Baby Burial in Clay Pot Found in 1330s Church in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

Baby Burial in Clay Pot Found in 1330s Church in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

The baby burial in a clay pot is one of several dozens of late medieval funerals discovered by archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov’s team inside and near Church No. 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress of the late medieval Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad. Photo: Archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov via the Trud daily

An odd burial in which a very young child, or a baby, was buried inside a clay pot has been discovered together with over 50 other graves under the floor of a 14th century church in the Trapesitsa Fortress in the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.

The Trapesitsa Fortress was one of the citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) for 208 years (1185 – 1393), together with the Tsarevets Fortress, Bulgaria’s most visited cultural landmark and open-air museum.

The discovery of the graves, including the baby buried in a clay pot, has been made in Church No. 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress, the next to the last to have been discovered so far, which has recently made headlines with the discovery of a hoard of bronze engolpion (reliquary) crosses.

One more previously unknown church discovered in the Trapesitsa Fortress in the recent months, Church No. 23, also made headlines but with the discovery of the world’s first cross reliquary made entirely of gold, and, before that, the discovery of well-preserved possibly pre-Renaissance frescoes.

The Trapesitsa Fortress (left) and the Trarevets Fortress (right), the two main citadels of medieval Tarnovgrad, with the Yantra River in the middle. Photo: Wikipedia

The new discoveries in Church No. 22, including the excavation of more than 50 graves inside the temple and another 10 graves in a necropolis outside the church, have been made by Assoc. Prof. Deyan Rabovyanov from the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

The church dates back to the 1330s, the early years of the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331 – 1371) of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It is located in the southern section of the Trapesitsa Fortress.

“We’ve continued with the research of the church necropolis as well as the urban milieu of Trapesitsa, its streets and residential quarters,” Rabovyanov has told the Trud daily.

“Inside the church, we’ve explored over 50 graves alongside the ones which were in the necropolis. One of those we’ve found at the very entrance of the narthex (lobby or anteroom – editor’s note),” the research reveals.

“We’ve also stumbled upon an unusual child funeral. It turned out that instead of in a coffin, the baby was laid directly in a clay pot,” he points out.

According to his findings, the temple, which dates to the 1330s, the time of Tsar Ivan Alexander, functioned until 1400.

“We’ve established that it suffered serious destruction, and was restored ca. 1370, in the time of Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371 -1395),” the lead archaeologist adds.

He explains that Church No. 22 was a city temple serving the neighboring residential quarters inside the Trapesitsa Fortress. The temple in question was a relatively large one.

Lead archaeologist Deyan Robovyanov at the conserved excavation site of Church No. 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov via the Trud daily

“The church surpasses the temple size typical of Tarnovgrad at the time, it is 15 meters long and 6 meters wide. The church was richly decorated with murals,” Rabovyanov says.

“In its altar section, we’ve discovered valuable Christian art artifacts. They were laid in there at the time of the construction as gifts as well as for consecrating the temple,” he adds.

The purpose of the artifacts in question is confirmed by the fact that many of them are several centuries older than the time when the church was in use, namely, the 14th century.

These include the hoard of bronze engolpion (reliquary) cross, an already famous discovery made there in 2017.

“The number and type [of the religious artifacts] speaks of the important role this parish church played in the life of the residents of the southern quarters of Trapesitsa. It also gives us an impression of the holy relics kept in the temples in the capital of Tarnovgrad,” Rabovyanov notes.

An intriguing new find is a Western European reliquary casket and a figurine that was part of its original decoration, which is made of Limoges enamel, a technique for making bronze objects with gold plating and enamel.

“The figurine is part of the decoration of a reliquary which is in the form of casket, and the craftsmanship is Western European,” the archaeologist explains.

Other artifacts discovered during the 2018 excavations of Church 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo include metal casings, cross details, parts from chandeliers, and book locks.

An item that stands out is a lamella with azure decoration, which was probably part of a clergyman’s attire.

The Western European-made reliquary casket discovered in Church No. 22 of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress. Photo: Archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov via the Trud daily

In addition to the newly found artifacts, the most notable finds discovered in the church the previous season, in 2017, include the nine fully or partly preserved bronze engolpion crosses, the church’s altar table, parts of one bronze procession cross and one iron procession cross, part of a lead “eulogy” icon, decorated copper casing, and an icon of Archangel Gabriel made of soapstone (steatite) which still bears traces of its original decoration with gold gilding and red paint.

Other artifacts discovered in Church 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress in the digs so far include nearly 200 silver and copper coins, silver and gold jewels, and a large amount of pottery vessels.

Besides the excavation of the graves in the church and in the necropolis outside, the 2018 excavations have led to the discovery of a previously unknown street. It was a main urban street that was 3 meters (10 feet) wide, started at the southwestern gate of the fortress, and continued towards its center.

