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Author: Nkola Vulich



The discovery of the treasures of Trebenista, a village located on the road from Ohrid to Kicevo, was like something out of a movie: ancient graves loaded with gold and silver and burial gifts as if fit for a king. The site of Trebenista that dates from the 7th - 4th centuries BC was discovered in 1918. Trebeniste Necropolis is regarded as one of the most interesting archaeological sites from the Iron age on the Balkan Peninsula. Fifty six tombs were discovered of which most significant and the oldest are the 12 princely tombs, a whole dynasty that was buried with all the marks of their power. Four golden burial masks, sandals, golden gloves, gold, silver, and bronze vessels and jewelry and rosettes have been discovered on three male and one female skeleton in Trebenista village. Trebeniste necropolis remains today one of the most important archaeological finds in Macedonia, and a vivid reminder of the style and sophistication of past cultures.

On 30 September 2002, at a distance of only 13 kilometers (Ohrid-Trebenište), in the Ohrid region a funeral gold mask, the fifth in the range, was again found which represents a rare practice in archeology. Namely, in less than a century, or more precisely, after 84 years, at such a small distance and in a country that cannot actually invest a lot in the expensive archaeological excavations, up to five gold masks have been found! This finding, like so many before, proves that Macedonia is indeed a Balkan archaeological pearl.

Normally, the finding of the fifth gold mask, as it was the case with the first, incited an enormous interest, with the only difference that the first one found caused particular interest with the scientific public whereas the fifth excited the wider public. Beside the admiration for the artistic quality, especially shared by the larger public, a number of questions were immediately imposed, like the time and the place of the manufacturing of the masks and the other objects (the glove and the ring) discovered in the grave (132nd in the archeological notebook on the necropolis within Samoil’s fortress), the purpose of these luxurious objects, but mostly who were the people who had ordered them, that is who owned them. What were their names and who they actually were?

Before answering these questions, let us recall the history of the discovery of the gold masks in the necropolis near the village of Trebenište, actually near the village of Gorenci, at 10 kilometers to the north of Ohrid. In this necropolis, on two occasions, two times two, four funerary masks were found in the so-called princely graves dating from the end of the 6th to beginning of the 5th century B.C., with rich funerary offering (gold and silver jewelry, silver and bronze vessels, glass and amber beads, black-figured vases, local pottery, arms, terracotta, and so on). The first two masks were found quite accidentally in the spring of 1918 during the war activities of the Bulgarian army, which had occupied this part of Macedonia. And yet, even under warring circumstances, some archeological excavations were made by the archeologists B. Filow in collaboration with K. Shkorpil when, apart from the poor graves, seven princely graves (No I-VII) were discovered and the entire material was taken to the Archeological Museum in Sofia, where it is even today.

In 1919, after the sanctioning of the partition of Macedonia to four parts the largest part of the Ohrid region belonged to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians (a part of the Ohrid Lake and 22 villages were given to Albania). Twelve years later, from 1930 to 1934, the Serbian archeologist N. Vulic discovered six other princely graves (No. VIII-XIII) in the same necropolis and two more gold masks that, together with the other findings, were taken to the National Museum in Belgrade.

The unexpected discovery of such rich graves and funeral gold masks from the Ohrid region, which date an entire millennium after the only gold mask in the Balkans and in Europe generally was found so far (i.e., found by H. Schliemann in 1876, in Mycenae, on Peloponnesus), surprised the scientists of that time, who immediately started solving the enigma about who had made these luxurious objects and for whom. We should immediately reject the thesis about foreigners who accidentally happened to be in the region and had been buried there, because not only does the necropolis have a continuity (VII-IV centuries B.C.), but it also has an internal cohesion. Namely, apart from the rich graves, so-called poor graves from the same period had been discovered as well, which undoubtedly proves that it was the local aristocracy, that is to say the ruling class that could order such luxurious objects.

