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Kazanlak Tomb: Ancient Thrace in Time Capsule
Kazanlak Tomb: Ancient Thrace in Time Capsule
Portion of the large frieze in the burial chamber: King Roigos and his wife (seated, on the left) and a groom trying to control an unruly team of chariot horses (Photo: Bobi Toshev/BTA)

April 19, 1944, Tyulbeto locality, 1.2 km northeast of downtown Kazanlak (Central Bulgaria). At the height of the Allied air campaign against Bulgaria during WW II, a group of soldiers are detailed to dig an air-raid shelter at the base of a mound topped by an air defence lookout post. Working their way into the apparently natural hillock (7 m high and 40 m across at its base), the men run into a stone masonry wall, break through it, and find themselves in a low and narrow antechamber that leads into a domed round room. The soldiers alert the local history museum director, who calls a professional archaeologist from Sofia to research the site.

Around 250 BC, 8 km east of the royal capital Seuthopolis. Three days after his death, Odrysian King Roigos, son of Seuthes and father of Kotys, is laid to rest together with his wife in a lavishly decorated tomb over which a mound is raised. The mourners indulge in a funerary feast and chariot racing.

While the 20th century account above is solidly documented, the event that preceded it by almost 2,200 years is reconstructed from a description of the "mode of burial among the Thracians" by ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Roigos's tomb, that the Bulgarian soldiers discovered by chance 80 years ago on Friday and that experts went on to explore and conserve, provides an invaluable time capsule of the lifestyle, religious beliefs and art of Hellenized Thrace. And, yes, it proved Herodotus right.

As required by the Thracian cult of the dead, the tomb consists of three sections: a rectangular passage to store the things needed in the after-life; a rectangular antechamber for the chariot, horses or slaves accompanying the dead person in the after-life; and a circular burial chamber for the body itself. The entrances to the three sections are aligned along a single north-south axis.

The relatively small structure (its surface area is just 155 sq m) was designed to achieve a progressing psychological and aesthetic impact of each successive section by gradually augmenting their size and the intricacy of the murals. A 2.60 m by 1.84 m narrow passage of rough stones with inward-sloping walls gave access to a simple, austere brickwork vaulted antechamber (1.12 m wide, 1.96 m long, 2.25 m high) before reaching a contrastingly spacious brickwork round burial chamber (diameter: 2.65 m at the base, 0.47 m at the truncated top) with a dome that is halfway beehive-shaped (tholos), halfway bell-shaped and is "plugged" by a mushroom-shaped keystone.

Unique Murals

The Kazanlak Tomb owes its international fame to unparalleled murals covering 40 sq m in the antechamber and the burial chamber - the only early Hellenistic art work that has been found exactly as it was conceived and executed.

In the antechamber, above a white plinth and a Pompeian-red base wall, friezes on the 2.34 m-high eastern and western walls show battle scenes that probably portray actual military exploits of the dead Thracian leader. According to another theory, these are games held in memory of the deceased. At the centre of each scene, two military commanders are accompanied by armed horsemen and foot soldiers. On the eastern wall, the two leaders confront each other. On the western wall, they are about to engage in a single combat to decide the stand-off between their armies. The motions of the men and the horses and the warriors' clothing and weapons are depicted with poignant simplicity and realism, in a free and natural way, and they look solemn rather than tense. The colours are warm, mainly different shades of ochre.

In the burial chamber, the murals on the 3.48 m-high walls mark the pinnacle of the Kazanlak Tomb art. The arrangement follows the same pattern as in the antechamber, with a white plinth, a Pompeian-red base wall, and a dome whose upper section contains the site's signature pictures. Above a band of alternating 12 four-leaved rosettes and 12 ox skulls (bucrania), the main freeze centres on two figures: a Thracian aristocrat, crowned with a gold wreath and seated on a low stool in a regal posture, and his wife, wearing a pale violet veil and a gold tiara and sitting on his left on a high wooden chair with silver ornaments. Holding a silver cup in his right hand, the man gently clasps his wife's right hand with his left. To the left of the couple, a tall slender woman in dark brown leads a ceremonial procession and offers the Thracian leader a plate of pomegranates (the fruit associated with the afterworld). Her portrait is strikingly realistic. A slave cup-bearer moves slowly behind her, offering his master a cup of wine. Next come two women trumpeters. Finally, two horses with elaborate saddles, ready to be mounted, are led by the groom. The nobleman's armed bodyguard stands behind the groom. Another procession approaches the couple on the right of the lady. It consists of two graceful curly haired maids - one bringing a small silver jewel box and the other a long light blue cloak. A separate group follows the maids: a young groom trying to control four unruly horses harnessed to a chariot.

Interpretations of this scene vary, from a funerary feast for the deceased who was heroized after his death, to a mythological wedding of the deified man and the daughter of Bendis, the Thracian Great Goddess (the tall woman in brown with the pomegranates), to a blend of these events in a wedding-death metaphor.

In the uppermost freeze in the dome, three chariots, drawn by two horses each, wildly chase each other in an endless circle around the keystone. They are sketched without details, apparently depicting a Thracian commemorative practice mentioned by Herodotus.

