Chapter One
Setting the scene

The most important issue that every secondary school Bulgarian pupil learns after his/her first geography and history lessons is the significance of the particular location of the modern Bulgarian State. All the climaxes and nadirs in Bulgarian history have been related to what we now call the geographical characteristics of the South Balkans (Pounds 1969). Bulgaria – even when the state did not bear this name – has always been on the threshold of Asia and on the threshold of Europe (Fig. 1.1.1).

Fig. 1.1.1. The Study Area in Context

What is not surprising, though, is the abundance of later prehistoric monuments covering the territory South of the Danube and West of the Black Sea up to the Aegean and Adriatic coasts. Within the boundaries of present-day Bulgaria, there are 70,000 archaeological sites, dating from the Middle Palaeolithic up to Late Mediaeval times. The dry language of statistics – 556 tells, 492 flat sites, 75 cemeteries and numerous barrows – could be read as an intensive, dynamic human occupation that intensified from 7000 CAL BC onwards. The earliest evidence for the settlement of the Upper Thracian Plain in South Bulgaria dates to the Early Neolithic (6000 - 5000 CAL BC: Boyadziev 1995. The South East part of this valley forms the study area in this thesis.

1.1 The study area

1.1.1 Geographical framework

South East Bulgaria was persistently and relatively evenly inhabited until the urbanization of the last century, although a major part included the upland zones of the Eastern Rhodopes and the Strandja Mountains. Three important rivers – the Maritsa, the Tundja and the Arda – flow within the region and, along with their tributaries, form a large lowland area known since Classical times for its fertility (Casson 1925, Venedikov 1981).

Late prehistoric sites are mainly distributed in the valleys but there are traces of Copper Age, Late Bronze Age and, especially, Iron Age human occupation in the Eastern Rhodopes as well.

The Eastern sub-area of the wide Upper Thracian Plain and three small river valleys and their adjacent territories forms the research topic of this study. The rivers Sokolitsa and Ovcharitsa are second-order tributaries of the river Sazliika, which flows into the river Maritsa. The third small river course in consideration is the Kalnitsa – a first-order tributary of the river Tundja. Both the Maritsa and the Tundja drain into the Aegean Sea.

The study area covers the middle and lower course of the rivers Sokolitsa, Ovcharitsa and Kalnitsa. Its Western border is the lower course of river Sazliika and the middle Tundja valley forms its Eastern boundary. The Southern boundary follows the natural termination of the Upper Thracian Plain – the foothills of the Sakar Mountain and the Manastirski vuzvishenia (Monastery Hills). It is more difficult to define the Northern end, in the absence of any prominent landscape feature. For the purposes of the definition of the study area, its Northern boundary is taken as the latitude starting from the town of Radnevo and moving to the East as far as Tundja river (Fig.1.1.2).

Fig. 1.1.2. Study Area 1 – Maritsa Iztok power complex, 2 – Drama microregion

1.1.2 Background to archaeological fieldwork

Two of the rivers (Sokolitsa and Ovcharitsa) belong to the Maritsa catchment basin, while the Kalnitsa lies in the Tundja catchment area. This explains why these three rivers have always been accepted as belonging to different environmental zones and their geographical and archaeological investigations have developed separately. The Sazliika and its tributaries Sokolitsa and Ovcharitsa fall within the territory of the Maritsa Iztok Power Complex that consists of three open-cast coal mines, three energy plants and a coal-making factory. Industrial exploitation of the basin, which covers 220 km2, started in the early 1950s. Some ten years before that, small-scale mining works undertaken by private enterprises were soon terminated. The first historic records for exploitation of the Maritsa Iztok coal seams date from 1847, when the French investigator Henry Viquenel surveyed the area. The first official coal production was known to have begun in 1896 (Sarkis 1992). So far, more than half of seams have been exploited, which means that half of the study zone has been either excavated or covered by spoil heaps. The expected plan is that the remaining deposits will be excavated by 2030, resulting in the gradual destruction of the other half of the area.

In the early 1960s, archaeological investigations started in parallel with the excavation of strip-mining of coal. For almost 25 years, different teams undertook rescue excavations of the most severely threatened archaeological sites and traces of the salvage character of these operations are visible in the investigations’ results. Sites were either partially destroyed by mine-works or their study left incomplete due to the excavation of the sites’ area or its covering by spoil-heaps. The field and recording techniques were not very precise and publications were rare but whatever the outcomes of the studies, they were very important since, for certain sites, these are the only evidence that is left.

