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The Alexandrovo Tomb

NB Most of the text on this page was published in  "The Alexandrovo Tomb and other Recent Discoveries", Christopher Webber, Slingshot 216, July 2001, pp 47-50  More information is available in Georgi Kitov, New Thracian Frescoes from Bulgaria, in Minerva Vol 13, No. 3 May / June 2002, pp 42- 44. 

Scene from the Alexandrovo tomb

Above: a hunting scene from the Alexandrovo tomb.  Click for a closer look.   Below: Three more scenes from this tomb, and a location map.

alexandrovo_mound.jpg (101164 bytes)A horseman from the Alexandrovo tomb The man with the double-headed axe A horseman and a attendant armed with a club Location mapaxeman.jpg (97637 bytes)cavalry battle.jpg (84818 bytes)colourful_horseman.jpg (89491 bytes)large_colourful_horseman.jpg (70125 bytes)longspearman.jpg (107718 bytes)stagman.jpg (86183 bytes)white_horseman.jpg (116257 bytes)yellow-horseman.jpg (99637 bytes)

The Alexandrovo Tomb and other Recent Discoveries

In 2000 three archaeological sensations occurred in Bulgaria. These were the discoveries of the temple-tomb at Starosel, the fortress palace at Perperek, and the beehive tomb at Alexandrovo (near the town of Haskovo, about 145 miles southeast of Sofia). The most interesting from the point of view of the military historian is the early 4th century Alexandrovo tomb, which has marvellous colourful murals. These show hunt scenes in which all the clothed figures are wearing Greek-style costume, similar to the costumes in the Kazanluk tomb paintings. This means that the Thracians (or at least the nobles and their retainers) in Alexander’s army would probably have worn similar costumes to the Greeks and Macedonians.

The tomb was discovered by accident on 17 December at the bottom of a 4-metre deep ditch dug by an earth-moving machine . It had been plundered and part of the murals damaged. Built of enormous ashlars, the tomb consists of two rooms - a rectangular entryway and a round chamber with a two metre high dome cover. Starting about 1 metre above ground level, both rooms are covered with murals: men, (some fully armed warriors), animals, plants and geometric motifs. The figure of a horseman, spearing a boar, occupies a central place on the dome of the tomb. The pictures are painted in red, blue, yellow, and black, but the predominant colour is that of brick red.

So far, only five photographs of the tomb have been released; you can see them above and at http://members.tripod.com/~Groznijat/thrac/aleksandrovo_1.htm. Those without internet access may be able to see one photograph (plus Angus McBride’s reconstructions based on these pictures) in my forthcoming Osprey book on the Thracians (due to be published September – "Is this a shameless plug I see before me, this word before mine eye?!"). The released photographs show 3 ½ mounted, and 3 ½ foot figures, plus a stag, two enormous boars, five dogs, and a rearing horse. One has a naked Thracian aiming a blow at the boar with a double axe - a symbol of royal power often seen on Thracian coins. Another depicts a hunting scene, where a warrior with a curved Thracian knife, and two dogs, attack a stag. A third picture portrays a warrior armed with a curved knobbed wooden club, about 1 metre long, in his left hand, and a 2 metre knobbed spear in his right hand. He accompanies riders on his right and left. The other photos present a mounted warrior engaged in a royal boar hunt, and one more wielding a long spear. The riders are armed with a single knobbed spear (with a butt spike) and a straight sword, hanging from the left hip. All the spears are wielded over arm.

A drawing of the Alexandrovo horsemanDrawing of another Alexandrovo riderOne cavalier wears a red tunic; another wears a white tunic decorated with a few vertical thin orange lines, and a third wears a white tunic decorated with thick brown vertical lines down the sides. They are clean shaven, two with short hair and one with long hair. Duncan Head thinks the cavalryman in the white tunic might have a Greek petasos hat on, but it could be just a random white splotch instead. His scabbard is of a ridiculously large size, but shows that the cavalry of the time used straight swords (probably the xiphos). This figure’s long sleeves showing under the short-sleeved tunic are new - paralleled only by Dacians centuries later. The saddle cloths are coloured blue and red, blue and white, or red and white. Of the two clothed foot men, one wears a short-sleeved brown tunic with two thick vertical white lines down each side (the reverse of the horseman next to him), while the other wears a red-brown sleeveless tunic. They appear to be clean shaven, though the man with the knife may have a beard.

