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Athena Review Vol. 1, no.4

Ancient Treasures from Thracian Tombs

by Evgeni I. Paunov

In the last few decades a number of significant collections of Thracian treasures have been discovered in present-day Bulgaria, providing much of our present knowledge of ancient Thrace. Currently a series of eight US Museums are hosting an exhibit entitled Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians through the end of 1999. This features a spectacular collection of gold and silver items from tombs in Bulgaria. About 15,000 such massive ground barrows are still visible today in the hills and flatlands of the Balkan Range, anciently called Haemus. Thracian rulers and members of the nobility were buried in monumental stone tombs, which also served as places for ritual ceremonies to honor the deceased ruler, with offerings of rich funeral gifts. The tombs constituted underground temples of heroes, and have thus become known as heroons. Approximately fifty such tombs have been uncovered in Thracian mounds in Bulgaria up to the present time, with ten structures found between 1992 and 1996.

[Fig.1: Silver-gilt breastplate from Hellenistic-era Thracian tomb in Bulgaria (photo: Kr. Georgiev).]

Although the Thracians were mentioned by many classical sources including the Histories of Herodotus (445-440 BC) and the Anabasis of Xenophon (401-399 BC), they remained relatively obscure until the early twentieth century, with most Thracian art objects assigned to the Scythian culture. After 1917, Dr. Bogdan D. Filow, first director of the Bulgarian Institute of Archaeology, argued persuasively for the indigenous character and style of ancient Thracian art. Subsequently, in light of such new interpretations, large quantities of important Thracian art objects have been recovered in Bulgaria.

Most Thracian gold and silver items in the exhibit were manufactured between the 5th and 3rd century BC, the period of greatest economic, political and cultural expansion of Thrace under the Odrysian kingdom in the Balkan Peninsula, with Kotys I (386-359 BC), rivalling king Philip II of Macedon in the first years of his reign. Some of the richest burials, which date from 6th-3rd centuries BC (including Varbitsa, Rahmanli, Brezovo, Dalboki, Ezerovo, Duvanlij, Mezek, Mogilanska mogila in Vratsa, Sveshtari, Kazanluk, and Shipka) show convincingly that several centers of political activity existed in Thracian lands during that time.  Thrace was also well known for its silver and gold mines, including the Pangeion gold mines near the Strymon delta, captured by Philip II in 348 BC.

[Fig.2: Sites with mounds containing Thracian tombs in Bulgaria (Athena Review).]

While  varying  in layout and structure, tombs in Bulgaria during this era (5th-3rd centuries BC ) share common architectural elements. Made of either cut stone blocks or  fired bricks, they were sometimes adorned with a painted decoration. Their main burial chambers were either rectangular in plan, or circular, topped by a dome (tholos). The entrances to many Thracian tombs have sophisticated façades comparable to Macedonian, Persian and Lycian examples, and also contain covered passages (dromos) with painted walls and ceilings which in some ways resemble Etrurian tombs.

Finds shown in the current exhibit have been selected from more than 350 Bulgarian tombs spanning the period between the end of 3rd millennium to the 4th century AD. The high artistic mastery, stylistic features, and skilled workmanship of these ancient Thracian objects, displayed for the first time in the US,  comprise a major source of information on Thracian history, culture and art. The amount of detailed evidence these objects contain may be seen from a sampling of the major collections (most, from the 5th-3rd c. BC), discussed below.

The Vâlchitrân Treasure, found in north-central Bulgaria in 1925, and dating from the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1300-1000 BC), consists of 13 gold  vessels and lids distinguished by the simplicity of their shapes and the subtlety of their design. Some show close parallels with items from Mycenae, providing clear evidence for cultural contacts between Thrace and the Mycenaean world. Other Bronze Age deposits were found at Kazichene near Sofia.

The Panagjurishte Treasure, excavated in south-central Bulgaria in 1949, consists of 9 vessels (8 rhyta and 1 large phiale) of pure gold from a ceremonial or feast set. Weighing a total of 6.100 kilograms, it is by far the richest and most brilliant gold hoard yet discovered. To give some idea of its relative value, it has been calculated that a Thracian ruler in the late 4th century BC would have been able to pay wages to 500 mercenaries for a year with this quantity of gold. These gold items, finely crafted in the latter part of 4th century BC by a workshop at Propontis or at Western Asia Minor contain various mythological subjects  including a scene from the Greek drama `Seven Against Thebes' on the amphora, while one of the rhyta with a ram-shaped protome shows Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera before the judgment of Paris. In some cases, the names of the gods are inscribed in Greek beside their images. The vessels are also inscribed with graffiti showing their weight in both Persian darics and Alexandrian (or Attic) staters.

