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Left: The balsamarium was found beside the burial of a man who died between 35 and 40 years old. Right: Balsamarium from the brick grave in the Kral Mezar tumulus. Credit: Daniela Agre, Deyan Dichev and Gennady Agre / ajaonline.org.

Skeleton of Ancient Sports Fan Found Buried with Head-Shaped Jar

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A grave has been found in Bulgaria with the skeleton of an ancient sportsman or sports fan.  Alongside the human remains was a nearly 2000-year-old jar that represents the head of a boxer or a wrestler.

The discovery was made near the village of Boyanovo, Elkhovo, in the southeastern part of Bulgaria by a team of archaeologists from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and reported in the American Journal of Archaeology .  According to LiveScience, the burial was ‘‘part of a larger burial complex that was found within a 9.8-foot-high (3 meter) burial mound called a tumulus’’. The team was led by Daniela Agre and they have been working at the site since 2015.

Thracian burial mound

Tumuli are very common in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It’s probable that the tumulus was a necropolis for an elite family. In the burial was the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 35 and 40.  Agre stated that "In our opinion, the grave belongs to a Thracian aristocrat’’ reports LiveScience.

The Thracians were the people who inhabited the eastern Balkans in the Classical era. They were a fearsome warrior people; the best-known Thracian is the rebel slave Spartacus. At the time of the man’s death, they had been subjugated by the Romans and had been greatly influenced by Graeco-Roman culture.

Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, Bulgaria, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Credit: Pecold / Adobe Stock

Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, Bulgaria, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Credit: Pecold / Adobe Stock

Head-shaped jar

Alongside the skeleton was found a balsamarium made of brass, which is about 1800 years old. According to the International Business Times ,  this jar ‘‘is actually an ancient vessel for storing liquids such as balm or perfumes’’.  The vessel is shaped into the head of a man, possibly a wrestler or a boxer. This jar looks like someone with a crooked nose that appears to have been badly broken. The face on the vessel also has a goatee beard.

The balsamarium has a deep green film or patina. Similar vessels have been found throughout the Mediterranean and they were popular in the Roman Empire. They often were styled to represent athletes such as wrestlers and often mass-produced.

The balsamarium from the top, Credit: Daniela Agre, Deyan Dichev and Gennady Agre / ajaonline.org.

Researchers have noted that the figure is wearing a cap, which is ‘‘made from the skin of an animal who belongs to a member of the cat family, most probably a panther or leopard’’ reports the International Business Times .

The animal skin cap may be an allusion to the Nemean Lion that was killed by the legendary hero Hercules. According to Archaeology.org, in a well-known Roman myth ‘‘Hercules defeated with his bare hands a lion that attacked the city of Nemea’’. The cat-skin hat maybe signifying that the prowess of the athlete was comparable to the mighty hero.

History of sport

It seems that the dead man was probably a sports fan and someone who loved to wrestle and box. According to LiveScience, Daniela Agre stated that the dead man probably practiced ‘‘sport in his everyday life, rather than a professional athlete". Sports were very popular in the Roman era, just as they were with other ancient cultures such as the Minoans and Sumerians.

Hercules and the Nemean lion (public domain)

Hercules and the Nemean lion ( public domain )

Dead sportsman

It is possible that the vessel, once held a balm that may have been used to relieve the dead man’s injuries when he was alive. Another indication that the man was interested in sport was “a blade used to scrape sweat and dirt from the skin” found in his grave reports LiveScience. This instrument, known as the strigil, was widely used after physical exercise in the Classical World.

The grave of the sports fan or enthusiast is allowing researchers to have a better understanding of life in Thrace during the Roman Empire. It demonstrates that at least the local elite had adopted many of the practices of the Romans. This find is also showing the popularity of sport in the provinces.

Top image: Left: The balsamarium was found beside the burial of a man who died between 35 and 40 years old. Right: Balsamarium from the brick grave in the Kral Mezar tumulus. Credit: Daniela Agre, Deyan Dichev and Gennady Agre / ajaonline.org.

By Ed Whelan

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