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TRACES FROM THE LOST AGES

Author: Ivan Velkov

 

Origins of the European Civilization

WORLD’S oldest treasure of gold, unearthed as recently as 1972, was not discovered in Sumer or Egypt, homes of the earliest known civilizations, the obvious places to expect such a momentous discovery. Nor did it come from pre-Columbian America, famous for the rich gold finds in Peru and Colombia. It was uncovered, much to everyone’s astonishment, in northeastern Bulgaria, near the attractive modern city of Varna, and it may well be more than 6,000 years old. The discovery of this oldest gold hoard seemed to confirm my own theory that the prehistoric Bulgarians had invented metallurgy independent of earlier metalworkers of the Near East. It also suggested that the Bulgarians of 4000 B.C. had passed their gold-working skills to the superb goldsmiths of the Thracians, inhabitants of Bulgaria in the first millennium B.C.

A city of ancient origins, Varna lies on the Black Sea coast, with miles of sandy beaches and dozens of modern hotels. In the autumn of 1972 a tractor operator named Raicho Marinov was excavating a five-foot trench for an electric cable to a nearby factory. Suddenly he noticed pieces of shiny yellow sheet metal more than four inches square, and what looked like bracelets of the same material. There were also some green tools, the color of corroded copper, and flakes of flint. These finds were taken to the National Museum of Varna, where they caused a flurry of activity.

The flint tools were prehistoric. The green axes were copper — in shape like finds of the Copper Age in Bulgarian prehistory (about 5000 to 3000 B.C.). But the yellow objects were gold, and such discoveries were unknown from so early a period. Dr. Michail Lazarov of the museum and Professor Georgi I. Georgiev of the University of Sofia organized a rescue excavation. The actual dig was directed by the museum’s young archaeologist, Ivan S. Ivanov, who soon established that the items were rich grave goods from a prehistoric cemetery. The find was as important in its way as the discovery by Heinrich Schliemann a hundred years ago of the “great treasure” at ancient Troy. For while the golden discoveries at Varna are not so elaborate as those at Troy, they are at least l,500 years older, and can surely be dated before 3500 B.C. Calibrated radiocarbon dating may well place them between 4600 and 4200 B.C.

 

Was Smelting Self-taught?

In 1978 I flew from England — where I am a professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton — to see the Varna trove and to test the theory I had developed on my first visit to Bulgaria, in 1962. I suspected then that the ancient Bulgarians must have discovered for themselves the technique of melting and casting copper and smelting it from its ores. Since the evidence for that argument lies mainly in southern Bulgaria, in the Maritsa River’s Valley of Roses, I will begin the story there, 8,000 years ago, before turning to the gold of Varna.

The Maritsa Valley is dotted with tumuli — burial mounds — nearly 3,000 years old, heaped over the remains of wars. Larger and older than these, though, are the settlement mounds. The first settlers on this site built their village on the level plain about 6000 B.C. Their houses were made of plastered mud applied to a framework of wood. At least once in a generation a house would need renewing, so it would be demolished and its successor built on the same spot, with each demolition resulting in about six inches of mud debris. After several thousand years some mounds, each containing many reconstructed houses, rose fifty feet.

The site of Karanovo, 110 miles south west of Varna, is the best known of these settlement mounds. When I visited it in 1962, I was staggered by its size, and also by the excavations of Professor Georgiev, who had removed a large area of the mound, rather like taking a slice from a huge layer cake. On my latest visit to the site I stood at the foot of the cliff where the slice had been re moved and looked up at a vertical face forty feet high. I could see the periods of occupation as horizontal layers. Excavation has unearthed much of the original village plan, as well as broken pottery, bone tools, flint blades, and other artifacts.

But I saw absolutely no metal in the lower levels. These were Stone Age people. Higher up the cliff face I made out levels of debris belonging to the Bulgarian Copper Age culture. They contain copper pins and copper beads and sometimes crucible fragments with traces of melted copper — perhaps the first examples of metallurgy in Bulgaria. From Copper Age levels in nearby mounds came copper axes of elaborate design.