“Its excavation has offered a sense of the urban planning on the Trapesitsa Hill. The street served the large complexes such as the monastery around Church No. 8. We’ve gained new information about the connection among the residential quarters on the hill. That’s how we already have a complete idea about its urban environment,” Rabovyanov explains.

A figurine from the decoration of the Western European reliquary casket made of bronze, with Limoges enamel. Photo: Archaeologist Deyan Rabovyanov via the Trud daily

He reveals his excavations have made it clear that the Trapesitsa Fortress was a “typical urban core” of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Its development was nearly identical with that of the Tsarevets Hill when it comes to density and functions.

“Trapesitsa was a densely built-up fortress. It is a myth that was the site of the estates of the prominent bolyars (boyars – nobles and feudal lords, editor’s not),” the archaeologist says.

As the excavations of Church No. 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress are completed, a 3D reconstruction model of it will be made.

In 2015, Rabovyanov already initiated the making of a 3D model of a late medieval residential quarter from the Trapesitsa Fortress based on his research.

A 3D model showing what the neighboring other citadel of Tarnovgrad, the Tsarevets Fortress, looked like, was produced in 2016.

During the latest digs, the newly discovered Church No. 22 from Trapeistsa has been photographed by drone by experts from Ruse University “Angel Kanchev, which has given the researchers a better of idea of who it was situated in the urban environment of Trapesitsa and Tarnovgrad.

The 2018 excavations of Chruch No. 22 in the Trapesitsa Fortress have been carried out with BGN 20,000 in funding from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

Also check out these articles about the Trapeistsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo:

Unknown 14th Century Church Containing Hoard of Bronze Engolpion Crosses Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

Intriguing 13th Century Church with Surviving Frescos of Jesus Christ Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Medieval Bulgarian Capital Veliko Tarnovo

World’s First Medieval Gold Cross Reliquary with Holy Cross Particle Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

Archaeologists Show 3D Model of 14th Century Residential Quarter of Trapesitsa Fortress in Capital of Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo)

Weird 15th Century Miners’ Burials, Venetian Theriac Cap Found in Bulgaria’s Kremikovtsi Monastery near Sofia


Relevant Books:

Biblical Archaeology Review 

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics

The Middle Ages

Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age


Background Infonotes:

The Trapesitsa Hill Fortress is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD.

Together with the Tsarevets Hill Fortress, Trapesitsa was one of the two citadel fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).

The Trapesitsa Hill is a natural fortress on the right bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on three sides. It is located northwest of the Tsarevets Hill. The Trapesitsa Fortress had four gates, the main one being its southern gate, which was also connected with the Tsarevets Fortress with a bridge across the Yantra River.

There are two hypotheses about Trapesitsa’s name. The first one is that it comes from the Bulgarian word “trapeza” meaning a “table” or “repast”, possibly referring to the receptions of the medieval Bulgarian Tsars; the second hypothesis is that the word comes from “trapezium” because the hill is in fact is a trapezoidal plateau.

The first archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo between 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 medieval Bulgarian churches with fragments of rich murals, colorful mosaics, and beautiful floor tiles. The documented artifacts discovered there include crosses, necklaces, coins, rings, earrings, vessels. The churches on Trapesitsa were richly decorated with various architectural forms such as pilasters, niches, blind arches, colored slabs, among others.

The largest preserved church on the Trapesitsa Hill known as “Church No. 8″ is named after the 10th century AD Bulgarian saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) (876-946 AD); it was surrounded with other buildings which are believed to have been part of a monastery complex.

It is known that in 1195 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Asen I (r. 1189-1196 AD) transported the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from the city of Sredets (today’s Sofia) to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), and had them placed in the specially constructed church on the Trapesitsa Hill.

The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that a room in the southern part of Church No. 8 was the reliquary for St. Ivan Rilski’s relics. The relics of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila), who is Bulgaria’s patron saint, were kept in Veliko Tarnovo until 1469 AD when they were transported to the Rila Monastery where they are kept to this day in what became a major event for the Bulgarians during the early period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), as the Second Bulgarian Empire had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD.

The numerous and richly decorated small churches indicate that the Trapesitsa Hill harbored the homes of the medieval Bulgarian nobility, the boyars, and the supreme clergy. More recent excavations, however, also indicate that the imperial palace of the early Bulgarian Tsars from the House of Asen (the Asen Dynasty, r. 1185-1257 AD) was in fact located on the Trapesitsa Hill, and the imperial seat was possibly moved to the nearby Tsarevets Hill only later, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD).

In the recent years, the Trapesitsa Hill has been excavated by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and by Prof. Hitko Vatchev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.


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