Archaeologists Unearth Thracian Princess Grave Rich with Jewelry and Mythic Meaning

Archaeologists Unearth Thracian Princess Grave Rich with Jewelry and Mythic Meaning


The remains of an ancient Thracian noblewoman that was ritually dismembered has been unearthed along with bronze and silver jewelry buried with her in a rock tomb in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria.

Researchers are speculating the “Thracian princess,” as she is being called, was torn apart after death during ceremonies linked to the Orphic mysteries about 2,300 years ago. Dismemberment was not a mark of disfavor but rather an honor accorded to Thracian nobility and clerics.

The woman had a Greek silver coin that was possibly placed under her tongue as an obol or offering to Charon, the mythical figure of Greece, Rome and Thrace who ferried the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron into their afterlife in Hades.

A 19th-century interpretation of Charon's crossing of Rivers Styx and Acheron by Alexander Litovchenko (public domain)

The body of the woman was in five pieces with her skull propped up on two rocks and sitting on a silver tiara, says the blog Archaeology in Bulgaria. The ancient people hewed her grave into the rock of the mountains. The archaeologist who discovered the burial, Assistant Professor Lyubin Leshtakov of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, speculates there may be a necropolis or rock mausoleum there and hopes to find more graves, the blog states.

Charon, an illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy by Gustav Doré.

Charon, an illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy by Gustav Doré. (Wikimedia Commons)

The grave contains almost 60 bronze and silver pieces, including the tiara, earrings, rings, necklaces and beads. It dates to the 4th century BC, around the time of Alexander the Great, who ruled an empire stretching from Macedonia and Greece to Afghanistan and India. His reign lasted from 336 to 323.

The grave goods are among the richest of any found in Bulgarian burials from the era. The grave is just 4 meters (13.1234 feet) away from a rock altar found by Alexander Mitushev, an archaeological hobbyist who is financing the dig.

Grave goods from the Thracian noblewoman’s burial included silver and bronze jewelry.

Grave goods from the Thracian noblewoman’s burial included silver and bronze jewelry. (Photo: 24 Chasa)

The proximity of the grave and the altar plus the dismemberment have led archaeologists to speculate that the site was a center for Orphic cultic or ritual celebrations then in vogue in Thrace.

“It is interesting that the body was dismembered which corresponds to some information about Orphic rituals. We know that Orpheus was ripped apart by the bacchantes," Leshtakov was quoted as saying by the 24 Chasa daily.

Another archaeologist consulting on the dig, Nikolay Ovcharov, said dismembering of the dead was common among ancient Thracian nobility or priests before they were buried.

“When Orpheus started the Orphic societies, women were not allowed in them, and began resenting him. We know that Orpheus died when he was ripped to pieces by bacchantes (maenads). He was dismembered and his body parts were thrown in the Maritsa River," said Ovcharov.

A Grecian mixing vessel of the 5th century BC shows the death of Orpheus at the hands of the bacchantes or Maenads.

A Grecian mixing vessel of the 5th century BC shows the death of Orpheus at the hands of the bacchantes or Maenads. (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers are going to analyze the remains to ascertain whether more than one person was buried with the woman. They will also examine her body closely to verify that she was female. They have tentatively identified her as female because of the presence of the tiara.

The tiara, fashioned from a very thin sheet of silver, is in very bad condition, but Leshkatov hopes experts will be able to restore the artifact.

Top image: Archaeologists Lyuben Leshtakov (left) and Nikolay Ovcharov (right) are seen showing the newly found Thracian noblewoman’s rock grave to reporters. Photo: 24 Chasa daily

By Mark Miller

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