120 Ritual Pits in 7,000-Years-Old ‘Pit Field’ Found in Northeast Bulgaria, Prehistoric Bull Figurines Remarkable

120 Ritual Pits in 7,000-Years-Old ‘Pit Field’ Found in Northeast Bulgaria, Prehistoric Bull Figurines Remarkable

These 7,000-year-old prehistoric bull figurines are among countless archaeological artifacts discovered in prehistoric ritual pits in a pit field from the Late Neolithic near Kovachevets and Popovo in Northeast Bulgaria. They have been featured on some of the official posters for the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition. Each of the prehistoric bull figurines has a hole in the place of the eyes likely used for inserting a string and hanging or wearing the figurines on the neck. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

A field of hundreds of prehistoric ritual pits from the 6th millennium BC, i.e. the Late Neolithic (New Stone Age) has been discovered and excavated near the towns of Kovachevets and Popovo in Northeast Bulgaria, yielding numerous prehistoric artifacts including two remarkable prehistoric bull figurines.

The Neolithic (New Stone Age) ritual pit field near Kovachevets, Popovo Municipality, Targovishte District, in Northeast Bulgaria dates more specifically to the period between 5,300 and 5,000 BC.

In 2020, the prehistoric pits were excavated for the first time by a team of archaeologists led by Prof. Krum Bachvarov, Georgi Katsarov, and Nikolina Nikolova.

The results from the landmark excavations have been presented in the “Bulgarian Archaeology 2020" annual exhibition at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, which was opened in February 2021.

The two prehistoric ceramic bull figurines found in one of the ritual pits from the Late New Stone Age have been deemed so remarkable that they are featured on some of the posters for 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition.

Each of the two prehistoric bull figurines has a hole in the place of the eyes likely used for inserting a string and hanging or wearing the figurines on the neck. While the two figuries both seem to depict bovines, they are not identical.

One of them in particular, which has longer and wider horns, seems like the extinct wild cattle aurochs, the ancestor of the domestic cows, which, according to latest findings, went extinct in Bulgaria in the 13th-14th century (and survived in Central Europe until the early 17th century).

The two bovine prehistoric figurines found in the ritual pit field near Bulgaria’s Popovo are not identical. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

One of the two prehistoric bull figurines has longer and wider horns, and reminds of the now extinct wild cattle aurochs (see image below), the ancestor of modern-day cows. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

Once widespread in Europe, the wild cattle species aurochs went extinct in Bulgaria by the 14th century, and in all of Europe by the 17th century. Image: Wikipedia

One of the two prehistoric bovine figurines has longer and wider horns, and reminds of the now extinct wild cattle aurochs (left), the ancestor of modern-day cows. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

The more than 7,000-year-old prehistoric pit field near Kovachevets is located in the western part of the Popovski Visochini (“Popovo Heights") plateau in Northeast Bulgaria.

The entire prehistoric archaeological site is estimated to have an area of 12 decares (3 acres), of which about 5 decares (5,000 square meters), or about 40% of the site were excavated in 2020, inform the official poster for the site at the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition and the official catalog.

Some 120 ritual pits from the Late Neolithic have been excavated meaning that at least as many could be discovered in future excavations.

An aerial view of the Late Neolithic ritual pit field before the start of the excavations. Photo: Archaeological Team, 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition poster

A set of Late Neolithic ritual pits dug into one another. Photo: Archaeological Team, 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition poster

A Late Neolithic ritual pit containing ruins from burned buildings, stonemills, and pottery vessels. Photo: Archaeological Team, 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition poster

A ritual pit containing stonemills and pottery vessels. A vessel turned upside down contained flint lamellas and bones from a small animal. Photo: Archaeological Team, 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition poster

An aerial shot of the Late Neolithic ritual pit field after the end of the excavations in 2020. Photo: Archaeological Team, 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition poster

The archaeologists believe the vast ritual pit field in Bulgaria’s Popovo Municipality is associated with the prehistoric population from the Hotnitsa Culture named after the town of Hotnitsa mostly known from prehistoric settlements southwest of the area, in the Veliko Tarnovo District in Central North Bulgaria.

The Hotnitsa Culture is best known publicly for the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure, which among the several oldest gold treasures in the world, all of which have been discovered in Bulgaria, and for the Hotnitsa Settlement Mound.

“The material culture [of the ritual pit field] represents the scarcely researched cultural group Hotnitsa (Late Neolithic, second half of the 6th millennium BC), [which has been] known so far mainly from the several monuments in the area of Veliko Tarnovo," the archaeological team says in the exhibition catalog.

“The discovery of the spreading [of the Hotnitsa Culture] to the east, in the Popovo region, represents a substantial contribution towards the research of the late prehistory in Northeast Bulgaria," the researchers explain.

The some 120 ritual pits researched on the site dating to the Late Neolithic (5,300-5,000 BC) contain remains from the ruins of burned buildings and “specially selected artifacts with symbolic meaning".

