found in the periphery of the Thracian burial mound. Photos: Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology/Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
The metal bridle bit discovered inside the Ottoman Era looting tunnel is further evidence that the treasure hunters used draft animals inside it. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology/Plamen Kurtev via Plovdiv Time
The report notes a legend still told by the elderly residents of the town of Manole near Plovdiv, according to which an Ottoman Turkish princess told her aides to dig up the huge mound near Manole in order to extract the treasures hidden underneath.
The discovery of the 16th century treasure hunting tunnel leading inside the tower tomb, and having been able to fit even draft animals seems to indicate that the legend might be true.
It is also pointed out that in more recent periods locals throughout Bulgaria usually named Thracian burial mounds dotting the countryside after the person whose property they fell into – such as Petar’s Mound, Kiro’s Mound, etc.
The name of the Maltepe Mound, however, is an exception, and could be derived from a Turkish word referring to treasure hunting.
The Maltepe Mound near Manole, Plovdiv District, should not be confused with another Thracian burial mound in Southern Bulgaria also called “Maltepe" which is located near the town of Mezek and the ruins of the Mezek Fortress, Svilengrad Municipality, about 130 km to the east. The latter is also known as the Mezek Thracian Tomb, and has already been turned into a museum, and is open for visitors. It is known, among other things, for the discovery of rein rings from a Celtic chariot.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.