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Author: Ivan Venedikov


The Sboryanovo archaeological reserve is located near the town of Isperih, North-East Bulgaria. In the canyon of the Krapinec river only at about 50 km from the Danube and about 120 km from the Black sea coast lie the springs which supply water for large regions of Northeastern Bulgaria. This sacred place is one of the most interesting examples of the diversity and richness of the cultural heritage of Bulgaria and its intangible values. One of the most sensational discoveries of the Thracian archaeology, Sveshtari tomb, protected by UNESCO is located here. Three other UNESCO monuments are located in the same part of the country Ivanovo rock-cut churches, Madara horseman and Srebarna Natural reservation. The biggest Voden National Hunting park is in the vicinity.

The reservation, declared in 1988, with an area of about 16 000 m2 protects rare creations of nature and one of the greatest concentrations of archaeological sites in the country. The most notable of them belong to the culture of the Thracians more than 100 tumuli, vast areas surrounded by stone walls, cult places, sanctuaries and others, dated to the 1st millennium BC, as well as important sites from the Prehistoric, Roman and the Mediaeval periods. The name Sboryanovo (meaning, "place for gathering"), reveals as well as many other toponyms the role of this sacred area where people gather and perform rituals in the area (cf., the Alian monastery Demir baba teke).

The National Reserve Sboryanovo is one of the most important sites for understanding of the diversity of Bulgarian cultural traditions. Situated in an area which played key role in the cultural and historical development of the country for several thousand years, it is located near two other UNESCO monuments Madara hosreman and Ivanovo rock-cut churches in a distance of about 100 km. Its forests with karst formations, meandering rivers and water springs, are one of the few places in Bulgaria where rare plants and birds are included in the Red Data books of Bulgaria and Europe for preservation. The area itself covers one of the greatest concentration of archaeological sites in the country from Prehistoric, Thracian, Roman, Early Christian, and Late Mediaeval periods. The Alian monastery Demir Baba teke situated in the center of the reserve is a common religious center for people belonging to different cultural traditions and religions. It was one of the first National Heritage monuments declared in 1925.

The Sveshtari tomb, discovered here in 1982 was one of the most sensational discoveries in the field of ancient archaeology with its unique plan, syntheses of architectural, sculptural and painted decorations in the main chamber and the naiskos the only known till now in real archaeological form. It was declared as UNESCO World heritage monument in 1985 and the Sboryanovo National reservation was proclaimed in 1988. The discovery of the tomb and its cultural context as a big agglomeration with structure and components unknown from other places in Thrace raised many scientific and practical problems. The thorough study of the site would throw light on unknown aspects of the Thracian civilization. The archaeological team studied exhaustively all elements for the obtaining of most objective scientific information, to create the best conditions for most efficient conservation and restoration, and for original approaches in the presentation of the monuments in their complexity.

The natural and historical environment offered a chance to create an archaeological park of high scientific, cultural and aesthetical functions. For the study of the whole structure and its development through time an archaeological map of the area in scale 1:2000 was initiated, by applying air photogrametry, and a digital photogrammetric model for the entire territory was created which would permit the adding of newly discovered or newly excavated sites and data about the time of their discovery. In the years since 1982 the investigation of some key sites led to the discovery for the first time of two Thracian sanctuaries a megalithic one in the area of the monastery Demir baba (the Iron Father) near the water springs and another one in the locality Kamen rid, both dated to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC. A cult place on the territory of the Western cemetery consisting of a long stone wall and oval stone constructions and ritual pits were also discovered. Excavations of the Hellenistic city, with an area of 90 000 m2 surrounded by double stone wall gave evidence for intensive trade with Iron Age Europe, the Aegean and Asia and local metal workshops and minting.