The question about the origin of the objects was easier and more quickly resolved than the question about the ethnic origin of the inhabitants in the region. Namely, it is well known that at that time (the Archaic period), Corinth was the center for manufacturing metal objects, particularly made of bronze, although bronze vessels were not used in Hellas until the Hellenic age due to the different social structure: polis in Hellas and kingdoms in its "barbarous" periphery. The Corinthian colonies were also included in the manufacturing and distribution of these products, both the ones in the northeast and the ones on Chalcidice, where a specific style had been created, especially for the bronze vessels, the so-called Chalcidicean style. Today we know that the bronze vessels (like craters decorated with a frieze of horsemen or cows) found in Trebenište were manufactured in Corinth, and some in the South-Italic colonies, whereas the silver ones (rhythons, schifos) are believed to have been manufactured in the Ionic-Persian style, suitable to the taste of the local population. Namely, the connections between Macedonia and the eastern Mediterranean are very old, and the Macedonian artisans started to adapt and imitate different kinds of objects (Persian vessels, silver cups-calyx) relatively early. The jewelry in composite style was manufactured in the workshops on Chalcidice that, in spite of foreign influences, maintained the predilection and style of the local population (round-headed needles decorated with stylized palmettes as on the sarcophagus of Phillip II in filigree technique, needles with stylized poppy berries, etc.).

Taking into consideration that the gold masks were found in graves, it is obvious that they were intended for funeral purposes. In the funerary cult of the Macedonian tribes, the body of the deceased, particularly the open parts of the body — the faces, the palms, the soles, and so on, were covered with gold: masks, gloves, sandal soles, gold leaflets attached to the clothes and the arms, the so-called applications. Funerary masks or gold leaves have been found on other sites in Macedonia as well: in Beranci near Bitola, in Aiane (now Eani in Greece), in Sindos (Tekelievo), in Mikro Karabournu near Thessaloniki, Pella, Amphipolis etc.

Unfortunately, there are still scholars who believe that this funerary cult in Macedonia is of Egyptian origin. There are scientists who believe that such covering of the body with gold leaves was taken over to Macedonia from Egypt via Crete, so they connect it with the legend of Minos and his search for Daedalus, or for his son Glaucias. However, they are not taking into consideration the huge chronological distances, which is not possible to be explained. So, the most logical and therefore the most acceptable explanation is the one of a convergence. This means that the people living on distant territories, for which we are sure that had no mutual contacts at all, came to identical or similar solutions and answers for similar or completely identical needs and issues. So, in Egypt, the bodies of the richest and the most powerful people, i.e. the pharaohs, were covered with gold masks. In Macedonia, and not only in the Ohrid region, the bodies of the most distinguished members of the communities, i.e. the leaders, were covered with gold. These were local rulers from the VI and V century B.C., the period before the state had been united by the most powerful dynasty — in this case the Argheads, the first dynasty of the Macedonian kingdom.

Nevertheless, the biggest problem for the scholars was the question related to the ethnic origin of the owners of these luxurious objects, that is to say the inhabitants of the Ohrid region. According to the written sources, the first inhabitants of the Ohrid region known by their name were the Encheleis/Engelanes, and later the Dassaretai. Even before the discovery of the gold masks, there had been several opinions expressed as regards the origin of these tribes: Illyrian, an old population that was Illyrized as a part of the Illyrian state, Macedonian, Brygian, and Greek. When the first two gold masks were found in Gorenci/Trebenište 84 years ago, it
was not just an epochal discovery, but an enigma for the scientific world, because with the ancient peoples (Greeks, Thracians, Illyrians) from the Classical Age gold masks had not been discovered until then. The masks from Mycenae were dated thousand years before and they belong to the Achaeans, whose overall social structure and culture were entirely different from those of the peoples in the Classical Age, including the ancient Greeks. And since the Macedonians at that time, with a few exceptions, were considered Greeks, these masks were ascribed to their eastern neighbors - the Illyrians, whose border was then not precisely defined.