More systematic and purposeful investigations began after 1986, when the Maritsa Iztok Expedition team was set up. It consisted of archaeologists from Sofia University, the National Archaeological Institute, the Institute of Thracology and Nova Zagora Museum. In the following year, a local archaeological museum in Radnevo was established that was important for both storage and later display of the abundance of excavated artefacts. Fieldwork was the main activity of museum staff throughout the year but, in the busiest times, they were aided by the above-mentioned expedition team. In 1998, I was invited to join the expedition team as a field archaeologist, after years of working in the region as a student.

Working under constant pressure inevitably affected the work of the team. Very often archaeologists would solve problems on-line, not having the opportunity to justify their decisions or even to make proper records of a certain site. The mines funded both the Maritsa Iztok Expedition project and the museum but administrative obstacles were not rare. The long-term investigation programme was often re-scheduled according to changing mining priorities involving different coal production zones and new spoil-heaps. There were, unfortunately, even cases of monuments destroyed without any archaeological survey. The investigation strategy was a flexible combination of field surface survey, the excavation of threatened sites and long-term excavations of sites such as fortresses and tells, whose destruction was forecast for subsequent years. As a result, 227 archaeological monuments have been registered – 5 tells, 92 flat (open-air) settlements, 114 tumuli, 7 flat cemeteries, 4 fortresses and 3 pit complexes; at 46 of these sites, rescue excavations were undertaken. Post-excavation activity, although not a priority of the Expedition, includes the publication of six volumes of the Maritsa Iztok Expedition project, which present the most important results throughout the ten years of the Expedition’s existence; the organization of two conferences on the problems, place and context of the sites and their investigations in Maritsa Iztok Power Complex area; and the maintenance of a permanent exhibition in Radnevo Museum, as well as temporary displays on specific themes.

The most important characteristic of the study region was its everyday destruction. For an outsider, that means landscape devastation versus energy production. For an insider, that means the erasing of her/his biographies, cutting local roots and breaking spatial relations with the ancestors. A few years of working in the region were enough to make me an insider. Witnessing the total and irreversible destruction of villages, archaeological sites and their immediate natural environment that they have been sharing for decades and centuries, if not millennia, gradually led to the idea of a landscape study – a study that was not merely possible but extremely necessary. Why (not just when) did people come and settle in the region? What was their relation and attitude to the landscape they lived within? Were they invaders or dwellers? Was it the landscape that constitutes the human network or there was something other than simple environmental determinism in the choices of site locations? These basic issues formed an important rationale for an attempt at systematizing the known archaeological material and placing it in a wider landscape context.

Exactly the opposite destiny pertains to the third microregion in the present study – the valley of the river Kalnitsa. This microregion lies immediately East of the meridian where the Sokolitsa curves to the South and the Ovcharitsa to the North, towards their sources. The three small valleys are divided by the foothills of the Sakar Mountain known as Manastirski vuzvishenia (Monastery Hills), whose highest peak – Kaleto – lies at 448masl. The Kalnitsa valley is a non-industrial, rural environment, which, from a contemporary point of view, would appear to be a backward region (Fig.1.1.2).

Exactly this total lack of industrialization or previous archaeological investigation attracted the attention of a German team that started long-term microregional archaeological studies in 1983 in the territory of the modern village of Drama. This relatively undisturbed microregion, that has been claimed to play an important role in the past, presents a settlement history based upon up to 20 sites and several barrows from the Early/Middle Neolithic up to Byzantine times. Systematic interdisciplinary investigations have so far been regularly undertaken for almost 20 years. Their results were presented in a series of publications (Lichardus et al.1989, 1996, 2000, 2001) and a series of exhibitions in Bulgarian museums. For better or for worse, Bulgarian archaeologists were very selectively included in the work of the Drama Expedition, leading to a general unawareness of the results from the most significant archaeological sites along the Kalnitsa river amongst Bulgarian archaeologists. In this study, I hope to compare and contrast the settlement histories of these three microregions and make the results of previous studies more widely available.

1.1.3 Chronological and spatial framework

The initial research intentions were to investigate prehistoric sites within the three selected microregions. Since the selected areas contain many post-prehistoric sites, they were excluded from immediate exploration but will be used for reference, especially for cases involving the continuity of site occupation. Territorial boundaries are more difficult to set, since the definition of the three microregions could significantly vary. For the Kalnitsa valley, the boundaries of the Drama microregion are taken as those established by the German expedition (Lichardus et al. 2000: Abb.2). The valleys of the middle and lower courses of the Sokolitsa and Ovcharitsa were selected as the remaining two microregions because a) the three study areas are of comparable size and b) the most intensive investigations of Maritsa Iztok Expedition took place there (Fig. 1.1.2). Those prehistoric sites that fall outside the above-defined microregions will be used for references but without emphasis on their research results.