The study of the 5 cemeteries, composed of clusters of tumuli, was one of the main trends of the excavations. The high costs for the preservation of the Sveshtari tomb, and the long period of its exploration was an argument against further excavations of tumuli with tombs. From scientific point of view only thorough study of the whole groups of tumuli could obtain the necessary level of knowledge about the rituals and believes of these ancient people. A new more efficient and inexpensive approach to excavations of tumuli with tombs was elaborated, based on the possibilities for accurate localization of tombs under tumuli by geophysical methods. Profiles were orientated through the most characteristic features of the tumuli along the axis of the tomb and several perpendicular to it in front of the facades and at the key points. A protective curtain of soil 50 cm thick had to prevent the tombs from weather conditions while studying the area in front of it and to give objective information about past events in the adjacent area. In this way, effective protection measures could be taken on an earlier stage.

The astronomic aspects of the planning of the cemetery raised another group of problems. Archaeoastronomical analysis showed that that the axis of the Sveshtari tomb was directed to the first sun ray on 22 December in the 4th century BC and the astronomic orientation of all the tombs were determined by observations of the Sun. The tumuli clusters were constructed as mirror images of part of the brightest stars in the constellations Canis Major, Canis Minor, Orion, Taurus, while the location of those from the Western cemetery coincided with the double mirror image of Sagittarius.

Bulgaria is a country of seismic activity. Palaeoseismic studies of the deformations of the tombs, their reconstructions and environment in collaboration with specialists from the Institute of Geophysics and Geology in Sofia, lead to the identification of an earthquake of 7,7 degrees and of its epicenter only 60 km to the east of the site, dated to the beginning of the 3rd century BC. These studies contributed to reconstructing the historical and natural processes to the more correct interpretation of the archaeological situations, and gave important information for the solution of practical problems of the protection of the cultural heritage in the area. Modern Italian instrument for monitoring was installed experimentally in the Sveshtari tomb.

The investigated Thracian centre proved to be remarkable not only by its monuments but also with its planning subordinated to the idea which required full harmony with the natural landscape and the celestial harmony. The complex of sanctuaries, connected with the cult to rocks, to water springs and celestial bodies (Great Mother-Goddess Artemis and Apollo), the Hellenistic town and the hypothetical kings residence were surrounded in a radius of about 2000 m by five tumular cemeteries from the North to the South, the tombs forming the center of each cluster demonstrating the original features of a local architectural school. The planning of the Thracian agglomeration and the construction of its monuments demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of knowledge in mathematics and astronomy, architecture and arts devoted to the creation of this royal centre as a mirror reflection of the celestial order, following the Orphism doctrine. This center could be identified with Dausdava, or the"City of the Wolves" on the map of the Roman geographer Claudius Ptolomeus, or with the royal residence Helis in the Hellenistic period. The newly applied methods gave ground to another interpretation of the empty Thracian tombs as tombs temples for the most important rituals of the deification of the dead.

Sboryanovo reserve now is the biggest known and the best studied Thracian religious and political center dated to the 1st millennium BC. It was founded at a strategic cross road between Europe and Asia. It became the capital of the Thracian tribe Getae in 4th-3rd c. BC and played important role in the Hellenistic world, maintaining long-distance cultural and economic contacts with Europe and Asia. A third point determines the extremely high scientific and cultural value of the reserve. This is the fact that the Thracian agglomeration preserved its religious significance till modern times. Votive plaques of the Thracian horseman, an early Christian inscription, Proto-Bulgarian tumuli on the territory of earlier Thracian necropolis from 8th -9th c., big Mediaeval settlement with traces of iron production, the only bronze statue of Jaina dated to 11th c. found in Bulgaria and finally the mausoleum of Demir baba built in 15th-16th c. on the rock altar of the earlier Thracian sanctuary shows a remarkable continuity of its spiritual functions. Authentic religious rituals of adorning the trees, sacrificing animals and donating candles in the area of the monastery Demir Baba have been performed at one and the same place for millennia by local and new population of different cultural traditions and ethnicity. The followers of believes of the same ideological model, deeply rooted in the Orphic-Zoroastrian traditions of the solar-chthonic cult and its universal values including the idea of the immortality of the soul, tolerance and equality. The monastery of Demir baba and its stone-carved ornamentation of the courtyard is also a unique in the country.