Chariot horses on the Kazanluk Tomb dome

The cup bearer from the Kazanluk tomb

Saddle cloths from the Kazanluk tomb

Chariot horses on the Kazanluk Tomb dome,
with the same chest and harness decorations
A servant from the Kazanluk
dome, with the same tunic
markings
Other horses on the Kazanluk Tomb dome,
with the same saddle cloths and harness decorations

The murals are brighter than those of the c. 300 BC Kazanluk tomb. However, they are little bit more primitive, which indicates that this tomb is older. Greek art usually shows mythological themes, but these are entirely absent here. The images have little in common with the Greek art of painting, which means that they were the work of local Thracian masters. They are seen to be evidence that the Kazanluk images were also the work of Thracians, something debatable until now. Although Xenophon described Thracians wearing the traditional foxskin caps and cloaks in 400 BC, these are not at all evident. There are a lot of similarities to the Kazanluk figures: the pose of the horses, fancy saddlecloths, clean-shaven faces, and the low shoes. The footman’s tunic is almost identical in colour and decoration to that of a Kazanluk servant. That man wears a light yellow-brown tunic with one white stripe down each side. In fact there is so much that you can link to the Kazanluk paintings that initially there were accusations that the discovery was a hoax.

The club man and another rider from the Alexandrovo tombHowever, the knobbed spearshafts and club are new - they look almost like cane. Such a knobby-shafted javelin can be seen on the Alexander Mosaic, fallen to the ground. That is usually identified as Persian, but the prevalence of these weapons on the Alexandrovo paintings means the mosaic javelin could have belonged to one of Alexander's Balkan troops. The curved club could be the club used by the Thyni to knock off the heads from Greek spears. However, the not at all hare-brained Duncan Head thinks it looks a bit small to be a serious weapon. He says Xenophon, "On Hunting" 6.11 and 6.17, recommends a huntsman take a club for hunting hares: this club looks more suitable for that purpose. Or for playing shinty, of course!

The man with the knife and the cloth "shield" from the Alexandrovo tombAlthough Clement of Alexandria's Stromata, Chap. XVI asserts that the Thracians were the first to use shields on horseback, there aren’t any shields, so the shape (oval, like the Kazanluk shields, or crescent-shaped peltai) of the Thracian shields of this time remains unresolved. This debate was made more murky by the discovery of a late 4th century oval bronze-faced shield in the Kyustendil museum. The footman attacking a stag with his knife is carrying a cloth folded over his left arm like a shield. Duncan Head says this is apparently quite common in hunt scenes, though I don’t see what use it would be against a stag. He says it might be useful for catching claws and jaws in, so we can see its use against, say, wolves, but against stags its use is less clear... maybe for entangling antlers?xiphosxiphos with scabbard

The paintings confirm so much that we already knew, or thought we knew. We see for the first time murals with topics known until now only from Thracian golden and silver objects. For instance, the boar hunt is shown on late fifth century silver-gilt belt from Lovets, and a 4th century silver gilt jug from Rozogen. In the former case, archers are also shown – it would be interesting to see if any archers are on the remaining scenes from this tomb. The paintings of horse trappings and decorations are very like the many appliqués found in Thracian tombs. They show that an appliqué was worn on the lower part of the horses’ forehead, and tassels hung from the chest strap. The horses’ bits are S-shaped. The horses themselves are painted yellow, white, or grey.

Since the paintings are early 4th century, they help to answer the perennial question of what Alexander’s Thracians may have looked like – his armies are located chronologically in between Kazanluk (and Sveshtari) and Alexandrovo. It looks like the Hellenisation of the Thracians began much earlier than previously thought, and had a longer time to percolate down to the lower levels of society.

Right: a xiphos and a scabbard similar to that used by the riders in the Alexandrovo paintings.  From a bronze equestrian statue of Demetrios Poliorcetes, set up in c.300 BC in Athens and torn down in 200 BC.  Length of sword 88cm.

4th century macedonian swordPella mosaic

Left: Sword from the Tomb of Philip
Large iron sword from the Tomb of Philip, fourth quarter of 4th century BC, Thessaloniki, Archaeological Museum.

The 4th century Mosaic at left from Pella shows similar weapons in a hunting scene.

 

 

 

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Left: Bridle frontlets of the sort shown in the Alexandrovo paintings. Left to right:

1. Silver, 4th century, from Lukovit, height 12.2 cm, width 8 cm, Sofia Archaelogical Museum Inv. No. 8005.

2. Gold, late 4th century, Kralevo tumulus, Turgovishte History Museum Inv. No. 2304, height 2cm, length 4.4cm

3. Silver gilt, 4th century, Lukovit, Sofia Archaelogical Museum Inv. No.8212, 7.5 X 10 X 3.6cm

 

 

Below: the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii, showing Alexander at Issus.  It is a second century Roman copy of a painting done in Macedonia c. 300BC.  The thorny javelin is in the centre at the front.  (click to see a larger version),  from  Michael Wood, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (1997), pp 58-59

The javelin from the Alexander mosaic

A note from Vassil Karlokovski: There are/were murals in the dromos or whatever it is (the rectangular room), but they have largely fallen off the walls. It is to be seen whether they could be restored some day. The concern was (according to what I read in the press) that the treasure hunters or anybody else ‘walking’ around in the tomb could have trampled on the remains. Also, it was suggested in the press that the aim of the treasure hunters was to cut the murals in several pieces and to sell them abroad. There had been rumors that this was the fate of several other unresearched tombs.

