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Preslav Gold Treasure – First Bulgarian Empire – Veliki Preslav, Bulgaria

The world-famous gold necklace from the 10th century Preslav Gold Treasure from Veliki Preslav, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire. Photos: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

The Preslav Gold Treasure was discovered by accident on April 11, 1978, in an area known as Kastana located right to the northwest of the ruins of the city of Veliki Preslav (“Great Preslav") in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018) from 893 until 970.

The Preslav Gold Treasure is a medieval Bulgarian gold treasure from the 10th century, the height of the First Bulgarian Empire, consisting of over 170 items, almost all of them impressive jewelry art pieces, either entirely made of 14-karat and 22-karat gold, or gold-plated. At least part of them are believed to have been made in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria’s neighbor to the south at the time.

The jewels from the Preslav Gold Treasure seem to have been hidden during an escape attempt in the second half of the 10th century. They were placed in a leather bag or a leather-upholstered casket, which was then hidden in the stone kiln of a dugout outside the fortress walls of the medieval Bulgarian capital of Veliki Preslav.

In the fall of 1977, a deeper plowing of the fields in the area broke the kiln and scattered the jewels now known as the Preslav Gold Treasure.

The medieval Byzantine-made gold jewels remained scattered across the field during the winter of 1977 – 1978.

In the spring of 1978, local people found many of the jewels and turned them in to the Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology. Yet, it is unknown if all of the treasure jewels were turned in.

The jewels were discovered on April 11, 1978, by a group of women, agricultural workers at the local Communist Era collective farm, who went out in the fields to plant vines. The first of them to find an artifact from the treasure, its world-famous necklace, was Mariya Vicheva.

“The first time I saw it, I started shaking [with emotion]. I told myself, “What is this thing supposed to be?", Vicheva comments for BNR recalling her discovery 40 years ago.

In addition to the story of its hiding, other mysterious surrounding the 10th century Preslav Gold Treasure include the questions why it contains church vessels and coins in addition to the gold jewels, and who its owner was, as none of the artifacts bears any clues about that.

Part of the artifacts were found during the ensuing rescue excavations which covered an area of 400 square meters, and were led by renowned archaeologist Totyu Totev (1930 – 2015).

All the soil from the designated area was sifted by hand in order to avoid missing even the smallest artifact, and also because of the lack of proper metal detectors at the time.

The Preslav Gold Treasure remains one of the richest and most glamorous finds from the medieval Bulgarian Empire.

The spot where it was discovered was a settlement, a suburb of the 10th century Bulgarian capital Veliki Preslav, which was abandoned after it had been burned down, most probably during the invasion of the Kievan Rus forces in 969 or the Byzantine invasion of 970 – 971 (see below). It is located about 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) northwest of the imperial palaces of Veliki Preslav.

The part of the Preslav Gold Treasure which has made it to the museum contains a necklace, part from a second necklace, parts from a tiara, several various massive earrings, rings, gold appliques for clothes decoration, precious stones and pearls, gold and gold-plated buttons, silver spoons, parts of a cup, horn metal decorations, and 15 silver Byzantine coins – of Byzantine Emperors Constantine VII the Purple-born (Porphyrogenitus) (r. 913 – 959) and Romanus II (r. 959 – 963).

The central tablet of the tiara from the Preslav Gold Treasure features an image of Macedon Emperor Alexander I the Great (r. 336 – 323 BC) riding on a chariot drawn by mythical creatures. The rest of the tablets depict griffins and simargls, also known senmurvs or dog-birds. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

An ear piece from the Preslav Gold Treasure made of gold, glass enamel, and pearls. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

The main necklace, the partially preserved tiara, and several of the earrings were made using the very expensive and complex jewelry technique of glass enamel. They are believed to have been produced by the imperial jewelry atelier in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

The making of the entire treasure has necessitated the application of all complex goldsmiths’ techniques such as granulation and filigree.

The tiara has been preserved only partly – through a total of five tablets that were part of it. Its central tablet features an image of Macedon Emperor Alexander I the Great (r. 336 – 323 BC) riding on a chariot drawn by two griffins. Two of the other gold tablets feature griffins, one with an eagle’s head, and one with a lion’s head, creatures from the Greek mythology. The last two tablets, however, feature simargls, also known senmurvs or dog-birds, which are usually associated with the Persian mythology. Plamen Slavov, Director of the Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology in 2018, referred to this combination of Greek and Persian mythology motifs in the same necklace as “containing a cultural clash”.

