Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Rare Ivory icon found in Rusokastro Fortress, Burgas District, Bulgaria

Revealing Discoveries of Rare Ivory and Unique Gold Coin from Byzantine Bulgarian Fortress


An extremely rare find of an ivory icon has been made just a few days after a unique Byzantine gold coin dating back to Emperor Phocas' reign (602-610 AD) was uncovered during excavation works at Rusokastro Fortress, which is located on a hill near Zhelyazovo village, in Burgas district in southeastern Bulgaria.

Emperor’s Ivory?

Milen Nikolov, head of the Regional History Museum in Bourgas, said of the ivory find was, “much more valuable than gold in the Middle Ages”, as reported by Sofiaglobe. The extreme value of the piece and where it was found leads the archaeologists to conclude that the icon was a possession of one of the emperors who had occupied the fortress over the centuries.

“Historically, it is definitely the place where Tsar Ivan Alexander, Emperor Andronik III Paleologus, and probably King Todor Svetoslav Terter resided’, Nikolov informed Sofiaglobe.

Only one other such ivory icon has been discovered in Bulgaria by archaeologists and that was over a century ago making this an extremely rare find. The valuable ivory piece is yet to be dated but probably dates from after the building of the palace in the 14 th century.

Byzantine gold coin from the time of the reign of Emperor Phocus (Credit: BNT)

Byzantine gold coin from the time of the reign of Emperor Phocus (Credit: BNT)

Newly Found Gold Coin

Only a few days earlier a coin providing solid proof, according to the archaeologists, that the Rusokastro fortress was active during the 6th century as Novinite reported. What makes the find even more important and unique is the fact that this is the first and only coin ever discovered in the region since the time of Emperor Phocas's reign. Milen Nikolov, Director of the History Museum in Bourgas and director of the excavations told Novinite, “The gold Early Byzantine coins are two types - tremissis and solid, and the latest find was a solid coin. It weighs four and a half grams and is the biggest denomination in the Byzantine coinage."

Map of the hilltop fortress of Rusokastro

Map of the hilltop fortress of Rusokastro (Wikimapia)

The Reign of Emperor Phocas

Phocas was a Greek-speaking Byzantine Emperor who ruled the vast Byzantine Empire from 602 to 610 AD. He usurped the throne from the Emperor Maurice in 602 and even though his reign would eventually end in failure only eight years later, the significance of the innovations he made to imperial imagery is highlighted by the fact that his own successor (Heraclius) very quickly adopted the same strategies that Phocas had to legitimize his own seizing of power. Like Phocas, Heraclius would require one who had dynastic ties to his predecessor - Phocas's son-in-law, Priscus - to renounce his own claim to the throne. Furthermore, Phocas would portray his accession as a form of divine appointment.  Interestingly, the reign of Phocas is also marked by the change of Imperial fashion set by Constantine the Great. Constantine and all his successors, except Julian the Apostate, were beardless and Phocas was the one who introduced the wearing of the beard again.

Bronze Steelyard weight, probably representing the Emperor Phocas

Bronze Steelyard weight, probably representing the Emperor Phocas (Public Domain)

More Byzantine Coins have been Recently Found

The newly found gold coin might be the first and only ever discovered from the Phocas era in Bulgaria, but it’s not the only Byzantine coin that has been discovered recently. As we reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, Israeli archaeologists discovered in March a hoard of rare Byzantine bronze coins during excavations for the widening of the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway. The bronze coins were seen by the archeologists as a clear evidence of the Persian invasion of Jerusalem at the end of the Byzantine period. As the Persian army (supported by many Jewish rebels) marched on Jerusalem in 614 AD, Christians living in the town rushed to hide their possessions, including a hoard of the valuable coins, hoping that things would soon go back to normal. The cache consisted of nine bronze coins dating from the Byzantine Period around 324-638 AD. The coins depicted the faces of notable Byzantine Emperors such as Justinian I, Maurice, and Phocas, and were minted in Constantinople, Antioch, and Nicomedia.

Monument of the Battle of Rusokastro in 1331-2, between the villages of Rusokastro and Zhelyazovo, Bulgaria

Monument of the Battle of Rusokastro in 1331-2, between the villages of Rusokastro and Zhelyazovo, Bulgaria (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fortress of Rusokastro Could be a Touristic Magnet

Local Bulgarian archaeologists now suggest that the medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian fortress of Rusokastro in Southeast Bulgaria could become a major touristic attraction, gathering thousands of visitors each year with the proper promotion.

The Rusokastro Fortress is best known for the Battle of Rusokastro in 1332, the last big military victory of the medieval Bulgarian Empire before it was conquered by the invading of the Ottomans at the end of the 14th century. As Archaeology in Bulgaria reported, the country’s Tourism Minister Angelkova has recently visited the archaeological site near the modern-day town of Rusokastro, Kameno Municipality, Burgas District, which is presently being excavated by the team of the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The extensive studies of the Rusokastro Fortress aim at its restoration and turn it into a site of cultural and historical tourism.

Top image: Rare Ivory icon found in Rusokastro Fortress, Burgas District, Bulgaria (Credit: BTV)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

Next article