The Romans were perfectly aware that the huge province of Illyricum, which later they will divide into two smaller provinces (Dalmatia and Pannonia), was not inhabited only by Illyrian tribes. Nevertheless, even they (Romans) predominantly used the administrative name Illyrians — as was the name of the province — for tribes on the same or similar economic, cultural, and social level living from Epirus in the south to Istria in the north. We should here mention the example with the name of the tribe that lived in the Ohrid-Struga region, as an indicative one. Namely, the ancient author Manaseas, for whom we do not even know when he exactly lived, wrote that Engelanes was the same as Enkheleis, i.e. Encheleis, which is ancient Greek transcription of the Macedonian name of the tribe. The author Stephanus of Byzantium from the VI century B.C. took over this data from Manaseas, adding that the tribe was in Illyricum. This is taken as an evidence for the Illyrian origin of the Engelanes, without taking into consideration that Stephanus of Byzantium wrote about the prefecture Illyricum from his own time (which encompassed almost the entire Balkans), and not about "Illyria" in geographic or ethnic meaning. These data from written sources can be supported with the new
types of sources, like archeological and epigraphic ones, the analysis of which shows that the tribes living in the Ohrid region belonged to the Macedonian group of tribes.

The study of the onomastic data has shown that out of the 50 names found in the Ohrid-Struga region, no more than four can be classified as Illyrian. Some of the personal names can be classified neither as Illyrian, nor ancient Greek, or Thracian. Other names that were formerly considered to be Illyrian have many analogies in Asia Minor, which proves that they should be ascribed to the Bryges (i.e. to the Engelanes) who were living in this part of Macedonia before their migration to Asia Minor. And today we know that the Briygian tribes used to be the foundation/basis (substratum) in the ethno-genesis of the Ancient Macedonians.

It is of great importance in defining the material culture of the inhabitants from Trebenište and its surroundings, and thus for determining their ethnic origin. Namely, it has been proven that the characteristics of the funerary ritual in these necropolises are neither Greek nor Illyrian or Thracian. So far, funerary masks have been found only in Macedonia, and not on the territory of Ancient Greece. Gold masks were not used in the funerary cult of ancient Greeks — to connect them with the masks from the Cretan-Mycenaean culture is methodologically wrong, because the ethnic, the cultural, and the chronological differences between them are huge. Another characteristic of the Macedonian funerary ritual is the tripod for the funeral feast, which is not found with the Ancient Greeks, where the cult bed, the so-called "kline" was used for the funeral feast. These two most significant characteristics were indicated by the renowned French expert Claude Rolley after the discovery of the necropolis in Sindos. Apart from these characteristics, metal vessels were found in the necropolis in Gorenci/Trebenište that were not used at that time in Ancient Greece. All this proves that we are faced with two different funerary customs. If we point out that the funerary ritual is one of the most significant elements of a religion, which, after the language, is the most important element in defining the ethnicity of the tribes, it is obvious that the Engelanes belonged to the group of Macedonian tribes.



1. B. Filow, and K. Schkorpil. Die archaische Necropole von Trebenischte am Ochrida. Berlin und Leipcig, 1927.

2. N. Vulic. Das neue Grab von Trebenischte, Arch. Anzeiger, Bb. III/IV, 1930, pp. 276-279; Id., Ein neues Grab bei Trebenischte, Jahreshefte d. Ost. Arch. Inst., 28, Wien, 1932, pp. 164-186; Id., Neue Graber bei Trebenischte, Arch. Anzeiger, 1933, pp. 459-486; Id., La nécropole archaďque de Trebenishte, Revue archéologique, Paris, 1934, pp. 26-38.




Alternative death rituals emphasizing one 0r other method of disposal of a body — inhumation (burial) versus cremation (combustion) — have gone through periods of preference throughout history.

In the Middle East and Europe, both burial and cremation are evident in the archaeological record in the Neolithic. Cultural groups had their own preference and prohibitions. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration of soul theology, which prohibited cremation, and this was adopted widely among other Semitic peoples. The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead. Early Persians practiced cremation, but this became prohibited during the Zoroastrian Period. Phoenicians practiced both cremation and burial. From the Cycladic civilization in 3000 BC until the Sub-Mycenaean era in 1200-1000 B.C., Greeks practiced inhumation. Cremation appearing around the 12th century B.C. constitutes a new practice of burial and is probably an influence from Minor Asia. Until the Christian era, when the inhumation becomes again the only burial practice, both combustion and inhumation had been practiced depending on the era, and area. Romans practiced both, with cremation generally associated with military honors.

