Unknown Chainmail Armors Discovered in Roman Colony Deultum near Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast
An unknown type of well-preserved Late Antiquity chainmail armors from the last years of the Roman Empire before its division or the early Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium, have been discovered by archaeologists in the Ancient Roman colony Deultum near the town of Debelt, Burgas District, close to the Black Sea coast in Southeast Bulgaria.
No such chainmail armors have been discovered in Bulgaria so far, and should be deemed very rare and intriguing finds internationally as well, as the artifacts date back to the period of the 4th – 6th century AD, whose armors still need lots of research, according to archaeologists.
Deultum was a Roman colony, which according to Roman law signified a status equal to that of the city of Rome itself. In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas, Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria) near Archar, Ulpia Oescus near Gigen.
The Ancient Roman city of Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) was built in the 1st century AD near a previously existing Ancient Thracian settlement called Debelt or Develt. It was settled by Roman military veterans from the Augustus’ Eight Legion (Legio VIII Augusta) near the Mandra Lake (today the Mandra Water Reservoir) where it also had a port connecting it to the Black Sea.
The previously unknown Late Antiquity chainmail armors from the very end of the Roman Empire before its division or the early years of the Eastern Roman Empire have been discovered shortly before the end of the 2019 archaeological season, the Desant newspaper and Skat TV report, citing Krasimira Kostova, Director of the Deultum – Debelt Archaeological Preserve.
The chainmail armors have been found inside the Deultum fortress, close to its northern fortress wall.
The preserved chainmail elements discovered in the Ancient Roman city of Deultum are from two or possibly even three armors of unique craftsmanship.
The chainmail armors’ rings are in fact rectangular slabs made of wrought iron which were all attached to a leather piece of clothing underneath.
“These seemingly unsightly elements are proving to be extremely interesting. We are yet to search for parallels to the chainmail armors from Deultum. But for the time being, we don’t know of any such ones that may have been discovered, [at least] in Bulgaria,” Kostova explains.
“It is fully possible that they might end up being classified as “Late Antiquity” (i.e. Late Roman), rather than “Early Byzantine”. We now face the task of clarifying their dating, and figuring out whether these are two or three chainmail armors,” she adds.
The Director of the Deultum – Debelt Archaeological Preserve in Southeast Bulgaria also reveals that the newly discovered chainmail armor fragments will be referred for restoration to an expert in the city of Yambol.
If he does decide to take up the job, he will probably spend the next 3 or 4 years piecing them together since the small chainmail slabs, which have been discovered, are over 6,000.
“This requires an incredible amount of work because every single slab has to be extracted, any corrosion needs to be cleaned up, and then the slab needs to be restored and placed on leather, the way it used to be,” Kostova points out.
“These chainmail armors were vertically leaned against the fortress wall, and when the wall collapsed, they were crushed down and into each other. They were still kept together by the leather underneath the small metal slabs, and that’s has resulted in the specific relief which can be seen in their sleeves,” the archaeologist reveals further.
Part of the discovered chainmail slabs show traces of wood residue leading to the hypothesis that they had been stored in wooden chests.
The 2019 excavations in the Ancient Roman, and later Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian fortress of Deultum, during which the unique chainmail armors have been found, also exposed the northeastern tower of its main fortification, and the postern (secondary gate) leading up to it.
The archaeologists have also revealed a large wall east of the fortress wall which might prove out to have been a temple.
Following the horrific invasions of Attila’s Huns in the 5th century, the fortress walls of Deultum, then in the early Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire were strengthened.
The newly exposed northeastern corner tower was originally built in the 4th century AD, reinforced in the 5th century, and destroyed in the 6th century together with the entire Late Roman Era fortress as a result of the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs.
“We have found tips from arrows, and these are arrows of the attacks in this Avar – Slav invasion,” Assoc. Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski, lead archaeologist of the Deultum excavations and former Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, has told the Bulgarian National Radio in an earlier interview, not long after the start of the 2019 digs in early October.
“What has really impressed us are the numerous fragments from chainmail armors. They are from the time of an earlier fire in fortress when it actually managed to withstand [the barbarian attack] but was still damaged. We are gathering them very carefully. They are very well-preserved, with charred pieces of leather. I hope we will be able to study them thoroughly in order to learn more,” Vagalinski points out.
He also notes that the excavations in Deultum so far have provided lots of information about the armaments of the Early Byzantine and Late Antiquity period, the 5th – 6th century AD, which are not that well researched internationally. In his words, much of the knowledge about them has been based on images and reliefs.
During the excavations of the northeastern corner tower of the ancient city of Deultum, his team has also come across bronze coins, pottery, bronze fibulas, and animal bones of large guard dogs. Bones of the same dog breed have also been found in the other fortress towers excavated so far.
According to Vagalinski, it is unique that each of the three neighboring fortress towers excavated so far in the northern part of Deultum is different even though they were constructed at the same time.
In his words, in building them, the designers of the fortification took into account the likely direction of attacks, and also demonstrated a large amount of creativity, especially with respect to the middle tower, which is the largest of them, and said to be the only one of its kind in the world.
In the Late Antiquity, the Deultum – Debelt Fortress was supported by the central authority of the (Eastern) Roman Empire helped fortify the city additionally, thus helping it to survive the barbarian invasions until the 6th century AD.
“The classification of this fortress wall is very complicated. Because of geophysical data, I had presumed that it is from the earlier period, the 2nd – 3rd century, and was utilized by the Late Antiquity fortifications but it has turned out that these walls were also constructed in the 4th century, during the Late Antiquity,” Vagalinski says.
“There are many questions left to be answered. I assume they were part of the lower, additional fortress wall which was built before the main wall in order to protect it better from enemy attacks. But I haven’t seen such a complex fortification – it is also segmented into smaller walls,” he adds.
