New finds from Perperikon in Bulgaria

There have been a series of exciting finds at the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon this season.  Perperikon is in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in modern day Bulgaria, near the town of Kardzhali, and has been excavated since 2000 by Professor Nikolay Ovcharov.

The first traces of human activity on the acropolis of the site (at 470 m) have been dated to around 5000BC, and the evidence of cult activity continues through the millennia with the development of a sanctuary with rock altars that seems to have been in use from the 2nd millennium BC until the advent of the Christian era.  At the foot of the hill there is evidence for a Thracian occupation, and the substantial remains of a medieval fortress (village of Gorna Krepost ‘Upper Fortress’).  Thus the city had a very long life, and its prosperity may have been linked to it location on a route through the mountains and also the nearby gold-bearing  River Perpereshka.
Prof. Ovcharov speculates that the earliest activity centred on a ‘high place’ sanctuary of the cult of the sun.  As evidence for his theory he cites images on ceramics from the Stone-Copper Age.
One of the main characteristics of this sanctuary are the rock altars, which were first cut into the sanctuary in the Bronze Age. The altars are certainly impressive: one is 3 metres high.  The round altar is almost 2 metres in diameter, all are hewn from the rock.
The latest finds are from a sanctuary in the Thracian settlement which Prof. Ovchavov considers may have links with the sanctuary on the acropolis.  On the basis of the finds from recent excavations Prof. Ovchavov believes that he has discovered the Thracian temple of Dionysos mentioned by ancient writers such as Herodotus and Suetonius, but not so far located.  The temple was famed in the ancient world, and was a major sanctuary, but its location remains a mystery. The local deity called Sabazios, came to be associated with the Greek god Dionysos over time. The sanctuary was a oracular shrine due to this particular aspect of Sabazios. A representation of Sabazios may be seen on an ivory from the tomb of Alexander IV at Vergina, perhaps because of the time spent by Roxane and Alexander IV in Thrace.
Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov with marble relief. Photo by BGNES
The recent finds at Perperikon include tiles, coins, and fibulae in quantities suggesting intense occupation of the site, but Ovcharov believes the marble reliefs of a Thracian horseman to have greater significance and to be proof of a sophisticated sanctuary at Perperikon.  The fragmentary reliefs show a Thracian horseman being welcomed by a goddess. The back of the marble is not smooth, leading Ovcharov to believe that it is an architectural relief.
The sanctuary building includes a chamber and an altar, and the relief was found 4 metres from the chamber. It was found together with an amulet of the sun, perhaps providing a link with the sanctuary on the acropolis. The horseman is a common motif in Thracian iconography, and may represent the supreme deity of Thrace: a small bronze figure of a horseman from the 3rd-2nd century BC was a previous find at the excavation.
Other finds of interest include a surgical instrument from Roman times used for plucking parasites from bodies and a miniature model of a stone grinder dated back to the 5th millennium.
Quite what evidence Prof. Ovcharov is relying on for the attribution of the sanctuary as that of Dionysos is not clear at present – all evidence so far is circumstantial, but it is certainly fair to say that the site is informing our knowledge of Thracian settlements, their continuity, way of life and religious practices.