Bones of Camels, European Bison Discovered in Medieval Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria

Bones of Camels, European Bison Discovered in Medieval Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria

Bones from a dromedary (one-hump camel) and European bison have been found in the Rusocastro Fortress in 2019. The photo on the left shows European bison photographed near Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria in 2016. Photos: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

Bones of camels and European bison as well as a very wide range of other wild and domestic animals have been discovered by archaeologists during the 2019 excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress, a major Byzantine and Bulgarian city in the Middle Ages, and the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.

The various animal bones dug up this year in the Rusocastro Fortress by the researchers from the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas have been analyzed by zoologist Dr. Georgi Ribarov in a special report.

The new discoveries add camels and European bison to the list of the largest mammals whose bones have been found in Rusocastro, after in 2017 – 2018 the discovery of bones from the now extinct wild cattle aurochs, the ancestor of today’s cows, pushed back the aurochs’ extinction date in today’s Bulgaria to the 13th – 14th century.

“Camels used to walk among the walls of the Rusocastro Fortress in the Middle Ages… the camel remains are especially important," the Burgas Regional Museum of History says.

It points out that the only other location in Bulgaria where camel bones dating to the Middle Ages have been found is the Tuida Fortress in today’s city of Sliven, also in Southeast Bulgaria.

Remains of camels but ones dating to the Roman Era and the Late Antiquity have been found in Bulgaria in two locations: the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Kabyle near Yambol, also in Southeast Bulgaria, and the large Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near today’s Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.

The analysis of the camel bones discovered in 2019 in the Rusocastro Fortress show that they are probably from a dromedary, also known as Somali camel or Arabian camel, i.e. the camel species with one hump on its back.caca

“According to Dr. Ribarov, the camel bones from Rusocastro show the importance of the medieval city as a commercial center since during the Middle Ages camels were used primarily for caravan trade, and, more rarely, in traveling circuses," the Burgas Museum of History notes.

Bones from the nearly extinct European bison, also known as wisent, have also been found in the Rusocastro Fortress in Burgas District in Southeast Bulgaria during the 2019 excavations.

The last European bison, or wisents were killed in the wild in Poland in 1919 and in the Caucasus Mountain in 1927. The species reaching over 1 metric ton in weight, and 2 meters in height, and 3 meters in length was saved only in captivity, and has been reintroduced in the wild in several Eastern European countries since the 1950s.

In Bulgaria, there is a population of several dozen European bison derived from Poland, with the bulk being kept in the Voden park near Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria, with an attempt to since 2013 to settle several in the wild in the Studen Kladenets park in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.

A 2019 aerial shot of the excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

Location of the Rusocastro Fortress near the Black Sea coast in Southeast Bulgaria. Map: Google Maps

Bones of other wild mammals have also been found in the Rusocastro Fortress during the 2019 digs. These include red deer, fallow deer, jackal, fox, chamois (goat-antelope), wolf, wild boar, and hare.

“The remains of chamois are also notable since it is a species inhabiting the highlands in the mountains, and is particular hard to hunt," the Burgas Museum points out.

The wild bird species whose bones have been found recently in the medieval city of Rusocastro include common pheasant, partridge, chukar partridge, great bustard, common (Eurasian) crane, swan, black-necked grebe, common (Eurasian) spoonbill, rock pigeon, great egret, and common buzzard.

The buzzard hawk bones, however, might be connected with the fact that that particular kind of hawk might have been bred in Rusocastro for the nobles’ hunts.

The bones from domestic mammals found in the fortress include swine, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, mule, hinny, cow, ox, cat, and dog, with pig, sheep, and goat bones being the most numerous.

Domestic bird bones come from the species of hen, duck, and goose, with chickens being far more common than the other two.

The bones of sea animals found in Rusocastro include those of sturgeon and Atlantic bonito. Shells from two species of crab, and four species of mollusks. The freshwater fish include crucian, carp, zander, and freshwater mollusk.

The archaeologists have also found the shells of two species of tortoises which were roasted by the medieval inhabitants of Rusocastro together with the shells.

“The analysis from the research results has contributed a great deal towards understanding the natural environment in which the medieval people lived," the Burgas Museum of History says.

“It makes a strong impression that a total of 32.2% of all animal bones discovered during the 2019 excavations in the Rusocastro Fortress are from wild animals. That is, one-third of the local diet of the castle’s inhabitants consisted of game," it adds.

Map showing the Rusocastro Fortress. Map: Wikimapia

Map showing the Rusocastro Fortress. Map: Wikipedia

Also in 2019, the archaeologists excavating the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria discovered silver Venetian coins and a Roman bronze horse statuette indicating the existence of a Roman Era shrine.

The Rusocastro Fortress is best known for the Battle of Rusocastro in 1332 AD. It was the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before it was conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

In it, Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire defeated Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD).

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

Background Infonotes:

The Late Antiquity (Early Byzantine) and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro (Rusocastron) is located in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Black Sea city of Burgas. Rusocastro was also known as “The Red Fortress" because of the red stones it was built of.

In the 2nd millennium BC, the Ancient Thracians set up a shrine of the Sun God, the Mother Goddess, and the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, near the legendary cave known today as Rusina Cave or Rusa’s Hole. Its site was settled in the period of Ancient Thrace, and was an important center in the Thracians’ Odrysian Kingdom.

The fortress itself was built in the 5th century AD on a strategically located hill. The Early Byzantine fortress was most probably destroyed in the Slavic and Avar invasions in the 7th century. The Rusocastro Fortress was rebuilt by the Bulgars in the 9th century, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD), at the time of the construction of the Bulgarian border rampart known as Erkesiya (in use in the 9th-11th century), and was a major stronghold in the geographic region of Thrace during the High Middle Ages.

The earliest written information about the Rusocastro Fortress comes from a 6th century epigraphic monument dedicated to Byzantine military commander Justin, who, according to some Bulgarian scholars, was the great-grandson of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527 AD), the uncle of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD). The name Rusocastro was first used in the 12th century by Arab geographer El Idrisi in his work “Geography of the World", where Rusocastro is described as a large and crowded city. The fortress was also mentioned in a number of Byzantine sources from the 14th century relevant to current events.

The Rusocastro Fortress is famous in Bulgarian history for the Rusocastro Battle in which the army of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the forces of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus (Andronikos III Palaiologos) (r. 1328-1341 AD) in 1332 AD.

The Battle of Rusocastro is often referred to as the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century.

Tsar Ivan Alexander’s victory at Rusocastro is considered the last major military victory of the Bulgarian Empire before its decline in the second half of the 14th century, and its conquest by the Ottoman Turks that ushered in the darkest page in Bulgaria’s history, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912). The Rusocastro Fortress was ultimately destroyed in Ottoman campaigns in 1443.

Rusocastro has been excavated by archaeologists Milen Nikolov and Tsanya Drazheva from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The Bulgarian archaeologists have excavated several churches there including a monastery named after St. George, which existed in the 11th-14th century. Unfortunately, a Christian necropolis in the Rusocastro Fortress was partly destroyed in the largest military drills dubbed “Shield" of the countries from the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact that took place in Eastern Bulgaria in 1982.

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