In Europe, there are traces of cremation dating to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 B.C.) in the Pannonian Plain and along the middle Danube. The custom becomes dominant throughout Bronze Age Europe with the Urnfield culture (from ca. 1300 B.C.). In the Iron Age, inhumation becomes again more common, but cremation persisted in the Villanovan culture and elsewhere. Homer's account of Patroclus' burial describes cremation with subsequent burial in a tumulus similar to Urnfield burials, qualifying as the earliest description of cremation rites. This is mostly an anachronism, as during Mycenaean times burial was generally preferred, and Homer may have been reflecting on more common use of cremation in the period in which the Iliad was written centuries later.

Criticism of burial rites is a common aspersion in competing religions and cultures, and one is the association of cremation with fire sacrifice or human sacrifice.

Hinduism and Jainism are notable for not only allowing but prescribing cremation. Cremation in India is first attested in the Cemetery culture (ca. 1900 B.C.), considered the formative stage of Vedic civilization. The Rigveda contains a reference to the emerging practice, in RV 10.15.14, where the forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdha) and uncremated (anagnidagdha)".

Cremation remained common, but not universal, in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to Cicero, in Rome, inhumation was considered the more archaic rite while the most honoured citizens were most typically cremated, especially upper classes and members of imperial families.

Christianity frowned upon cremation, both influenced by the tenets of Judaism, and in an attempt to abolish Graeco-Roman pagan rituals. By the 5th century, the practice of cremation had practically disappeared from Europe.

In early Roman Britain, cremation was usual but diminished by the fourth century. It then reappeared in the fifth and sixth centuries during the migration era, when sacrificed animals were sometimes included with the human bodies on the pyre, and the deceased were dressed in costume and with ornaments for the burning. That custom was also very widespread among the Germanic peoples of the northern continental lands from which the Anglo-Saxon migrants are supposed to have been derived, during the same period. These ashes were usually thereafter deposited in a vessel of clay or bronze in an "urn cemetery." The custom again died out with the Christian conversion among the Anglo-Saxons or Early English during the seventh century, when inhumation of the corpse became general.



Addendum: We are presenting a short commentary here on the Trebenishte culture which lately came to high notification in international literature. This interest stems largely with the advancement of European accession process to the Republic FYROM, or whatever name that state adopts in the acquit. Already in a previous publication from the booklist we have made some demarcations on the ethnic origins of the local population — cf., "Katzarov, G. Paionia ~ Historical and Geographical Study. Sofia, 1921". Now we are going to peg this research with adjoining archaeological data, some of which from quite recent times (2002) and extraordinary scientific value. The leading article "Trebenište culture and the gold funeral masks" reflects on those new findings.

Some new arguments should be attributed to the ethnic origin of the people from Trebenishte culture. Ancient sources refer to them as ancestors of the Phrygians of Asia Minor, large numbers of whom in early times are believed to have crossed over to Asia Minor from Europe. Yet according to the national legend (Herodotus, v. 13), they were Teucrian colonists from Troy. Homer (Iliad, book II, line 848) speaks of Paionians from the Axios fighting on the side of the Trojans. More derivatives could be spoken-off about the Indo-European origins of those people.

Further we concentrate our attention to the publication from Dr. Nikola Vulich (died 1945), formerly Professor of Classical Philology at Beograd University. The scholarly efforts of B. Filow and after him N. Vulic could be narrated as story in itself when discussing the necropolis of Trebenishte. The landmarks are as following: — 1) the site was discovered by Bulgarian soldiers in 1918 and some archeological excavations were made by the archeologists B. Filow in collaboration with K. Shkorpil when seven princely graves (No I-VII) were discovered and the entire material was taken to the Archeological Museum in Sofia; 2) twelve years later, from 1930 to 1934, the Serbian archeologist N. Vulic discovered six other princely graves (No. VIII-XIII) in the same necropolis and two more gold masks that, together with the other findings, were taken to the National Museum in Belgrade; and 3) after 84 years a fifth golden funeral mask and other objects (the glove and the ring) were discovered in grave 132nd in the archeological notebook on the necropolis. Hitherto, artifacts from Trebenishte are dispersed in three different state museums and publication activity with catalogues on the treasure continues.

