300-Meter-Long Wooden Passage between Inner City, Citadel Gates Discovered in Capital of First Bulgarian Empire Pliska
Archaeologists have discovered the remnants of a 300-meter-long (nearly 1,000 feet) wooden passage which connected gates of the inner city and the citadel of Pliska, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD, alongside other newly exposed Ancient Bulgar structures and artifacts.
Pliska was the first capital of the Ancient Bulgars south of the Danube River. In addition to having been the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) for more than 200 years, it was also the largest city in medieval Europe in terms of enclosed and fortified territory.
While not as densely populated, with a total enclosed area of 23 square kilometers (8.9 square miles) it was substantially larger than Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire (14 square kilometers), or Aachen, capital of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire (2 square kilometers).
First built largely with earthenwork encampments and wooden palisades in the end of the 7th century AD, and then continuously upgraded and developed, Pliska had three concentric sections: a huge outer city, an inner city, and a citadel.
The 2020 archaeological excavations of Pliska, the first Ancient Bulgar capital south of the Danube River, have focused on an area located inside the inner city to the north of the citadel.
The results from the digs and some of the newly found artifacts from Pliska have been presented in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition opened in February 2021.
The annual exhibition at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia traditionally showcases the most interesting archaeological finds from the preceding year.
The 2020 excavations in Pliska have been performed by a team of archaeologists led by Stanislav Stanilov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, and Mariela Inkova and Panayot Antonov from the National Museum of History in Sofia.
The 300-meter-long wooden passage between the gates of Pliska’s citadel and inner city, of which the researchers offer a visual reconstruction, is only one out of a total of four major Ancient Bulgar structures, which existed in the early capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 8th – 10th century AD.
“The sections from [these] four structures exposed in 2020 were in operation in the early [so called] ‘wooden’ period of Pliska,” the archaeological team informs in the official catalog and poster for the site of the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery from the latest excavations in the large Ancient Bulgar city have been the remnants of the roofed two-floor wooden passage, which appears to have provided an interior link between the northern gate of the innermost citadel, and the northern gate of the inner city of Pliska.
The archaeologists say they have excavated about 30 meters, or about one-tenth, of the total length of 300 meters of the intriguing roofed wooden passage between Pliska’s citadel and inner city gates.
“[The remnants from the two-floor wooden passage include] two rows of pits up to 2.4 meters in depth grouped in modules of two or three matching pairs,” the archaeological team reveals.
“Inside them were placed vertical beams levelled off at the base with the laying of fragmented bricks,” the researchers explain.
“This facility had two levels. The sides of the lower level were open whereas the upper [floor] was fully closed and had a gable roof,” they add.
The archaeologists have established that the 300-meter-long two-floor wooden passage was about 3.5 meters wide and 4.5 meters tall.
Another of the four newly discovered structures from the early capital of the First Bulgarian Empire is a trench left over from the fence of a yard inside the inner city. The yard in question had an area of 8.17 decares (app. 2 acres). In fact, the wooden passage described above went on top of the yard’s fence.
The third newly found structure in Pliska’s inner city is part of an early wooden wall of the citadel, which predated a brick fortification constructed in the early 9th century.
(The latter was seemingly built after Pliska was burned down during the invasion led by Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor Nicephorus I Genikos (r. 802 – 811 AD) in July 811. Nicephorus’ troops were then utterly defeated in the Battle of the Varbitsa Pass, a Balkan Mountain Pass ambush, by the forces of Bulgaria’s Khan Krum (r. 803 – 814 AD) who famously had the Eastern Roman Emperor’s skull made into a silver-laden cup and gave wine toasts with it.)
A testimony to the existence of the early wooden citadel wall in question is a trench north of the later brick wall of the citadel. The archaeologists have excavated a 6-meter-long section from the wooden wall trench.
They have established that the bottom of the trench was at a depth of 1.4 meters below the old medieval ground surface. The wooden wall itself consisted of tightly arranged wooden planks. It towered at a height of 2.8 meters above the original surface (meaning each plank was 4.2 meters tall when the underground portion is taken into account).
The fourth newly discovered structure in Pliska, the early capital of the First Bulgarian Empire south of the Danube, is a pit and a septic canal from a previously unknown wooden building.
“The most surprising discovery [from the 2020 excavations] has been a pit with a septic canal carrying away the [refuse] waters from the kitchen or toilet of a ruler’s residence, the so called Small Palace,” the archaeologists inform.
“Part of its track has been exposed north of the citadel. Its bottom and sides were lined with tegulas [tiles] arranged with a 0.2-meter denivelation from south to north,” the researchers explain.
Recent discoveries have shown that Pliska was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age. As the First Bulgarian Empire officially adopted Christianity in 864-865 AD, Pliska also became the home to one of the largest churches and monastery complexes in Europe known as the Great Basilica.
During separate rescue excavations in 2020 along the route of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline (dubbed “Balkan Stream” by the Bulgarian government), archaeologists discovered a third, previously unknown satellite town of the Ancient Bulgar capital Pliska.
The new satellite town of Pliska is located near the town of Belogradets, and has been added to the other two previously known satellite towns of the Ancient Bulgar capital – the Kabiyuk Fortress, and the Stan Fortress. All three satellite towns mirrored in smaller scale the urban planning of the first capital of the First Bulgarian Empire south of the Danube River.
The capital of the First Bulgarian Empire was transferred from Pliska to the newly built-up nearby city of Veliki Preslav in 893 AD, at the start of the rule of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893 – 927 AD), after the empire had officially converted to Christianity in 864 – 865 AD, and had officially adopted the Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet in 886 AD ushering into an golden age of the Old Bulgarian literary language.
The First Bulgarian Empire was subjugated by Byzantium in 1018 AD for a period of 167 years, before its restoration as the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396/1422).