The currently accepted C14 dates for the main periods in late Bulgarian prehistory are summarized in Table 1.1.1. For simplicity, the division of the Neolithic and Copper Age is made after Georgiev (1961), and after Leshtakov (1992) for the Bronze Age.

Table 1.1.1 Calibrated dates for phases in Bulgarian later prehistory. * Source: Boyadziev 1995
PERIOD PHASE DATE RANGE (cal. B.C.)*
Early Neolithic Karanovo I - II 6300 - 5450
Middle Neolithic Karanovo III 5500 - 5100
Late Neolithic Karanovo IV 5200 - 4850
Early Copper Age Karanovo V 4900 - 4550
Middle Copper Age - 4600 - 4400
Late Copper Age Karanovo VI 4500 - 3800
Transitional period - 3850 - 3150
Early Bronze Age EBA I - III 3200 - 2500
Middle Bronze Age - 2550 - 2100
Late Bronze Age - 1600 - 1000

1.2 Aims and objectives

The initial research interest was the comparison of the prehistoric settlement patterns in two adjacent small valleys in South East Bulgaria – an area with an important geographical location and intensive investigations but with very little archaeologically relevant synthesis and no history of landscape research. It was presumed that 40 years of rescue excavations would provide an enormous amount of archaeological data, which even if differing in quality, could facilitate a detailed, contextually- based settlement study (Hodder 1982; 1982a). In fact, it became apparent that the goals of recovering precious objects and the solution of chronological issues - the tasks of the earlier settlement investigations – stood in marked contrast to the more recent, analytically-oriented excavations of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The huge amount of artefacts was associated with very little, if any, relevant contextual information. In addition, restricted access to large parts of the archaeological material did not give any opportunity for widespread reconstruction of intra-site structures, features and contexts – a problem which rendered in compatible the earlier and later survey data sets. Without these comparable site records, any attempt at intra and inter-site analysis would be highly speculative, especially for the assertion of changing or recurrent patterns. The evident necessity for re-focussing my research led to a new evaluation of the data sets, in terms of the possibilities of a limited contextual study in combination with a broader comparative approach.

Given these problems of data conditions, types of investigation and landscape status for the Maritsa Iztok area, it was crucial to re-define the study to achieve genuine comparability of archaeological data. For this purpose, the study area was re-structured and sampled to cover two microregions – the Sokolitsa and Ovcharitsa valleys, to which a third – the Kalnitsa valley - was added. This microregional aspect is the second goal of the inquiry. Microregions which are defined purely geographically (viz., as river valleys) are not meant to be closed or constraining units. Rather, the premise of their separation is on an operational level – to structure the evidence and enable comparative analysis between microregions. Whether or not these microregional divisions coincide with specific human occupation preferences is an important issue of the study.

Following on from the re-focussing of the thesis, the overall aims of the present study are fivefold:

  1. the reconciliation of concepts of landscape and environment

  2. the reconstruction of past landscapes of the three microregions

  3. the evaluation and re-interpretation of site evidence for all settlements and burials

  4. the reconstruction of past settlement patterns, resource potential and inter-site transport networks in each of the three microregions

  5. the comparative interpretation of diachronic changes in settlement, society, material culture and landscapes in the three microregions

The major challenge of this research is to overcome the prevailing cultural-historical approach in Bulgarian archaeology and to envisage the sites as human activity traces (material culture) of a group of interrelated individuals (society) that functioned in a certain community framework usually called an archaeological culture. It is not a priority of this study to discuss the origin, development and the reasons for the vitality of the archaeological culture concept. Rather, I should try to apply a different approach to archaeological evidence, in which through identification of similarities, differences and particularities of human occupation in the study region, I shall try to explain the settlement patterns, their change and/or continuity. The term archaeological culture is going to be used in the statement only for illustration of widely known and named material evidence (e.g., the Maritsa culture) but not in its presumed or inherited social aspects.