The author of this commentary as equal opportunity writer made some private research which in no way tries to obscure what has been going on in Trebenishte field for almost hundred years up-until-now. There have been several instances when leading researchers in this project quit the tenure because of objective reasons. B. Filow who wrote the earliest publication on Trebenishte (1927) [N.B., this work appeared only in German language for reasons unknown], subsequently transferred his expert attention on the Douvanli necropolis, near Plovdiv. From 1929 to 1934 wide-scale excavations proceeded at Douvanli where equally rich objects of burial were discovered on the territory of five royal tumuli. Archaeological dating from Douvanli appeared to run almost in the same boundaries as Trebenishte, 800-500 B.C. or roughly spoken the pre-written period of Magna Greece culture.

We intend to return on Douvanli and its findings later in our booklist project. For the time being our observations tend to procure a single unifying point — that as early as the end of Bronze Age and beginning of Iron Age on the Balkans there were thriving cultures developing in the northern extensions of the Peninsula (which barbarian domains were called "Europe" by the Greeks themselves, ipso facto). Whether those packs of civilization activities were Greek mercenaries or indigenous population remains to be decided on arbitration. The overwhelming advantage of Magna Greece culture, its colonization activities in the realm of the Mediterranean (and indicatively in the hinterland) are beyond any doubt.

Lastly, we pay due attention to the monograph at hand from N. Vulich (1932). This material was published by the author in the "Glasnik Skopskog Nauchnovo Drujestva" in Serbian language but repeats the contents from the German original ("Das neue Grab von Trebenischte", 1930). It refers to the contents of No. VIII grave from Trebenishte necropolis. The grave was extremely rich containing 1 gold mask, 1 gold gauntlet, 2 gold sandals, 1 gold ring (uninscribed) and 8 gold lentils. Also were included many silver (gilded) objects, 1 bronze helmet, 1 iron sword (unwrought), 1 bronze crater (with tripod), and several glassware. Full scheme of the grave is presented by the author with one exception — there is no body in the grave; namely, we are dealing here with cremation and not with inhumation.

At that point of the reading, the commentator /i.e., the Editor/ became startled. Nikola Vulich in the first hand didn't pay much attention to the fact that the grave was barren. In his correspondence with B. Filow, the latter was not definitive about the bone material in his hoard. The soldiers back in 1918 were doing the job on a smack and they had piled everything aside — the earth, the bones and the treasures. However, N. Vulich made the shroud observation in his notebook that has remained until now unreferenced.

Be it out of courtesy or mere detachment, the term "cenotaph" was in no use in the 1930s and especially when applied to burials of northern people. The taboo from the pharaohs tombs in Egypt was obvious but also cenotaphs were found in Mesopotamia and in Anatolia. A cenotaph to such a northern latitude didn't draw much repute and that is why N. Vulich was not so vehement about his finding any further. But what would have he said if he knew about the golden cenotaphs from Varna necropolis (found in the 1970s). Those were cult burials from the far north of the Black Sea coast with enormous quantity of antique gold objects. Was it possible that a same stock of people laying on two different extremities of the Balkan Peninsula were developing similar worship practices? Or were they simply mercenaries — those from Varna to Egypt, and those from Trebenishte to Greece, ditto.


Pictures 1, 2 & 3: Sample illustrations on the text above.

(i). Three golden funeral masks that are surprisingly similar to that found by Heinrich Schliemann (1876) in Mycenae, Peloponnesus. The objects from Trebenishte are stored in Bulgaria (code B), FYROM (code M) and Serbia (code S).


(ii). Text from p. 4 of the original Vulic' publication: "... we couldn't find any bone remains from the diseased in our grave, neither even one tooth. It is beyond doubt that the grave has a lair and not a cremation. The probability that this grave is a cenotaph should not be excluded though some of the burials in Trebenishte necropolis had inhumate bones [Filow himself had assured me that Sofia museum doesn't contain such material]. Further we tried to reconstruct the whole lair, measure its height, etc. The head of the diseased should have been positioned at the place where mask with helmet are found, and the feet should be lodged with the sandals; however, this construction didn't possibly reflect the real size of the body".


(iii). The "cenotaph" from grave No. VIII of Trebenishte necropolis (drawing from the original Vulic' publication). All 49 items from the grave are arranged in catalogue thematically and by localization.



Copyright © 2011 by the author.