8,000-Year-Old Structures, Medieval Christian Necropolis, Ottoman Slaughter Fire Traces Found in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora
A wide range of archaeological structures and artifacts “slicing through history” have been discovered during rescue excavations on a construction plot within the Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve in the Southern Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora – including 8,000-year-old remains from the Neolithic, a large Christian necropolis from the Middle Ages, and traces from the city’s burning by the Ottoman Turkish troops during the Stara Zagora Slaughter at the height of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 preceding Bulgaria’s liberation.
The results from the rescue excavations in question are seen as further evidence that Stara Zagora is the oldest “living city”, i.e. continuously inhabited city in Southeast Europe as people lived there without interruption in the past 8,000 years, in the words of lead archaeologist Petar Kalchev, who is also the Director of the Stara Zagora Regional.
Today’s Stara Zagora has been known, among other things, for the Ancient Roman city of Augusta Traiana, which was probably founded ca. 107 AD by Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) (after whom it was named) on the site of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement called Beroe. (Some recent research indicates it might have been founded by Trajan’s successor, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD).)
It became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) under Khan Tervel (r. 700-718 AD), who called it Boruy, after its earlier Thracian name Beroe.
The city was a major bone of contention during the numerous wars between Bulgaria and Byzantium and became known as Vereia after Byzantium conquered the eastern parts of the First Bulgarian Empire in the late 10th century. Bulgaria reconquered it during the early years of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422 AD).
In excavations of Augusta Traiana in downtown Stara Zagora back in 2018, archaeologists discovered a total of 27 graves from an Antiquity necropolis, including one masonry tomb with murals.
Learn more about the history of Augusta Traiana (known as Vereia in the Middle Ages) in the Background Infonotes below!
The 2020 rescue excavations inside the Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve have been carried out on a plot of total of 290 square meters slated for the construction of an apartment building.
“Our findings are further evidence of the thousands of years of history of the city of Stara Zagora,” Kalchev has told BTA.
The earliest structures and artifacts found there are from the end of the 6th millennium BC during the Neolithic (New Stone Age). These include two ritual structures – a ritual pit and a ritual moat containing prehistoric offerings such as pottery fragments, a horn from an aurochs – the now extinct wild cattle, milling stones, plaster from burned dwellings, and other artifacts.
“These are artifacts used in ritual rites by the ancient agriculturalists and stock breeders who inhabited our lands,” the lead archaeologist says.
“That is another proof that Stara Zagora is an 8,000-year-old city, the oldest ‘living’ city in Southeast Europe where life has been uninterrupted from the Early Neolithic until the present day,” he states.
“This place is loaded with lots of history on a relatively small territory,” he notes.
Going through the archaeological layers from the bottom up, Kalchev adds that his team has also found a ritual structure from the 8th – 6th century BC, which was during the Early Iron Age, and the time of the Ancient Thracians.
Three water supply and sewerage pipelines from the period of the Roman Empire, which were used to remove waste water from the local homes, have also been discovered. They consist of clay pipes lined with stone slabs.
The archaeological layer from the High Middle Ages has yielded a large Christian necropolis from the 12th – 13th century, the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422), with the archaeologists excavating a total of 50 graves.
The deceased were laid in their graves according to the Christian tradition, with an east-west orientation, and with their hands crossed on their chests.
One of the grave contains the remains of an entire nuclear family – a man, a woman, and a child – leading to hypotheses that the three of them might have perished as a result of a contagious disease. However, that is yet to be established by anthropologists.
Artifacts discovered in the medieval Christian graves exposed in the latest rescue excavations in the Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora include earrings and glass bracelets, among others.
“The people buried here came from the relatively poorer part of the population of the medieval city since the finds which were place in the graves to accompany the deceased in their afterlife are relatively few,” Kalchev says.
“We have studied a total of 50 graves here, which is a very large number of graves. They were laid in the ground, in grave pits, some of the graves were lined with stones, and others had stone covers,” he explains.
After Bulgaria’s conquest by the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century, the site of the medieval Christian necropolis was used for residential dwellings.