 

A Jolt to Archaeologists’ Concepts

Such finds of copper artifacts also occur in the early Bronze Age of Greece, and indeed at Troy itself, and they can be dated in the Aegean to 2700-2500 B.C. It was assumed that the basic metallurgical skills came first to the Aegean from the Near East, and that the Copper Age levels at Bulgarian sites dated from a later time. But Professor Georgiev established the sequence of cultures at Karanovo, and some feet above the Copper Age levels he found evidence for the early Bronze Age of Bulgaria, which he thought was contemporary with early Troy. This suggested to me that the Copper Age of Bulgaria had to be much earlier than the Aegean sites. Indeed, if copper working was practiced some centuries earlier in Bulgaria, it might well have an independent origin — a suggestion now confirmed by tree ring and radiocarbon dating.

Certainly copper was smelted and cast in the Near East at an even earlier date. But there is now no reason to assume a connection between the two areas. By 6000 B.C. the early farmers of Bulgaria had a stable, settled way of life. They had ovens to bake bread — perhaps the origin of pyrotechnology — and to fire pottery. The graphite decorated black pottery that their successors used had to be fired in a reducing atmosphere — one with little oxygen — implying careful control and considerable skill. In these circumstances it is easy to see how native copper, which occurred in a pure state in Bulgaria, might first be used to make beads. Later the prehistoric Bulgarians would discover that copper could be worked better after heating — the annealing process — and that, on further heating, it became molten. From there it was a small but crucial step to casting and smelting.

My suggestion that copper metallurgy was invented in Europe independently has been strengthened by the discovery of two prehistoric copper mines at Ai Bunar in Bulgaria and Rudna Glava in Yugoslavia. Both date from before 4000 B.C. At the Varna site in 1978 I found myself still in the Copper Age, but I was looking at gold, not just copper. I believe the gold was local, either panned or mined. About 2,000 gold objects have been found at Varna, weighing in total more than 12 pounds (5. 5 kilograms). My eyes popped as I beheld decorations on the vessel lids resemble the art of Mycenae and so would put the treasure around 1500 B.C. Others date it to Greek civilization of around 700 B.C. Probably it should be set around 1100 B.C.

In the centuries after 1000 B.C. Bulgaria was the home of the Thracians, great gold smiths. I believe they were probably the descendants of the Copper Age mound makers of 3,000 years earlier. The Thracians lived a heroic, barbarian life, and derived much pleasure from the wearing of gold.

 

Death Was Rarely Solo

A grave mound at Vratsa, in northwest Bulgaria, unearthed by archaeologists B. Nikolov and I. Venedikov, illustrates the barbaric magnificence of the Thracian chiefs. The mound contained three burials, the most important a tomb consisting of two rooms. Near the entrance to the antechamber were the remains of a four-wheeled chariot, with the collapsed skeletons of two horses yoked to it, still in position after their ritual slaughter. Nearby was the skeleton of a third horse, a riding horse, with a silver bit and a harness with more than 200 silver decorations in lively Thracian style. Beside this horse lay the contorted skeleton of a young woman, an iron spear between her ribs. This may well be a case of human sacrifice.

The main chamber held the remains of a man about 30 and a woman about 18. The man was buried with an iron sword, daggers, a quiver of seventy bronze arrows, and armor, which included a helmet and a single richly decorated silver greave with golden inlay. The woman had a beautiful laurel wreath of gold around her head and wore elegant golden earrings. She was no doubt the wife of the Thracian chief, and she too had met a sudden death, a knife blade in right hand; with his left he holds the arm of a woman on an ornate throne. She looks down sadly, and the whole atmosphere is sorrowful. To see these faces today is to feel the
melancholy of death across the years.

 

Philip II Captured Gold Mines

The Thracian tombs are a major source for our knowledge of the metalwork of the classical world. An area of great prosperity, Thrace must have derived part of its wealth from its metal deposits, still in use more than 3,000 years after the first gold-working at Varna. When the Macedonian King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, conquered much of Thrace in the fourth century B.C., one major source of Macedonian wealth was the gold mines of Mount Pangaion, close to the southern extremity of the Thracian region near the Aegean.

Gold from those mines reached Bulgaria as perhaps the richest of all the Thracian treasures, one of the greatest gold hoards ever discovered. Found in 1949 near Panagyurishte, 90 miles west of Karanovo, it includes eight drinking vessels of astonishing workmanship, weighing together more than 13 pounds (six kilograms), and splendidly embellished with human and animal figures. In addition to these vessels was a bowl, ten inches in diameter, decorated with 72 Negro heads in relief. Bulgarian archaeologist Venedikov believes that this treasure was made in the eastern part of the Greek world sometime around 300 B.C., and not in Thrace. From the artistic point of view, I prefer some of the less elaborate gold-and-silverwork of the Thracians themselves.

