The rich burial of Varna man found with gold in Bulgaria

Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave of the 5th Millennium BC


In the 1970s, archaeologists in Bulgaria stumbled upon a vast Copper Age necropolis from the 5th millennium BC containing the oldest golden artifacts ever discovered near the modern-day city of Varna. But it was not until they reached grave 43 that they realized the real significance of the finding. Inside burial 43 they unearthed the remains of a high status male buried with unfathomable riches – more gold was found within this burial than in the entire rest of the world in that period.

Most people have heard of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley , which are all noted for being the earliest known civilizations to feature urbanization, organized administration, and cultural innovation. But few have heard of the mysterious civilization that emerged on the shores of lakes near the Black Sea some 7,000 years ago.

The Amazing Varna Culture

The Varna culture, as it has come to be known, was not a small and inconsequential society that emerged in a little corner of what would become Bulgaria and disappeared quickly into the pages of history. Rather, it was an amazingly advanced civilization, more ancient than the empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the first known culture to craft golden artifacts.



Varna is also now home to the largest known prehistoric necropolis in south-eastern Europe, which reflects a richness in cultural practices, complex funerary rites, an ancient belief system, and the capacity to produce exquisite and expertly-crafted goods. It has come to be known as the cradle of civilization in Europe.

The Varna man burial has some of the world's oldest gold jewelry. (Yelkrokoyade/CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Rise of Goldsmithing and Wealth

Evidence suggests that it was between 4600 and 4200 BC when goldsmithing first started in Varna. As advances were made, and craftsmen mastered metallurgy of copper and gold, the inhabitants now had something extremely valuable to trade. Increased contacts with neighbors in both the north and south eventually opened up trade relations within the Black Sea and Mediterranean region, which was of great importance for the development of the society. The deep bay, along which the settlements of Varna, provided a comfortable harbor for ships sailing across the Black Sea and Varna became a prosperous trading center.

Increased trading activity allowed the metallurgists to accumulate wealth, and very quickly a societal gap developed with metallurgists at the top, followed by merchants in the middle, and farmers making up the lower class. Incredible discoveries made at a nearby cemetery also suggest that Varna had powerful rulers or kings – but we will come back to that.

And so, the foundations had been laid for the emergence of a powerful and flourishing culture, whose influence permeated the whole of Europe for thousands of years to come.

Discovering The Ancient Varna Civilization

The first evidence of Varna’s ancient civilization came in the form of tools, vessels, utensils, and figurines made from stone, flint, bone, and clay. Then an incredible chance discovery came to light, that made headlines around the world. In October, 1972, excavator operator Raycho Marinov stumbled upon a vast Copper Age necropolis containing the oldest gold artifacts ever discovered.

It was to become one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in Bulgaria. Extensive excavations were launched under the direction of Mihail Lazarov (1972–1976) and Ivan Ivanov (1972–1991), revealing for the first time the magnificent civilization of Varna.

More than 300 graves were uncovered in the necropolis, and between them over 22,000 exquisite artifacts were recovered, including 3,000+ items made from gold - with a total weight of 6 kg (13.23 lbs.) Other precious relics found within the graves included copper, high-quality flint tools, jewelry, shells of Mediterranean mollusks, pottery, obsidian blades, and beads.

Golden objects found in the necropolis.

Golden objects found in the necropolis. ( Yelkrokoyade/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Analysis of the graves revealed that the Varna culture had a highly structured society – elite members of society were buried in shrouds with gold ornaments sewn into the cloth wrappings and their graves were laden with treasures, including gold ornaments, heavy copper axes, elegant finery, and richly decorated ceramics, while others had simple burials with few grave goods.

The Richness of Grave 43

While there were many elite burials uncovered, there was one in particular that stood out among the rest – grave 43. Inside grave 43, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a high status male who appears to have been a ruler/leader of some kind. More gold was found within this burial than in the entire rest of the world in that period. The male, who became known as the Varna man, was buried with a scepter – a symbol of high rank or spiritual power – and wore a sheath of solid gold over his penis.

The burial is incredibly significant for more than just the grave goods - it is the first known elite male burial in Europe. Prior to this, it was women and children who received the most elaborate burials.

Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-American archaeologist, who was well-known for her claims that Neolithic sites across Europe provided evidence for matriarchal pre-Indo-European societies, suggested that it was the end of the 5th millennium BC when the transition to male dominance began in Europe. Indeed, in the Varna culture, it was observed that around this time men started to get the better posthumous treatment.

Complex Funerary Rites in the Varna Necropolis

The burials in the Varna necropolis have also offered a lot more than the precious artifacts found within them and discoveries relating to social hierarchies; the features of the graves have also provided key insights into the religious beliefs and complex funerary practices of this ancient civilization.

It became apparent to researchers that the males and females were laid out in different positions within the graves – males were laid out on their backs, while females were placed in a fetal position. But most surprising of all was the discovery that some graves contained no skeleton at all, and these ‘symbolic graves’ were the richest in terms of the amount of gold and other treasures found within them. Some of these symbolic graves, or cenotaphs, also contained human-sized masks made of unbaked clay placed in the position where the head would have been.

