Bulgarian tumulus reveals Thracian tribal ruler buried with his horses

An excavation headed by Dr. Kostadin Kisyov, Director of the Plovdiv Regional Archaeological Museum has brought to light a unique find in the area of Novo Selo.

Photo: K Kisyov
During the second month of the digging season Kisyov’s team discovered an elite burial under a tumulus 12 feet high and 60 feet in diameter near the village of Novo Selo, sparking the hypothesis that it might be the tomb of a Thracian tribal ruler.

The marble sarcophagus was sealed with a huge marble slab weighing 200 pounds, and within it was an urn of Egyptian alabaster. The urn contained the calcified cremated remains of an individual in around two litres of fluid that Kisyov 
thinks may be the remains of either wine or water with fragrant oils intended for the ritual washing of the remains of the dead which had lasted 2000 years. Kisyov attributes the fact that the liquid had not evaporated to the weight of 19 000 cubic meters of soil from the tumulus on the top of the urn in the sarcophagus. Scientists have taken 100 grams of the liquid for microbiological analysis. At present the burial is dated to the 1st to 2nd century AD.

A few metres from the sarcophagus the archaeologists found the remains of the wooden funeral pyre, and in the eastern periphery of the tumulus five poorer graves were found. Kisyov suggests that these are the sacrifices of slaves in honour of the deceased in the sarcophagus in the centre of the tumulus.

The tumulus is one of thirty that make up the necropolis of Novo Selo. Ten of the tumuli were studied by archaeologists from the University of Sofia in the 90s and they consider that the earliest burials in the necropolis date to the 8th C BC, based on a gold bowl dated to that century which was discovered in the excavations of 1997. The current season is a rescue excavation in response to illegal digging at the site and is funded by Plovdiv Municipality: finds from the excavation will enrich the collection of regional archaeological museum.

Seven metres from the elite tomb archaeologists discovered three horse skeletons, one of which was for riding and the other two to pull a chariot. The animals had been killed and placed in a pit one metre deep. For Kisyov, this is evidence that the person in the tomb was of noble descent, since he maintains that only rulers in this area would have had horses for riding. Horses were sacred to the Thracians and thus they followed their master to the afterlife. The largest of the horses was laid with his head facing west and the reins and harness can still be seen. The other two horses were buried feet first, in a stance that assumes they would have pulled a chariot. The horses were buried in harness, and in places near the jaws archaeologists found traces of iron bridles decorated with a bronze details depicting the sun. The other horse, presumably the mount of the ‘ruler’ was covered with a cloak made of leather and also decorated with bronze.
Photo: K. Kisyov

Kisyov thinks that the deceased may have been the ruler of the Bessi, an independent Thracian tribe that inhabited the Western Rhodope mountains and their northern slopes, as well as parts of the current district of Pazardzhik. He considers that the tomb may date to the 1st to 2nd century AD when the Bessi fought the Romans to try and maintain their independence, religion and identity. As the excavation continues, the team hope to discover more burial goods in the other part of the tumulus, of which so far only half had been excavated by the end of June.