Architecture / Art / Bulgaria / Travel

Plovdiv’s Archaeological Accidents: Luck Counts Too

Roman Theater_Plovdiv 2 - Version 3

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.

Stadium Seats

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.

Great view

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.

Center of town

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.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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Photo Credits: 1. N. Lazarov via Wikimedia Commons

67 thoughts on “Plovdiv’s Archaeological Accidents: Luck Counts Too

  1. What great archaeological finds! Similar to the discovery of a Viking village while excavating to build a shopping centre in York, England. I have visited this amazing site a few times and was sorry to hear it had been affected by the recent floods in that part of the UK. I love the mosaics found in Plovdiv!!

    • Darlene, I had forgotten this Viking Village, but I think that we visited those ruins many moons ago. The UK has lots of interesting sites scattered around the island as well as a number of Roman ruins and mosaics. I’m sure that construction crews in London always hold their breath while digging. 🙂 ~James

    • This is a good question Jeff, and as I said to someone else, I’ve never quite understood the mechanics of how these sites get buried – sometimes under 10s of feet of soil. I can understand if someone wants to build over an older structure and deliberately buries the old building, but in the case of a structure the size of this theatre, I can’t imagine how it happens. Maybe some knowledgeable archaeologist will chime in. ~James

  2. Such an interesting post about yet another place you make me want to visit. There is so much history beneath our feet and in places like Plovdiv that seems triply true! The list of names it has been known as attests to its antiquity.

    • Six thousand years is a long history, and lots can happen – especially in a place like Plovdiv, which is at a crossroads. I’ve always wondered exactly what the mechanism is for a city to become buried. It happens, but it doesn’t really make sense to me. ~James

    • Can you believe it Laura – three in a row? They know a good deal about the Roman town that was there, so I’m sure there must be more buried ruins. City government may be thinking that they can’t afford to find many more of these. ~James

      • If I lived in Plovdiv and worked in the construction industry, I would be incredibly nervous every time I was starting a new project. “So what are we going to stumble across THIS time?!?” 🙂

        Seriously, this was a very informative piece with great photos. Thanks for posting it here.

      • It’s funny you mention that Ben. I walked by a typical house there and the back yard was totally dug up. I peeped over the fence and two ancient-looking walls had been unearthed and the back yard was a total mess. This poor person was probably just putting in a sprinkler system and stumbled into something important. The motto: if you’re going to dig, do it at night! 🙂 ~James

      • Just to add some more info about discoveries. This http://podtepeto.com/ailiak/golyamata-bazilika-razkriva-tajnite-si/ (it’s in Bulgarian, but you can see the pictures) was also discovered by accident, when they tried to dig a road tunnel below the ancient forum. This basilica is from 4th century, with not one, but TWO layers with mosaics (one was covered and the other was put on top of it). Latest archaeologist research point to a THIRD layer, but still uncertain about it. The dimensions of the church are 87m/37 m, and half of it is stil buried beneath a catholic church. The city is planning to remove a whole street to dig it completely… P.S. sorry for my English, it’s not my native.

      • Thanks for your comment and for dropping by the blog. And thanks for the link to yet another amazing ruin. I’m a big fan of mosaics, and the ones you linked to are nice. I particularly liked the “chain link” pattern. I haven’t seen that pattern before. It’s incredible that there’s actually three levels. I can’t imagine covering up one of these, and certainly not two. Thanks again and all the best. BTW, your English is very good. Certainly much, much better than my Bulgarian. 🙂 ~James

    • Plovdiv is a historians dream come true Pam. I’ve always loved mosaics, and the Museum here has some really nice ones. It’s hard to imagine growing up in a place with so much interesting history. ~James

  3. Serendipity indeed, James and Terri. It is a beautiful place. I wonder how many archeological finds depend upon sheer luck and how many are based on academic research? Also, I have always found it fascinating the Roman requirement that stadiums be able to seat half the town. There had to be significant motivation for that. –Curt

    • I hadn’t heard the tidbit about the size of the stadium Curt. It was also interesting to me that the stadium nearly parallels the high street. I assume that, like the stadium, it was built on the best long, flat spot. FYI, while I was there I saw the very famous Thracian Gold Treasure. It was discovered (by accident) by two brothers digging in a clay pit! Twelve pounds of gold, and amazingly, they turned it in! Check it out:
      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panagyurishte_Treasure
      ~James

  4. Perhaps one of my favorite posts of yours! The history of the place itself and its discovery are both fascinating. (As a completely unrelated side note, I have noted today how perfect your blog layout is! It’s clean and crisp, but loaded with info and direction. Someday when I stop working I aspire to make mine look as good and function as well!)