And David Karunanithy says:

The article on the tomb discoveries was very interesting.  I found some of your conclusions quite intriguing as well - especially the unusual thorny javelin shafts shown in the Alexandrovo tomb, and the similar weapon on the Alexander Mosaic - you're right they do look very much alike.  Could it be the javelin of an Agrianian?  I have never seen such a javelin in any other depiction of Macedonians... By the way, have you considered the possibility that the long sleeved tunic worn by one horseman in Alexandrovo may have been inspired from the Persians (??) On both the Alexander Mosaic and Sarcophagus including the Hunt Frieze from Philip II's tomb and several other visual sources long sleeved tunics are shown being worn by Philip, Alexander and aristocratic cavalrymen - this is also repeated on bronze and terracotta figures. I discuss in my book how a German scholar once remarked that he believed such tunics may have been borrowed by the Macedonian court, inspired or influenced by high ranking Persian dress (along with purple cloaks). But then again, perhaps the Thracian nobles took the fashion from the Persians first, and it was in turn taken up by their neighbours, the Macedonains ?The scene on the amphora-rhyton

Gold amphora-rhyton from Panagyrurishte (134492 bytes)It seems that vertically stripped tunics became all the rage during the 4th century bc in this general part of the world. A figure on the Alexander Sarcophagus (often identified as a servant) wears a tunic with two thin vertical stripes - and a number of servants (and / or grooms?) appear to the left of the solider symposium tomb painting from Agios Athanasios (near Thessaloniki) wearing similar tunics - not dissimilar to those worn by figures from both Kazanluk and Alexandrovo.

Right: one of the gold amphora-rhtyons from the 4th century Panagyurishte treasure shows men holding similar knobly sticks, though what they are for is a mystery to me.  The men have not been positively identified, one controversial theory being that they are from the story of the Seven Against Thebes (the two men are at the left of the group of seven men).  According to Ivan Venedikov, the two men in this picture could be engaged in the practice of fortune-telling by examining the liver and entrails of an animal.  Plate 71 from Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians (1998)  Plovdiv Archaeological Museum  Inv. No. 3203.   Another view of this rhtyton is here

Irina and Nikolai Florov, authors of The 3000-Year-Old Hat say:

... Here is an interesting thing you might be curious to know: in your description of the newly-discovered Alexandrovo mound you are trying to explain the origin of the knobbed spearshafts and the crook. In Bulgaria the crook is used even today as a shepherd's staff and sometimes in the mountainous regions as a useful companion for any occasion by the peasants, but most importantly, it was used as a weapon in the past and was always chosen with a natural hook at the end. It is known as a "gega"(gaega). It is usually made from the Cornel tree, known for its exceptionally strong and durable  wood. By the way, a fine brandy (rakia) is often made from its fruit. In Bulgarian the tree is called "drian"(the accent is on "a"). You can be sure that no sword can win over a strong gega. The tree is short but long enough to be used also for  spearshafts. Here is an interesting comparison: 'gega' is believed to have its origin in the Daco-Mysian word "glega". Its closeness to the Romanian "ghioaga" is evident and in this case it means a mace, i.e. the medieval spiked staff used to destroy armour. On the other hand, the origin of the word 'glega' is found in the name of a shrub called "glog" in Bulgarian, (hawthorn in English) also used for making a 'gega'. And to avoid the risk of boring you to death with more talk about  the 'gega', I will end my e-mail by asking you to look for the 'gega' in the hands of Ganymedes, whose picture is in our book, as well as at the picture of Priapus. Taking into account their less than realistic representation, you will see that they are just that - gegas. Rather more important is their presence in the pictures.

Jim Webster in "Guardroom" of Slingshot issue 217 (inside front cover) agrees about hawthorn...