Human-sized clay head found at Varna necropolis.

Human-sized clay head found at Varna necropolis . ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

The graves containing the clay masks were also found to contain gold amulets in the shape of women placed in the position where the neck would have been. These amulets, associated with pregnancy and childbirth, indicate that the 'burials' were meant for females. Further evidence of this is the fact that there were no battle-axes found in these cenotaphs, but each of them had a copper pin, a flint knife, and a spindle whorl.

Replica of a symbolical burial of an antropomorphous face made from clay. The original was found at the Varna Chalkolithic Necropolis (grave 2) and dates to the fourth millennium BC.

Replica of a symbolical burial of an antropomorphous face made from clay. The original was found at the Varna Chalkolithic Necropolis (grave 2) and dates to the fourth millennium BC. (Ann Wuyts/ CC BY 2.0 )

The Downfall and Legacy of the Varna Culture

By the end of the fifth millennium BC, the once strong and powerful Varna culture began to disintegrate. It has been hypothesized that the downfall of the Varna civilization was the result of a combination of factors including climate change, which turned large areas of arable land into marshes and swamps, as well as the incursion of horse-riding warriors from the steppes.

Although the Varna civilization did not leave any direct descendants, the members of this ancient culture did leave behind many lasting legacies and set the stage for the emergence of subsequent civilizations throughout Europe. Their skills in metallurgy were unprecedented in Europe and indeed throughout the world, and their society demonstrated many features of a highly advanced and developed civilization.

They also developed the societal structure of a centralized authority – a person or institution to monitor and ensure the proper functioning of the society. All the fundamental principles of modern society had been found – a model of civilization that we still follow to this day.

Top Image: Grave 43 – an elite male burial found at the Varna Copper Age necropolis. Source: Yelkrokoyade/CC BY SA 3.0

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on August 20, 2020.


Avramova, M. 2000. Myth, ritual and gold of a “civilization that did not take place”. – In: Varna Necropolis. Varna, Agató, 15-24.

Chapman, J., T. Higham, B. Gaydarska, V. Slavchev, N. Honch. 2006. The social context of the emergence, development and abandonment of the Varna Cemetery, Bulgaria. European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 2-3 , 159-183.

Dimitrov, D. & Georgiev, G. (2011). Black Sea coast as cradle of first civilizations. Current Archaeology Research in Bulgaria. Available from:

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Dimitris, you're desperately trying to sound as authority, but it is a pity effort on your side. The only "scenario" that you accept is that everyone is from a "greek" tribe. Please, take a break. The history is not that certain about all possible "scenarios", but certainly a progress is made in the past 100 years to raise the ancient fog. And the signs that a lot has happened around Black Sea circa 10,000 - 12,000 BC are clearly showing.
You mention "great balkanologists" - who are they? And do we need a "balkanologist", but rather archaelogists? And not only "balkan" ones.
I don't even start a discussion anymore that those "old bulgarians" that came to Balkans 6-7 century AD, are turko-mongolians. This pseudo proposal was made by ill-informed and politically motivated "historians", not based on rather plenty of facts suggesting completely different "scenario", by your terms.

Now the place of the oldest civilization on Earth is known - around current Black Sea, with the center lying deep beneath the sea. The ancient cataclysm (the flood) that happened 7000-8000 years ago, destroyed that civilization, and survivors all spread in different directions, seeking "high ground" to be safe. Millenias later their return and "reunion" is what happened. Thracians, bulgarians, even you "greek tribes" share the same roots, descendants of that civilization. More and more details will be uncovered in the coming decades. But the picture of the single "scenario", the real history is already taking shape. Keep calm.

My friend Peter Angel...don't believe if you want and don't try to convice other people speaking about one topic or discussion where somebody is trying to connect with wrong way the ancient thracians with our days bulgarians...Don't connect Achillea and his army Myrmidones where they lived in greek thessaly and more concrete to area of Fthiotida in the ancient Fthia with the today bulgarians and this geographical area because then really we are in different conversation..Great balkanologists they are supporting that the present bulgarians appeared from asia and more specific from moggolia. The only different possible scenario is that they are slavs who they came to the area 5th - 7th century AD with the other slav tribes who came in europe. Possible they mixed together too.. All the other scenarios just they don't exist and for sure not connections with the ancient thracians who they were greek tribes and thats why they were taking part to the ancient olympic games where only greeks could take part.

I am sorry but if byzantine and ancient authors call the thracians bulgarians, HOW on earth can they come from asia. This is pure BS created some 150years ago. Bulgaria was under turkish joch for half a milenium and was deprived from history, books and dignity in this period.

John Mallalas calls the mirmidons and achiles bulgarians (byzantine historian from the 5th century!). There is NO proof whatsoever that Bulgarians are of turko-mongolic decent. None.

of course are thracian tribes and all the knowledge about metallurgy was taken from the prehistoric civilization "Vinca". Vinca culture exhisted in the central balkans and part of them moved to the place we call Varna with the knowledge of Vinca culture.They were thracians and the "ancient" bulgarians are Tourko-moggolian tribes who moved from Asia about 6-8 century AD.


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