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Detail of Ornament from Panagyurishte Gold Treasure, Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria      Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

How The Thracian Panagyurishte Treasure Changed Bulgaria’s History

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The Panagyurishte Treasure is a set of gold vessels from Panagyurishte, a town in the southern Bulgarian province of Pazardzhik. The treasure was discovered by accident during the 20 th century. The Panagyurishte Treasure has been dated to between the late 4 th and early 3 rd century BC, and therefore belongs to the Thracian civilization. Apart from the amount of gold used to create the vessels, the artifacts are also notable for their fine craftmanship.

At present, there are three official, perfect replicas of the treasure, one for the National History Museum in Sofia, another for the Archaeological Museum in Plovdiv, and the third for the History Museum in Panagyurishte. The originals, owing to its pricelessness and rarity, are normally kept safely in a bank vault. Nevertheless, these pieces have been lent to museums around the world on many occasions in the decades following their discovery.

The Panagyurishte Treasure, National Museum of History in Sofia. (Nenko Lazarov / CC BY 2.5)

The Panagyurishte Treasure, National Museum of History in Sofia. (Nenko Lazarov / CC BY 2.5 )

The Discovery of ‘Gipsy Instruments’ or Something Else…

The discovery of the Panagyurishte Treasure occurred in 1949. On the 8 th of December that year, three brothers, Pavel, Petko and Mihail Deikov, were digging for clay in the yard of a ceramic factory in Panagyurishte. At around a depth of 2 m (6.6 feet), the brothers encountered some yellowish objects, which they extracted from the clay.

There is disagreement regarding the sequence of events that followed. Incidentally, some doubt has been cast on the accuracy of the measurement, as it has been argued that it is not possible that “such a thick layer of clayish soil could have piled up from antiquity to present day.”

According to one version of the story, the brothers, having inspected the objects, came to the conclusion that the objects were nothing more than a bunch of brass instruments hidden away by gypsies. Therefore, they did not give the objects much attention, and put them aside without any further thought. News of the discovery, however, spread through the small town, and the factory yard was soon crowded with curious townspeople who were eager to catch a glimpse of these strange ‘gypsy brass instruments’.

The Deikov brothers holding the Panagyurishte Treasure in 1949. (Simiprof / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Deikov brothers holding the Panagyurishte Treasure in 1949. (Simiprof / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Some of the observers even tried to ‘play’ the instruments by blowing into their openings. When no sound was produced, however, they simply declared that these musical instruments were practically useless. One of the people who came to view the objects was Petar Gorbanov, an archaeologist who was at the time working in the town’s reading club. Unlike the rest of the townspeople, Gorbanov, who had studied at the University of Vienna, was not convinced that the objects were ‘gypsy brass instruments’.

Another version of the story claims that the brothers were aware from the beginning that the objects they unearthed were made of gold. In addition, they were of the opinion that the artifacts ought to be sent to a museum. In this version of events, the townspeople do not visit the factory to have a look at the objects. Instead, they were viewed by the factory workers, one of whom even made an attempt to steal one of the vessels, but was stopped by the brothers.

The objects were then cleaned in a river, and brought by the brothers back to their home. After showing the artifacts to their wives and children, the three brothers took them to the district council. It was here that Gorbanov, according to this version of the story, first saw the artifact. In any case, the objects were thoroughly cleaned, and put in a show case for display. In the evening, the artifacts were placed in a bank for safe-keeping.

Bulgaria’s Thracian Past Presented to the World

On the following day, cables were wired to Sofia and Plovdiv to announce the sensational discovery. The former was only received several days later by the director of the Sofia Archaeological Institute and Museum. On the other hand, the director of the Plovdiv Archaeological Museum went to Panagyurishte immediately after he received the cable, collected the treasure, and brought it back to his museum. As a result, Plovdiv, rather than Sofia (Bulgaria’s capital), became the permanent home of the Panagyurishte Treasure.

The Panagyurishte Treasure stayed in the Plovdiv Archaeological Museum for the next decade, where it was displayed in a transparent safety show-case in the museum’s central hall. During the 1960s, the Panagyurishte Treasure went on its first tour around the world. Rome was the first city outside Bulgaria to receive the treasure, where it was displayed as part of a national exhibition.