The years after the discovery of the Sveshtari tomb proved the polyvalent importance of the interdisciplinary methods for the study of the archaeological heritage and for its protection. Although a plan to develop an archaeological park was conceived in the first years of the excavations and projects for the conservation and restoration of all already excavated sites existed, special measures were undertaken only for the Sveshtari tomb. Comparative investigations on the changes in the microclimate of the two tombs preserved in different conditions the Sveshtari tomb in a protection building and the second tomb in its normal environment proved the efficiency of the later approach. Conservation and restoration were provided only in the Sveshtari tomb and in the monastery Demir Baba, where new wall paintings were discovered. None of the sanctuaries were restored.

The protection buildings over different archaeological structures like stone constructions, altars, tombs and tumuli have been destroyed in the recent years. The special metal protection building above the Big Sveshtari tumulus in the area which is in process of excavation has been destroyed together with more than 20 tumuli in the area.

Experimental conservation of fragments of the fortress wall of the Hellenistic town was made. General plan and projects for the exhibiting of the two other tombs and of the two sanctuaries exist. Smaller protection buildings were constructed over more significant archaeological discoveries.

At the moment the destruction processes of the archaeological monuments are much faster that the possibility to find support for the activities in the reservation. Very often the wish of the sponsors does not correspond to the needs of the monuments.


Sanctuary at "Kamen rid" Stone circle

At the Kamen rid locality the Thracians built a temenos at the end of 2nd millennium BC. Ritual fireplaces and pits with offerings, idols and ritually broken vessels had been found during the excavation. Two stone circles from the Hellenistic period were symbolizing the celestial bodies, the Sun and the Moon.


Demir baba teke

Demir baba teke is situated at the very heart of the Sboryanovo archaeological reservation. The excavations of the 16th century monastery Demir baba (Iron Father) reveal the millennial living traditions preserved in that part of the fertile valley of Krapinets river. One of the two earliest tells in it (the second one being localized to the northeast of the Malak Porovets village) is found immediately next to the Alian monastery and is dated to the Chalcolithic Age (5th-4th millennium BC). Excavations outside the monastery courtyard revealed remains of wattle-and-daub dwellings, burials and numerous finds suggesting the high culture and the interesting religious notions of the population of the region during that time.


Thracian sanctuary at Demir baba teke

There is three-rock massif, more than 2 m tall, which served as external altar. A wade arc-like niche is hewn on its interior facade and it collects the last rays of the sunset. A quadrangular sacrificial platform is hewn above the niche, with a small trough and a groove falling to the base, where the blood of the sacrificial animals was collected in a large vessel (pythos). A sacred wall separated the sacred territory from its environment. The remains of the monumental and stone walls from different construction periods, bearing typical features of Thracian construction, are among the most impressive remains of a Thracian cult complex preserved to this day.


Helis' city of the Getae

Double stone walls were protecting the Thracian city, which in the second half of the 4th and the first half of 3rd c. BC was the economical and political centre of the Getic royal dynasty. It had contacts with the Greek, Asian and Central European world.


Western Necropolis

In 1998-1999 the excavations were held uncovering a stone construction and two additional burials. The first one was in funeral urn, with male bones and golden necklace of 15 beads. The tumulus is dating from 3rd c. BC.


Eastern Necropolis

The Eastern necropolis contains several tumuli, most of them dating from the Hellenistic age (4th-2nd c. BC). The biggest is the Royal Sveshtari tumulus unearthed in 1982. It was one of the most sensational discoveries in the field of the Thracian archaeology and the Hellenistic architecture. It was included in 1985 in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The tomb has three chambers covered by independent semi-cylindrical vaults. The burial chamber demonstrates a unique architectural decoration in real Doric style, combined with sculptural decoration of 10 caryatides images of the Mother Goddess in high relief and a painted scene on the lunette showing the deification of the king-horseman. A royal couple had been buried there. A triple stone door in front of the funeral bed of the king is considered to be the predecessor of the later altar walls of the Christian churches. The naiskos is also the only one known till now which is an archaeological reality.


