Thracian Pits, Roman, Byzantine Buildings Found in Rescue Digs in Sexaginta Prista Fortress in Bulgaria’s Danube City Ruse

Thracian Pits, Roman, Byzantine Buildings Found in Rescue Digs in Sexaginta Prista Fortress in Bulgaria’s Danube City Ruse

A perfectly preserved, practically intact Early Byzantine wine amphora from the 5th century AD, has been discovered during the latest rescue excavations of the Ancient Roman Sexaginta Prista fortress in the Danube city of Ruse in Northeast Bulgaria. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

Ancient Thracian ritual pits, an Ancient Roman building, and Early Byzantine masonry as well as Western European porcelain from the 19th century, among other items, have been found during partial rescue excavations on the territory of the Sexaginta Prista fortress in the city of Ruse on the Danube River in Northeast Bulgaria.

Sexaginta Prista, meaning “port of the sixty ships" in Latin, was a major Ancient Roman city on the Danube River in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior.

The Roman predecessor of today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse was part of the so called Limes Moesiae, the system of frontier fortifications of the Roman Empire and later the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) along the Lower Danube as a defensive measure against barbarian invasions.

Each year in September, the Roman fortress of Sexaginta Prista hosts an annual “Roman Market", featuring reenactments of life in the city during the Roman Ear, including crafts, cuisine, military, and theatrical performances.

The latest rescue excavations on the territory of Sexaginta Prista have been conducted because of the construction of a roof to cover the stage of the open-air “Summer Theater" in the Danube city of Ruse, the Ruse Regional Museum of History has announced.

The Summer Theater, an open-air performance space, was built back in 1961, during the communist period, on top of part of the ruins of the Ancient Roman fortress of Sexaginta Prista.

The theater still occupies over 1,000 square meters from the territory of the Roman city, with much of the ruins destroyed or covered up with concrete during the construction of the modern-day performance venue.

The Ruse Museum of History points out that the Ancient Roman ruins damaged at the time of the construction were not even documented, with a newspaper article in the local daily, “Dunavska Pravda" (“Danubian Truth") from April 1961, being their only mention in the records.

The construction of the stage roof has now provided for rescue archaeological excavations in two squares, with a territory of 24 square meters each, on both sides of the stage.

“That is why [these rescue excavations] led by archaeologist Varbin Varbanov are proving very important for putting together the picture of the Roman city in that part of the fortress," the Ruse Museum explains.

Inside the square to the west of today’s Summer Theater stage, the archaeological team has found the ruins of a Roman building dating back to the 3rd century AD. Its functions have not been specified yet.

Beneath the Roman building in question, the archaeologists have discovered a total of four Ancient Thracian ritual pits dating from the 2nd – 1st century BC – 1st century AD.

The other excavated square, to the east of the stage, has yielded the ruins of two walls from the Early Byzantine, Late Antiquity period, the 5th century AD, and numerous artifacts.

The most interesting ones are a perfectly preserved wine amphora from the 5th century AD, a total of 84 coins, a bronze leg from a chair decorated with an applique depicting a female figure, and a lead vertical level for construction.

Back in 2015, a 7-meter-tall fortress wall from a previously unknown section of the Sexaginta Prista Fortress was discovered in the Bulgarian Danube city of Ruse. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

During the rescue archaeological excavations in the said part of the Ancient Roman city and fortress of Sexaginta Prista, the uppermost archaeological layers from the Modern Era have also exposed interesting finds.

These include luxury artifacts from the 19th century – at the time, Bulgaria and the Danube city of Ruse – were part of the Ottoman Empire for the better part of the century, until the national liberation in 1878.

The 19th century luxury items in question include British-made porcelain, French wine glass bottles, porcelain plates and cups, and fine glass vessels.

Learn more about the Sexaginta Prista Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!

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Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement and fortress of Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships") in today’s Bulgarian Danube city of Ruse was built on top of an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement.

Archaeological research has proven that the Sexanginta Prista Fortress was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement existing as early as the 3rd century BC. In fact, the hill where the settlement is located was a Thracian shrine for performing cult rituals which remain unknown to this day.

There the Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered hundreds of Ancient Thracian ritual pits dating to the 1st century BC-1st century AD, of which about 50 have been studied. The archaeological discoveries from the Thracian ritual pits include pottery vessels, bronze artifacts, coins, bones; a unique richly decorated zoomorphic vessel depicted an eagle’s head as well as several fibulas.

Other archaeological findings include an Ancient Thracian jug from the 2nd-1st century AD containing organic matter from domestic animals, an ancient ceramic vessel from the Greek island of Rodos dated to the 3rd century BC, household vessels, and transportation vessels, which are taken to mean that the settlement had a well developed trade.