Subsequently, the treasure was exhibited in Paris, Munich, Leningrad (known today as Saint Petersburg), Budapest, Warsaw and Montreal. At the end of the decade, the Panagyurishte Treasure returned to Plovdiv, where it remained for the next three years.

In 1972, the treasure was selected as the center-piece of an exhibition called ‘Thracian Art’, which made its debut in Sofia on the occasion of the First International Congress of Thracology. In the decades that followed, the exhibition was hosted by many museums around the world. Between 1994 and 2000, for example, the exhibition visited seven cities in Japan, and as many in the United States. In addition, it went to Finland, Sweden, Italy and Belgium. As a result of this exhibition, a lesser-known side of Bulgaria, i.e. its Thracian past, was presented to the world.

What About the Ancient History of the Treasure?

Like the chain of events that happened immediately after the treasure’s discovery, there are many uncertainties regarding its ancient history as well. For instance, some have argued that the vessels were made by local Thracian craftsmen, whilst others are of the opinion that they were from Lampsacus, an ancient Greek city on the eastern side of the Hellespont, in modern-day Turkey.

Historic map of Balkan peninsula including the Thracian territory from 150 BC. (Spiridon MANOLIU / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Historic map of Balkan peninsula including the Thracian territory from 150 BC. (Spiridon MANOLIU / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Likewise, there are two different hypotheses as to how the artifacts ended up in Panagyurishte. According the first one, the precious objects were hidden away by its owner when the area was invaded either by the Macedonians or the Celts. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the pieces were part of a loot. Needless to say, the identity of the treasure’s original owner(s) is completely unknown.

The Panagyurishte Treasure consists of nine individual items – four rhytons, three rhytonized pitchers, a rhytonized amphora and a large, shallow phiale. All the objects were made of gold, and weigh about 6.164 kg (13.589 lbs) in total.

The golden phiale found with the Panagyurishte Treasure. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The golden phiale found with the Panagyurishte Treasure. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

In addition to the substantial amount of gold used to create the artifacts, the Panagyurishte Treasure is impressive for their fine details, which reflect the high level of craftmanship involved in the production of the vessels. Apart from that, these artistic details provide us with a glimpse into the way the Thracians viewed the world.

The Thracians and Their Panagyurishte Treasure

The Thracians were people who lived in the area that is today Bulgaria. The earliest mention of Thrace that we know of comes from Homer’s Iliad, in which they are said to be the allies of Troy. The Thracians also appear in Achaemenids sources, where they are depicted in reliefs as one of the empire’s subjects.

The Thracians were conquered by the Achaemenids towards the end of the 6 th century BC, and their territory became a satrapy called ‘Skudra’. During the 4 th century BC, Thrace was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, and gradually became a Hellenistic state after the death of his son, Alexander the Great , in 323 BC.

Mysterious Scenes From the Rhytonoized Amphora

The Panagyurishte Treasure has been dated to this Hellenistic period, based on the details of the artifacts. A good example that may be used to demonstrate this is the rhytonized amphora. This vessel is the largest of the nine artifacts, weighing 1.695 kg (3.737 lbs), and arguably the most fascinating one as well. On the body of the vessel, a total of seven male figures are portrayed – five on one side of the amphora, and the other two on the other side.

In the first scene, the five men are in a row, “half-naked, bare-footed, walking or running, on a rough surface to the door… The last one has a trumpet in his mouth, producing a signal or just playing. The others are armed and vigorously waving their swords.” The two men in the second scene, by contrast, are shown leaning on roughly-hewn sticks, and look as though they are discussing something. The object of their discussion may be “an obscure object in the old man’s left hand to which the young one has undecidedly stretched out his right hand.”   

Shot of one of the scenes on the golden rhytonized amphora found with the Panagyurishte Treasure. The man with the trumpet can be seen on the left.  (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shot of one of the scenes on the golden rhytonized amphora found with the Panagyurishte Treasure. The man with the trumpet can be seen on the left.  (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

The interpretation of the scenes by scholars may be divided into several groups. One for instance, argues that the scenes depict an incident from everyday life, i.e. a drunk company of Thracians rushing off into the night in search of women. The second claims that the scenes portray a historical event, i.e. the capture of the Persian Gates by Alexander the Great. Yet another interpretation suggests that the scenes were drawn from Greek mythology, i.e. the Seven Against Thebes story.

