For 60th Year in Row Bulgarian, Polish Archaeologists to Excavate Ancient Roman City Novae in Danube Town Svishtov

For 60th Year in Row Bulgarian, Polish Archaeologists to Excavate Ancient Roman City Novae in Danube Town Svishtov

An aerial view of the partially restored ruins of Novae, including the bishop’s basilica and bishop’s residence – a small fraction from the entire Roman military camp and later Late Roman and Early Byzantine city, as well as the ground for holding gladiator fights and other reenactments for the Eagle on the Danube Festival in Bulgaria’s Svishtov. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

For the 60th year in a row, Bulgarian and Polish archaeologists are beginning their annual excavations of the Ancient Roman military camp and city of Novae located near today’s Danube town of Svishtov.

Novae, located at the southernmost point of the Danube River, has thus been researched with joint full-fledged archaeological excavations by scholars from Bulgaria and Poland without interruption since 1959.

It is the only international archaeological expedition in Bulgaria to have last for more than half a century, without any interruptions, Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, has pointed out, as cited by the Yantra Dnes daily.

The military camp, fortress and later city of Novae was the headquarters of the Roman First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica) from 69 AD until at least the 430s.

It existed for about 600 years as was one of the major Roman and later Early Byzantine strongholds defending the so called Limes Moesiae, the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire and later the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

What began as a Roman military camp emerged as a large Late Antiquity urban center and the seat of a bishopric. As a city, it survived until the beginning of the 7th century AD when it was destroyed by the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs.

In addition to the Roman city of Novae, Bulgaria’s Danube town of Svishtov has also made headlines with its other main archaeological and historical landmark, the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Zishtova where archaeologists recently found culverin cannonballs from Wallachian Voivode Vlad Dracula’s victory over the Ottoman Turks there in 1461 – 1462 – as well as a partially preserved inscription mentioning one of the cohorts of the First Italian Legion.

The ruins of the valetudinarium (Roman military hospital) in Novae in Bulgaria’s Svishtov. Photo: Wikipedia

The Bulgarian – Polish archaeological teams researching the Roman city of Novae in Bulgaria’s Svishtov have already included representatives from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and the Svishtov Museum of History, from the Bulgarian side, and the University of Warsaw and the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, from the Polish side.

“Back when the first joint excavations of Novae started, today’s lead archaeologists were still children. All them have worked in Novae as students, and are now established experts in Antiquity archaeology who have researched many places in the vast Roman Empire, and have partaken in the top scientific forums in Europe and America,” Vladkova emphasizes.

The in-depth archaeological research of Novae over the past decades has been reflected in the papers authored by Prof. Tadeusz Sarnowski and Prof. Peter Dyczek from the University of Warsaw, Dr. Andrzej Biernacki and Dr. Elena Klenina from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Assoc. Evgeniya Gencheva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, and Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

They have covered the urban planning, architecture, religious life, and everyday life in Roman military camps based on their findings in Novae, described as the most famous Roman military stronghold on the Lower Danube. The archaeological layers researched by them sometimes reach a depth of more than 5 meters.

Vladkova notes that, given the scope and complexity of the structures in Novae, oftentimes the entire professional life of a said lead archaeologist gets dedicated entirely to research of a single architectural complex in the Roman city.

For example, the legion headquarters (principium) in Novae has a territory of 10 decares (app. 2.5 acres), while the architectural complex of the bishop’s basilica and the bishop’s residence also include legionary thermae (public baths) that are said to be “larger and with more complex planning” even than the Large Roman Thermae of ancient Odessos, today’s Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna.

A map showing the location of Svishtov (with its Zishtova Fortress and the Roman city of Novae) at the southernmost point of the Danube River in Europe. Map: Port Svishtov

A map showing the locations of the Zishtova (Kaleto) Fortress and the Ancient Roman camp and city Novae (right) in Bulgaria’s Svishtov. Map: Hartamea

Vladkova also says that the largest advantage of Novae in terms of archaeological research is that after the Roman and Early Byzantine city died, no Ancient Bulgar or Slav settlement was built on top of it during the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018; 1185 – 1396/1422).

The modern-day town of Svishtov was built about 4 kilometers west of the Roman military camp and city, around the Late Antiquity and medieval fortress Zishtova.

