A vessel from the Panagyurishte Treasure
Each story about the discovery of a treasure begins differently. Some treasures were found by men ploughing their fields or tending their vineyards, others by workmen digging for clay. What almost all of these discoveries have in common is the fact that each treasure was found barely under the surface of the ground, as if it had been waiting, for centuries, to be discovered.
Many of the people who have stumbled on a buried Thracian treasure were reluctant to inform the authorities. Bulgaria has a centuries-long tradition of treasure-hunting and boasts a rich folklore on the subject, filled with legends of brigands who hide their gold in secret caves, of goblins who protect treasures, and even of the misfortune that hidden gold has brought on the people who found it. We will never know how many Thracian treasures have fallen into the hands of these traditional treasure-hunters and what was lost in the network of illegal treasure trade which has been thriving in Bulgaria since 1989. This is partially why most of the most amazing Thracian treasures we know of today have been found during the Communist period, between 1944 and 1989, when the authorities had a firmer grip on life in villages, and the black market for antiques was virtually nonexistent.
The first of these great discoveries was made in 1949, when the exquisite Panagyurishe Treasure was found. The last one was the discovery of the Rogozen Treasure, in 1985–1986. No Thracian treasure has been found in Bulgaria since then.
One might ask why we don't include here artefacts like the stunning gold mask from the Svetitsata Tomb and the gold wreath from the Golyama Kosmatka Tomb, both discovered in 2004. The reason is that for archaeologists the term "treasure" always signifies an expensive artefact or a collection of artefacts that is found on its own, with no grave, fortress, town, house or tomb around it to give it a historical context.
Most of the Thracian treasures in Bulgaria have been discovered not in the realms of the mighty Odrysian kingdom, in the Thracian Plain, but north of the Stara Planina mountain, in the central and northwestern parts of the Danube Plain.
The most commonly found Thracian treasures are vessels used for drinking and libations, or the pouring of a liquid during some ritual: cups, jugs and rhytons, or wine horns. Apparently, as witnessed by the Greek historian Xenophon, who attended a feast at the court of the Thracian King Seuthes II, drinking was vital for the Thracian nobility.
The earliest and heaviest gold Thracian treasure found in Bulgaria is the one discovered by the village of Valchitran, near Pleven, in northern Bulgaria. The treasure consists of 13 vessels made of 23-carat gold, with a combined weight of 12.426 kg.
In 1924 two brothers and their workmen were digging in a vineyard. At the beginning, none of them was impressed by the find - it was covered with mud, the bowls, the cups and the lids from the treasure appeared to have been made of cheap copper. But the discoverers decided that the find signalled the presence of a real treasure, and continued digging. This turned out to be in vain, as they found nothing more. The brothers returned home, and used the biggest of the bowls as a trough in the pigsty.
They saw that the bowl was actually made of gold only after the pig licked it clean. As often happens in such cases, the brothers quarrelled on who will get what, and went to a goldsmith, who cut some of the lids. When the Museum of Archaeology in Sofia learned about the find, it started a three-year court battle, which ended with 1,300,000 leva, equivalent to $129,000 today, being paid to the brothers, and nothing at all to the workmen who helped on the day of the discovery. Unfortunately, the three lids were not completely recovered and parts of them are still missing.
The Borovo Treasure from the end of the 5th and the 4th centuries BC consists of five silver drinking vessels. One of them, a jug is decorated with mythological scenes, including Dionysus drinking wine from a rhyton similar to the ones in the Borovo Treasure itself. The vessels were signed, in Greek, "To Cotys from Beos," and were probably a gift from the city of Beos, near the Marmara Sea, to the Thracian King Cotys (383-359 BC)
The treasure is one of the most enigmatic in Europe. So far, nothing looking remotely similar to it has been found. The function of the artefacts is also a matter of debate. According to the most widespread hypothesis, the treasure belonged to a king or to a sanctuary or both. It was standard practice for Thracian kings to be also priests, so the vessels may have been used both for drinking and for libations in the Late Bronze Age, or the 16th to 12th centuries BC.
The few treasures from the Early Iron Age, between the 11th and 6th centuries BC, are not that impressive. They consist mainly of single gold vessels, like the cups found in Belene, on the Danube, and Kazichene, near Sofia, weighing 0.77 kg and 1.050 kg, respectively. The gold cup of Kazichene was discovered by chance in 1969 together with a ceramic bowl and a bronze cauldron. The find is probably a symbolic grave.
Most of the Thracian treasures in Bulgaria are from the second half of the 1st Millennium BC, the time when the Thracians made the most of their trade with the Greeks and their kings amassed considerable wealth and political power.
The biggest Thracian treasure found so far in Bulgaria is the Rogozen Treasure. In the summer of 1985 a man was digging a canal in the yard of his village house in the village of Rogozen, in Bulgaria's northwest, when he found 65 silver jugs and cups. The discoverer kept the find for himself, fearing that archaeologists might come and dig away his garden, destroying all the crop in the process. Besides, he didn't have an idea of what he had discovered, and thought that he had found church plates.
Rhytons from the Borovo Treasure with the drinking parts in the form of an exquisitely made horse and sphinx. Curiously, the rhytons were found dismantled, prompting speculation which creature fitted which horn best
Finally, the village mayor persuaded the man to call the authorities, and regular excavations started in the yard in the winter of 1986. The team of archaeologists discovered a second group of 100 vessels.