The detailed study of prehistoric societies in the Sokolitsa, Ovcharitsa and Drama microregions (e.g. social organization, degree of complexity, etc.) is not a research priority. Nor are the particular characteristics of prehistoric material culture of each of the sites. Rather, material culture and society are accepted as two of the components of landscape-material culture-society entity and will be explored in their mutual relation, summarized by Chapman (1997) as the identity triangle (Fig. 1.2.1):

Fig. 1.2.1 The identity triangle (after Chapman).

1.3 Methodological framework

A four-level, nested level of study is applied to the 26 sites1 in consideration.

The first level is the site level, in which the basic archaeological data is presented together with relevant source criticism. The variety and bulk of material culture evidence is examined for patterns of deposition such as structured deposition (pits, burials, burnt houses, etc.) or de facto deposition (outdoor activity, site abandonment, etc.). The recurrent, changing or unique patterns of deposition were related to various deliberate social practices that may have taken place everyday (e.g. personal enchainment), every year (e.g. communal feasting) or once in a life-time (e.g. burial).

The second level of study is the site/off- site level that incorporates landscape and environmental GIS analyses. The first type of analysis includes location, viewshed and cost surface analyses, which enable the visual and relative distance relation between the sites to be established. The second type is site catchment analysis, that provides information for the distribution of resources at equal distances from the site.

The third level of study is the microregional level, in which the data from each site is combined and explored as a whole in order to establish the occupational sequence. The establishment of the specific role of antecedent landscapes for the repeating or changing settlement patterns is a major result from the microregional level of inquiry (Zvelebil & Beneš 1997).

The final level of analysis is on the study region level, in which the comparative approach provides general pattern of differences and similarities in social practices and settlement dynamics in both temporal and spatial aspects for all of three microregions.

1.4 Summary of thesis by chapters

In Chapter 2, a synthesis of the major trends of prehistoric research in Bulgaria was made as more attention was paid to the issues discussed in later chapters. Many controversial and out-of-date concepts were not criticized, since they were made at a time of a specific ideological agenda and since a detailed critique of the interpretative framework of Bulgarian prehistoric research in the last 50 years is not an aim of the current study. To avoid repetition, some general reviews are made in a more relevant place in a certain chapter (e.g. the concepts for structured deposition are summarized in the section for approaches to material culture) rather than to include them in Chapter 2. Following the structuring principle of this research, in which chapter two is devoted to a general history of concepts and ideas, discussed in later chapters, rather than commenting on particular case-studies, a brief introduction to GIS in archaeology was also included in the chapter. GIS applications in archaeology that are relevant to this study and some general debates of the characteristics of the GIS studies are summarized in Chapter 3.

In Chapter 3, the theoretical basis of the study was formulated through the presentation of case study-based sections on each of the three main research components – landscape-material culture-society - structured as a discussion of different research topics commented on in later chapters (e.g. the concepts of landscape archaeology, structured deposition and site catchment analysis). This chapter includes references mainly from Western archaeological theory and practice, since a) Bulgarians have not contributed to the overall debate of the issues discussed in the current study and, b) the established Bulgarian interpretative framework was presented in chapter 2.

In Chapter 4, the environmental characteristics of the three microregions are presented. Special attention was paid to the pollen data from Bulgaria, which is the only readily available source for palaeo-environmental reconstructions.

In Chapter 5, the sites along Sokolitsa valley have been studied from the first to the third level of analysis and following the theoretical framework set up in chapter 3. In Chapter 6, the sites along Ovcharitsa valley have been studied in the same way.

In Chapter 7, the sites in Drama microregion have been studied in the same way.

In Chapter 8, the final fourth level of analysis was conducted, in which the data from chapters 4 - 7 were incorporated into a general reconstruction of settlement dynamics and occupational sequence for the later prehistory of the three microregions. Here, the three microregions are put in a broader context of the social networks current in the Neolithic and Eneolithic of the Southern Balkans. The social aspects of prehistoric development in the study area is developed on the basis of my new studies of material culture and society and as a challenge to the prevailing cultural historical approach in Bulgaria. There is an attempt to use the recapitulation of the concept of social practices as providing the basis for social transformation and giving alternative explanatory units such as social networks in opposition to the current dominant notion of archaeological cultures. Landscape as an integral part of the past reality is presented in terms of its constraining and not deterministic role in the settlement and spatial patterns of the study area.

The main points arising from the complex, inter-disciplinary investigations are recapitulated in the Conclusions.

  1. The actual number of places of human occupation is more than 26, since there are multi-period sites (e.g. tells) and barrow cemeteries in which there are more than one mounds, but the site is considered in general as one (e.g. MIBC).↩︎