Thracian gold-work, I have come to believe, is the culmination of a tradition reaching back to the Copper Age of Bulgaria, to Varna. For me the Varna discoveries are the most exciting. They take us back 6,000 years before our own time. We find ourselves in that age when the early copper workers, practicing their newly won craft, discovered for perhaps the first time in human history the attractive properties of that noblest of metals: gold.

 

World's Oldest Gold Necklace

Mark Aldenderfer from the University of Arizona has uncovered a gold necklace made nearly 4,000 years ago near a burial site by Lake Titicaca in Peru. He says it appears that a nugget of raw gold, which occurs near the area, was pounded flat in a stone mortar and pestle. The gold was then wrapped around a piece of wood and pounded until it was folded into a tube. Researchers at the site restrung the necklace, alternating nine small gold tubes with a series of round stones, identified as either greenstone or turquoise, with holes in them that held the necklace a piece.

 

Gold Circlets From Nahal Qanah Cave

The Nahal Qanah Cave, located in western Samaria, has yielded a rich collection of archaeological finds. An active karstic cave, containing a dazzling array of stalactites and stalagmites, it was created almost one hundred million years ago, and served during the Chalcolithic period as a burial site for at least twenty individuals (late 5th - 4th millennium B.C.). Eight circlets, weighing a total of nearly one kilogram (2 1/4 lb), were found scattered throughout the perpendicular tomb cavity. They constitute the earliest find of gold in the Levantine and one of the earliest occurrences of this precious metal in the world. Six are electrum (70 percent gold, 30 percent silver), and two are 100 percent pure gold, cast within open molds made of clay or sand. The surfaces were intentionally enriched with gold and hammered to heighten. The function of these circlets is not completely understood. They do not appear to be bracelets, finger-rings, or other ornaments, yet the attention paid to the surface suggests that aesthetic considerations were important.

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Danube Script Inside the European System of Communication

In the last few years a very fast accumulation of archaeological evidence has occurred, supporting the thesis that an European literacy existed in Neo-Eneolithic times: the Danube script. The most exciting discoveries were happening in museums and in universities archaeological collections. Many signs and their combinations, unearthed during the last centuries excavations, were not published by their discoverers because, not having the pattern of decorations or symbols, they didn't dare speculate that they might express a system of writing.

Other archaeologists didn't realize that their findings, catalogued and published even from decades ago, might bear inscriptions. They considered that the strange geometrical, abstract and linear inscribed signs to be only badly done decorations, scratched by confused artists. Therefore in reproducing and publishing them, they amended and adjusted them in a more fashionable way by regularizing their shapes or forcing the symmetry of their original patterns.

A third wave of scholars maintained that the strange signs were some sort of magic-religious symbols or ownership/manufacturer marks. If both interpretations failed, the ultimate resource was to consider them simply as random scribbles made by bored and idle potters.

Finally, some scholars simply did not realize that the objects they had discovered bore signs. In the fifties Milutin Garashanin found an inscribed figurine at Supska (next to Cuprite, Republic of Serbia) but he did not notice the evident A, I, M, H, Y motifs positioned on a large triangle incised on the chest. This inscription was re-discovered in 2002.

On the other hand, a considerable number of books and articles have been devoted to a para-scientific fiction aimed to reading the Vinca documents as alphabetic texts. The crescent attention to a Neolithic alphabet in the Balkans was connected to the reinforcing of nationalistic archaeo-political pushes in all the countries of Eastern Europe. For example, in the Republic of Serbia Radivoje Peshic is convinced that the era of the Slavs is coming. For seven decades, the Slav civilization has been living under a heavy pressure, and the world, having accumulated sufferings for so long, could achieve its renaissance for that reason only. Such are the orders of things. The West wanted to throw the East on its knees without any knowledge of the Slavdom. The Slavdom does not bear humiliations and failure, the Balkans as well. How about the starting point of Slavs renaissance? The acknowledgment that the middle Danube basin is the epicentre of early European Civilization and that its Neolithic alphabet is one of the main roots of our contemporary alphabet is a good beginning.

