Golden Varna Plate Linked To Daring Sea Voyage Between Black Sea and Egypt 7,000 Years Ago
There’s an odd-looking design on an ancient ceramic vessel that was found in Varna, Bulgaria that one expert believes is linked to another kind of vessel – a woven, seafaring kind.
Many years ago, Todor Uzunov, of the Academy of Fine Arts, Sofia, went to the Varna Museum. While there, he found an intriguing artifact, which he describes in an interview to toppresa.bg:
There was a large, beautiful ceramic dish under the window, which was decorated with gold and depicted something like a ship in four reproductions. Of course, man is above all a distrustful creature and does not run like Archimedes with exclamations - "Eureka", especially one who is well aware that such a thing requires some evidence.
Uzunov set out to find that evidence by scouring the representations of water and sea vessels in the ancient world. His years of research have provided him with some rather similar designs to the depiction on the golden plate of Varna. And now he’s found that his theory of ancient Bulgarian seafarers navigating reed boats may soon be supported by a daring example of experimental archaeology.
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Let’s take a look at the path from an odd looking ceramic plate found in a treasure hoard to the Bulgarian waters and a reed boat.
Discovering the Golden Plate From Varna
In 1972, archaeologists near Varna in Northeastern Bulgaria were excavating an extensive site of eight pile-dwellings and a necropolis. Their work uncovered a stunning horde of over 3000 golden artifacts, 160 copper ones, thousands of shell bracelets, and several flint knives. They were dated to between 4,600 and 4,200 BC.
Varna necropolis, grave offerings, including the golden plate, on exposition in Varna Museum. (ChernorizetsHrabar/CC BY SA 4.0)
The amazing discovery hints at a rich culture that was adept at working stone and metal. Though the focus of most minds would veer to the shiny golden artifacts, Uzunov found himself drawn to the unique terracotta find – the so-called golden plate from Varna.
As you’ve probably already guessed, the golden plate of Varna isn’t pure gold, instead there’s a golden inlay as part of a ceramic vessel which is best described as a plate or a shallow dish. It was found in one of the Varna graves and has an odd design on the inner surface.
The Mysterious Design on the Golden Plate Makes Waves
The meaning behind that design has been a mystery, some have claimed it’s a ritual motif such as a sun sign or swastika, but Uzunov believes he’s cracked the case. According to him it may be a representation of a popular method of creation – braiding or weaving. And this is where the story gets even more interesting; Uzunov states that weaving was applied to other areas of life apart from making textiles; homes and even ships could be created through weaving certain materials. As Uzunov explains: “It completely mirrors the evolutionary line of the ships from Titicaca. Just like many other constructive solutions that occur independently far from each other, it is the material that provides these similarities.”
Picture of a reed boat at the Floating Islands, on Lake Titicaca. (Public Domain)
While Uzunov does admit that the similarities do not necessitate that the design on the golden plate from Varna is the same as what can still be seen today floating the waters of Lake Titicaca, he’s confident in his beliefs that the design is a woven vessel on water. He explains how the design is created in his paper on the golden plate from Varna:
This is backed up by the drawing itself where these elements are not a result of contours crossing at an acute angle rather than rhomboid-like shapes of different length and intensity passing by each other […] As much as it is reduced to the essential for its perception, the drawing from the “Varna plate” keeps an element from the construction of the reed vessel which is a must – the coaming. It is depicted under the guise of a thick line, parallel to the deck, even though it uses an element from the main construction of the first component. If it did not have this particular meaning, it would have been completely useless, having in mind the qualities of this artist and his understanding of representation of substance and building a shape.
Drawing of the design on the golden plate from Varna. (Todor Uzunov)
If Uzunov is correct in his interpretation of the design, the appearance of a woven reed vessel would logically suggest that the society in which the golden plate was created was one with seafaring abilities. But where did they go? That’s where a German schoolteacher named Dominique Goerlitz joins in the fascinating story.
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Taking to the Seas Near Varna
Last week, Ashley Cowie reported for Ancient Origins on Goerlitz’s exciting adventure. He writes, “Later this month his team of about two dozen volunteers and researchers will join him on a sailing expedition from the Bulgarian port of Varna, some 700 nautical miles through the Bosphorus, then through the Aegean, with their destination being the island of Crete.”
The intrepid seafarers are setting off in a reconstruction of an Egyptian reed boat dubbed the Abora IV. Cowie describes the ship, “The main body of the vessel required lashing 12 tons of bundled totora reed together with two kilometers (a mile) of ropes, before two reed sleeping compartments and a wooden mast were added.” It has two sails.
According to the Abora IV project site, we should know the results of their expedition by October.