Pavlikeni, a town in central northern Bulgaria, can boast few landmarks. Yet this small and quiet place is the home of two of the most interesting ancient Roman sites – the remains of a mausoleum and a villa rustica with incredibly well-preserved pottery manufactury.
The discovery of the ancient pottery complex was the result of pure chance. In 1971, while searching for gold, a group of local treasure hunters stumbled upon the remains of an ancient villa rustica. They were disappointed, but the archaeologist Bogdan Sultov, who took over the research, was smitten. No one was prepared for the discovery of a major production centre here. The excavations continued until 1982, revealing dozens of kilns for production of ceramics – for building purposes, daily use and as luxuries – which have operated between the end of the 1st and the second half of the 3rd centuries. The craftsmen, working for the owner of the villa, produced with equal skill bricks, tiles and water supply pipes, and finer everyday pottery, including children's toys and the expensive terra sigillata pottery. Made of fine red clay and with smooth, shiny walls, terra sigillata was decorated with reliefs and was a cheaper, though still expensive, version of cups and vessels made of bronze, silver and gold.
Toys were also produced at the centre
Combined, the pottery complex and the villa occupied an area of almost one hectare. The output of the workshop near Pavlikeni was sold far and wide. It has been found not only at nearby places like Nicopolis ad Istrum and elsewhere in Moesia, but also in the provinces of Thrace and Dacia, even as far as the Crimea.
The reason behind this profitable operation was the abundance of fine clay in the immediate vicinity. By pure chance, one of the most significant production centres in this part of the empire was preserved almost intact. Bogdan Sultov, soon after he realised what treasure he had found, saw to it that the site became an open-air museum where visitors could see firsthand the elaborate process of producing ancient pottery. This was how one of the most interesting museums in Bulgaria came to be.
The museum suffered gross neglect in the 1990s and in the following decade, when the economic crisis during the transition from Communism to democracy affected the upkeep of historical sites. But in 2013 the site was renovated and revived with the efforts of the Pavlikeni authorities and with the financial support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
"We were the first ones!": a commemorative brick made after ancient Roman technology at the museum ground, inscribed by the treasure hunters who discovered the pottery centre in 1971
A wall built with discarded ancient bricks and tiles at the centre
Pottery kiln build after Roman fashion, that was used for demonstrations of pottery-making in the 1980s