The Rogozen Treasure numbers 165 silver vessels, mainly phialеs, or shallow bowls, jugs and goblets, all weighing about 20 kg.
The treasure was collected by its original owners in the span of about 150 years, between the beginning of the 5th and the beginning of the 3rd centuries BC. The diversity is easily seen in the varying style and craftsmanship of the artefacts. Some are decorated with Thracian and Greek gods and heroes like Apollo, Artemis and Heracles; others boast scenes like boar hunts and animal fights; yet others are covered with geometrical, zoomorphic or floral ornaments. The treasure is an invaluable source of information for the spiritual life, myths and culture of the Thracians.
The origin of the vessels belonging to this treasure are diverse. Some were made in Ancient Greece, others were imported from Persia or were made by Thracian artisans. Several of the vessels are signed, bearing the names, written in Greek, of the Thracian kings Cotys and Cersobleptes.
The Rogozen Treasure was supposedly owned of a ruler of the Tribali tribe, and could have been amassed in all sorts of ways: as war booty or taxes, as a purchase or a present.
The treasure from Borovo, in northern Bulgaria, is also a mixed bag of vessels belonging to different sets. It consists of three rhytons, a vessel combining the form of a rhyton and a jug, and a krater, or a deep bowl with two handles for mixing of wine and water. The treasure was accidentally discovered in 1974. It had been used in rituals devoted to Dionysus or the Cabeiri, the Thracian deities of sea, fertility, fire and metallurgy.
The rhytons were made between the end of the 5th and the end of the 4th centuries BC, probably at a prestigious atelier in the northwestern part of Asia Minor. The name, in Greek, of the Thracian king Cotys is written on two of them. The krater was made at the earliest in the third quarter of the 4th Century BC, and is adorned with a scene of a gryphon attacking a doe. The style suggests that is was made by a local artisan.
A silver cup with gilt from the Yakimovo Treasure, from the 2nd-1st centuries BC. The treasures was found in this village in the northwest, in 1974, and consists of four drinking cups, a bowl, two bracelets and decorations for a horse harness
The most famed of all the Thracian treasures is the Panagyurishte Treasure, a real feat of Hellenistic art.
It was discovered in 1949 in the town of Panagyurishte, at more than 2 m underground. The treasure comprises nine gold vessels – small amphorae, rhytons and a phialе. The total weight is 6.164 kg.
Depicting scenes from the Greek mythology, animals and even the faces of black people, the Panagyurishte Treasure was probably made as a set in Lampsakos, modern-day Lampseki, on the Asian bank of the Marmara Sea between the end of the 4th and the early 3rd centuries BC.
The bounty of Thracian treasures from the 4th Century BC is more diverse – there are not only vessels found from this period, but also silver and gold horse harnesses. Among the most interesting of them are the sets from Letnitsa and Lukovit, both in central North Bulgaria.
The treasures from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, which was a period of waning Thracian political power and constant turmoil, are less spectacular, as is evidenced by the finds from the Yakimovo and Galiche villages, in northwestern Bulgaria; the Bohot village, in the central part of the country; and the Sindel village, in the northeast.
The Thracian treasures are usually a mix of artefacts belonging to different sets, made in Thrace or imported. They were collected by their owners over lengthy periods, and before hidden in the ground, they were used in religious rituals. They were also symbols of prestige for the rulers and the noblemen they belonged to.
But why were these precious objects buried in the first place - there is still no conclusive answer.
Some historians suppose that the treasures were hidden in times of war and upheaval, like the Celtic invasion of 280-279 BC. Another explanation is that the treasures were hidden as part of a ritual to confirm the royal power of some Thracian king over a given territory, and were offerings to the Thracian gods. In this way the buried metal would bring divine protection over the realms of the king and secure his power.
Where to see treasures?
National Museum of History, Sofia: Panagyurishte Treasure, Rogozen Treasure (partial), Letnitsa Treasure, Borovo Treasure, Yakimovo Treasure
National Museum of Archaeology, Sofia: Valchitran Treasure, Lukovit Treasure, Galiche Treasure
Regional History Museum Vratsa, Vratsa: Displays most of the Rogozen Treasure
Sometimes you will find that the Thracian treasures that one or another Bulgarian museum is proud of are not in the exhibition halls and their windows are empty. The reason is that some of these artefacts travel for temporary exhibitions, across Bulgaria and abroad.
The fashion of sending the spectacular Thracian treasures abroad began in the 1970s by Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and the then minister of culture. Zhivkova aimed to promote the cultural heritage of Bulgaria, and one of these exhibitions, Thracian Art From the Bulgarian Lands, was presented in 25 capitals around the world. The Bulgarians were so impressed that they began to refer to the different Thracian treasures as if they were a single entity, "the Thracian treasure." Soon, however, a rumour spread through the suspicious Bulgarian society, claiming that the Panagyurishte Treasure had been sold during one of its travels and that a replica was brought back home. There are still people who believe this rumour.
The Thracian treasures continue to travel abroad, and between 1994 and 2006 they were featured in 17 international exhibitions, including in France, Switzerland and Japan.
The latest event of the kind was the The Epoch of the Thracian Kings exhibition, at the Louvre, between April and July 2015. The exhibition included 1,628 artefacts from 17 Bulgarian museums and 20 artefacts found in Thrace and owned by the Louvre, the British Museum, the Prado, among other institutions. Besides treasures, the exhibition included grave finds with luxury, military and everyday objects, presenting a comprehensive picture of the Thracian past.