Third Satellite Town of Early Medieval Bulgarian Empire’s Capital Pliska Found during Digs for Turkish Stream Natural Gas Pipeline

Third Satellite Town of Early Medieval Bulgarian Empire’s Capital Pliska Found during Digs for Turkish Stream Natural Gas Pipeline

The construction of the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline in Northeast Bulgaria’s Shumen District have exposed seven unknown archaeological sites, including the third satellite town of the Ancient Bulgar capital Pliska. Photo: Aerial shot from BNT

Rescue archaeological excavations for the construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline (dubbed “Balkan Stream" by the Bulgarian government) have yielded a surprising discovery: a completely unknown medieval town described as the third satellite town of the city of Pliska, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD.

Pliska was the first capital of the Ancient Bulgars south of the Danube River. In addition to having been the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) for more than 200 years, it was also the largest city in medieval Europe in terms of territory.

While not as densely populated, with a total enclosed area of 23 square kilometers it was substantially larger than Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, or Aachen, capital of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire.

Recent discoveries have shown that Pliska was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age. As the First Bulgarian Empire officially adopted Christianity in 864-865 AD, Pliska also became the home to one of the largest churches and monastery complexes in Europe known as the Great Basilica.

Up until now, Bulgarian archaeologists and historians had been aware of two satellite towns of the Ancient Bulgar capital Pliska – the Kabiyuk Fortress, and the Stan Fortress.

An archaeological team, however, has now discovered a third satellite town of Pliska located barely 10 kilometers outside the first capital south of the Danube River of the First Bulgarian Empire.

The discovery has been made thanks to the rescue digs for the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline (which sends Russian natural gas to Turkey via the Black Sea, and from there northwest towards Europe via Bulgaria and Serbia – although the Bulgarian government insists on calling the extension of Turkish Stream on Bulgarian/EU territory “Balkan Stream").

Rescue excavations of a narrow strip of land in Bugaria’s Shumen District for the construction of the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline have exposed the third known satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian Empire’s capital Pliska. Photo: Aerial shot from BNT

Rescue excavations of a narrow strip of land in Bugaria’s Shumen District for the construction of the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline have exposed the third known satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian Empire’s capital Pliska. Photo: Aerial shot from BNT

Rescue excavations of a narrow strip of land in Bugaria’s Shumen District for the construction of the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline have exposed the third known satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian Empire’s capital Pliska. Photo: Aerial shot from BNT

Rescue excavations of a narrow strip of land in Bugaria’s Shumen District for the construction of the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline have exposed the third known satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian Empire’s capital Pliska. Photo: Aerial shot from BNT

The newly discovered satellite town outside of Pliska has been found in the middle of a field, on agricultural land, near the modern-day town of Belogradets, in the Shumen District, in Northeast Bulgaria. It dates back to the 8th – 10th century AD.

The archaeologists are describing the discovery of the previously unknown medieval settlement as a matter of great deal of luck considering the fact that they are excavating a long but narrow strip of land where the pipes for the Turkish Stream / Balkan Stream natural gas pipelines are going to be laid.

Not unlike the fortresses near Kabiyuk and Stan, this third known satellite town of Pliska replicates the urban planning of the Ancient Bulgar capital.

The large settlement contains buildings which seemingly were inhabited by bolyars (boyars), the highest ranking nobles after the monarch in the medieval Bulgarian Empire as well as the dwellings of their service staff and ordinary residents.

One of the buildings exposed inside the newly discovered satellite of Pliska is particularly large, with double-sided masonry, and walls which were more than 1 meter thick.

The ruins of the large monumental building inhabited by bolyars from the nobility of the Bulgarian Empire. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The ruins of the large monumental building inhabited by bolyars from the nobility of the Bulgarian Empire. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The ruins of the large monumental building inhabited by bolyars from the nobility of the Bulgarian Empire. Photo: TV grab from BNT

“This means that the building had a monumental character. This is confirmed not only by the thickness of the walls but also by the horizontal slabs that were used to tile the floors of the rooms. We have also discovered parts from water pipes," explains lead archaeologist Dr. Andrey Aladzhov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia in a report of the Bulgarian National Television.