These include pottery vessels, stone mills and mortars (bowls for crushing foodstuffs with a pestle), horns from wild and domestic animals, miniature ceramic figurines as well as tools made of stone, bone, or horn.

“On top of the pits, [the Late Neolithic people] would sometimes heap piles of ruins from buildings burned down in fires, which could be seen from afar due to the bright red color [of the piles]," the researchers explain.

“These types of sites [such as the Kovachevets pit field] most probably represent places used by the prehistoric communities in order to perform rituals through the digging of pits of various shapes, sizes, and depth, and the deliberate placing in them of diverse materials [which was done] in a certain way, in a certain sequence, and with a certain connection among them," the archaeological team elaborates.

“Until now, such sites have barely been excavated (or recognized) north of the Balkan Mountains," the archaeologists say, referring to Northern Bulgaria as the Balkan Mountains range divides Bulgaria into two roughly equal parts.

The two prehistoric bull figurines and an anthropomorphic pottery figurine fround the ritual pit field as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

The two prehistoric bull figurines and an anthropomorphic pottery figurine fround the ritual pit field as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition together with pottery vessels from the same site (to the right and below). Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

The two prehistoric bull figurines and an anthropomorphic pottery figurine fround the ritual pit field as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition together with pottery vessels from the same site (to the right and below). Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

A head from an anthropomorphic figurine (left) and bone tools from the ritual pits near Kovachevets as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

An elipse-shaped pottery vessel from the ritual pits near Kovachevets as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

Pottery vessels from the ritual pits near Kovachevets as exhibited in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

The researchers explains further that since the 2020 digs at the 7,000-year-old ritual pit field were rescue excavations, they are yet to discover nearby the location of the settlement of the respective prehistoric community which used the ritual pits.

Interestingly, in the eastern periphery of the ritual pit field, the archaeologists have discovered one pit whose contents has been dated to the next historical period, namely, that of the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) suggesting greater continuity in the using of the ritual site, after 5,000 BC.

The two prehistoric bull figurines and other artifacts from the Kovachevtsi Neolithic ritual pit field are on display in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition at the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia from February 12 until May 2, 2021.

(Learn more about the prehistoric Hotnitsa Gold Treasure and the Hotnitsa Settlement Mound in the Background Infonotes below)

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Background Infonotes:

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure (photos here) is among the very top contenders for the title of the world’s oldest gold, i.e. the world’s oldest gold treasure or oldest human processed gold, together with several other prehistoric gold treasures from the 5th millenium BC, all of them found in Bulgaria.

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure was discovered during archaeological excavations of the Hotnitsa Settlement Mound in 1956 – 1957 by the team of archaeologist Nikola Angelov from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. It is dated to the second half of the 5th millennium BC, more specifically to 4,300 – 4,100 BC, i.e. the Late Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age).

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure consists of a total of 39 gold rings, one gold spiral, and four gold lamellas with a combined weight of 312 grams, with a gold purity of over 23 carats.

The largest item is the spiral which weighs 44 grams. The four lamellas have been likened to “persons" as they feature depictions of faces drawn with dots. They are thought to have been religious (cult) artifacts which were used by a high priest to communicate with the gods, as amulets, or as household idols. The rings were part of a chain which is believed to have been worn by the prehistoric priest who owned the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure.

The Hotnitsa Settlement Mound, where the treasure was discovered in the late 1950s, is a prehistoric settlement mound that dates back to the 5th-4th millennium BC, i.e. the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) located near the town of Hotnitsa, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, in Central North Bulgaria. Its archaeological layers are 6 meters deep. It was discovered by accident in 1955 during the construction of irrigation canals when workers stumbled upon pottery and stone tools.

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is just one of five or six prehistoric gold treasures, all from the 5th milleniunim BC, the Late Chalcolithic, and of them discovered in Bulgaria, that claim the title of “the oldest gold in the world", that is, the oldest gold treasure or the oldest human processed gold. The other prehistoric gold treasures from the same time period are the Varna Gold Treasure, the Durankulak Gold Treasure, the gold artifacts from the Yunatsite Settlement Mound near Pazardzhik, the Sakar Gold Treasure as well as gold items such as beads and jewels found in the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit") Settlement Mound.

All of these treasures are the product of Europe’s first human civilization, which developed in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic in today’s Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula, along the Lower Danube and the Western Black Sea coast, a prehistoric civilization referred to by some American scholars as “Old Europe".

At first, the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure was mistakenly classified as a Bronze Age treasure (i.e. from the 3rd millennium BC) despite the fact that it was found in a layer from the Chalcolithic period because at the time of its discovery there had been no knowledge of human-processed gold dating from before the Bronze Age.