The Borovo Treasure, found in 1974, consists of a set of five silver-gilt wine vessels dating from ca.375-350 BC Included are three rhyta or drinking vessels with  their lower ends (protomes) shaped as a horse, a bull, and a sphinx. There are also a large two-handled cup, and an amphora-rhyton with scenes from the mysteries of Dionysus. Four of the vessels are inscribed in Greek, saying they were given to the Thracian king Kotys I by inhabitants of the town of Beos in southeastern Thrace.

The Lukovit Collection from north Bulgaria, dating from  the second half of the 4th century BC, contains silver and silver-gilt pieces. These include three small jugs, nine phialai, and three full sets of appliqués and ornaments for horse harnesses, decorated with animal motifs and hunters on horseback.

The Letnitsa Hoard, also from north Bulgaria, and found in a large bronze receptacle, includes horse harnress appliqués in the form of fifteen square and rectangular plaques showing scenes from Thracian myths. Such horse ornaments decorated with fabulous animal motifs were widespread among Thracians in the 6th-2nd centuries BC. Always occurring in pairs, they were placed symmetrically on either side of the horse's head.

The Rogozen Treasure, discovered in the winter of 1985/86 in northwest Bulgaria, is the largest single collection of ancient treasure ever found in southeastern Europe. The 165 pieces of silver in this hoard weigh almost 20 kilograms. The great majority of objects were phialai and jugs (fig.3), thirty-one of which are gilded. (Phialai are flat, somewhat shallow bowls with small round centers, typical of the Hellenistic period.)  The Rogozen items were found in two groups of 100 and 65, placed five meters apart at only 0.4 meters depth.  This immense hoard, accumulated over nearly 150 years from the mid-5th century to the last quarter of the 4th century BC, includes vessels from specific workshops in Anatolia, Eastern Greece, Southern Thrace (Odryssi), and Northwestern Thrace (Triballi). Most of the jugs are native Thracian, with the great majority taken from other Thracian burial mounds or tumuli. Scenes depicted include a remarkable 'boar hunting' scene, and the Great Thracian Goddess shown riding a likoness, and elsewhere in a quadriga, or 4-horse chariot. Many Rogozen Treasure vessels are inscribed in Greek with punched lettering, showing several royal Thracian names and geographical sites in southeast Thrace.

[Fig.3: Silver-gilt vessel, Rogozen (E. Tsenova, Mus. of History, Vratsa).]

The Mogilanska mogila mound in Vratsa yielded , during 1965-66 excavations in the heart of the city, three stone tombs of noble Thracian chiefs. While one had been plundered in antiquity, another with two funerary chambers, was fortunately intact.  In the outer chamber were remains of a biga, or a team of two horses, with straps of the horse's bridle richly decorated with silver appliqués. In the main chamber skeletons of an adult man and a young man were found with two silver jugs, four inscribed phialai, bronze Greek vessels, and arms including a wood quiver (gorythos) with many bronze arrowheads, iron spearheads, a bronze Chalkidian type helmet, a silver-gilt greave (knemis) The younger man, who had been killed by an iron spearhead, wore an elegant gold head wreath, gold earrings, gold buttons, pendants and rosette-shaped appliqués. In the third Vratsa tomb, partly robbed in antiquity were skeletons of a man and a woman with gold and a silver jugs, gold jewelry, votive clay objects, a quiver with arrowheads, and iron spearheads. The gold jug shows two galloping quadrigae (four-horsed chariots) with a man in a hauberk.  Dating of the Vratsa tombs, based on several Attic pottery vessels show, isabout 375-340 BC.

The Kasanluk Tomb in south Bulgaria  is famous for its beautiful wall paintings of the early 3rd century BC, one of the most unique masterpieces of Early Hellenistic pictorial art. Despite the small surface containing the decorative friezes, the unknown artist has created an exceptional work of art. This tomb was built during the reign of king Seuthes III, either for him personally or for close relatives among the nobility.

The Shipka Tombs include seven tombs recently uncovered in the south foothills of the Balkan Range.  They consist of developed façades, each notably different from one another. Not surprisingly, most of these tombs had been robbed in ancient times, with only one remaining untouched by treasure-hunters.

Based on the rapid pace of recent and ongoing discoveries, the new exhibition represents only a small fraction of Thracian art objects. It is already clear, however, that the monuments of Thracian art now on display will inspire scholars as well as the general museum-going public.

US Museums hosting the exhibit Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians include the St. Louis Art Museum; the Kimbell Art Museum, Ft. Worth; the M. H.DeYoung Museum, San Francisco; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and a museum to be announced in Washington, DC.

[Abridged from the full-length article by Evgeni I. Paunov in Athena Review, Vol.1, no. 4, 1998 (pp.76-82).]

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