The famous necklace of the Preslav Gold Treasure consists of 13 rectangular gold tablets connected with chainlets, and seven hanging medallions shaped like drops. The necklace weighs a total of 227 grams.

The central medallion features a captivating depiction of the praying Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary). This type of iconography depiction in which the mother of Jesus Christ is shown with arms in ornate position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb, is known as Oranta, i.e. “praying", or Panagia, i.e. “of the sign" in Ancient Greek.

The other necklace medallions feature images of saints, birds, and floral motifs depicted with colorful enamel. The medallions are framed with strings of black pearls.

Ear pieces from the Preslav Gold Treasure made of gold and pearls. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

Medallions from the Preslav Gold Treasure made of gold, emeralds, amethysts, and pearls. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of History

This gemma (engraved gem) seal ring made of gold and mountain crystal from the 6th-7th century AD is also part of the Preslav Gold Treasure. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

The Preslav Gold Treasure is the largest archaeological find presenting the riches of the First Bulgarian Empire from its Golden Age (a term referring to political and military might, and even more so to cultural and literary development).

The jewels from the Preslav Gold Treasure were a small part from the so called palace “chain armor", that is, the treasury containing the insignia of imperial power in Veliki Preslav.

The story of the Preslav Gold Treasure could be connected precisely with the destruction of the city of Veliki Preslav by Byzantium (and Kievan Rus), a heavy blow dealt to the First Bulgarian Empire in 970 – 971.

It was the time of the end of the long reign of Bulgarian Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969) which was known as a period of relatively stability but also relative decline of the huge First Bulgarian Empire.

In 967, Byzantine Emperor started a war against Bulgaria, and managed to revoke the annual tribute that Byzantium had been paying to the First Bulgarian Empire. Subsequently, he bribed with 15,000 pounds of gold Knyaz Sviatoslav I of Kievan Rus to literally “stab Bulgaria in the back".

Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas was assassinated in 969 by his general, nephew, and successor, Emperor John I Tzimiskes.

Kievan Knyaz Sviatoslav I’s highly successful invasion weakened the First Bulgarian Empire to such an extent that in 971 Nicephorus II’s successor, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) was able to capture the Bulgarian capital Veliki Preslav, stripped the captive Bulgarian Tsar Boris II (r. 970-971) of his imperial symbols, and proclaimed the annexation of Bulgaria.

The First Bulgarian Empire, however, survived for 50 more years, until 1018, under the leadership of general and later Tsar Samuil (r. 997-1014) shifting its power center to the southwest, with its capital in Ohrid (today in the Republic of Macedonia).

Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes is known to have captured Bulgaria’s insignia of imperial power. It seems likely that during the invasion of the Byzantine forces, and their march on Veliki Preslav someone tried and succeeded in hiding part of the Bulgarian imperial treasure in kiln in a dugout outside of the city. The Preslav Gold Treasure remained hidden there for over a millennium.

The Preslav Gold Treasure is part of the collection of the Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology.

Ear pieces from the Preslav Gold Treasure made of gold, emeralds, amethysts, and pearls. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of History

The second necklace from the Preslav Gold Treasure has had to be restored because it was only partly preserved. It was made of gold and pearls. Photo: Veliki Preslav Museum of Archaeology

“Data from the excavations and the presence of coins of Byzantine Emperors Constantine VII and Romanus II give grounds to date the hiding of the [Preslav Gold] Treasure to after the middle of the 10th century, and to link that with the devastation of Veliki Preslav by Knyaz Sviatoslav I of Kievan Rus in 969, and the city’s capture by Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes in 971," the Veliki Preslav Museum says.

In 2017 – 2018, the Preslav Gold Treasure underwent conservation at the Roman – Germanic Central Museum (Roemisch – Germanisches Zentralmuseum) in Mainz, Germany.

In the first 40 years since its discovery, Bulgaria’s Preslav Gold Treasure was exhibited abroad more than 30 times.

In 2016, Bulgarian archaeologist Stoycho Bonev (who took part in the Preslav Gold Treasure digs in 1978) while excavating a site in Veliki Preslav discovered a 10th century gold jewel in the shape of a heart decorated with a five-color enamel, which may have belonged to the wife of Bulgarian Tsar Petar I (r. 927-969). It is unknown if it should be associated in any way with the Preslav Gold Treasure.

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

Bulgars: Webster’s Timeline History, 354 – 2007

A history of the first Bulgarian empire

2: Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans (Millennium Studies)

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Top 12 Places to Visit in Bulgaria – Top 12 Bulgaria Travel Guide (Includes Sofia, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, Belogradchik & More)

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

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