The first written account about the Fortress of Sexaginta Prista comes from “Geography", the 2nd century AD work of Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD). The city was also mentioned as Sexantapristis in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus").

The name of Sexaginta Prista has been compared to the name of a Roman port on the Italian Peninsula meaning “100 chambers" because one hypothesis about its name has it that in Roman times Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse in Bulgaria) had 60 dock spots for Roman ships.

Another hypothesis claiming to be based on all available historical sources has it that the name of the Sexaginta Prista Fortress stems from events at the end of the 1st century AD during Roman Emperor Domitian’s (r. 85-89 AD) wars with the Dacians, the powerful Thracian people living north of the Danube River. Back then, an entire Roman legion consisting of 6,000 men was ferried across the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River where it flows into the Danube. Exactly 60 Roman ships were used for this effort.

Subsequently, the fortress was called Sexaginta Prista to celebrate the ensuing victory over the Dacians. It is possible that until then the fortress in question was known by the Thracian name of the Rusenski Lom River.

Whatever the real origin of Sexaginta Prista’s name may be, the fact of the matter is that the name itself underscores the city’s importance for the Roman Navy because the “Port of the Sixty Ships" (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse) is one of only two Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the Lower Danube frontier region, which have names connected with sailing. The other one is Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria whose name is derived from the Latin word “ratis" (raft) or from “ratiaria", a type of vessel.

Archaeological excavations conducted at Sexaginta Prista in 2005-2006 have demonstrated that the location of the original Roman military camp which existed between the 1st and the 3rd century AD remains unknown. There are hypotheses that it was built near the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River.

The Roman archaeological finds on the hill of the fortress date to the 2nd-3rd century AD. The discovered structures include building remains from the canabae, a temple of god Apollo with votive tables of Apollo and the supreme Thracian deity, the so called Thracian Horseman also known as Heros, pottery, coins, and a sacrificial altar dedicated to Apollo, among others.

The orientation and planning of the Apollo Temple reminds of a Christian temple. It is similar to pagan temples in the town of Ruchey, Southern Bulgaria; Benwel, England; and Porolisum in Dacia (today’s Romania). Its planning is construed as evidence that the early Christians modeled their churches on the Roman pagan temples.

Apollo’s temple in Sexaginta Prista existed until the end of the 3rd century AD, and after that, possibly in connection with the adoption of Christianity, it was demolished, and a principium (the main building of the command staff of the Roman camp (castra)) was built in its stead, most probably during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD).

This is also when the Late Antiquity fortress walls of Sexaginta Prista (unearthed in 1976-1978) were erected. The principium was in use until the early 380s when the city was damaged by the barbarian invasions of the Goths, and again until the beginning of the 5th century. Out of a total of 204 coins discovered in Sexaginta Prista during the latest archaeological excavations in 2005-2006, about 100 date to the 4th century AD.

Archaeological finds of coins and pottery indicate that the hill of Sexaginta Prista was inhabited during the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period (5th-6th century AD), and during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th-11th century.

Not unlike the rest of the Roman fortresses on the Limes Moesiae, the Roman city of Sexaginta Prista was overran by barbarian invasions several times, the last one being the invasions of Avars and Slavs at the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century AD, which put an end to the life of the city in the Early Byzantine period. In the 9th-10th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), the Bulgarian settlement Ruse was built on the site of the Roman ruins of Sexaginta Prista.

The discovery of a Christian grave and other human bones are taken to mean that in the 12th-14th century, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), the hill was one of the necropolises of the medieval Bulgarian city of Ruse. The other archaeological finds on the hill of Sexaginta Prista are from the end of the Ottoman period, i.e. the 19th century.

The ruins of Sexaginta Prista are located in the northwestern part of today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse on a hill next to the Danube River. They were first designated by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz at the end of the 19th century based on the distances marked on Roman road maps.

The first major archaeological excavations of Sexaginta Prista were conducted at the end of the 19th century by the Czech-Bulgarian bothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Further rescue excavations were made in the first half of the 20th century during the construction of Ruse’s Military Club. Regular archaeological excavations were conducted in 1976-1978 and again in 2005-2006.

The excavations have revealed a 50-meter section of Sexaginta Prista’s northwestern wall, a fortress tower, six Roman buildings, and a temple of Apollo. The excavations in 2006 discovered the ruins of the Roman military headquarters which was used from the first quarter of the 4th century AD until the 410s AD (it was dated based on the discovered coins and pottery).

Since 2002, part of the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Sexaginta Prista have been exhibited in situ as a cultural tourism site.

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