Almost every year Bulgarian archaeologists are making sensational discoveries which attract the attention not only of most Bulgarians, but also of international scholars and the public worldwide. People usually know only about the recent archaeological endeavors in Bulgaria, so in several consecutive articles I will try to present the entire exciting history of archaeology in Bulgaria, from its early beginnings up to the present day. Many readers would be surprised to learn that the first excavations in the Bulgarian lands occurred in the late 16th and 17th centuries, when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire and long before the study of the classical world became an actual academic discipline distinct from early modern European antiquarianism. The earliest record was given by Reinhold Lubenau, a German pharmacist and traveler who described his trips from 1573 to 1589 in a manuscript completed in 1628. Lubenau mentions an excavation of a Thracian tumulus located near Plovdiv in 1584 that was conducted by Jacques de Germigny, the French Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who would send the materials discovered to King Henry III of France.
About one century later, in the turbulent historical period when the Ottoman Empire had conquered a significant part of continental Europe and was preparing to invade the Kingdom of Hungary, Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, a young Italian naturalist and geographer, born in 1658 in a patrician family in Bologna, became an officer in the army of Venice. In 1679, just a few years before the decisive Battle of Vienna in 1683, he was sent on a reconnaissance mission to Constantinople in order to examine the Ottoman military forces. During his travels in 1679 and 1680 Count Marsigli, a man devoted to his scholarly interests, explored various Roman antiquities spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. He not only wrote detailed descriptions and prepared precise maps, but also discovered and identified the remains of Ulpia Oescus, one of the most important Roman towns in the Province of Moesia located near Pleven. In addition, Count Marsigli excavated several tumuli in the vicinity of Ulpia Oescus. These were the first ever recorded archaeological excavations in Bulgaria. After a long career in the army of the Habsburg Empire and intensive scientific studies, Count Marsigli finally returned to his native Bologna and founded the Instituto delle Scienze e dell’Arti in 1715.
Over the next couple centuries, European interest in the antiquities spread across the northern Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire. Many diplomats, army officers, scholars and travelers left notable reports, while archaeological discoveries were occasionally reported by the middle of the 19th century. In 1851, a monumental Thracian beehive tomb with an intact rich burial dated to the second half of the 4th century BC was accidentally unearthed by local peasants in a tumulus located near the village of Rozovets. Most of the precious grave goods were collected by Ottoman authorities and temporarily exhibited in Plovdiv. The spectacular archaeological find, which was the first discovery of Thracian material in the Bulgaria, was immediately reported in the Bulgarian and Greek press, sparking wider public interest and awareness.
In 1868, at the beginning of his academic career, Albert Dumont, a leading French scholar in archaeology and art history, carried out an archaeological mission in Thrace that was the first ever organized professional archaeological expedition in the Bulgarian lands. Dumont, who founded both the École Française de Rome and the Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, passed away in 1884. His detailed report on Thrace was published in Paris in 1892, and it became a landmark research study widely recognized by scholars.
After the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, several Czech scholars and intellectuals founded modern Bulgarian archaeology. Two of them, the brothers Karel and Hermengild Škorpil, were the first to precisely document numerous archaeological sites and monuments spread across Bulgaria and to carry on professional excavations. The Škorpil brothers’ major contribution to Bulgarian archaeology was greatly recognized by people in the country, and the brothers were so devoted to Bulgaria that, according to their will, both were to be buried on Bulgarian soil; Hermengild was laid to rest in an early Christian monastery near Varna, while Karel was buried in Pliska, the medieval capital of the First Bulgarian Kingdom.
Another Czech scholar who played a prominent role in the founding of Bulgarian archaeology was Konstantin Jireček, a renowned politician and historian. He developed a strong research interest in Bulgaria during his studies at Charles University in Prague. Later, in 1879–1884, Jireček lived in Bulgaria and was appointed to different administrative positions, helping the young state to build its governmental and academic institutions. Thus, in 1881–1882 he served as Minister of Education. Still, even before his arrival in Bulgaria, Jireček had published valuable studies on ancient historical geography of the region.
Although some small collections of archaeological material already existed in the 19th century — before the liberation of Bulgaria — they were usually stored in the local Читалища (public educational centers). The first actual museum collection was set up in 1878 at the Public Library in Sofia, and in 1892, it was transferred to the 15th century Büyük Mosque in Sofia, which houses the National Archaeological Museum. The national museum was founded in 1892 by a special decree issued by Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. In 1880, another important Archaeological Museum was founded in Plovdiv, the capital of Eastern Rumelia, even before this territory was reunified with Bulgaria in 1885. Since 1891, a course in Greek and Roman archaeology has been offered at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, which was founded in 1888 and is the oldest Bulgarian university. These early achievements laid the groundwork for Bulgarian archaeology and were the driving forces for its development in the first half of the 20th century.
By Nikola Theodossiev, Sofia University