Horse Shoulder Blade with Mysterious ‘Magic’ Ritual Marks from ca. 1300 AD Discovered in Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria
A horse scapula, i.e. a shoulder blade bone, with traces from eating and bizarre traces of burning from ca. 1300 AD, meaning it might have been used in some kind of mysterious and thus far unknown “magic” ritual, has been discovered in the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria.
The horse scapula, or shoulder blade, in question is from the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th century, the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas has announced.
The 2020 archaeological excavations of Rusocastro – the largest medieval fortress and castle in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, a long-time stronghold of both the medieval Bulgarian Empire and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire – were completed in October.
They have led to the full unearthing of the foundations of what was a huge hexagonal central fortress tower, or a keep, among other discoveries – including a large fragment from the eastern fortress wall and a previously unknown rectangular tower on the outer fortress wall.
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).
The horse shoulder blade bone with traces from a potentially unknown medieval magic ritual has been among the numerous animal bones discovered by the Bulgarian archaeologist in the Rusocastro Fortress in the 2020 digs. However, the traces from a potential ritual have been noticed during the subsequent analysis of all bones.
The Burgas Museum of History points out that every single animal bone found in Rusocastro gets studied meticulously after the archaeological excavations.
During the study of the animal bones found in 2020 in the massive fortress, Bulgarian archaezoologist Georgi Ribarov “has stumbled upon an extremely interesting find”, the Museum says with respect to the horse scapula from ca. 1300 AD.
The horse shoulder blade has been found in an archaeological layer from the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century.
The horse meat from the bone was first eaten, and then the bone itself appears to have been marked by pressing a hot or burning item against it.
“[The horse shoulder blade] had undergone thermal processing – the [horse] meat was eaten after it had been roasted, which is clearly visible from the typical change in the bone color,” the Burgas Museum says.
“Afterwards, on one side of the horse scapula there are three spots with clearly visible traces of burning,” it adds.
“It is almost certain that this was [caused by the] pressing of [a] heated iron [artifact] with a round cross section upon the surface of the bone. In this way, three circles situated at an equal distance from one another, in a straight line, were burned through,” the Museum explains.
It further emphasizes that similar cases of bones with this specific pattern of seemingly ritual burning have been known.
“No such cases are known from scientific literature and historical sources. In traditional Bulgarian [Ancient Bulgar] culture, the horse is a very powerful, sacred animal, and such actions upon horse bones are extremely unusual. It is known that there was customs of fortune telling using lamb shoulder bones by a special person [who was a] fortuneteller but no such rituals have been known with a horse [should] bone,” the Burgas Museum of History elaborates.
“At the present moment, the researchers’ working hypothesis is that this was a ritual act – some kind of a magic which is completely unknown [without any] parallels in traditional Bulgarian culture,” the Museum adds.
It is important to note that the pagan period of the Ancient Bulgars, according to recent conclusions, an Iranian people from Western and Central Eurasia, ended in 864 AD when the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018) formally converted to Christianity. The period the horse scapula from the Rusocastro Fortress is dated to, ca. 1300, is more than 400 years later, during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422), a very well-established Christian power.
“[We] cannot rule out the possibility that this find [the horse shoulder blade with the three symmetrical burning marks] may be connected with a completely foreign culture – it is possible that Mongols (Tatars) or Cumans may have performed this documented magical action,” the Burgas Museum of History says.
The Mongols or Tatars invaded Eastern Europe in the 1240s, reaching the Second Bulgarian Empire from the northeast, through the plains north of the Black Sea, in today’s Russia and Ukraine, and played a very active role in the politics of the Second Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire well into the 14th century, up until all of Southeast Europe was conquered by the Ottoman Turks invading from the southeast.
At one point, a Mongol or Tatar leader, Chaka, even ended up for several months on the Bulgarian throne as Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1299-1300 AD, having been married to a Bulgarian princess, a daughter of by Tsar Georgi I Terter (r. 1280-1292), and using infighting in Bulgaria as well as in the Golden Horde, one of the Mongol (Tatar) successor states of the Mongol Empire of Ghengis Khan.
Chaka was a great-great-great-grandson of Ghengis Khan, and son of Khan Nogai, who was himself a great-great-grandson of Ghengis Khan and ruler of the Golden Horde.
Chaka was deposed and killed in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad in 1300 by an heir to the Bulgarian throne, the future Tsar Teodor Svetoslav (r. 1300 – 1322), one of the more successful rulers of the Second Bulgarian Empire, with the aid of forces from the dominant faction in the Golden Horde at the time.
A number of Mongol or Tatar finds from the 13th – 14th century have been found by Bulgarian archaeologists, including some intriguing discoveries in recent years, even some items from medieval China which may have been brought by the Mongols.
The Cumans, on the other hand, were a Turkic nomadic people also from the steppes of Western Eurasia, who arrived earlier to Southeast Europe, and were closely allied with the Second Bulgarian Empire ever since its restoration in 1185 AD, including through aristocratic marriages and military ties.
The meticulous analysis of the numerous animal bones discovered in the Rusocastro Fortress in Southeast Bulgaria so far has yielded very intriguing revelations, including that the now extinct wild cattle aurochs survived in today’s Bulgaria until the 14th century, and also the fact that European bison and camels were present in the area.
During the 2020 excavations, the Burgas archaeologists also found that one of the floors of the hexagonal centrally located tower keep of the Rusocastro Fortress had a workshop for the making of artifacts out of horns from animals such as cattle, fallow deer, and red deer, one of the most interesting being a nearly completed horn whistle.
Learn more about the Rusocastro Fortress in the Background Infonotes 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.
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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