The early European writing was lost and what remains of it is unfathomable and tenaciously resists the efforts of anyone attempting to decipher it. Nothing was known about the existence of such a reference language. Moreover, it was too ancient for us to hope to find something like the multilingual Rosetta Stone which would permit us to translate it into a known language. Though it is now lost and it is unlikely it will ever be possible to decipher it, some scholars are using semiotic
approach tying to crack some elements of its genetic code.

According to these semiotic researches, Danube script was a very archaic system of writing and possibly not capable of encoding extended speech or long narratives because phonetic elements were not or were too limitedly rendered in writing. It consisted probably of a mix of logograms, ideograms, pictograms and only some phonetic elements occasionally and marginally marked. The connection with the conceptual sphere was much stronger than the connection with the phonetic sphere. Other ancient writings of this type were the Elamite script, Indus script, the hieroglyphs of the Phaistos disc, the Chinese writing on oracular bones, and the Olmecs glyphs.

Although the Danube script was only in "statu nascenti" probably and had a very weak association with phonetics, it should not be confused with other communication channels used by those Neo-Eneolithic populations such as religious symbols, geometric decorations, devices for memory support, star and land charts, ritualistic markings, numeric notations, family identifiers or community affiliation marks as well signs stating the owner/manufacturer of an artifact. The problem was that the distinction between the Danube script and the other communication means was not so evident.

 

Gradeshnica Platter

In this article I select and analyze a very well known artifact (the Gradeshnica platter) to demonstrate that the celebrities under the spotlights for decades still have hidden unexpected features. The Gradeshnica shallow vase is topical evidence of the possibility that Neo-Eneolithic communities of the Danube basin developed a system of writing. But does it actually bear signs of literacy or just decorations, symbols, or even simple scratching?

Unearthed in 1969 in the Chalcolithic layer B of a settlement next to the village of Gradeshnica (close to Vraca in north-west Bulgaria), its discoverers have attributed it to the first half of the Chalcolithic in the period corresponding to the cultures of Karanovo V (Marica culture), the late Vinca-Turda and Boian-Vidra cultures. It means that the inscribed objects date may be around 4000 B.C. at the latest or possibly a little earlier. On the basis of uncalibrated 14C results, the linguist V. I. Georgiev placed the Gradeshnica shallow receptacle in a later period; i.e. in the second half of the fourth millennium. At the opposite chronological pole, Gimbutas ascribed it to the early 5th millennium B.C. and to the Vinca B culture. Even if one accepts the date of the Bulgarian excavators B.Nikolov, V. Mikov and G. Georgiev, the platter is chronologically positioned before another Bulgarian icon of the Neo-Eneolithic script:: the Karanovo seal.

 

Tartaria Inscribed Tablets

Starting from the middle of the 20th century, the introduction of well-established dating methods determined that the Danube-Balkan inscribed objects belonged to Neo-Eneolithic times, and as a result their signs suddenly became mute being considered just decorations, ownership marks or simple scratches. The invention in south-eastern Europe of an "ars scribendi" in Neo-Eneolithic times was held so unthinkable that the simple possibility of it has been ignored and its evidence given very scant attention.

It was the discovery in 1961 of three inscribed tablets at the settlement of Tartaria (Alba county, in Romania) that kindled a wave of controversy regarding the possibility that Neolithic and Eneolithic cultures might have expressed an early form of writing in south-eastern Europe. Paradoxically, the Tartaria discovery cracked the skepticism of some scholars over the spectacular claim that the Neo-Eneolithic Danube Civilization used an early form of writing, and at the same time reinforced that of others. In fact, since their discovery the Transylvanian tablets have occupied a unique and often contentious position in European prehistory because of the dispute over two main points: their dating and the assertion that their symbols could express a form of writing.

With relation to their dating, the archaeological documentation from the discoverer (Nicolae Vlassa from Cluj Museum) was not completely reliable. Therefore they have been used by some scholars as evidence of a low chronology for the Danube Neolithic period: the Tartaria tablets might have belonged to Vinca migrations, when such a writing system was largely used not only in south-eastern Europe, but also in the area of proto-Sumerian civilizations. At the same time the Transylvanian tablets have been considered by others scholars as genuine early Vinca artifacts of the fifth millennium B.C. (calibrated 14C analysis: 5,370-5,140 B.C.). Therefore they have been taken into account as the earliest attestations of an Old European script.

