Near the village of Karanovo in southeastern Bulgaria, archaeologists are excavating an ancient burial mound. Around 1,800 years ago, a great man was laid to rest there – and now the secrets of his grave are being revealed. What’s more, as the researchers dig through the earth, they discover an incredible relic that’s remained untouched for centuries.
Thousands of years ago, an ancient people lived in the region now occupied by portions of Turkey, Greece, Romania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. The people were referred to as the Thracians, and their first known mention is in Homer’s the Iliad, which notes them as having been allied with Troy during the Trojan War.
Over time, the Thracians spread out across much of southeastern Europe. And although in the first century A.D. the people eventually came under Roman control, they remained a powerful, formidable force. Mystery, however, still shrouds their history.
Because the Thracians left no written records behind, little is known about them, you see. Apparently, they were a warlike people who were considered to be barbarians by the inhabitants of ancient Greece and Rome. Sometimes characterized by the Greeks as having red hair and blue eyes, they were also known as skilled horsemen who went into battle armed with javelins. Yet it seems that such warrior-like traits were not enough.
Over the centuries, Thracian territory was subjected to numerous invasions by everyone from the ancient Macedonians to the Huns. Gradually, then, the tribes began to lose their distinct language and traditions. And the last remnants of the Thracians were eventually assimilated into the Slavic culture during the sixth century A.D.
For almost 1,500 years, Thracian culture was then largely forgotten. However, in the 20th century archaeologists began excavating sites located where the ancient people had once roamed, mostly in the south of what is now Bulgaria. And amazingly, in 1922 researchers apparently identified more than 6,000 necropolises, or cemeteries, across the country.
Then, later that century, archaeologists uncovered various former settlements and burial sites that had been built by the Thracians. Among them were the Tomb of Sveshtari – a third-century-B.C. tomb constructed by the Get tribe that was unearthed in 1982 – and Seuthopolis, a city established by a Thracian king in the fourth century B.C.
Yet it wasn’t just ancient sites that the archaeologists found scattered across Bulgaria. The researchers also uncovered priceless artifacts dating from the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. In particular, they found intricate treasure sets fashioned from silver and gold. And these historical objects have since traveled the world as part of museum displays. However, a more recent discovery has proven arguably even more astounding.
In October 2008 experts from the Nova Zagora Historical Museum in Bulgaria were excavating near the village of Karanovo. It seems, you see, that there was once a Thracian settlement in the area. And head archaeologist Veselin Ignatov hoped to learn more about the mysterious ancient people.
At a site known as the Iztochna Mogila Archaeological Complex, Ignatov and his team were working on a mound that had once been part of a Thracian necropolis. And in one tomb, they discovered something incredible: the impressively intact remains of an ancient chariot that is believed to have been constructed 1,800 years ago.
What’s more, just two months earlier, archaeologists had made another astonishing discovery. Yes, while working some 150 miles away in the village of Borisovo, the team had unearthed an amazingly preserved 1,900-year-old Thracian chariot from a different tomb. At the time, Daniela Agre from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences claimed that it was the first such relic ever to be found in the country.
The chariot discovered near Karanovo was crafted from wood, with wheels reaching some four feet across. But it was the decoration of the ancient vehicle that really seemed to impress Ignatov. Remarkably, you see, it was found to be covered in bronze and adorned with images from Thracian legend.
Among the scenes depicted are a panther mid-jump and a mythical creature that appears to be a big cat-dolphin hybrid. What’s more, this discovery and the other ancient objects that had been found led Ignatov and his team to conclude that the tomb had belonged to an important member of Thracian society.
“The lavishly ornamented four-wheel chariot dates back to the end of the second century A.D.,” Ignatov told the Associated Press. And interestingly, the archaeologists additionally recovered leather and wooden items, also in a remarkable state of preservation, from the ancient tomb.
Some of the artifacts are thought to have been used as harnesses for horses – perhaps the very creatures that had once pulled the chariot. And the remains of a number of those same animals were also recovered near the site of the tomb. Such discoveries have, then, undoubtedly accelerated interest in archaeology in Bulgaria. Yet even so, researchers in the region have faced tough challenges over the years.
Lead archaeologist Ignatov told the Daily Mail that important sites across Bulgaria have been plagued by looters, who often smuggle the priceless artifacts abroad. The robbers in fact frequently ransack historical locations before experts can get a handle on what is there.
Indeed, sometimes the criminals even have a head start on archaeologists on the ground. “We are in an uneven race with looters who are often better equipped than our teams,” Ignatov told the British newspaper. And although his team received the equivalent of around $12,500 from Bulgaria’s Culture Ministry to complete the excavation at Karanovo, it remains an uphill struggle for them.
Ignatov explained to the Daily Mail that as many as 90 percent of the region’s tombs have been damaged or ruined by looters over the years. Yet that hasn’t stopped him and his team from making more exciting discoveries at Karanovo. For instance, in 2009 they uncovered a tomb filled with valuable artifacts that are thought to have belonged to a member of a great Thracian dynasty.
And that same year, Ignatov stumbled upon another find, this time buried in the collections of Nova Zagora’s Historical Museum. Specifically, he discovered an illustrated plate that had once been attached to yet another Thracian chariot – this one decorated with mythical figures such as Heracles and Medusa. And according to experts, the artifact is one of a kind.
Meanwhile, keen to support the work of archaeologists such as Ignatov, the United Bulgarian Bank decided to lend a hand. Yes, the bank helped finance a weatherproof structure placed around the Iztochna Mogila Archaeological Complex, allowing excavations to continue even in adverse conditions. And hopefully, such measures will give experts the upper hand in the race to preserve ancient treasures for future generations.