“This northern section of Deultum together with its adjacent emperor temple, and a very massive urban villa (villa urbana) built in the northern part right behind the fortress wall, and a thermae complex, probably for the local governors or the emperors when they stayed in the city, will turn into the focus of this northern section of Deultum,” Vagalinski concludes.
Back in 2016, the archaeological team excavating the Roman colony of Deultum near Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast discovered the legs of a mounted bronze statue in the ancient city’s Imperial Cult temple.
Also in 2016, the part of the Deultum – Debelt Archaeological Preserve accessible to tourists was fully renovated.
Learn more about Deultum in the Background Infonotes below!
The ruins of the Ancient Thracian settlement of Debelt (Develt) and the Ancient Roman city of Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium), which was also a medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress, are located near today’s town of Debelt, Sredets Municipality, Burgas District (17 km east of the city of Burgas), near the Black Sea coast of Southeast Bulgaria.
The Roman city of Deultum itself was founded during the reign of Roman Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD) on the northern bank of the Sredetska River, near the Mandra Lake (today the Mandra Water Reservoir) where it also had a port connecting it to the Black Sea. Deultum was a Roman colony, which according to Roman law signified a status equal to that of Rome itself.
In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas, Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria) near Archar, Ulpia Oescus near Gigen. Deultum was settled by Roman military veterans from the Augustus’ Eight Legion (Legio VIII Augusta).
On the 30th anniversary since the founding of the Roman colony Deultum, then Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) minted a special emission of bronze coins. There are indications that at some point between the 130s and the 150s Deultum was seriously damaged by a barbarian invasion. The Roman city was further strengthened during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD); its limits were marked by inscriptions at two points – in today’s southern suburbs of Burgas, and at the ancient fortress in the town of Golyamo Bukovo.
Deultum thrived during the reign of the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD), at the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century AD, when it had an area of about 250 decares (app. 62 acres), and a sophisticated urban infrastructure. Its residents had temples of ancient god of medicine Asclepius and goddess Cybele, and also worshiped the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, and Hercules (Heracles).
In the second half of the 3rd century AD, Deultum was ransacked by the Goths; however, it was restored shortly after that. The city’s thermae (public baths) were re-built with a complex water supply and sewerage system, and a hypocaust (underfloor heating). It is possible that during a visit to Deultum in November 296 AD Roman Emperor Diocletian also visited the thermae.
In the 4th century, the city was known again with its Thracian name, Develt, and it was reinforced because of its new strategic role of supplying and protecting the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople (as of 330 AD). In the 370s, there was a major battle near Develt between the Roman forces and the Goths who prevailed and burned down the city. It was restored once again but on a smaller area. In the 5th century, Develt was the center of a bishopric.
In the second half of the 6th century, the city was affected by the barbarian invasions of the Slavs and Avars. Debelt (Develt) was conquered from Byzantium for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) by the Bulgarian Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD who exiled the city’s population in the Bulgarian territories north of the Danube, and settled it with Bulgarians.
Thus, during the Middle Ages, Debelt was a major strategic fortress in the frontier region between Bulgaria and Byzantium. Debelt is also the starting area of the Erkesiya, a huge earthen wall (rampart) with a moat built by the Ancient Bulgars in the 8th century, as early as the reign of Khan Tervel (700-721 AD), after in 705 AD the Byzantine Empire ceded to Bulgaria the Zagore Region, which covers much of today’s Southeast Bulgaria.
The Erkesiya Wall spanned 142 kilometers going all the way from the lakes around the city of Burgas in the east to the Sakar Mountain in the west. The Erkesiya Wall was made the official border between the First Bulgarian Empire and Byzantium in a peace treaty signed in 815 AD by the Bulgarian Khan Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD) and the Byzantine Emperor Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-820 AD), and, in addition to serving a defense purpose for Bulgaria, it became a major customs facility facilitating the trade relations between the two empires all the way to the 14th century.
By the end of the 14th century AD, Debelt waned, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the name of the city was no longer mentioned in historical sources after that period.
The Ancient Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and Bulgarian archaeological city of Debelt (Develt) / Deultum was first explored and described at the end of the 19th century by Czech-Bulgarian historian Konstantin Jirecek and Czech-Bulgarian archaeologists Karel and Hermann Skorpil. It was further explored in the first half the 20th century but major archaeological excavations near Debelt started in the 1980s because of the construction of a large metallurgical factory there.
The excavations were led by late archaeologist Stefan Damyanov from the National Museum of History in Sofia, and Petar Balabanov from the Burgas Regional Museum of History. Later, the excavations were led by Tsonya Drazheva from the Burgas Museum, and then by Lyudmil Vagalinski from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Debelt – Deultum was declared an archaeological monument in 1965, and in 1988, the Bulgarian authorities set up the Debelt – Deultum Archaeological Preserve which covers an area of about 3 square km, and features over 25 archaeological sites dating back to different time periods – from the prehistory to the Late Middle Ages.
Those include a medieval fortress called Malko Gradishte (“Small Fortress”) which existed between the 4th and the 7th century AD as an Early Byzantine fortification, and in the 12th-14th century AD, as a fortress in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD); and a 9th century church in an area called Kostadin Cheshma where the archaeologists found a total of 34 Christian funerals, and a total of 64 lead seals (most of them belonging to Byzantine dignitaries from the Iconoclastic Period (726-843 AD)) including three seals of the Bulgarian Knyaz Boris I Michael (r. 852-889; 893 AD) with the images of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God (Virgin Mary). Since Knyaz Boris I was the ruler who made Christianity the official religion of Bulgaria, scholars have hypothesized that Debelt is where he might have been baptized by the Byzantine clergy.
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