Ginina Tumulus

Destroyed by an earthquake around 300 BC, the tomb was found near the Sveshtari tumulus Tumulus 12. It was dismantled by the Thracians and piled over again. The Thracians had built a complex of three tombs, the Sveshtari tomb and two smaller tombs with sliding doors. In 1988 was discovered the second smaller tomb under Tumulus 13.



Zalmoxis immortalization of the Gods

Zalmoxis, is a divinity of the Getae, mentioned by Herodotus in his Histories IV, 93-96. In later interpretations, which begin with Jordanes (6th century AD) and have proliferated during the 19th and 20th century, he was regarded as the sole god of the Getae (not to be confounded in this context with the Thracians or their relatives, the Dacians) as a legendary social and religious reformer of the Getae people to which he would have taught, following Herodotus, the belief in immortality. Herodotus states that Zalmoxis was also called by some of the Getae, Gebeleizis, which made some searchers conclude that Getae were actually henotheists or even polytheists. Another discussion exists about the chthonic, infernal, or uranian character of Zalmoxis.

Herodotus writes about Zalmoxis in book 4 of his Histories: "The Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the justest. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The sending is done in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him and throw him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is him who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person. And, after he has been charged, they send another one. The messenger is told the requests while he is still alive. The same Thracians, on other occasions, when he thunders and lightens, shoot with arrows up in the air against the sky and menace the divinity because they think there is no other god then theirs".

According to Herodotus the Greeks of the Hellespont and the Black Sea tell that Zalmoxis was a slave to Pythagoras of Samos, son of Mnesarchos. After being liberated, he gathered a huge wealth and once rich, went back to his homeland. Thracians lived simple and hard lives. Zalmoxis having lived amongst the wisest of Greeks, Pythagoras, had been initiated to the Ionian life and Eleusinian Mysteries. Building a banquet hall, he received the chiefs and his fellow countrymen. He taught that none of his guests nor their descendants would ever die, but instead they would go to a place where they would live forever in a complete happiness. He then dug an underground residence and, once finished, he disappeared from the Thracians going down to his underground residence and lived there for three years. The Thracians missed him and wept fearing him dead. The fourth year, he came back amongst them and thus they believed what Zalmoxis had told them.

There are different theories about the disappearance and return of Zalmoxis:

Some authors consider Herodotus is just making fun about the Getae's barbarian beliefs;

Some take the passage seriously and consider Zalmoxis has created a ritual of passage; this theory is mainly supported by Mircea Eliade, who was the first to write a coherent interpretation about Zalmoxis;

Some authors insist on Zalmoxis' relation with Pythagoras, stating that he has founded a mystical cult;

Some see in Zalmoxis a Christ figure who dies and resurrects; this position was also defended by Jean Coman, a professor of patristics and orthodox priest, who was a friend of Eliade and published in Eliade's journal "Zalmoxis", which appeared in the 1930s.

It is difficult to define the time when a cult to Zalmoxis may have existed. It is just sure that it must be anterior to Herodotus' work. It seems that some people have considered that the archaism of Zalmoxis's doctrine points out to a heritage from before the times of Indo-Europeans, which is nevertheless quite difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate.

Plato says in the Charmides dialogue that Zalmoxis was also a great physician who took a holistic approach to healing body and soul (psyche), being thus used by Plato for his own philosophical conceptions.

In Plato, he is mentioned as skilled in the arts of incantation. Zalmoxis gave his name to a particular type of singing and dancing (Hesych). His realm as a god is not very clear, as some considered him to be a sky-god, a god of the dead or a god of the Mysteries.

Lactantius (early Christian author 240 - 320 AD) about the Getae belief in Zalmoxis provide an approximate translation of Julian the Apostate writing, who put these words in emperor Trajan's mouth: "We have conquered even these Getai (Dacians), the most warlike of all people that have ever existed, not only because of the strength in their bodies, but, also due to the teachings of Zalmoxis who is among their most hailed. He has told them that in their hearts they do not die, but change their location and, due to this, they go to their deaths happier than on any other journey."

