‘Incredible’ Early Byzantine Fortress with Stone Assembly Letter Clues Unearthed near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo

‘Incredible’ Early Byzantine Fortress with Stone Assembly Letter Clues Unearthed near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo

The well-preserved ruins of the southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo: the fortress walls were 3.5-4 meters wide, of rusticated stone blocks with letters indicating how they match one another. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

Archaeologists have excavated for the first time a 5th century AD fortress near Shirokovo in Northeast Bulgaria, which is the early period of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and is also likely to be the medieval Bulgarian city of Krastovets, discovering that it had “incredibly" robust fortifications with letter marks for stone assembly.

The location of the Early Byzantine fortress near Shirokovo, Dve Mogili Municipality, Ruse District, near the Danube River in Northeast Bulgaria was first noted by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil ca. 1900.

However, it was excavated by archaeologists for the very first in the fall of 2020 by a team from the Ruse Regional Museum of History lead by archaeologist Deyan Dragoev, the Museum has announced

The excavation show the 5th century fortress was expanded during the time of the First and Second Bulgarian Empires in the Middle Ages, and may have been the medieval Bulgarian city of Krastovets mentioned by Ottoman historian Mehmed Nesri in the early 16th century. The location of the fortress ruins is also known by the Turkish name “Burun Kale", a leftover name from the Ottoman period (15th – 19th century).

The newly excavated fortress near Shirokovo in Northeast Bulgaria is referred to by the Ruse Museum as a “Late Roman" fortress due to the continuity in the development of Eastern Roman Empire as a successor of the Roman Empire.

The Shirokovo fortress is located on a rocky cape or plateau at the junction of two small rivers, Baniski Lom and Cherni Lom, and seemingly defended the routes of two Roman Era roads.

The archaeologists have unearthed a fortification whose construction is untypical and hardly known in the Danube region around Ruse. They have found that the ruins of ones of the 5th century Early Byzantine / Late Roman fortress towers are fully preserved up to a certain height.

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

The well-preserved ruins of the semi-circular massive southern tower of the Early Byzantine fortress near Bulgaria’s Shirokovo. Photo: Video grab from BNT

In addition to the massive width and robustness of the fortress walls and towers, the archaeological team has been impressed by the fine craftsmanship of the stone cutters, with each stone brick, or quadra, being marked by letters indicated how it must fit together with the others.

The stone masonry is rusticated meaning that all sides of the stones are squared off neat except the face that is visible on the outside of the fortification.

“What we have here is a construction of huge rusticated quadrae (stone blocks). What’s interesting is that part of these quadrae have letters which might be the initials of the stone masons who made them," lead archaeologist Deyan Dragoev has told BNT.

“The other notable thing is that there are letter indications on the separate stone blocks. These are stone masonry signs indicating how the stones must match one another," he adds.

The Shirokovo fortress consists of three lines of fortifications fencing off from the east the inside of the rocky plateau where it is located.

Letters indicating how the stone blocks should fit with one another, and possibly the initials of the stone cutters have been found in the Shirokovo fortress. Photo: Video grab from BNT

Letters indicating how the stone blocks should fit with one another, and possibly the initials of the stone cutters have been found in the Shirokovo fortress. Photo: Video grab from BNT

Letters indicating how the stone blocks should fit with one another, and possibly the initials of the stone cutters have been found in the Shirokovo fortress. Photo: Video grab from BNT

Letters indicating how the stone blocks should fit with one another, and possibly the initials of the stone cutters have been found in the Shirokovo fortress. Photo: Video grab from BNT

Letters indicating how the stone blocks should fit with one another, and possibly the initials of the stone cutters have been found in the Shirokovo fortress. Photo: Video grab from BNT

Two of the parallel fortress walls are the particularly impressive original fortifications dating back to the 5th century AD, the early period of the Eastern Roman Empire.

A third parallel outer wall was built in the Middle Ages further east as the settlement was expanded, most probably as the medieval Bulgarian city of Krastovets. The third, medieval and outermost fortress wall of the Shirikovo / Krastovets / Burun Kale fortress has been preserved beneath an earthwork towering today at a height of 4 meters.

Some of the quadrae, or stone blocks, of the original “Late Roman" fortification are more than 2 meters long.

“It is presumed that at the beginning of the 16th century the fortress was mentioned by [Ottoman] chronicler Mehmed Nesri as the medieval Bulgarian city of Krastovets," the Ruse Regional Museum of History has said in a release announcing a public presentation by lead archaeologist Deyan Dragoev on the discoveries from the first ever excavations of the Shirokovo fortress.

