Milena Tonkova: Bulgarian Archeology Project Is the Key to Ancient Mystery Rituals

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | May 21, 2003, Wednesday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0
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Milena Tonkova: Bulgarian Archeology Project Is the Key to Ancient Mystery Rituals Milena Tonkova leads the archeological expedition to Halka Bunar. Photo by Tony Tonchev (novinite.com)

Bulgarian archeologist Milena Tonkova leads one of the most intriguing projects of indigenous archeology that explores a mysterious ancient sanctuary.

The sacred place connected to the cult of wine-god Dionysus and other gods of the earth thrived in the 4th-3rd century BC. Although it belonged to a rich Thracian kingdom, both ancient Thracians and Greeks flocked to it.

Milena Tonkova spoke to Milena Dinkova from novinite.com

Q: The site you work at - Halka Bunar - yielded some important discoveries over the last two years. What did you find there?

A: Halka Bunar is a very interesting archeological site situated some 200km to the southeast of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Next to the place where we make the excavations, there is a big Karst spring with a circular shape. Which is where the name comes from: Halka Bunar means "circular spring" in Turkish.

When we started to dig two years ago, we discovered a sanctuary from the Hellenistic Age that spread on the huge area of 4 hectares. The cultural layer there is excessively rich in finds that will take quite a long time to explore.

At Halka Bunar there are no buildings as it obviously was a sacred place where the ancients came to worship the gods of earth such as Dionysus or Demeter. This is a place where mystery rituals were held. That is why Halka Buar is very important to archeology. It might help researchers shed light on mystery rituals staged in both Thrace and ancient Greece - still quite of a riddle for modern science.

At Halka Bunar there is a layer of white ashes, which contains a huge number of artifacts. We now believe that people came to this place carrying gifts for the gods. They performed certain rituals in which some of the gifts were burned. What was not meant for the fire was saved in huge depots that we now continue to unearth.

Q: Following the latest excavations at Halka Bunar, what do archeologists know about the mystery rituals performed by ancient Thracians and Greeks?

A: At first we did know very little as these were secret rituals. They were performed only by adepts who were sworn into silence. This is actually where the word "mystery" came from.

Now we know for sure that the adepts used four-cornered earthen altars on which they made sacrifices. Ritual fires were also very important part of the mysteries.

The ancient burned animal meat because we discovered a lot of bones. They must have burned some special plants also - may be some narcotic substances - we found a lot of specific sanctuary lamps.

The ritual involved drinking of wine in abundance, as the greatest number of the copious ceramics at Halka Bunak is namely cups.

Q: Two years ago you created quite a stir among Bulgarian archeologists. What did you discover then?

A: This was really a sensational discovery when we made it. A few meters away from the gift depots of the sanctuary we unearthed several furnaces where ceramics were made. These were the first Thracian ceramics furnaces to be discovered although archeologists have found prolific ceramic artifacts across the whole territory of ancient Thrace for decades. So after years of guessing, we found one of the sites to the delight of scientists.

The furnaces are actually very interesting because every single furnace is different than the others in terms of construction. This speaks that Halka Bunar was a big center for production of ceramics that evolved over the centuries.

Q: What are the most significant artifacts you discovered?

A: We found 15 bronze coins and one silver. Some of them are Macedonian and carry the images of Macedonian kings such as Lizimachus and Kasander.

Five of the coins are Thracian and were made in the kingdom of Seuth III to which the sanctuary in Halka Bunar must have belonged. Two of them even carry the image of the powerful king Seuth III.

Q: What was the kingdom of Seuth III like?

A: Seuth must have been contemporary of Alexander the Great. He ruled over one of the most powerful Thracian tribes - the Odrysians. His capital - Seuthopolis - is just 60km north of Halka Bunar. It is the only fully uncovered Thracians city yet.

Seuthopolis was found in the 1950s prior to the construction of a dam at the same site. So the Odrysian capital that currently lies underwater had to be quickly combed. In its center there was the palace with a sanctuary dedicated to the same gods, which were worshipped at Halka Bunar.

So we believe that Halka Bunar is a sanctuary of the Odrysian state religion. We think that Seuth III might have come to that place to offer his gifts and pray to the gods.

Q: Will you continue the excavations this summer?

A: Yes, we will. We will take to Halka Bunar some students from the New Bulgarian University that sponsors the project.

There is also an idea to invite foreign volunteers to take part in the project. If we realize our intention, Halka Bunar will be the first site in Bulgaria to be explored in such manner.

Q: Thracian archeology has recently experienced uplift. Do you expect great discoveries?

A: Great discoveries are being made all the time. You see, we found the first Thracian furnaces just two years ago. Now there are several sites in Bulgaria where such furnaces have been discovered since then. This is just a simple illustration.

Great discoveries are being made by Bulgarian archeologists who explore the tombs of Thracian aristocrats. Scientists such as Georgi Kitov explore the way rich and mighty Thracians wanted to be remembered. There are gold and silver artifacts and a lot of pomposity, which had to display the might of the aristocracy.

What we do is to unveil the every day life of Thracians. We also make valuable explorations that have to shed light on the whole Thracian civilization.
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