That is why, the ruins of Novae have been preserved in a relative good condition, allowing for the meticulous long-term research of the Roman city, revealing even the smallest details.

The 60th consecutive season of Bulgarian – Polish archaeological excavations in Novea are set to begin in mid-June 2019.

A Bulgarian team led by Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova is going to continue the research of a monumental residence outside the fortress walls of Novae, to the west. The huge building with surviving wall frescoes has a complex architecture, which was built upon over time, and existed from the 2nd until the 7th century AD.

Her team is going to expose the southern part of a room known as tablinum situated on the side of the atrium.

The tablinum in question had a hypocaust (underfloor heating). It is 11 meters long and 11 meters wide, and was likely used for welcoming high-profile guests of Novae, possibly Roman Emperors and members of the imperial family, senators, provincial governors, and other high-ranking persons.

The Polish archaeologists from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Dr. Andrzej Biernacki and Dr. Elena Klenina, are going to excavate for the third consecutive year a very well preserved large public building.

The archaeologists hypothesize that the building in question was an armamentarium, i.e. that it was a storage facility for large siege engines. Such buildings existed in every Roman military camp, yet none have been fully researched on the territory of the former Roman Empire.

In addition to archaeologists, the Bulgarian – Polish research expedition in Novae features also other relevant experts such as historian, numismatists, epigraphists, architects, and restorers.

Just like every other year, the 2019 excavations in Novae will include archaeology students from Poland.

Under a contract between the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, and the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, the expedition and the conservation of exposed structures are funded by the Polish side, while all discovered artifacts are made part of the collection of the Svishtov Museum of History.

A room with hypocaust (underflood heating) in the Roman Era residence in Novae excavated by archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova has been part of the research of Novae for the past 20 years as a representative of the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo. Before that, the Museum was represented by archaeologist Bogdan Sultov (1930 – 1982).

In early June, Svishtov and Novae traditionally host the Engle on the Danube Festival for historical reenactments from the time of the Roman Empire.

Background Infonotes:

The Roman Military Camp and Late Antiquity City of Novae is located 4 km east of the Bulgarian Danube city of Svishtov in an area called Staklen (meaning “made of glass” – because of the Ancient Roman glass fragments on the site).

It was a legionary base and a Late Roman city which formed around its canabae, a civilian settlement near a Roman military camp, housing dependents, in the Roman province Moesia Inferior, later Moesia II, set up after the Roman Empire conquered Ancient Thrace south of the Danube in 46 AD. It had a total area of 44 hectares (108 acres), according to a decree of Roman Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD).

Novae is located near the southernmost point of the Danube where in 48 AD the 8th August Legion (Legio VIII Augusta) was stationed after participating in the suppression of a Thracian uprising.

In 69 AD, it was replaced by the First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica), which was headquartered there for the next almost 4 centuries, at least until the 430s AD, and was a major force in the defense of the so called Lower Danube Limes (frontier) against barbarian invasions together with other Roman strongholds such as Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse), Durostorum (today’s Silistra), and Ratiaria (today’s Archar).

A testimony to the importance of Novae was that it was visited by three Roman Emperors: Trajan (r. 98-117 AD), Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), and Caracalla (r. 198-217 AD). The most prosperous times for Novae was during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD).

In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae; regardless of the siege, however, the fortress of Novea did not fall into the hands of the Goths. With the continuing Goth invasions and settlement in the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire and East Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 4th and the 5th century AD, in 418-451 AD Novae became the residence of Ostrogoth Chieftain Theodoric Strabo who was a rival of his kinsman, Theodoric the Great, King of the Germanic Ostrogoths (r. 475-526 AD).

The last traces of major construction at Novae date to the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD). At the end of the 6th and the early 7th century Novae was attacked by the Avars and the Slavs which led the Ancient Roman and Byzantine city to decline. In the late 5th and 6th centuries Novae was the center of a bishopric. Novae was last mentioned as a city in written sources in the 7th century AD. In 2014, the local authorities in Svishtov unveiled the partial restoration of the ruins of Novae with almost BGN 6 million (app. EUR 3.1 million) of EU funding.


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