Some artifacts discovered in Pliska and presented in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition date back to this later period in the 10th – 11th century.
Learn more about the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska 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 city of Pliska was the first early medieval capital of the Ancient Bulgars south of the Danube River, and the first capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) south of the Danube.
Today the ruins of Pliska near the modern-day towns of Pliska and Kaspichan are located in the District of Shumen in Northeast Bulgaria.
Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire for more than 200 years, more specifically, between 680 and 893 AD.
In 893 AD, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire was moved to the nearby city of Veliki (“Great”) Preslav in the wake of the official adoption of Christianity in 864, and the subsequent development of the Old Bulgarian literary language based on the Glagolithic alphabet and Bulgaric (Cyrillic) alphabet.
Pliska is believed to have been the largest city in medieval Europe by total area (albeit not by population), with a total territory of 23 square kilometers enclosed inside its outer fortifications.
Thus, Pliska’s fortified territory was much larger than that of Constantinople (capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 5th – 15th century) whose territory enclosed inside the Constantinian Walls was 6.2 square kilometers, and inside the outer Theodosian Walls was 14 square kilometers.
In terms of territory, Pliska was also substantially larger than Aachen, capital of the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne at the time, which had a territory of about 2 square kilometers.
Recent archaeological discoveries reveal that a settlement existed in Pliska’s location already in the Bronze Age.
The city, however, emerged after ca. 680 Khan Asparuh (r. 680 – ca. 700 AD), the leader of part of the Ancient Bulgars, transferred the center of the First Bulgarian Empire from the plains of today’s Ukraine and Southwest Russia to today’s Northeast Bulgaria south of the Danube River.
The ruins of Pliska were first excavated in 1897-1898 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil although the city was not identified as Pliska until 1905.
Pliska occupied the site of a hilly plain with several small rivers. It had three concentric defensive zones.
The first was the outer city, which was protected by a moat, a berm, and an embankment with a palisade (wall). The second one, the inner city, had a massive stone fortress wall, and the third one was a brick fortification, a citadel defending the complex of the imperial palace inside it.
The outer city, and respectively the outermost fortification, was a rectangle, which was 6.5 kilometers long and between 3.9 and 2.7 kilometers wider.
Its defensive line, or fortification, was 36 meters thick, and consisted of a moat, a berm, and wall (embankment with a palisade).
The moat was 16 meters wide, and 4 – 4.5 meters deep. The berm (or pathway between the moat and the embankment) was 8.5 meters wide. The wall, or embankment itself was 12 meters wide, and 3 meters tall. It was formed by using the soil dug up from the moat.
The outer city appears to have been inhabited by craftsman and peasants. It was not densely populated but, rather, its population lived in separate clusters or boroughs.
Some of the buildings and dwellings which existed in Pliska’s outer city included craftsmen’s workshops, wooden houses, and dugouts. Small stone churches were built scattered throughout the outer city of the first capital south of the Danube of the First Bulgarian Empire after its official adoption of Christianity in 864 AD.
One especially well preserved structure is a pottery factory consisting of kilns and furnaces, workshops, storage space, and dwellings, which was a rectangle that was 100 meters long and 35 meters wide.
The inner city of the Ancient Bulgar capital Pliska was a fortress whose fortress walls were built of large limestone blocks. It was located almost in the center of the outer city. Its fortress walls were 2.6 meters thick, and are estimated to have been 10-12 meters tall. It, too, was shaped as a trapezoid. Its southern and northern sides were 740 meters long, its eastern side was 612 meters long, and its western side was 788 meters long.
There was a fortress gate in the middle of each side, with the eastern and western gates being larger than the southern and northern ones. Three out of the four gates have been discovered and explored. Each one had two 15-meter-tall fortress towers. Each gate consisted of three doors: two wooden outer doors and a descending metal lattice.
The four corners of Pliska’s inner city had round fortress towers. Between the respective gate and corner round towers, each wall had a pentagonal fortress tower (a total of 8 of those for the entire outer city), for a total of 20 fortress towers altogether.
The inner city had an underground plumbing system beneath its stone pavement, which was made up of clay pipes and mortar.
The innermost citadel, or the palace complex, had the shape of a rectangle in the middle of the inner city. It was walled off with a brick wall. It contained buildings known today as the Small Palace, the Large Palace, the Khan’s Palace, and a heathen shrine.
The first buildings in it were wooden structures which were then replaced with stone buildings.
The Large Palace is also known as Krum’s Palace, after Khan Krum (r. 803 – 814 AD). The ruins of its foundations show that it was 74 meters long, 60 meters wide, and its walls were 2 meters thick. The four corners of the building are believed to have had towers. The palace is hypothesized to have had two floors and an inner yard.
Krum’s Palace had an underground passage paved with bricks which linked it to the Small Palace; the passage was 1.9 meters tall, and 1 meter wide.
Krum’s Palace was destroyed in 811 AD when Pliska was captured briefly by the Byzantine Empire, and was never rebuilt.
Krum’s son and successor, Khan Omurtag (r. 814 – 830 AD) built a throne hall upon part of the foundations of Krum’s Palace. The hall was a rectangle which was 52 meters long and 26.5 meters wide. Its walls were 2.5 meters thick. They were made of limestone blocks, and are preserved up to a height of 3 meters. The building had two floors, with the throne room believed to have been on the second floor. It is believed to have been in use up until the reign of Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 853-889) who formally converted the First Bulgarian Empire to Christianity.
One of the most impressive buildings in Pliska is its so called Great Basilica, which is said to have been the largest church in Europe before the construction of the St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome in the 17th century. In addition to the actual temple which was 100 meters long and 30 meters wide, with a total area of some 3,000 square meters, it was part of a large monastery complex.
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