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The tower where the looting tunnel was discovered. It is actually much bigger than this and more needs to be uncovered.        Source: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

Burying A Thracian Tower-Tomb In A Huge Mound Didn’t Deter Ottoman Grave Robbers!

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Bulgaria is a land that is blessed with a great many important historic and archaeological sites. However, in recent years much of the heritage of the country has been systematically stolen by criminals, but a new find shows that the history of grave-robbing is far from recent.

A tunnel used in an attempt to loot one of the largest Thracian burial mounds in Bulgaria that has been found to contain a Roman-era tomb-tower has been uncovered in excavation and conservation work. Remarkably this tunnel dates back to the time of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and demonstrates that the pillaging of archaeological sites has a long history.

A Tomb-Tower in the Burial Mound

The Maltepe Burial Mound is in the south-east of Bulgaria in the Plovdiv district. The large mound dates to at least the 3rd century BC and possibly earlier. It was probably constructed by Thracians, a warlike Indo-European people who lived in the modern-day Balkans. Maltepe is the largest Thracian burial mound or kurgan in the country and has been studied for several years by experts from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.

In 2016 a geophysical study, found a “3rd century AD Middle Eastern-style tower tomb” buried in underneath the mound, reports The Sun . This is a stone building that is at least 68 feet (21 meters) tall in its original form and weighs an estimated 250 tons. Once there was “a statue several meters high on top of the tower” according to The Sofia Globe .

The identity of the person buried in the massive tomb is a matter of great controversy. There are those who believe that it was built for a Thracian noble who was a client king of Rome in the 1st century AD.

“The tower tomb, is a form comparable to those found in ancient Middle Eastern sites” reports the The Sofia Globe . It is very similar in style to architecture at Petra and Palmyra. This has led some to believe that the tomb was built for the Roman Emperor Phillip the Arab in the 290s AD, who came from the Middle East.

Treasure Hunters’ Tunnel

After the amazing discovery of the tower in the burial mound , the archaeologists decided to move quickly. This is because they feared that the site would be robbed by the many looters active in the country, who it is estimated steal 1 billion dollars-worth of antiquities every year. The team of archaeologists have exposed 60 feet (18 meters) of the southern side of the tower and recovered many artifacts from the Thracian-Roman period in 2018.

Only one side of the tower is being excavated so some of the burial mound can stay intact. (Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology)

Only one side of the tower is being excavated so some of the burial mound can stay intact. ( Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology )

The lead archaeologist Kostadin Kisyov and his colleagues made an amazing discovery in the south-east of the structure, he discovered an entrance to a long tunnel. According to Archaeology in Bulgaria “they discovered the entrance and the entire length of a huge treasure hunting tunnel dug up to loot the ancient burial site”. The length of the passageway is 120 feet (37 meters) long and is 6 feet (2 meters) high. Kisyov and his team decided not to investigate the tunnel further because of safety fears.

The entrance to the looting tunnel. (Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology)

The entrance to the looting tunnel. ( Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology )

This year they returned to the site and Archaeology in Bulgaria quotes Kisyov as “we reached the level of the treasure hunting destruction resulting from the [131 feet] 40-meter-long tunnel”. They found that the plunderers had made the tunnel wide enough so that draft animals could be brought into the buried tower .

The Ottoman Empire looting tunnel is 40 meters long. (Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology)

The Ottoman Empire looting tunnel is 40 meters long. ( Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology )

The looters extracted tons of earth and stones in an effort to find buried treasure and during this “they shattered the entire south-eastern corner of the third section of the tower” reports Archaeology in Bulgaria . It appears that the treasure hunters dug into the subterranean tower and created a space or room, and from there they dug vertically and down. It is suspected that the treasure hunters may have found nothing or very little in the buried tower.

Ottoman Tomb-Raiders

The archaeologists began to suspect that the tunnel was not made by one of the many gangs of looters operating in Bulgaria and was actually centuries old. They found a large number of Ottoman coins and a bridle bit of a type commonly used by the Turks. The excrement of the draft animal who once worked in the shaft was also tested and definitely dated to the early 16th century and the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1521 – 1566).

Some of the coins that were found inside the ancient looting tunnel. (Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology)

Some of the coins that were found inside the ancient looting tunnel. ( Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology )

This seems to offer conclusive proof that the tunnel was made when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire . Furthermore, according to local folklore, an Ottoman princess had the mound dug up in order to find buried treasure.

The researchers also found this part of a metal horse bridal, indicating that horses were used in the looting tunnel. (Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology)

The researchers also found this part of a metal horse bridal, indicating that horses were used in the looting tunnel. ( Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology )

The Thracian-Roman site is not comparable to anything else dating from the Roman Empire. A tourist center was opened in 2016 that was funded by the Norwegian government. It is hoped that the location after the tomb-tower has been fully excavated and restored, will become even more popular with visitors. The discovery of the looter's tunnel can only add to the appeal of the Maltepe Burial Mound.

Top image: The tower where the looting tunnel was discovered. It is actually much bigger than this and more needs to be uncovered.        Source: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology

By Ed Whelan

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