The most coherent and perhaps also original interpretation about Zalmoxis is due to Mircea Eliade who believes that Getae actually had a religion based upon a ritual of passage where a ritual death symbolized by the disappearance in a cavern, was followed by a ritual rebirth which was the leaving of the cavern. Zalmoxis was a constant in Eliade's life. His most complete work on this behalf is probably "From Zalmoxis to Genghis Khan", which originally appeared in Paris in 1970.



Addendum: We invested considerable time verifying and deciphering the written message in the two-volume bookset from archaeologist Ivan Venedikov (born 1916 - died 1997). First of all "Copper Cornucopia of Proto-Bulgarians" /1983/ and "Golden Cauldron of Proto-Bulgarians" /1987/, though outwardly dedicated to 1300 years jubilee of the Bulgarian state, internally have nothing to do with the period after 681 A.D. when officially was ascribed a foundation of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. When some critiques tried to ascribe the books as ethno-mythology literature much to resemblance with an epical narrative from Classical sources (Greek or Latin), these proved also on false trail since the careful reader should realize that no Gods or semi-Gods are presented and discussed here, nor any associations with Greek and Latin parallels are made.

Probing deeper we came to another clue. Thracians were illiterate people from times immemorial. Their language belonged to the Indo-European family of verbal communications but Thracians themselves used Greek of Latin scripts to express themselves (always, for at least the period before Cyrillic letters came as substitute.) Thus the most numerous people in the World after the Hindus, as Herodotus laconically put down in his "Histories", were somewhat always considered as shadow-people and mercenaries to other ethnics that have written literature. Was it always like that?

Dr. Ivan Vededikov tries to demystify this blunder of Thracian anonymity by giving a presentation with those two books. Even more, structurally both the "Copper Cornucopia ..." and the "Golden Cauldron ..." are not written cohesively in book format. They rather represent a miscellany of short articles written on various occasions and stitched together purposefully (maybe, to satisfy the needs of an eager publisher to print some monographs from that particular author). But let "by-gone be by-gone" and try to give some substance on the works of I. Venedikov formerly, curator at Antiquity section of the National Archaeological Museum.

We have already mentioned on several occasions the inadequacies of the communist type of culture. Amongst it many behests, culture in Bulgaria was highly dependant on foreign aid and subsidies. So much for the archaeological work where I couldn't point-out a single investigation (field or laboratory) done without help and expertise from abroad. In this air of indefiniteness Ivan Venedikov was a sole long-distance runner. And if we say here what was the subject matter of his occupation activity namely, facilitator of organizational committees to Thracian expositions, all-in-all, four of them at consequent decades and various geographic locations it becomes clear how thinking evolved for that man who was not an expert himself but always was laid on "shoulders of giants".

The stuff of the Thracian expositions that exempted the life-work of Ivan Venedikov could be systematized as follows (N.B., have in mind that inseparable companion to the titular was Ralph Hoddinott from Great Britain. His "Thracians" (1981), however, is based on material that uses foreign archaeological data to make interpolations for the Thracians. For example, the Otomani-Wietenberg periodization on which Hoddinott's presentation is constructed could suppose but not testify, that Thracians were descendant from the Carpathian mountains and down to the Aegean basin. Hoddinott's presentation do not presuppose the idea of Thracian autochthon that Venedikov developed in his writings consistently, that it was the enormous hoards of gold treasures that gave the face of Thracian civilization and not such Nordic and Mediterranean influences that are taken for granted by foreign authors).

1. Bulgarian Treasures from the Past. Sofia: Foreign Languages Press, May 1965.

2. Thracian Treasures from Bulgaria. Boston: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 30 September - 30 October 1977.

3. Gold of the Thracian Horseman. Montreal: Palais de la Civilisation, 30 May - 4 October 1987.

4. Wealth of the Thracians. Washington, D.C.: Trust for Museum Exhibitions, February 1994.



Copyright 2011 by the author.