This first in-depth exploration in the fall of 2020 included the excavation of a total of 110 square meters from the area of the 5th century fortress near Shirokovo, with the archaeologists exposing the well-preserved southern tower and part of the adjacent fortress wall, once again, noting the letters and monograms left by the stone cutters during the rustication in order to enable the assembly of the massive stone bricks.

“The southern fortress tower is semi-circular, and has a diameter of 11 meters. It protrudes 5 meters forward [before the fortress wall]. The thickness of the newly discovered walls is striking – 3.5 meters of the tower walls, and 4 meters of the fortress wall," the Ruse Museum of History has announced.

“The uncovered parts of the fortress wall and the registered second, additional wall have no analogies among the fortifications in the region of the Rusenski Lom River valley," it adds.

“The similarity in the construction of the [first two original 5th century] walls gives reasons to consider them the realization of a single imperial-style construction plan realized in the second half of the 5th century," the Museum elaborates.

During the first ever archaeological excavations of the Early Byzantine fortress near Shirokovo in Northeast Bulgaria, the researchers have also discovered adjacent to the outer side of the fortress wall and the tower the ruins of a building and pits filled with leftovers from iron processing.

The building in question was most probably a blacksmithing workshop. It existed at the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD.

A photo showing the ruins of the Shirokovo fortress before its first ever excavations last year. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

A photo showing the ruins of the Shirokovo fortress before its first ever excavations last year. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

A photo showing the ruins of the Shirokovo fortress before its first ever excavations last year. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

“The archaeological findings testifying to life in the early 7th century makes the fortress near Shirokovo one of the three settlements in the valley of the Rusenski Lom River which are proven to have survived the invasions of Slavs and Avars [into the Eastern Roman Empire] in the last quarter of the 6th century," the Ruse Regional Museum of History points out.

The artifacts that the archaeologists have found in the first digs of the Shirokovo fortress include 7th century AD Byzantine coins as well as metal clothing accessories such as buckles and fibulas.

According to the archaeologists, the Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress and city at Shirikovo is yet to warrant many years of excavations. The fortress itself covers an area about some 12 decares (app. 3 acres).

The archaeologists’ preliminary research into the other parts of the fortress and settlement indicate a strong likelihood that it was indeed the medieval Bulgarian city of Krastovets sometime after the area became part of the First Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 7th century AD.

“[Krastovets] is mentioned in the chronicle by [Ottoman historian] Mehmed Nesri as one of the cities supporting Shisman Aga, that is the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395). Whether that is indeed the case [that the Shirokovo fortress became Krastovets], we don’t know for sure yet," lead archaeologist Deyan Dragoev has told BNT.

“However, it is a fact that we have an incredible fortress in fortification terms. A fortress that had no analogies in the valley of the Rusenski Lom River," he concludes.

The 2020 archaeological excavations of the Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress and city near Shirokovo in Northeast Bulgaria lasted 3 weeks, and were funded with BGN 13,000 (EUR 6,500) by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and additionally by Dve Mogili Municipality, which is hoping to develop the site as a venue for cultural tourism.

Also check out these other recent archaeological discoveries from the Ruse region along the Danube in Northeast Bulgaria:

3 Newly Found Gold Rings Reveal Antiquity, Middle Ages Life in Danube Region of Northeast Bulgaria

Archaeologist Figures Out Thracian Name of Roman Danube City Sexaginta Prista, Bulgaria’s Ruse

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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.

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Background Infonotes:

The ruins of the Late Antiquity fortress Burun Kale is located near the town of Shirokovo, Dve Mogili Municipality, Ruse District, in Northeast Bulgaria. The unexplored fortress is still called by its Turkish name, a leftover from Bulgaria’s period of Ottoman Yoke, meaning “Fortress Cape", because of its location on a rock between the rivers of Cherni Lom and Banski Lom.

Burun Kale was built in the Late Antiquity. Local legends have it that in the late 14th century AD, in the last years of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, a huge gold treasure was hidden nearby, in chests loaded on a carriage (henceforth known as the legendary “golden carriage") to prevent the Turks from taking it.

The Burun Kale Fortress is about 400 meters long, and 150 meters wide. The fortress had three lines of fortress walls on its southern side. Two mounds mark the location of the two fortress tower on the outer wall protecting the main gate. Another fortress tower is known to have existed in the northwest section. The middle wall and the inside wall also had robust fortress towers whose location is marked today by mounds.

The picturesque scenery of the fortress is complemented by rock niches which appear to have been part of a rock monastery in the Middle Ages.

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