Soldiers stumbled upon a 2,400-year-old tomb on the battlefields of WWII

Digging trenches in 1944, Bulgarian troops accidentally uncovered the royal 'Tomb of Kazanlak,' the first of many discoveries in the fourth-century B.C. “Valley of the Thracian Kings.”

By Julius Purcell, Ángel Carlos Aguayo Pérez
Published 5 Jan 2023, 15:50 GMT
The painted chamber
The painted ceiling of the Kazanlak tomb's burial chamber features its most celebrated image: a couple at a banquet surrounded by servants, musicians, and a chariot.
Photograph by Age Fotostock

Fighting during World War II led to surprising discoveries near the Bulgarian city of Kazanlak. Bulgaria had sided with Nazi Germany, and toward the end of the war, the country was bombed by the Allies from the west, while the threat of Soviet invasion loomed in the east. To protect their lands, the Bulgarian Army built anti-aircraft defences near the central city of Kazanlak. These works set off a remarkable series of archaeological discoveries that would hugely expand knowledge about the ancient peoples who lived in the region thousands of years before World War II. Their kingdom was called Thrace.

Ancient Thrace extended over what today is Bulgaria, northwest Turkey, southern Romania, and southeast Serbia. Not unlike 1940s Bulgaria, Thrace sat at a geopolitical crossroads, surrounded by great rival powers: Persia, Athens, and later Macedonia—neighbours with whom Thracian kingdoms formed a series of shifting alliances.

A golden mask of Thracian King Teres I is housed at the Kazanlak History Museum in Bulgaria.
Photograph by Evgeni Ivanov, Alamy

Much of what is known about Thrace comes from Greek sources written by settlers living along the Black Sea coast that fringed Thrace, who admired and feared these wild-seeming people of the rugged interior. They were portrayed by Homer as allies of the Trojans in The Iliad and The Odyssey: warrior aristocrats who flaunted their gold and fine horses.

Thracian culture bears the marks of both eastern and western influences. Their elite drinking vessels, made of precious metals, were inspired by both Persian and Greek styles and motifs. Greeks considered the Thracians barbarians, yet Greek contacts led them to associate their gods with Apollo and Hermes. Greek writings on the Thracians often noted their warlike nature, and—with relief—their disunity: “They would be the most powerful people in the world if they had one ruler,” wrote Greek historian Herodotus, “but such union is impossible for them, and there are no means of ever bringing it about.”

Nevertheless, in 479 B.C., the Persian retreat after their defeat by the Greeks created a power vacuum in Thrace, and a chance for unity. The Thracian Teres I emerged as the founder king of what became known as the Odrysian kingdom under which 40 Thracian tribes united.

Although Odrysia was conquered by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, in 342-340 B.C., Odrysian co-rulers retained a degree of independence. There were tensions with Macedonia, but a flowering of Odrysian monument-building did emerge under King Seuthes III. His power base was centered where Kazanlak in Bulgaria now stands—and where, in 1944, Bulgarian soldiers found the first of many ancient Thracian tombs.

The vault of the tholos of the Kazanlak tomb is just over 10 feet in height. This photo shows a modern reconstruction, open to tourists.
Photograph by Age Fotostock

Enigmatic paintings

The first of the big Thracian discoveries at Kazanlak came in April 1944. Digging trenches, soldiers stumbled on a tomb containing richly coloured frescoes. Archaeologists would later learn that this place, the Tomb of Kazanlak, was not a stand-alone monument: It belonged to a royal necropolis that stretched across the landscape for miles around a lost Thracian city from the fourth century B.C.

Passageway of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, looking into the burial chamber. Above the colored inlay panels is a frieze in which scenes of cavalry and infantry face one another.
Photograph by Hervé Hughes, Gtres

Archaeologists led by Dimitar P. Dimitrov, the director of the Archaeological Museum in Sofia, were able to begin a scientific investigation of the site in 1948. The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak consists of an antechamber, a connecting passageway, and a round burial chamber, all richly decorated. Although looted in the past, the wall decorations are well preserved.

The walls of the entrance passageway are completely covered with colourful frescoes. Both the plinth, painted black, and the white listel, which marks the line from which the roof rises, give the illusion of stone slabs. Above these mouldings is a frieze with stylised plant motifs. There are two battle scenes on the frieze in which infantry and cavalry face one another, dressed in Thracian and Macedonian styles.

The burial chamber itself is a beehive-shaped tholos. Inside it archaeologists found fragments of a crown, an amphora, and, more important, the bones of two people, a man and a woman who were verified as having lived at the beginning of the third century B.C. Many believe the male remains are those of Prince Roygos, son of Seuthes III, and that the female bones belong to his wife.

The burial chamber contains the tomb’s most celebrated image on the ceiling: a couple seated at a banquet table. The frescoes are arranged in three concentric bands. The architrave is decorated with rosettes and a bucranium (the skull of the sacrificial oxen). The first circle shows the couple clasping each other’s wrists in front of a table laden with delicacies. Around them servants bring food and furnishings, and play wind instruments. Behind them, two grooms and a soldier tend to a chariot and two horses. In the centre, three chariots race.

Scholars continue to debate the interpretation of this scene. The couple could be the tomb’s occupants or they might also be the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, indicated by a tray of pomegranates, a food associated with the goddess.

The tomb had been looted and contained few objects, like this ceramic amphora. But its frescoes are well preserved.
Photograph by Christian Kober AWL Images

A chariot race is also shown, which likely refers to funereal games held when an aristocrat died. Together with the other frescoes, it is considered Bulgaria’s best-preserved art from the Hellenistic period. The tomb became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Archaeologists were aware of other Thracian monuments in the region. After World War II, time to excavate these lands near Kazanlak grew short. Bulgaria’s Communist regime planned to flood the surrounding countryside to build what is now the Koprinka Dam. Inspecting these structures before they were inundated became more urgent.

Shining into the hall leading to a central chamber, light illuminates a tomb found in 2004 under the mound of Golyamata Kosmatka, north of Kazanlak. It is the likely resting place of the Thracian king Seuthes III.
Photograph by Michael Runkel, Age Fotostock

Granted a few years to find and record what they could, archaeologists in the late 1940s identified the ancient Odrysian-Thracian capital of Seuthopolis, founded at the end of the fourth century B.C.

In the following decades it became clear that the region surrounding Kazanlak was one huge monumental landscape for ancient Thrace. Its ruling class built painted tombs for themselves, of which the Tomb of Kazanlak is a prominent example.

Starting in the 1990s, excavations led by Georgi Kitov studied over 300 mounds and 15 major tombs. Many of these had been looted in antiquity, but one—found in 2004 under the mound of Golyamata Kosmatka—is a fully preserved grave containing a gold crown, cups (kylikes), swords, greaves, and a shield. One cup was inscribed with the name, in Greek, of Seuthes, leading Kitov to believe this tomb belonged to the great ruler himself.

The scope and magnificence of the necropolis has prompted some historians to call it the “Valley of the Thracian Kings.” It is one of the largest Iron Age aristocratic necropolises in Europe, and well over a thousand of its structures still wait to be excavated, revealing more of Bulgaria’s rich, ancient culture.


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