Slab with Marching Ancient Greek Warriors Discovered at Apollo Temples on Ancient Black Sea Island in Bulgaria’s Sozopol
A 2,500-year-old slab, a relief depicting marching Ancient Greek warriors, or hoplites, has been discovered among other finds in the recent archaeological excavations of two temples of ancient god Apollo on the St. Cyricus Island, today a peninsula, in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Sozopol.
The newly discovered slab with Ancient Greek warriors, or hoplites, appears to a piece of a larger depiction, other parts of which were discovered during digs in 2018 and 2019 in the zone of the two temples of deity Apollo Iatros (“The Healer”) – one from the Late Archaic period and one from the Early Classical period of Ancient Greece – on the St. Cyricus Island in Bulgaria’s Sozopol.
The St. Cyricus Island, more precisely named Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, is rich in archaeological structures from the dawn of the settlement of Sozopol, which emerged as the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica on the Western Black Sea coast in the 6th century BC.
The St. Cyricus Island (the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island) is believed to have been the site of the Colossus of Apollonia Pontica, a large, 13-meter-tall bronze statue of Ancient Greek god Apollo towering in the harbor of the Greek colony for four centuries before it was seized by the Romans and taken to Rome. The Colossus of Apollonia Pontica has been likened to the taller and far more famous Colossus of Rhodes.
Among the many archaeological wonders of Bulgaria’s Sozopol is also the 2010 discovery of relics of St. John the Baptist in an Early Christian monastery on the nearby island of St. Ivan (St. John), whose presence has been construed as a counterbalance to the religious significance of the ancient city in the pagan period.
In the fall of 2020, the Bulgarian government and the French Ambassdor to Bulgaria announced an initiative to turn the St. Cyricus Island in Sozopol into a museum of archaeology with aid from France, the OAE, and the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The relief slab depicting marching Ancient Greek warriors from the Apollo temples site in Sozopol was discovered during last year’s archaeological excavations. It dates back to ca. 500 BC.
It has 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. It shows the marching hoplites with raised helmets, and holding spears.
The 2020 archaeological excavations on the St. Cyricus island in Sozopol focused on further research of the temenos, i.e. a sacred ground surrounding an ancient temple, which harbors the ruins of two temples of ancient god Apollo, one from the Late Archaic period of Ancient Greece (525 BC – 500 BC), and another from the Early Classical period of Ancient Greece (490 BC – 470 BC).
In the city of Apollonia Pontica, Apollo was worshipped with the nickname Iatros, i.e. “healer”.
The site was excavated by archaeologists Krastina Panayotova and Margarit Damyanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, and Daniela Stoyanova from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.
More specifically, the excavation spot where the archaeological team found the newly discovered relief with marching Ancient Greek hoplites is located before the southeast façade of the largest modern-era building on the St. Cyricus Island, the so called Fishing School.
The Fishing School was built in the 1920s. In reality, it was a secret school for the training of Bulgarian naval officers in the wake of World War I as Bulgaria was prohibited from having a navy under the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, part of the Versailles Treaty between the Entente and the Central Powers.
“[In 2020,] we continued the research of the area between the [Archaic Apollo] temple and the staircase of the Fishing School. Its foundations are dug into a rich archaeological layer connected with the Archaic Ancient Greek settlement from the first half and the middle of the 6th century BC,” the archaeological team informs in the official poster for the site in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition.
In the said layer, the archaeologists found fragments from two figural fragrance vessels and terracotta items, two bronze arrow tips, and other artifacts.
“Above it there is a thick layer of limestone debris used for leveling at some point after the construction of the [Archaic] temple [of Apollo],” the archaeologists explain.
It was in that upper layer that they have discovered an arrow coin, a fragmented black-figure skyphos (a two-handed deep wine cup), and two more fragments from ceramic slabs with relief decoration depicting marching Ancient Greek warriors.
“[The newly found fragments of the slab with Ancient Greek hoplites] complement the ones [we] discovered in 2018 and 2019. They already number 20, a large part of which belong to the same scene,” archaeological team explains.
The archaeologists add that the newly found artifacts, including fragments from construction pottery from the second half of the 6th century BC, demonstrate “the existence of other structures, some of which predate the construction of the temple” of Apollo from the Archaic period on the St. Cyricus Island in Bulgaria’s Sozopol.
“[We] have exposed the outer face of [the temple’s] western wall [which is] made up of quadrae of porous limestone and with a maximum preserved height of 1.5 meters,” the researchers inform.
They also reveal they have finished excavating another Apollo temple in the same temenos, or sacred zone, on the small Black Sea Island, part of the Ancient Greek city of Apollonia Pontica in today’s Southeast Bulgaria.
That is a temple from the Early Classical period of Ancient Greece (490 BC – 470 BC), which was located right next to the Archaic temple.
“[We] have completed the research of the temple from the Early Classical Period located right to the east of the Late Archaic temple. The preserved height of the walls, including one row from the superstructure, is 1.1 meters,” the archaeologists say.
They have discovered an antefix (an ornament at the eaves of a classical building concealing the ends of the joint tiles of the roof) from the third quarter of the 6th century BC and an older wall from crushed stones incorporated into the Classical Apollo temple are deemed as testimony to the existence of earlier structures.
Artifacts found in the latest excavations of this slightly younger temple of Apollo on the St. Cyrucus Island in Bulgaria’s Sozopol including two more bronze arrow tips and fragments from three terracotta items.
The archaeologists have discovered that both temples of Apollo on the St. Cyricus Island in Sozopol, the one from the Late Archaic period and the one from the Early Classical period of Ancient Greece, had no peripteros, i.e. colonnades on all four sides of their naos.
Instead, each of these Apollo temples probably had two columns in antas (antae), i.e. one post on either side of their respective entrances.
The newly found slab with Ancient Greek warriors, or hoplites, as the citizen-warriors of the Ancient Greek city-states were known, from the Black Sea town of Sozopol is deemed one of the most intriguing discoveries presented in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition.
Learn more about the ancient and medieval history of Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Sozopol in the Background Infonotes below!
Also check out these stories about Sozopol’s rich archaeological heritage:
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.
The history of the resort town Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world.
An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.
The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis.
Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria.
Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens.
In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.
In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.
In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD).
However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.
In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.
During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base.
After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.
The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov.
The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists.
In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.
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