Treasure-hunting has been a popular activity among the people in Bulgaria's southeast since time immemorial, and a particular mound in the area, Mal Tepe, near the village of Mezek, has lured searchers for ancient gold. The mound – 14 m high, some 90 m wide – is huge.
In 1903 a local man went to Mal Tepe, supposedly looking for a treasure. He did find something astonishing there, though it wasn't either gold or silver. Hidden in the undergrowth covering the mighty body of the tumulus lay a lifesize bronze statue of a boar. It weighed 177 kg and was probably a part of a bigger statue group, representing a sacred hunt.
The authorities were informed, and soon someone came and took the strange find to Constantinople, as at that time Mezek was still in the Ottoman Empire. A while later, a leg of the boar somehow ended up at a museum in Plovdiv. In 1931 the management gave it to the museum in Istanbul, receiving in exchange a plaster copy of the whole statue.
The bronze boar is one of the few sculptures ever found in the lands of the Thracians. The original is on display in the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul, but you can see a replica in the Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The History Museum at Haskovo exhibits a plaster copy.
But other surprises were waiting at Mal Tepe.
In a twist of historical irony, the tumulus which this bronze animal had once adorned, found itself in Bulgaria proper after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and in 1931 treasure-hunters returned to the mound. They dug it, discovered an entrance to a tomb, and broke inside, looting everything they thought valuable. The rumour about their luck spread, and soon the authorities forced the robbers to return everything they had stolen. The treasure-hunters obliged, but it's still unclear if they really gave back everything they had found.
An archaeological survey of the tomb started immediately, led by Professor Bogdan Filov (1883-1945), one of the finest archaeologists Bulgaria has ever produced and also one of its most controversial politicians. An outspoken anti-Semite, he was prime minister when Bulgaria allied with Nazi Germany. A couple of months after the Communist coup of 9 September 1944, he was executed by the so-called People's Court together with many high-ranking politicians.
What Filov found in Mal Tepe in 1931 was the biggest Thracian tomb ever discovered. It is nearly 30 m long, with a 20-metre-long corridor, two rectangular antechambers and a 4.3-metre-high round, beehive-shaped chamber. Under the slabs covering the floors of the antechambers, Filov found the cremated remains of two women as well as some gold jewellery. These are the only actual graves found in the tomb, although the main chamber contained a stone bed and two stone urns, a signal that the room was intended as burial space for probably three people. Researchers are still not certain on how many burials had taken place in the tomb before its entrance was blocked with boulders and dug over with soil, remaining sealed for centuries until the treasure-hunters' breakin in 1931.
Expensive jewellery, luxurious pottery and vessels from bronze, silver, gold, a breastplate and a 134-centimetre bronze candelabrum decorated with a figure of a dancing satyr have been found in the tomb, most of them imported from Greece.
The tomb was built in the 4th-3rd centuries BC.
Today the treasures from the Mezek tomb are exhibited in the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and in the Haskovo History Museum. The tomb is open for visits, but in the past few years the experience of entering its cold and gloomy interior has been robbed of its charm. An ill-thought EU-funded attempt for "spicing up" the tomb in an effort to make it more attractive to tourists has led to 3D-paintings of Thracians on the path towards the tumulus. A dummy of what is meant to be a Thracian lady now stands in the burial chamber.
While in Mezek, don't miss the local wines – the area is a wine-producing region just like it was in Thracians times.