    • Thanks Lexie. I love antiquities, and visiting a fascinating place like Plovdiv was a real joy. And thanks for the kind words about out blog layout, because what you describe is exactly what we hoped to achieve. But honestly, most of the credit goes to Terri for the actual blog format. It’s evolved over time and has taken planning, and a few theme changes to get it to where it is today. It’s nice to have a format that we’re happy with so we can devote our effort to actually blogging instead of tweaking the format. ~James

  5. Those Romans! They got *everywhere*! (I’m just putting together a piece about Ephesus – a long way from Plovdiv). I love seeing what’s left of the inside of their homes. There are some amazing mosaics in Cyprus.
    Alison

  6. Great post and I certanly have learned a lot from it. Plovdiv surely is a fascinating place and one that was never on my list of places to visit, this post has certainly changed that. Thank you😀

    • Gilda, it’s an exceptional place, it really is. There’s so much to see and it’s small enough to have a pleasant, low-key atmosphere. It was one of the highlights of our Balkans trip. If you get to this part of the world, don’t miss it. ~James

  7. in reading through the comments I was intrigued by Jeff’s question as to how could a whole stadium get covered up. So I posed to Dave, my go to guy for those kinds of questions, what the answer might be. He suggested that for that kind of relatively rapid movement of earth likely some events such as earthquakes, landslides, etc may have happened. If the area is in a valley or depression accumulation could be faster. Anyway just thought I would share the conversation going on in our living room. 🙂

    I smiled at your statement of how the Romans loved their games. I agree hoping that any concerts and such that the stadium is used for now are bloodless ones. 🙂

    • Sue, this is a good example of a post taking an unexpected turn. It’s always interesting when this happens. As to why archaeological sites get buried, Dave was partially right. And for the answer, I went to my go to guy, Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope. I love this website and have been reading it for years. According to Cecil:
      http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/813/how-come-archaeological-ruins-are-always-underground

      BTW, I encourage you to pick any topic in the sidebar and read a few. If you’ve never read the Straight Dope, you’ll love it. ~James

      • Well that is a fascinating read! I cracked up at the shoddy workmanship dating longer back than aluminum siding. I took your advice and picked an article from the side bar. Can blood be used as an egg substitute? Don’t think I’ll try that with the cookies any time soon.

  8. Wow, what a great post. The historical information is fascinating (I like how they kept changing the name of the city) and their discoveries are just incredible. It’s wonderful to be in places where history is part of the present.

  9. Odd that somewhere so important should get forgotten, and its ruins built over. Those Romand certainly built for posterity and for burial and excavation, when so much still remains of their constructions.

    • Dorothy, in addition to soldiering, the Romans were best at building. Well, I guess more appropriately, their slaves were good at building, and they were good at cracking the whip. ~James

    • Marie, a walking enthusiast like you probably knows better than most about all those Roman and Medieval ruins that are scattered around the UK – many of which were discovered by accident. ~James

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Anita, and isn’t the Straight Dope an absolute hoot. As I said, I’ve read it for years, and continue to be surprised by some of the questions that are sent in, and Cecil Adams’ answers. He’s a man after my own heart. It’s one of my regular reads – science put to a good use. ~James

    • Thanks Risa. We really enjoyed our time in Bulgaria, and particularly Plovdiv. Everyplace we visited was enjoyable, and we have it on our list for a return trip. Its complex history makes it a wonderful destination, that we would recommend to any traveler. I can see why you enjoy it so much. ~James

    • I’ve seen lots of Roman ruins Rusha, but the setting for this one is unique and totally cool. It sits on a steep hillside overlooking the city and right next to a residential (historic) neighborhood and a school. Unlike other ruins I’ve seen that are on their own, this theatre is an active part of the city. Very neat. ~James

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