The final interpretation postulates that the scenes depict a Thracian ritual practice, and is based on the archaeological discovery of two Thracian monuments – a tomb-mausoleum in Strelcha, and a temple near Starosel. According to this interpretation, the scenes depict the burial ceremony of a Thracian ruler. The five warriors are outside the temple performing a ritual dance, whereas the other two are inside the temple, and are making preparations for the burial ceremony.   

Hercules and African Heads, What Does it all Mean?

Although the scenes on the body of the amphora are the highlights of the object, the artifact has other decorations worth mentioning as well. The artifact’s handles, for instance, were made in the shape of a pair of centaurs. Another element taken from Greek mythology may be found at the bottom of the amphora. It has been pointed out that the decoration in this area is “more carelessly and unprofessionally done compared to the one on the body, which brings the supposition that the two scenes may have not been worked by the same master.”

The Panagyurishte Treasure’s golden rhytonized amphora. The big amphora has handles shaped as centaurs, and the openings for pouring wine represent African heads. In between those two openings, the amphora is decorated with a scene of Hercules fighting a snake. (Ann Wuyts / CC BY 2.0)

The Panagyurishte Treasure’s golden rhytonized amphora. The big amphora has handles shaped as centaurs, and the openings for pouring wine represent African heads. In between those two openings, the amphora is decorated with a scene of Hercules fighting a snake. (Ann Wuyts / CC BY 2.0 )

In any case, four figures are seen. One of them is a baby with a pair of snakes in his hands, clearly depicting the myth of the infant Hercules strangling the two serpents sent by Hera to kill him. The other is a reclining satyr. Given their reputation for drunkenness in Greek mythology, it is an apt figure, considering the function of this vessel.

Apart from the infant Hercules and the satyr, there is also a pair of African heads at the bottom of the amphora. These were not only decorative elements, but also served a practical function. It was from the mouth of these Africans that wine was poured out. One suggestion for the peculiar positioning of a pair of openings at the base of the vessel is that the amphora was used for a ‘friend-making ritual’.

Basically, “two men could drink from it simultaneously or could pour themselves the liquid by placing under it another two vessels.” Alternatively, it has been suggested that the vessel was used to honor warriors.

In The Histories , Herodotus mentions a Scythian tradition, whereby a ceremony is performed each year to honor the warriors. A bowl of wine is mixed by the provincial governor, and all the Scythian warriors who managed to kill an enemy that year were allowed to drink from it, whilst those who failed to do so were forced to sit apart in disgrace. As for those who had killed many enemies, they were “given two cups to drink together.” Another translation states that these warriors drank from “vessels with two openings”, which were perhaps like the amphora of the Panagyurishte Treasure.

Rhytons and Rhytonized Pitchers

As for the rhytons and rhytonized pitchers, these were made in the form of different zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures. Three of the rhytons are in the form of animal heads (a young ram and two deer), whilst the fourth one is shaped as the upper half of a goat. In addition, scenes from Greek mythology are found on the necks of these vessels.

Two of the rhytons with deer heads from the Panagyurishte Treasure. (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Two of the rhytons with deer heads from the Panagyurishte Treasure. (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

As for the rhytonized pitchers, these are in the form of a women’s head. These women have been identified either as Amazons, or Greek goddesses, namely Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. Finally, the phiale is decorated with African heads and acorns arranged in four concentric circles.

A rhytonized pitcher in the form of a women’s head from Panagyurishte Treasure. (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0)

A rhytonized pitcher in the form of a women’s head from Panagyurishte Treasure. (stanimir.stoyanov / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

The Panagyurishte Treasure is no doubt a set of invaluable artifacts from Bulgaria’s Thracian past. Apart from that, the treasure has had a significant impact on the country’s image on the world stage. Thanks to its travels around the world, the Panagyurishte Treasure has helped to change the “traditional concept of Bulgaria as a communist country dealing with drug traffic and arms trade” into one of the “richest in Europe in finds from antiquity with high artistic value.”

Top image: Detail of Ornament from Panagyurishte Gold Treasure, Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv, Bulgaria      Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren 

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