Ordinary kitchen product of today spawned first urban centre in Europe
Today's doctors urge less salt, but such an advice would have sounded at least odd to the people of yore who had to do with preindustrial food. Ever since the dawn of civilisation salt was a rare and valued product. Its extraction was difficult, trading it often entailed travel of hundreds of miles, the control of salt extraction sites generated wars. Long before gold and silver became measures of wealth salt was used as a universal currency.
A prehistoric site in northeastern Bulgaria now reveals the role salt played in founding the first urban centre in Europe.
In the 7th-6th millennium BC southeastern Europe was the main route taken by the first neolithic settlers from the Middle East into the continent. As time went by the continually inhabited neolithic settlements in the Upper Thracian Valley and Dobrudzha turned into mounds, or tells, that still dot the landscape. While these early farmers did breed pigs and sheep their food was mainly vegetarian, and as such contained no salt.
Around the year 5600 BC some of these neolithic men and women discovered a way to ensure continuous salt supplies for themselves. Near the modern Bulgarian town of Provadiya they discovered salt water springs.
The low radiating walls are a unique feature for Europe's earliest urban centre
Situated at a depth of 12 to 4,000 metres underground the rock salt deposit near Provadiya is now the largest in Europe. Its neolithic discoverers lacked the technology to dig at such depths but devised a clever way to access the salt through the salt water springs: they filled up pots with it and gradually evaporated the water in special dome furnaces. A furnace like that could produce as much as 30 kilograms of salt in a day. The amount of salt generated in this way was sufficient for the needs of the neolithic people, so they started trading it. Thus the salt commerce expanded throughout the region, reaching all the way to the Aegean Sea. It turned into a source of wealth and prestige for those who controlled the Provadiya salt site.
Fast-forward a few centuries into the Chalcolithic. The peoples of the Balkans now mastered copper metalworking and the salt site near Provadiya had developed into an urban centre. It was the earliest such settlement discovered so far in all of Europe.
As salt extraction at Provadiya evolved and expanded, so did the standard of living of the community that produced it. Each of the new, improved salt extraction facilities yielded as much as 5,000 kg of salt per cycle. The well-to-do people lived in spacious two-storey houses decorated with geometrical murals. The Chalcolithic necropolis near Varna, known for its sumptuous artefacts including the oldest gold treasure in the world, also belonged to the salt extractors at Provadiya.
However, life at the salt water springs was far from being calm. The urban centre's wealth attracted the attention of some ambitious neighbours. Around the year 4700 BC its inhabitants felt threatened, and to ward off a possible incursion erected a fortification wall, which again turns out to be the earliest such facility to be discovered in Europe. Two earthquakes damaged it, so the locals erected another one a century later. It was roughly circular, spanned 234 metres and could protect an area of about an acre. The massive fortification stone wall was thick up to 4 metres and reached an impressive height of 5-6 metres.
In the summer of 2020, the archaeologists discovered this curious mask-like artefact. It has no known equivalent and was supposedly worn as an ornament or an amulet
Around 4500-4400 BC the fortification wall was damaged once more, probably as a result of another earthquake or perhaps an incursion. The salt site inhabitants were quick to replace it with a facility unparalleled anywhere in the world. They erected a massive fortification wall and covered the side of the enlarged tell with a "coat" of boulders. The structure thwarted erosion and was difficult to walk on, especially for any would-be attackers. Thin walls radiated from the fort onto the hill downward. As they were positioned at 1-2 metres from each other attackers would have to split into small groups, making life a lot easier for the defenders of the urban centre.
In spite of their efforts the time came for the inhabitants of the salt production site at Provadiya to depart for good. The reason? Climate change. As the conditions in the eastern Mediterranean changed, the salt water springs ran dry and the people exploiting them were left without a livelihood.
The first urban centre in Europe was forgotten in the course of the next four millennia. What remained of the fortifications and the salt production facilities was covered in soil. In the 2nd century BC a Thracian nobleman built a stone residence for himself on top of the tell. After he died, his house was covered with a 13-metre-tall funerary mound. Then the site receded into oblivion once more.
The salt production site at Provadiya made its reappearance in the 20th century when industrial salt production gained momentum. The remains of the prehistoric urban centre were discovered in the 1980s, but the archaeological survey started as late as 2005. Since then a team led by Professor Vassil Nikolov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has unearthed the impressive past of the first urban centre in Europe, its fortifications and irrigation system, its production facilities, necropoli and a pit sanctuary.
Every archaeological season at the Provadiya salt production site reveals new finds. You can follow the progress at www.provadia-solnitsata.com and on Facebook: Provadia.Solnitsata/. Some of the most interesting finds at the site are on display at the Provadiya Museum of History.