MASTODONS OF DORKOVO

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Pliocene museum reveals Bulgaria's unknown prehistory

mastodon dorkovo.jpg

The mastodons roamed along the banks of a river, munching on the vegetation under the canopy of a tropical forest, oblivious to the screams of the monkeys and the presence of rhinos, but watching out for the lions and sabre-toothed tigers that were never far from the watering hole.
 

The river attracted all of these animals but, from time to time, a visit here could prove fatal. As the water swept away the remains of the dead bodies, they eventually started to collect at one of the bends of the river. There the bones accumulated, along with other debris, and over time they became fossilised.

This was how the Pliocene paleontological site at Dorkovo village, near Velingrad in the Rhodope, was formed.

Bulgaria's historical heritage is so rich that its paleontological sites are overlooked, and Dorkovo is one of the most significant of them. It belongs to the Pliocene era, the time between 5.3 million and 2.58 million years ago when the modern continents were almost formed: the Mediterranean Sea was being created from what remained of the ancient ocean Tethys, the land connections between North and South America and between Asia and Alaska were established, the overall climate was hotter and the sea level was 25m higher than it is today. The Pliocene was also the time when, in faraway Africa, the first apes and our distant ancestor, the Australopithecus, appeared.

Pliocene museum, Bulgaria

The museum in Dorkovo opened in 2013

The remains of the prehistoric animals near Dorkovo were first discovered by a local teacher in the 1930s, but it was not until the early 1980s that geologists revisited them, triggering the interest of palaeontologists. In 1985-1987, a Bulgarian-French expedition surveyed the site only to realise that they had stumbled upon one of the richest finds of early Pliocene fauna in Europe and the richest one of Anancus arvernensis mastodons on the continent, including calves still with their baby teeth. About 3m tall and weighting up to 5 tons, these giants looked like modern elephants, but had much longer tusks reaching up to 3m in length. While mastodons are relatives of the more famous woolly mammoths, they are a different genus and became extinct much earlier, at the beginning of the following geological epoch, the Pleistocene.

The idea for the creation of a museum on the site at Dorkovo appeared for the first time in 1987, but actual work started in 2008. Construction began in 2012, as part of a project to promote the village as a tourist destination. In 2013, the Pliocene museum was opened: a novelty for Bulgaria as it combined modern architecture and interactive displays.

The small museum is dominated by a model of a mastodon, an exhibit of real tusks (found not here, but around Yambol about 200 kilometres away) and of some fossils, a recreation of a paleontological excavation site and a 10-metre diorama recreating the habitat of these prehistoric animals. There is also a proper soundscape.

The ticket also covers the entry fee to the nearby mediaeval fortress Tsepina. Both sites are an easy trip by car from Velingrad.

For more of Bulgaria's paleontological past, including the sight of the strange Deinotherium, which was related to elephants, and had backward facing tusks in its lower jaw, visit the Paleontological Museum at Asenovgrad (Badelema neighbourhood, 212th St), and the Museum of Paleontology and Historical Geology at Sofia University (main building, north wing, floor 5).

Pliocene museum, Bulgaria

Reconstructed mastodon. Five million years ago, these giants were native to what is now the Rhodope mountain

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

BIZARRE BULGARIA
There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.