“During the Ottoman period (15th – 19th century), [this place] here was settled by Muslim population, and we have [seen] three periods of house building,” the lead archaeologist says.
The Ottoman Era homes in question were made of bricks but had stone foundations. The archaeologists have also exposed the crossroads of two streets paved with stone.
The excavations have provided clear-cut traces from the large fire from the burning of Stara Zagora by a large Ottoman army in 1877 during the Russian – Turkish War of 1877-1878 which led to Bulgaria’s partial liberation and restoration from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.
During what is known as the Stara Zagora Slaughter the Ottoman troops slaughtered or enslaved practically the entire Bulgarian population of the city, which was about 26,000 at the time.
A total of 14,500 Bulgarians were slaughtered while some 10,000 women, girls, and young boys were captured and sold on the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.
The Stara Zagora Slaughter was committed after a small vanguard of the Russian army containing a large unit of Bulgarian volunteers first captured the city in an advance south of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina) but was then repulsed by a 48,000-strong Ottoman army which reconquered the city and went on to punish its population.
“We are seeing very obvious traces from this brutal burning in 1877 during the Russian – Turkish War when the city was burned down: collapsed roofs, burned beams, burned floors, charred wooden structures,” Kalchev says.
“Among these ruins, we’ve also found numerous artifacts – pottery, various copper, bronze, and iron items, ceramic smoking pipes, coins, among others,” he adds.
Foundations from the first Bulgarian houses built right after the Ottoman Slaughter Fire of 1877 and the national liberation in 1878 have also been found.
The finds from the Neolithic to the Ottoman Era and Bulgaria’s liberation in the late 19th century discovered during the 2020 rescue excavations in the Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve are to be showcased in an annual exhibition showing the work of the Stara Zagora archaeologists throughout the year.
The place of the rescue excavations at 94 Gurko Street in Stara Zagora is very close to the 1907 home of renowned Bulgarian journalist, pulisher, and educator Milyo Kasabov (1868 – 1937) and his son, expressionist poet Geo (Georgi) Milev (1895 – 1925).
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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 Augusta Traiana – Vereia Archaeological Preserve in the city of Stara Zagora in Southern Bulgaria features the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Augusta Traiana founded by Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) (after whom it was named) on the site of a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement called Beroe. (Some recent research indicates it might have been founded by Trajan’s successor, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD).)
It saw its greatest urban development later under Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD). It quickly became the second most important city in the Roman province of Thrace after Philipopolis (Trimontium), today’s Plovdiv.
The Roman city of Augusta Traiana covered a territory of about 500 decares (app. 125 acres). During the Late Antiquity, it was visited by several Roman Emperors including Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD), Caracalla (r. 211-217 AD), and Diocletian (r. 294-305 AD), which is seen as a testimony to its importance.
In the 2nd-3rd century, Augusta Traiana minted its own coins (a total of 874 of them have been found, as of 2016); it is known to have had commercial contacts with faraway regions and cities such as Sparta, Aquincum (today’s Budapest in Hungary), and the province of Syria.
In the middle of the 4th century, Augusta Traiana became one of the major Early Christian centers in the Balkans.
In the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century) the city of Augusta Traiana was once again known under its original Thracian name of Beroe. Much of it was destroyed by barbarian invasions – by the Goths in the 4th century, the Huns in the 5th century, and later by the Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars.
The invasions of the Bulgars and Slavs in the late 7th century, around the time of the two peoples formed the First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD), effectively ended the life of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Beroe / Augustra Traiana as it was.
It became part of Bulgaria under Khan Tervel (r. 700-718 AD), who called it Boruy. The city was a major bone of contention during the numerous wars between Bulgaria and Byzantium and became known as Vereia after Byzantium conquered the eastern parts of the First Bulgarian Empire in the late 10th century. Bulgaria reconquered it during the early years of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD).
In addition to its Neolithic, Ancient Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian heritage, the territory of the city of Stara Zagora is dotted with Ancient Thracian archaeological sites, including more than 30 known temples of the main god according to Thracian mythology, the Thracian Horseman.
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