Archaeologists Find 6th Century BC Home, Red-Figure Pottery Krater Depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx from Apollonia Pontica in Bulgaria’s Sozopol
The well-preserved ruins of a 6th century BC home from the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica, today’s Sozopol on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, have been discovered during rescue digs together with numerous artifacts, which include an Attica red-figure pottery krater (a large ceramic wine vessel) depicting the myth about Oedipus and the Sphinx.
The Antiquity home with the krater decorated with Oedipus and the Sphinx have been made during the 2017 rescue excavations in ancient Apollonia Pontica, the Black Sea town of Sozopol, in the foundations of a Modern Era building from 1826, a property slated for construction. The property is located within Sozopol’s Old Town Archaeological Preserve on the Skamni Peninsula.
The rock Cape of Stolets (also known as Skamni or Skamniy) is one of the landmarks of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, and is frequented by local and international tourists every day.
In 2016, the ruins of a 6th century BC shrine of goddesses Demeter and Persephone built by the Ancient Greek settlers were discovered there by Bulgarian archaeologists.
The 2017 rescue excavations that have to the discovery of the 6th century BC home have been led by archaeologists Pavlina Devlova and Iliya Kirov from the National Museum of History in Sofia.
Underneath the foundations of the 1826 home, they have researched an archaeological layer reaching nearly 2 meters in depth (6.5 feet), which contained pottery and coins from both the Antiquity period and the Middle Ages.
In the said layer, the archaeologists have also discovered several graves from a medieval necropolis that was used in two time periods – in the 11th century AD and then again in the 13th – 14th century AD.
In a grave from the 11th century, the researchers have found two small crosses – one made of bronze and another one made of bone.
During the digs, they have also identified the ruins of a medieval Christian chapel and of Antiquity buildings.
The archaeologists point out that the excavated part of the Skamni Peninsula in Bulgaria’s Sozopol has been inhabited ceaselessly since the Archaic Period of Ancient Greece, 8th – 5th century BC, to this day.
“[We have] exposed a well preserved structure with a rectangular shape (a residence) with materials from the end of the 6th – 5th century BC,” the archaeological team say.
They add that they have also discovered three pits hewn into the rocks from the Classical Period of Ancient Greece containing materials from the 5th – 4th century BC.
“During the archaeological excavations, [we have found] numerous items which belonged to the ancient residents of Apollonia Pontica,” the team say.
The artifacts in question include imported luxury ceramics, red-figure pottery, sgraffito pottery, pottery lamps, loom weights, spindle parts, coins, amphora seals, an arrow coin (more arrow coins were discovered in Bulgaria’s Sozopol in 2016), ceramic game pieces, adornments.
Probably the most impressive find from the 2017 rescue excavations in Sozopol is an intact red-figure pottery krater (a special vessel for mixing wine (and water)), which has now been unveiled to the public in the 2017 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
The krater in question was produced following an Ancient Greek decoration style known as red-figure pottery, which was in use between the 6th and the 3rd century BC. Red-figure ceramics were produced primarily on the Attica Peninsula as well as in Southern Italy and Etruria.
The krater discovered in the Black Sea town of Sozopol, the successor of the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica, is dated to the second quarter of the 5th century BC.
Its images depict Oedipus and the Sphinx, a scene from Ancient Greek mythology in which Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx.
According to the Oedipus myths, the Sphinx, a mythical creature with a human head and a lion’s body, guarded the entrance to the Ancient Greek city of Thebes. The Sphinx would ask travelers a riddle to let them pass, and would strangle and devour those who would fail to give the right answer.
Her riddle was, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
Oedipus, the son of Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, answered her riddle correctly by saying, “Man – who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age”.
In addition to the 5th century BC Attica krater depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx, another intriguing and well preserved ceramic vessels discovered in the latest excavations on the Skamni Peninsula in Bulgaria’s Sozopol is a ceramic askos, an ancient vessel with a specific shape used for pouring small amounts of liquids.
The ceramic askos discovered in Sozopol is dated to the second half of the 6th century BC, and was “made in the tradition of grey monochrome Aeolian pottery.”
It has been presented in the 2017 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition alongside the krater and the two crosses from the newly found medieval necropolis as the finds representing the rescue excavations in Sozopol.
Learn more about Apollonia Pontica and Sozopol in the Background Infonotes below!
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The history of the resort town of Sozopol (ancient 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 13.2-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 Bulgaria’s 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.