 

Perperek

Xenophon says that he visited Seuthes II in his tyrsis, or fortified palace. One such site has now been found. It is at Perperek 200 miles southeast of Sofia, in the Rhodopes mountains near the southern Bulgarian town of Kurdjali. Perperikon is believed to have been the capital of the Odrysai. Perperek was occupied from the fourth millennium BC, and a cult and religious site from at least the second millennium BC, but during the fourth and fifth centuries BC it became one of the Thracian capitals. It consists of a monumental palace with a length of more than 80 meters and containing 15 rooms on three or four floors. The multi-storied building is shaped like the Latin letter "L" and approached by a 100-meter-long passage. It contained many rooms hewn out of the surrounding stone, including a ceremonial throne room with a throne fashioned out of the same stone. According to the archaeologist in charge, the surface the palace covers and the city that surrounds it (which has yet to be excavated) could be compared with Mycenae or the Athenian Acropolis - whether this is just parochial hyperbole remains to be seen.   More information is at http://members.tripod.com/~Groznijat/thrac/aleksandrovo_1.htm.

Vassil adds:

As for the palace of Perperek, it has been known since long ago and now the archaeologists (D. Ovcharov I think) decided to ‘rediscover’ and advertise it after the finds at Starosel/Alexandrovo. I indeed saw an already published booklet of Valeria Fol with a number of pictures from Perperek. Of low quality, but the stone-work looked quite crude to me. Especially that "throne" which seems to be really just a kind of hole/cove in the tuffs.

And Dr Lolita Nikolova agrees...

Perperek is an well known site before 2000. But after the discoveries of Kitov in 2000 it was popularized in the newspaper by N. Ovcharov. On TV station before the interview of G. Kitov in the summer of 2000 was even shown a film from 90s where extensively was discussed the site with different interpretation. Also, all the interpretaions of that site are based on no or very scanty archaeological material.

 

Starosel

Location mapThe other major discovery last year was the grave of what is believed to be a Thracian ruler, possibly Sitakes I, the first king of a combined Thracian empire. Sitalkes had an income of 800 talents and ruled from the Danube to the Aegean. He invaded Macedonia with a supposedly 150,000 strong army. He died in battle in 424 BC. The site, at the village of Starosel near Plovdiv, 100 miles east of Sofia, has been dated as from the fourth or fifth century BC. The grave and its surroundings are thought by archaeologists to have been an important religious site for Thracians dating from the stone age. The two-chamber tomb is approached by stairs and a corridor. It is surrounded by a 263-yard long wall made out of some 4,000 stone blocks and was hidden under a 20-meter high mound of earth. To the south it is crossed by a parade staircase flanked by two smaller staircases, climbing to an 11-yard roofless doorway with 5.5-yard high walls leading to the facade. The round stone wall symbolises the Sun, while the temple itself stands for the goddess of Earth who lived in a cave, according to Thracian beliefs. The interior consists of a rectangular entrance and a round vaulted main hall, whose ceiling is supported by 10 Doric semi-pillars, each carved with 10 vertical flutes. The inner walls are covered by ornate stone plates. the dome is decorated with a stone frieze in red, black, green and blue colours.

axecoin.jpg (17669 bytes)Double axe engraved onto a helmetaxering.jpg (27689 bytes)starosel_coin.jpg (89184 bytes)

Above: the double axe is found on many Thracian (mostly Odrysian) objects, especially royal items.  Here it is shown on a coin, a helmet, and a ring. (Problemi na Iskistvoto 1997 3/4 pp40 and 83).  The colour picture is of a coin found at Starosel showng a noble in striped tunic hunting a boar.

Inside, archaeologists found a magnificent trove of relics, including a large gold funerary wreath, other gold jewellery (including a 1-ounce gold ring depicting a Thracian horseman spearing a wild boar), bronze shields, helmets and swords, four silver and eight bronze vessels, ancient Greek ceramics, greaves (decorated with the royal double-edged axe symbol), scale armor, a bronze javelin tips, a quiver full of arrows with bronze tips and two sets of silver decorations for horses. A large silver applique was found in the entrance depicting a fully armed Thracian king with a beard but with no moustaches, riding a horse, and raising a rhyton in one hand. These were dated to the fifth century, B.C. Other tombs were found in the vicinity, thought to be Sitalkes’ brother and cousins. One had a golden sarcophagus cover. Among the grave goods of a Thracian aristocrat in the second necropolis were 5 silver horse appliqués (around 5 cm wide and 4 cm high) depicting griffins.

More information is available at http://members.nbci.com/sitalkes

The information for this article has been gleaned from news reports. I have made every effort to check it with Bulgarian archaeologists, and as far as I know it is accurate. I look forward to the formal publication of these sites!

Vassil adds:

- that the stone blocks of the surrounding wall/facade were largely undisturbed because they were fastened on the other side with iron cramps. + lead poured over the cramps.

 

NB for more images from Macedonian tombs, go to http://www.macedonian-heritage.gr/HellenicMacedonia/en/topic_8_1.html



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This page last updated on Saturday, 14 December 2002 by Christopher Webber thracian@pnc.com.au

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