Its dating was re-evaluated after the discovery of the Varna Gold Treasure in the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast some 15 years later, in 1972, which proved unequivocally that the oldest gold artifacts in the world were produced by Europe’s first civilization in the 5th millennium BC. Further evidence of that came with the discovery of the Durankulak Gold Treasure in Northeast Bulgaria, also on the Black Sea coast, in 1979.

There has been a hypothesis that the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is even older than the Varna Gold Treasure. The hypothesis focuses on the gold spiral of the Hotnitsa Treasure since it was found in a layer that is located 1-1.5 meters deeper compared with the archaeological layers in Varna. This spiral-shaped artifact could be the world’s humanmade gold artifact. The title is also claimed by a gold spiral hairpin from the Durankulak Gold Treasure, which could date to as early as the Middle Chalcolithic.

All in all, however, the Varna Gold Treasure is usually described as the world’s oldest gold treasure as it is the largest of all five or six prehistoric gold treasures, all found in Bulgaria.

Compared with the other of the “world’s oldest gold treasures", however, the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is remarkable because it was found inside a prehistoric home, not in a grave or numerous graves from a prehistoric necropolis.

This fact has been construed to mean that the gold items from the Hotnitsa Treasure were worn and used by the prehistoric people in their everyday life, and not just for religious rituals.

The four lamellas from the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure have been likened to “persons" because they resemble human faces. Photos: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Archaeologist Stefan Chohadzhiev, who has been excavating the prehistoric Hotnitsa Settlement Mound further in recent years, has hypothesized that part of the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure might have gone missing at the time of its discovery.

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure, one of the world’s oldest, is kept at the Regional Museum of History in the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.

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The Prehistoric Settlement Mound near the town of Hotnitsa, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, in Central North Bulgaria, dates back to the 5th-4th millennium BC, i.e. the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age). Its archaeological layers are 6 meters thick. It was discovered by accident in 1955 during the construction of irrigation canals when workers stumbled upon pottery and stone tools.

The first archaeological excavations of the Hotnitsa Prehistoric Settlement Mound took place in 1956-1959, and were conducted by archaeologists from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

Back then, they unearthed a total of 20 one-room homes made with wooden poles plastered with mud, with thatched roofs; the homes were perfectly lined indicating early urban planning; they had an inventory of ceramic vessels and artifacts made of copper, bone, stone, and flint.

In one of the homes, the archaeologists found a gold treasure of 40 rings and four lamellas. The so called Hotnitsa Gold Treasure has a combined total weight of 0.35 kg. The lamellas feature depictions of faces drawn with dots. They are thought to have been religious (cult) artifacts which were used by a priest to communicate with the gods, or as amulets. In 1958, the archaeologists found in one of the Hotnitsa homes lots of prehistoric idols made of bone. Because of their large number and the fact that not all of them were finished, it was hypothesized that this was a prehistoric workshop for bone figurines.

The archaeological excavations of the Hotnitsa settlement were resumed in 2000, and have been continuing ever since. In 2000-2007, the Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists excavated 300 square meters in the northern half of the mound finding over 5,000 artifacts. They unearthed six more homes, and found new gold items, copper tools, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines. In 2000, three gold lamellas were found; in 2001, a gold spiral; and in 2006, another gold spiral.

The Hotnitsa Gold Treasure dates back to the same time period as the Varna Gold Treasure found in the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, which is known as the oldest gold in the world.

There have been speculations that the Hotnitsa Gold Treasure is even older than the Varna Gold Treasure. One of the arguments for that is that one of the gold spirals from Hotnitsa was found in a layer that is located 1-1.5 meters deeper compared with the archaeological layers in Varna. This spiral-shaped artifact could be the world’s oldest gold.

What is more, the gold decorations from Hotnitsa were found in a home, not in a grave or a necropolis as is the case with the Varna Gold Treasure. This is taken to mean that the gold items were worn and used by the prehistoric people in their everyday life, not just for religious rituals.

The pottery found in the Hotnitsa settlement mound is also similar to the pottery from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis. One of the most interesting artifacts from Hotnitsa is a vertical loom. The settlement was inhabited by a sedentary population dealing with agriculture and cattle breeding, with some hunting and gathering.

Some of the artifacts are interpreted as proving the early residents of Hotnitsa had commercial ties with other prehistoric settlements located on the Black Sea coast, the Mediterranean, and north of the Danube River.

From the animal bones found in Hotnitsa, Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev from the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia has identified bones from 8 bird species: mute swan (Cygnus olor), black grouse (Tetrao tetrix), bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), western marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus), great bustard (Otis tarda), common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) and domestic chicken (Gallus gallus f. domestica).

The Hotnitsa prehistoric settlement was inhabited until the 4th millennium BC, and may have been destroyed in an invasion of Proto-Thracian nomadic tribes from the north. Historically, this was followed by a period of some 800 years of convergence of the local prehistoric population and the Proto-Thracians that gave the start to the highly developed civilization of Ancient Thrace.

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