Flair and Panache

The friezes were executed with artistic flair and panache. The incredibly skilled artist sometimes needed just a deft brush stroke to render movements, postures and moods, the dash of the racing chariots, and the serene, sad and pensive mood of the young woman. Using shadows, tone and contrast, the painter achieved three-dimensionality of his composition and harmoniously integrated the individual scenes into it.

Thanks to the dome's convex-concave curvature, the figures in the large frieze appear much taller than their actual height of 59 cm, which highlights their prominence among the eight men, six women and 12 horses altogether in the two burial-chamber compositions.

The perfectly finished stucco surfaces were decorated by a wet fresco technique (mixing the paints with water), and the floor and walls were painted using a tempera medium (adding egg yolk to the dyes). In an encaustic method of paining, the mineral pigments (chalk, clay, ochre, gypsum) were mixed with heated wax, causing the murals to glitter as if polished (still preserved in some places). Colour-wise, red, black, white and yellow predominate, while brown, blue, pink and green are less common in the tomb decoration.

Artist and Occupant ID'd in AD 2008

Researchers have found evidence that the tomb's architecture and murals were designed together as an integral art work by a single person. Amazingly, a historian believes he has a name for him.

Studying the murals with the help of infrared and ultraviolet photography, Dr Konstantin Boshnakov of Sofia University spotted two faded inscriptions in the Charioteers Frieze, 3.20 m above the floor. One inscription, in up to 12 mm-high Greek letters, reads "Kodzimases painted". The same author's graffito signature was found in 2006 in another Thracian tomb, at Alexandrovo Village near Haskovo, which predates the one in Kazanlak by 30-40 years. There, the Thracian's name is combined with "Hrestos", which translates as "skilled" or "master", and a sketchy male face - probably a self-portrait.

Boshnakov asserts that an inscription below the same mural, reading "Roigos, son of Seuthes", names the person buried in the Kazanlak Tomb.

Further Finds

The tomb was plundered back in ancient times. Inside the burial chamber, archaeologists found bones of two individuals: a male and a female. Parts of a horse skeleton were discovered in the antechamber. It cannot be determined whether the man and the woman were buried simultaneously. (Herodotus tells that, when a Thracian died, the one of his several wives that he loved most tenderly was "slain over the grave by the hand of her next of kin, and then buried with her husband.") This is the only excavated Thracian tomb containing female remains together with the remains of a man and a sacrificial animal. Wood fragments and iron nails on the floor of the chamber suggest that the bodies were placed on a wooden funerary bed. Gold beads, 140 tiny half-shank gold buttons and twisted flat gold thread probably decorated their clothing, and three clay rosettes may have been part of the woman's diadem.

Other finds include a transport amphora and parts of iron weapons in the chamber, and earthenware and fragments of exquisite gold jewellery in the embankment, which also yielded a silver wine jug and two hearths with numerous animal bones and pottery fragments left from ritual sacrifices.


In September 1968, the Kazanlak Tomb was declared an “architectural and construction monument from Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (No. 43 on the List of such monuments in Stara Zagora District). It now enjoys the status of immovable cultural property of national importance.

The Bulgarian Tourist Union lists it as No. 91 among the 100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria, which include the country's most significant cultural, historical and natural landmarks.

On October 26, 1979, the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak became one of the first four Bulgarian properties to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (WHC 44), along with the Boyana Church, the Madara Rider, and the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo). The World Heritage Committee described the site as "a unique aesthetic and artistic work, a masterpiece of the Thracian creative spirit", and the Kazanlak frescoes as representing "a significant stage in the development of Hellenistic funerary art". "This monument is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. The exceptionally well preserved frescoes and the original condition of the structure reveal the remarkable evolution and high level of culture and pictorial art in Hellenistic Thrace," the Committee pointed out.

Make It Last Forever

The Kazanlak Tomb withstood the ravages of 22 centuries because it was ingeniously designed and constructed and was left undisturbed after the ancient grave robbers, but also because it was sealed in protective stone masonry and buried under layers of earth.

Action has been taken to keep it that way and enable future generations to enjoy the ancient masterpiece.

After the tomb was discovered, its almost intact murals were cleaned and strengthened, first in late November 1945, using techniques that safeguarded their authenticity, without retouching or additional filling.

The tumulus embankment was removed in the summer of 1946, and a permanent protective building, designed by Dragomir Dzhidrov, enveloped the tomb in late November 1946. A project to remodel and extend that structure, prepared by a team under architect Dafina Vassileva, was implemented in 1960. Permanent air conditioning was installed in 1963 to ensure a constant temperature and air humidity. That system was replaced in early 2013.

In order to safeguard the fragile paintings from the destructive effects of exhaled and ambient air and moisture, the number of sight-seers admitted to the tomb was restricted to an average of some 500 a year until February 2013, when it was closed to tourists altogether. Now visitors are welcome to tour an exact full-size replica, complete with an ante room, glass-cased exhibits and explanatory notes. It was built just 30 m west of the original in the Tyulbeto Park in 1973-1974 and opened to the public in October 1974. The replica was designed by Mladen Panchev, and the murals were recreated by Prof. Lyuben Prashkov, Zlatka Kozhuharova and Slavi Voykov.









By 01:50 on 22.06.2024 Today`s news

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