It’s 1968, and on a steep hillside in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, kids at the university are dreaming of playing on their expanded soccer field …
while construction workers are firing up their heavy equipment and drills to make that dream a reality. None of them realizing that on this day, the project will come to a screeching halt.
Which is exactly what happens when a churning drill grinds into a buried piece of hand-carved marble – which just happened to be a part of a row of seats in one of the best preserved Roman theaters in Europe. The students didn’t celebrate, but I bet city archaeologists did the happy dance.
Plovdiv is the third oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe (after Athens and Argos), and archaeological evidence stretches its history back 6000 years. Sixty centuries is a long time for fractious neighbors to squabble over a strategic piece of real estate, and ownership changes are bound to occur. According to plovidivguide.com, in its history the city was known as Kendros, Eumolpia, Philippopolis, Pulpudeva, Pulden, Populdin, Ploudin, and Filibe. Then, in 47 AD the conquering Romans veni, vidi, vici, gazed on its three hills, and named it Trimontium.
The theatre was built around 150 AD, and had seating for 5000 raucous Romans watching gladiators going mano y mano with each other or a menagerie of wild animals. It’s in excellent condition and the acoustics are so good, that it’s still used today, albeit for (hopefully) bloodless plays and music concerts. Even if you aren’t sitting with the glitterati, the views of the city are fantastic, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
But Plovdiv’s archaeological windfall doesn’t end with an excellent theatre. Fast forward to the late 1970’s when some reconstruction work in the city center’s main square turned up an 800-foot long stadium with seating for 30,000 cheering spectators. The stadium was built in Trimontium’s heyday, and as one of only twelve in the world, it is a good indicator of the city’s importance. It also helped archaeologists estimate the city’s population, because by Roman law, all stadiums had to seat at least half the city’s population. If you haven’t noticed, those Romans were mad for their games.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your POV) the stadium stretches directly beneath the entire length of Plovdiv’s most popular shopping street. So in order to excavate the stadium, almost all of the buildings along the high street, many of which are over 100 years-old, would have to be razed. It’s unlikely there’s enough archaeological zeal for city government to pull this off, and for now, there’s a circular viewing platform surrounding the west end of the stadium..
Plovdiv has a rich history, and the Roman ruins were one of the primary reasons we chose to visit. But seeing them and learning the serendipitous story of their discovery, makes them even more fascinating. Some of you may remember that the Roman Museum in Cologne has a similar story of a fortunate archaeological accident, except the mosaic there was discovered while crews were digging a bomb shelter!
Without a doubt, the study of human history takes education, research and dogged determination. But Plovdiv’s Roman ruins prove that luck counts too.
James & Terri
Photo Credits: 1. N. Lazarov via Wikimedia Commons