The luxury lifestyle of the bolyar (boyar) nobles inhabiting the building in the 10th century is also proven by the discovery of expensive fine ceramics as well as parts of gold earrings reminiscent of the Preslav Gold Treasure, the 10th century gold treasure worn by the Bulgarian Empress (Tsaritsa) and probably made in the Byzantine capital Constantinople.

The Preslav Gold Treasure found in the nearby city of Veliki Preslav (which became the new of the First Bulgarian Empire after Pliska in 893 AD) recently celebrated the 40th anniversary since its discovery.

“[This gold earring] is ornate and decorated with the very complex technology of granulated decoration. It is similar to some of the known pendants from the Preslav Gold Treasure," Aladzhov says.

A gold earring pendant found in the newly discovered 10th century settlement is reminiscent of similar pendants from the Preslav Gold Treasure (view below). Photo: TV grabs from BNT

A gold earring pendant found in the newly discovered 10th century settlement is reminiscent of similar pendants from the Preslav Gold Treasure (view below). Photo: TV grabs from BNT

Spherical earring pendants from the 10th century Preslav Gold Treasure (more photos here). Photo: Radio Shumen

Right next to the bolyar (boyar) residence, the archaeologists have exposed the dugouts used by their servants, in stark contrast to the nobility’s dwelling boasting running water.

“Sure, there is a contrast but I must point out that these dugouts here are markedly different from the average dugout [from that period] that we know. Because these dugouts that we see are all plastered with stone on the inside, they have stone walls, with stones arranged on the inside, they have well pronounced entrances with stairs, and each dugout has a stone stove," the lead archaeologists explains.

One dugout nearly attached to the bolyar’s residence has been dubbed a “kitchen"; it still contains ashes from the fire for the last meal cooked at the site.

“We joking call this the “bread oven" but it does contain the foundations for mill stones that were used to grind the wheat to make flour for bread.

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A bread oven found in a “kitchen” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A base for a grinding stone found in a “kitchen” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The bolyar’s residence found in the newly discovered satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska occupies the highest point from the site, and offers a controlling view over the entire settlement and a wide valley including two nearby rivers.

Aladzhov points out that a total of seven previously unknown medieval settlements from the time of the First Bulgarian Empire have been discovered already in the area only thanks to the rescue digs in the narrow strip of land for the construction of the Turkish / Balkan Stream gas pipeline.

“This is absolutely unexpected for us. In fact, [it is unexpected] that the entire valley of Belogradets with its numerous [newly found] medieval sites. Just within the strip for the pipeline we have registered and researched seven sites. You can imagine that there must be many more outside it. That means that this was a densely populated are in the 8th – 10th century, in the Early Middle Ages, and our knowledge about the region of Pliska has been expanded a lot," the archaeologist elaborates.

“Up until now, we thought that Pliska had two satellite settlements, so to say, the Kabiyuk fortification and the Stan fortification. But here, very close to Pliska, some 10 kilometers away, we are finding are entirely unknown such settlement center," he adds.

The Belogradets settlement appears very identical to Pliska not just in terms of urban planning but also because the area’s topography is very similar to that of the Ancient Bulgar capital.

“We can state that we have found a new satellite settlement of the First Bulgarian capital Pliska which flourished into a rather rich settlement in the 10th century. At the beginning of the 10th century, Pliska also started seeing the growth of bolyar’s estates with their own fortress walls where rich people would reside inside stone buildings. We are seeing the same thing here," Aladzhov declares.

He points out the model in which dugouts, apparently for the service staff, are found almost adjacent to the stone buildings in the newly discovered early medieval town. The dugouts found there, however, are also notable for their large size considering that regular dugouts from the period are usually about 2.5 meters wide.