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Addendum: We don't have a strict organizational chart on the development of Stone-Copper Age in Bulgaria and adjacent lands, nevertheless our duty dictates us to make some commentary and have an opinion. The review materials are taken from uncensored sources so that they fit to the Balkan chronology and stratigraphy. Otherwise, it would have been quite difficult to probe those prehistoric times (Neo-Eneolithic from 6500 to 3000 B.C.) wherein the Nordic Balkans stood astray from its Southern counterpart (Greece and the Aegean) and the general civilization of Egypt and Sumer, per se.

Therefore, despite some bombastic explanations from contemporary "political archaeologists", we wish to expand with a few reasonable conjectures on the two most debatable lever-points for existing a proto-European civilization on those lands: 1) On the Varna gold necropolis; and 2) On the clay inscribed tablets from Trans-Danube region. Both archaeological artifacts have wealth of evidence on their genuineness plus support from calibrated 14C analysis.

1) On the Varna gold necropolis ~ Stylistically the Varna golden hoard (total weight of 5 kg) could belong to such an early phase of metal smitten. It had been buried with other alloys from copper and bronze and finds perfect lodging at the top of Karanovo mound, the oldest culture sequence in Southeast Europe. The controversy that there is no gold in Karanovo or elsewhere on the Balkans in such huge amount could be shifted with the fact that it was yielded from somewhere else and transported in nuggets to Varna where being processed. Hypothetically, this could be anywhere in a large perimeter including the Levantine (see Nahal Qanah gold) or even from Transatlantic (see Lake Titicaca in Peru). Egypt at the same time in 3000 B.C. had its first pharaohs and built its first pyramids (which were ostensibly pharaoh's tombs). From there tomb-building propagate elsewhere, including Crete, Mycenae, Troy, etc. Gold should have been included in those tombs but was looted numerous times in private collections and national museums; summarily, we shouldn't expect the Varna necropolis to stay too far away from early Egyptian pharaoh's burials.

2) On the clay inscribed tablets from Trans-Danube region ~ This supposition on primacy of Danube communication system is even more transparent. Consider only that in early Sumer, Mesopotamia, there are clay tablets with cuneiform signs from a. 4000 B.C.

Thus we land carefully on Bulgarian territory and let a reader have a glance on national literature with reference to Stone-Copper Age and advance to Dark Ages (or conveniently termed Geometric period, to suite the magnificence of Creto-Mycenaean culture). The fascination of this topic is obvious. We have been reading as children marvelous adventure stories about pharaohs, mummies, mythological heroes and creatures. They are all there and have been lying deep beneath until unearthed. The book from Dr. Ivan Velkov gives a fresh look on those prehistoric times, manifold augmented by images from national and foreign archives. Let me say few words about the author and we preclude our short note.

Ivan Velkov was from the generation of pre-war archaeologists which expressly got exhausted in the communist regime coming in the aftermath. He worked as curator of the National Archaeological Museum — literally, he was the right hand to Prof. Bogdan Filov and assisted the excavations at burial settlements, such as Duvanli, Mezek, etc. His prime interest was in the archaeology of Roman towns and fortresses (on which he wrote a special monograph in 1940s). Otherwise, he contributed numerous articles scattered in journals and newspapers. He was always shrewd observer on the heritage of his teacher (Prof. Bogdan Filov) and whenever the latter was too busy or occupied to attend, I. Velkov was always present as substitute. Thus he studied and worked upon the archaeological map of Bulgaria and many Thracian fortresses in the Balkan and the Rhodope Mountains were explored by him. How pity he couldn't work to the end or maybe he would have unearthed earlier such important site as Perperikon where he made several visits in the 1930s. The other complementary curator of the National Archaeological Museum was Dr. Vasil Mikov. He made the first reports on Karanovo mound in the 1940s, ditto.

 

Pictures 1 & 2: Sample illustrations on the text above.

(i). Artifacts from the Varna-Trans Danube culture (6500 to 3000 B.C.) — clockwise, 1) Varna Chalcolithic necropolis; 2) Nahal Qanah ringers; 3) Titicaca necklace; 4) Tartaria tablets; and 5) Gradeshnica platter.

 

(ii). This is Karanovo mound, SE Bulgaria, where evidence for Copper Age levels and early Bronze Age could be found. Total height of the diggings is some 14 meters (see observers in the middle right).

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by the author.