No one was able until recently to visit one of Bulgaria's most interesting sites, the dark grey remains of a tomb near Malko Tarnovo. Under Communism, people needed special permits to enter this small town in the Strandzha mountain, as it was only a few kilometres off the border with Turkey, a hostile NATO member. But even if tourists had somehow obtained permission, it was impossible for them to cross the border fence to take a look at the tomb in the Mishkova Niva locality. 

With Communism gone, the tomb at Mishkova Niva is now on the tourist map. There is no border fence to cross and a recent asphalt road leads to it.

Mishkova Niva tomb

Situated at the feet of the 710-metre Golyamo Gradishte peak, the tomb at Mishkova Niva was part of a bigger complex consisting of a necropolis, a residential building and a mine, which were the property of the household of the Roman emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. 

The tomb was discovered in the early 20th Century by Karel and Hermann Škorpil, the Czech brothers who laid the foundations of Bulgarian archaeology. The find made an instant impression with its most distinct feature: a pediment over the entrance decorated with a low relief of a shield and a spear, and two human palms. The pediment is no longer in situ, as it was moved to the History Museum at Malko Tarnovo and is now the star exhibit of its lapidarium. 

Mishkova Niva tomb

The tomb's corridor is partially preserved in situ

The rest of the tomb, whose mound was excavated by archaeologists in the early 1980s, still stands in the midst of a clearing in the lush oak forest. Poor conservation, however, has taken its toll: Few of the blocks of the krepis, or the 23-metre-wide, 1.8-metre-high wall which once supported the mound, can now be seen on their designated places. The corridor leading to the chamber is without its covering section. The 2.7 m-in-diameter chamber gapes at the Strandzha sky, as its covering slabs, which used to form a false, tent-shaped cupola, are now scattered around. The least damaged piece of the construction seems to be a structure next to the tomb whose function is unclear – some believe it is a dolmen, a burial structure popular in pre-Roman Thrace in the first half of the 1st Millennium. 

The Mishkova Niva tomb had been robbed long before archaeologists arrived, and the few finds from the site shed little light about when it was built and who built it. 

There are two theories about the tomb's origin. Tourist signs link the place to pre-Roman Thrace, but there is evidence that it's actually from the Roman era. 

Mishkova Niva tomb

According to the popular interpretation, it all began with the so-called dolmen. A Thracian aristocrat was buried in it, and after centuries of veneration, his family built near it, in the 4th or 3rd Century BC, the new and more fashionable tomb. The tomb is thought to have been a heroon, or a shrine to this predecessor, a temple of Apollo, or both. In any case, the tomb/shrine was a major religious site, and people would flock from afar to pay respects. 

The alternative theory holds more scientific water. It claims that there hasn't been any dolmen here and that the tomb was built either in the 2nd or early 3rd Century AD: All the finds from the site date from this period and the construction is similar to that of Roman tombs at the nearby Propada necropolis, about 5 km from Malko Tarnovo. No conclusive evidence has been found to support the hypothesis that the tomb served as a shrine. Even the relief on the pediment is not that mysterious – shields and spears are common features on tombstones from Roman times, and would often indicate that the buried had a military career. As for the open palms, they provided symbolic protection against evil or uninitiated visitors. 

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