“The presence of dugouts is understandable because that was the dwelling that would protect you best in the bad atmospheric conditions of this field. During the winter, it gets really cold and windy here, and when you are “dug in" the ground, that is a natural shelter, and the soil itself helps preserve the heat," Aladzhov says.

An aerial shot of an untypical, more “refined” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence, which was plastered with stone on the inside and its own stone stove. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An aerial shot of an untypical, more “refined” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence, which was plastered with stone on the inside and its own stone stove. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An aerial shot of an untypical, more “refined” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence, which was plastered with stone on the inside and its own stone stove. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An aerial shot of an untypical, more “refined” dugout next to the bolyar’s residence, which was plastered with stone on the inside and its own stone stove. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Among the other finds, the archaeologists have discovered numerous fragments from amphorae in the newly found of Pliska’s satellite towns leading to the conclusion that the locals might have been dealing with wine making.

Numerous arrow tips from both military and hunting arrows have also been found.

“We have found many arrows. There may have been many attacks; we know that after the second half of the 10th century this area was frequently attacked by the Magyar tribes," the lead archaeologists says.

He does note, however, that the settlement was abandoned peacefully by its residents, not unlike Pliska, which was not the capital of the Bulgarian Empire any more towards that time.

The First Bulgarian Empire was subjugated by Byzantium in 1018 AD for a period of more than 150 years.

“This town was abandoned for the same reasons why Pliska was abandoned at the beginning of the 11th century. These were the nomadic tribes which started invading from the north so the population had to hide in mountain fortresses [in the Balkan Mountains to the south]," Aladzhov says, still emphasizing the great source of information about the early medieval period that the researchers have found with the discovery of Pliska’s third known satellite town.

Learn more about the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska in the Background Infonotes below!

Various artifacts discovered during the excavations of the third satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Various artifacts discovered during the excavations of the third satellite town of the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A hunting arrow tip found during the excavations in the settlement near Belogradets. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A sketch outlining the concentric structure of Pliska, the first Bulgarian Empire’s capital south of the Danube, with its outer city, inner city, and citadel. With a fortified area of 23 square kilometers, it was the largest city in medieval Europe by territory. Learn more about it below.

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.

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Background Infonotes:

The city of Pliska was the first early medieval capital of the Ancient Bulgars south of the Danube River, and the first capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) south of the Danube.

Today the ruins of Pliska near the modern-day towns of Pliska and Kaspichan are located in the District of Shumen in Northeast Bulgaria.

Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire for more than 200 years, more specifically, between 680 and 893 AD.

In 893 AD, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire was moved to the nearby city of Veliki (“Great") Preslav in the wake of the official adoption of Christianity in 864, and the subsequent development of the Old Bulgarian literary language based on the Glagolithic alphabet and Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet.

Pliska is believed to have been the largest city in medieval Europe by total area (albeit not by population), with a total territory of 23 square kilometers enclosed inside its outer fortifications.

Thus, Pliska’s fortified territory was much larger than that of Constantinople (capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 5th – 15th century) whose territory enclosed inside the Constantinian Walls was 6.2 square kilometers, and inside the outer Theodosian Walls was 14 square kilometers.

In terms of territory, Pliska was also substantially larger than Aachen, capital of the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne at the time.

Recent archaeological discoveries reveal that a settlement existed in Pliska’s location already in the Bronze Age.

The city, however, emerged after ca. 680 Khan Asparuh (r. 680 – ca. 700 AD), the leader of part of the Ancient Bulgars, transferred the center of the First Bulgarian Empire from the plains of today’s Ukraine and Southwest Russia to today’s Northeast Bulgaria south of the Danube River.

The ruins of Pliska were first excavated in 1897-1898 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil although the city was not identified as Pliska until 1905.

Pliska occupied the site of a hilly plain with several small rivers. It had three concentric defensive zones.

