Archaeologists Unearth Burgus (Tower Fort) in Lesser Known Roman Danube Fortress Bulldozed by Treasure Hunters in Northwest Bulgaria
Archaeologists have exposed what was a burgus, a Late Roman Era tower fort, or a centrally located tower inside Pomodiana, a little known but massive Late Roman and Early Byzantine Fortress on the Danube River in today’s Northwest Bulgaria, which, however, was recently partly destroyed by savage treasure hunters.
The specific type of burgus, or Late Roman tower forts, have been researched little along the Lower Danube River, which makes up much of today’s border between Bulgaria and Romania.
Because of its central location inside the Pomodiana Fortress, the burgus, or tower fort, also reminds of the medieval fortress and castle “keep” towers from the Middle Ages.
The ruins of the Pomodiana Fortress, which as a Roman and Byzantine settlement and also a road station existed between the 1st century AD and the 6th century AD, had been researched to a very little degree by archaeologists up until the early fall of 2020.
It is located near the town of Stanevo, Lom Municipality, Montana District, in Northwest Bulgaria, not far to the east from today’s town of Lom, and the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Almus.
However, they were known to have been very well preserved up until November 2019 when, according to locals, treasure hunting looters used a bulldozer to rip through the ancient ruins for three full days before the police intervened.
During their first full-fledged excavations of the Pomodiana Fortress on the Danube River, the archaeologists exposed much of its outer fortress wall as well as the ruins of its fortress tower, which was located in the middle of the fortress, like a keep.
The archaeological team has been led by archaeologists Vladislav Zhivkov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and Valeri Stoichkov from the Lom Museum of History.
During their digs, the researchers explored an archaeological layer going down 2.5 meters in depth.
“It is interesting that this fortress was mentioned in three ancient sources,” lead archaeologist Vladislav Zhivkov has told Darik Radio.
“One of these sources was [Byzantine scholar] Procopius of Caesarea (ca. 500 – ca. 565), who called it Putedis, which can be translated as ‘close to the source’,” he adds.
“According to Procopius of Caesarea, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527 – 565 AD), there used to be a lonely tower here which was avoided by the enemies [of the empire]. That is why Justinian turned it into a mighty stronghold called Putedis,” the archaeologist has told Radio Vidin.
“The area around today’s Stanevo doesn’t have much water, and the water of the Danube River nearby probably wasn’t used for drinking but some 300-400 meters away from the fortress there is a water source, and it was probably what stimulated the early settlement of the site,” the archaeologist elaborates.
While the earliest architectural remains on the site of the Pomodiana Fortress are from the 1st century AD, the period when the Roman Empire conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube River (in 46 AD), the archaeologists have found individual artifacts from the prehistory period, and the period of Ancient Thrace and the Hellenistic period.
“Our excavations have shown that the tower [of the Pomodiana Fortress] is well preserved, and after it is fully studied, it could be exhibited,” Zhivkov says.
“The [Pomodiana Fortress’s] have an unusually great thickness of about 3 meters, which is more than the average of fortifications of that type found in other locations,” he notes.
The burgus tower and the surviving outer fortress wall are built of stone, bricks, and white mortar.
They were constructed in the second half of the 4th century AD, the time of the division of the Roman Empire into a Western and Eastern part, and the time when the Lower Danube frontier, also known as the Danube Limes, was fortified to fend barbarian invasions from the north and northeast.
“The tower in question appears to have been a burgus (a tower-like fort in the Late Roman Era – editor’s note), an individual tower fortified in the 4th century AD, and then expanded subsequently,” Zhivkov says.
He points out that there are indications about the existence of an Early Roman fortification on the site, from the 1st century AD, after today’s Northwest Bulgaria became part of the Roman Empire. In the neighboring Ancient Roman city of Almus, today’s Lom, the archaeologists just recently discovered the original 1st century AD Roman fortification, predating the Late Antiquity one.
Before the 2020 digs, the only archaeological excavations carried out at the Pomodiana Fortress near Lom in Northwest Bulgaria were performed for two-week periods back in 1988 and 1992 by archaeologist Valeri Stoichkov, who has been the deputy head of the latest excavations.
During their 2020 excavations of the Pomodiana Fortress, the archaeological has found more than 200 artifacts, including many Late Antiquity Ear Roman and Byzantine coins, as well as fibulas and agricultural tools.
Most of the artifacts are from the Late Antiquity, the period when the burgus, or tower fort, was heavily fortified, between the 4th and the 6th century AD. The Pomodiana Fortress was abandoned after the 6th century AD.
Besides from individual artifacts from the Prehistory, Ancient Thrace and Hellenistic Era, and later the Middle Ages, the archaeologists have found pottery and three Roman fibulas from the 1st century AD indicative of the early Roman military presence on the site, right after the region’s conquest by the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, the 2020 archaeological excavations of the Pomodiana near the Danube town of Lom in Northwest Bulgaria were necessitated by the fact that the otherwise well preserved ruins were targeted savagely by treasure hunters – not unlike countless invaluable archaeological sites in the region and all across the country.
The massive criminal industry of treasure hunting and antiques trafficking in Bulgaria worth up to USD 1 billion per year, according to the bravest estimates, is discussed in detail by ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com founder Ivan Dikov in his 2019 book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria.
Back in November 2019, treasure hunters used a bulldozer to overturn the part of the ruins of the Pomodiana Fortress in their search for archaeological treasures to be illegally sold to private collectors in Bulgaria and abroad.
“The treasure hunters have managed to destroy between one-fourth and one-third of the [Pomodiana] fortress. The spots that they bulldozed have been fully destroyed – they reached the bottom of the archaeological layer, and those parts cannot be researched because there is nothing left their to be found,” lead archaeologist Vladislav Zhivkov explains.
“Since this is one of the very few fortresses ‘in good standing’ in Northwest Bulgaria, the others have been very destroyed [by treasure hunters], this necessitated the start of the research before the fortress could be completely destroyed,” he adds, noting that the Pomodiana Fortress was recognized as an archaeological monument by the Bulgarian authorities back in the 1970s.
The most notorious example, albeit by far not the only one, of tremendous destruction by treasure hunters has been the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria, a huge Roman city on the Danube River in the Late Antiquity located to the west of the Pomodiana Fortress and Almus.
The 2020 excavations which exposed part of the Late Roman tower fort, or Burgus, have been funded by Lom Municipality and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture. The newly found ruins have been conserved for the winter, some security has been provided, and the archaeologist says there are plans to continue the excavations of the burgus and the entire site in 2021.
The issues surrounding Bulgaria’s large-scale treasure hunting and antiques trafficking industry, including Bozhkov’s and other private Bulgarian collection, is discussed in detail by ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com founder Ivan Dikov in his 2019 book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria.
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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 an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
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 which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). 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.
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