Archaeology: Exotic Life of Ancient Thrace
By Kerin Hope
A series of spectacular discoveries at three sites in central and eastern Bulgaria has highlighted the exotic lifestyle of the ancient Thracians as never before.
Georgi Kitov, a veteran Thrakologist who has excavated more than 30 tombs built for the ancient warrior elite, says that the Thracians were known for drinking undiluted strong red wine and were famous for their martial skills. They were the most successful gladiators in ancient Rome.
As a result of the latest finds, the Thracians, who excelled at constructing elaborate tombs and rock-cut shrines, have seized the popular imagination.
Under communism research into the culture of the Thracians, a warrior caste who amassed wealth in the form of gold and silver artefacts, took second place to Slav history, reflecting Bulgaria's close political ties with the Soviet Union.
Dr Kitov, wearing a battered solar topee and a T-shirt picturing his latest find - a bronze head, thought to be of King Sevt III - clearly enjoys making Thracian culture more accessible.
He says more than 15,000 people have visited the 4th century BC king's tomb near Kazanluk since it was discovered last month, but "sadly, we'll have to shut it up for the winter".
Working with a team of eight experts from the archaeological institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, Dr Kitov unearthed a three-chamber tomb that unites the beehive vault of prehistoric Greece with local architectural styles in an unprecedented way.
The inner chamber - big enough for three people to stand upright - was hewn from a block of granite weighing an estimated 60 tonnes "like a giant sarcophagus". The huge block had been transported from a quarry about 10km away, Dr Kitov said.
It contained a delicate two-handled gold drinking cup and three amphoras as well as Sevt's military equipment: 10 spears, a sword, a bronze helmet decorated with gold and silver fittings, a round shield and leg armour.
The portrait head, perhaps the work of the Greek sculptor Lysippus, was ragged at the neck, recalling the ancient Thracian ritual of hacking a hero's body into seven pieces.
Nikolay Ovcharov, also from the Academy's archaeological institute, believes he has identified the oracle of Dionysos at Perperikon, a sprawling hilltop sanctuary surrounded by forest near the town of Kurdzhali in south-east Bulgaria.
It was here, he says, that Alexander the Great first learned he would become the conqueror of Asia. Several hundred years later, the Roman general Octavian, later to become the emperor Augustus, was told at Perperikon that he would hold sway over a huge empire.
"This oracle was as important as that of Apollo at Delphi in Greece," Prof Ovcharov says. He has excavated a large oval hall, open to the sky, containing a round altar cut out of the rock, which fits the historian Suetonius's description of the oracle of Dionysos.
Divination was based on how high the flames would leap after wine was poured over the altar fire, he says.
Perperikon has a long history as a sacred site, from the fourth millennium BC to early Christian times.
A church was built over earlier remains in the 5th century AD and the pagan sanctuary became part of a Byzantine bishopric.
Prof Ovcharov has also excavated a temple at Tatul, near Bulgaria's border with Turkey. With its distinctive flat summit rising above the forest, the sanctuary is visible from miles away.
It may be the site revered in antiquity as the tomb of Orpheus, the legendary Thracian musician who was torn to pieces by frenzied women followers of Dionysos, and inspired one of the most popular religious cults in the ancient world.
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