The first was the outer city, which was protected by a moat, a berm, and an embankment with a palisade (wall). The second one, the inner city, had a massive stone fortress wall, and the third one was a brick fortification, a citadel defending the complex of the imperial palace inside it.

The outer city, and respectively the outermost fortification, was a rectangle, which was 6.5 kilometers long and between 3.9 and 2.7 kilometers wider.

Its defensive line, or fortification, was 36 meters thick, and consisted of a moat, a berm, and wall (embankment with a palisade).

The moat was 16 meters wide, and 4 – 4.5 meters deep. The berm (or pathway between the moat and the embankment) was 8.5 meters wide. The wall, or embankment itself was 12 meters wide, and 3 meters tall. It was formed by using the soil dug up from the moat.

The outer city appears to have been inhabited by craftsman and peasants. It was not densely populated but, rather, its population lived in separate clusters or boroughs.

Some of the buildings and dwellings which existed in Pliska’s outer city included craftsmen’s workshops, wooden houses, and dugouts. Small stone churches were built scattered throughout the outer city of the first capital south of the Danube of the First Bulgarian Empire after its official adoption of Christianity in 864 AD.

One especially well preserved structure is a pottery factory consisting of kilns and furnaces, workshops, storage space, and dwellings, which was a rectangle that was 100 meters long and 35 meters wide.

The inner city of the Ancient Bulgar capital Pliska was a fortress whose fortress walls were built of large limestone blocks. It was located almost in the center of the outer city. Its fortress walls were 2.6 meters thick, and are estimated to have been 10-12 meters tall. It, too, was shaped as a trapezoid. Its southern and northern sides were 740 meters long, its eastern side was 612 meters long, and its western side was 788 meters long.

There was a fortress gate in the middle of each side, with the eastern and western gates being larger than the southern and northern ones. Three out of the four gates have been discovered and explored. Each one had two 15-meter-tall fortress towers. Each gate consisted of three doors: two wooden outer doors and a descending metal lattice.

The four corners of Pliska’s inner city had round fortress towers. Between the respective gate and corner round towers, each wall had a pentagonal fortress tower (a total of 8 of those for the entire outer city), for a total of 20 fortress towers altogether.

The inner city had an underground plumbing system beneath its stone pavement, which was made up of clay pipes and mortar.

The innermost citadel, or the palace complex, had the shape of a rectangle in the middle of the inner city. It was walled off with a brick wall. It contained buildings known today as the Small Palace, the Large Palace, the Khan’s Palace, and a heathen shrine.

The first buildings in it were wooden structures which were then replaced with stone buildings.

The Large Palace is also known as Krum’s Palace, after Khan Krum (r. 803 – 814 AD). The ruins of its foundations show that it was 74 meters long, 60 meters wide, and its walls were 2 meters thick. The four corners of the building are believed to have had towers. The palace is hypothesized to have had two floors and an inner yard.

Krum’s Palace had an underground passage paved with bricks which linked it to the Small Palace; the passage was 1.9 meters tall, and 1 meter wide.

Krum’s Palace was destroyed in 811 AD when Pliska was captured briefly by the Byzantine Empire, and was never rebuilt.

Krum’s son and successor, Khan Omurtag (r. 814 – 830 AD) built a throne hall upon part of the foundations of Krum’s Palace. The hall was a rectangle which was 52 meters long and 26.5 meters wide. Its walls were 2.5 meters thick. They were made of limestone blocks, and are preserved up to a height of 3 meters. The building had two floors, with the throne room believed to have been on the second floor. It is believed to have been in use up until the reign of Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 853-889) who formally converted the First Bulgarian Empire to Christianity.

One of the most impressive buildings in Pliska is its so called Great Basilica, which is said to have been the largest church in Europe before the construction of the St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome in the 17th century. In addition to the actual temple which was 100 meters long and 30 meters wide, with a total area of some 3,000 square meters, it was part of a large monastery complex.

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