Massive Hexagonal Tower Keep, Horn Workshop Excavated in Medieval Fortress Rusocastro in Southeast Bulgaria
Archaeologists have excavated in full a massive hexagonal tower keep, which towered in the 13th-14th century over the medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.
The hexagonal fortress tower, or castle keep, of the Rusocastro Fortress has also turned out to have contained a workshop for the making artifacts from cattle and deer horns, judging from some of the finds.
The completion of the long-term research of the keep, i.e. the large central fortress tower of Rusocastro, has been announced by the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas.
The Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine fortress of Rusocastro was the largest medieval fortress in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.
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!
The keep, or central and tallest tower, of the Rusocastro Fortress had the shape of a hexagon. It was 16 meters long, and 11 meters wide, the Burgas Museum of History has announced upon the completion of the structure’s archaeological excavations.
The walls of the large fortress tower, which stood close to the middle of the Rusocastro Fortress in a manner typical of European medieval castles, were 1.9 meters thick.
It is estimated that the keep of the Rusocastro fortress was at least 15 to 18 meters tall. It is believed to have had three or four floors.
In the High and Late Middle Ages, the Rusocastro Fortress changed hands between the Second Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, as part of the nearly seven centuries of medieval Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars.
According to the archaeologists from Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Burgas, the massive hexagonal keep tower of the Rusocastro Fortress was constructed at the end of the 13th century AD.
It was burned down in the 1370s, potentially during the invasion of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks.
“The tower keep was built of extremely well-carved stone blocks. The construction was literally perfect,” the Burgas Museum of History explains.
“Unfortunately, it was precisely the beautiful stone blocks which caught the local population’s attention who used the ruins as a quarry for many centuries,” the Museum adds.
It points out that because of the extraction of construction material from the Rusocastro Fortress barely several stone blocks from the keep of the fortress have remained in place.
The archaeologists have established that the ground-level floor of the fortress keep was carefully plastered with mortar.
They believe that the first floor of the massive hexagonal fortress tower was most probably used as a cellar where various food products were kept.
Judging by some of the latest finds from the archaeological excavations, one of the floors of the keep of the Rusocastro Fortress apparently had a workshop for the making of horn artifacts.
“One of the greatest successes in the research of the site has been the finding of a workshop for horn items, which was situated on one of the keep’s floors. During the fire [which destroyed the tower] part of the products in question collapsed into the cellar, which is where it has been discovered by the archaeologists,” explains the Burgas Regional Museum of History.
The horns from the workshop are from domestic cattle, fallow deer, and red deer. In addition to horns which had been prepared for processing, the archaeologists have also discovered several completed horn artifacts.
These include a horn needles, horn handles, and an almost completed whistle, which is described by the museum as “a very valuable find.”
“Based on ethnographic analogies, the researchers hypothesize that it had been incorporated into a wooden flute,” the Burgas Museum says.
The Museum notes that, “unfortunately”, much of the archaeological layer above the floor of the hexagonal tower keep of the Rusocastro Fortress has been destroyed by treasure hunters and by the digging of a military trench, most probably in the 1980s.
(As noted in the Background Infonotes below, the Rusocastro Fortress did suffer damages in 1982 during military drills of the Warsaw Pact, i.e. the military alliance of the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe led by the former Soviet Union.)
The 2020 archaeological excavations of the Rusocastro Fortress have been carried out by archaeologists from the Burgas Regional Museum of History with funding from the local authorities of Kameno Municipality and Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.
In 2019, among other finds, the archaeologists excavating the Rusocastro Fortress discovered camel bones and bones from European bison, which has been extinct in Bulgaria’s natural habitat for centuries.
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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.
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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