SILENCE OF THE CARYATIDS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Restored, Sveshtari Tomb awes with millennia-old art, history and enigmas

sboryanovo tomb entrance.jpg

No matter how diverse and interesting Thracian heritage is, time, destruction and rebuilding in war and peace, continual habitation and treasure-hunting have wiped out a lot of it – reducing it to a tomb here, a treasure there, and a shrine in what today appears to be the middle of nowhere. 

There is a place, however, where a significant part of the Thracian heritage and infrastructure has been preserved, making it easier to imagine what the actual life of this ancient people was like. Covering the bends and the surrounding hills of the Krapinets River, the Sboryanovo archaeological reserve offers a glimpse into a Thracian city and citadel, as well as several necropoli and shrines. The area has been actively researched since the early 1980s, and has so far proved fertile ground for archaeologists, revealing not only astonishing architecture and gold treasures, but also important information about the religion, economy and social life of the Thracians. 

From the second half of the 1st millennium BC until the times of the Romans, the region was the home of the Getae, a mighty and populous Thracian tribe which controlled the lands on both sides of the Danube. The Getae appeared in historical sources in the 6th century BC, when they were conquered by the Persians, and later fought, with various success, with ancient Macedonia and the heirs of Alexander the Great. Research at Sboryanovo shows that at least in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC this region was the centre of the political power for the Getae kings. Two of them, Cothelas and Dromichaetes, who played a significant role in international politics of the day, are believed to have been buried in Sboryanovo. 

The crudely made hands of the caryatids may indicate that the tomb's owner died suddenly and the artisan did not have time to finish his work properly

The crudely made hands of the caryatids may indicate that the tomb's owner died suddenly and the artisan did not have time to finish his work properly

The Sveshtarska Grobnitsa, or Sveshtari Tomb, is the reserve's prime showstopper. 

Discovered in 1982 in one of the biggest mounds of the eastern necropolis – Ginina Mogila – it is without a match throughout the Thracian world. Its three rooms have unusual barrel-vaulted ceilings. The burial chamber is decorated with a fresco of an imposing woman crowning a rider with a wreath. Sculptures of 10 caryatids line the walls of the room. 

Sculpted of limestone, the women have disproportionate bodies, intricately carved dresses and sturdy faces with wide-opened eyes, which captivate the visitor in the claustrophobically narrow chamber. 

Historians believe that the Sveshtari caryatids represent the all-mighty Great Goddess of the Thracians. She is also the tall woman in the fresco, depicted at the moment she brings immortality to the deified owner of the tomb. Relying on circumstantial evidence, some scientists go as far as to claim knowledge of who the deceased was: King Dromichaetes, who ruled over the Getae between the end of the 4th and the first decade of the 3rd century BC. 

The two beds in the chamber were supposedly for the man and the young woman whose bones were discovered during the excavations

The two beds in the chamber were supposedly for the man and the young woman whose bones were discovered during the excavations

In 1985 UNESCO listed the Sveshtari Tomb as a World Heritage Monument. 

The burial mounds in Sboryanovo hold more promises of interaction with the dead Thracians and their way of life. So far, more than 100 tumuli have been identified here, giving some explanation why until recently the locals used to call the area The Land of the Hundred Mounds. Most of the tumuli are divided into two main necropoli. According to a hypothesis, their positions were chosen deliberately, making them a giant map of some of the constellations in the sky. 

In one of these groups, interpreted as an earthly copy of the Orion constellation, rises the 19-metre-high Great Sveshtari Tumulus. Inside it is a monumental tomb with Doric columns and in 2013 a buried wooden box was discovered containing exquisite gold objects, including women's jewellery and harness decorations, weighing more than 1.5 kg. Some scientists believed, that the tomb belonged to Cothelas, the Gaetic king in the last decades of the 4th century BC who played an important role in the local politics and who got married, in 339 BC, his daughter, Meda, to the most powerful man in the world, King Philip II of Macedon. Other historians believe that the gold objects are somehow connected with King Dromichaetes. 

he scene that depicts the deification of the tomb's owner was also left unfinished

The scene that depicts the deification of the tomb's owner was also left unfinished

Sboryanovo was not only a place for the dead but also a place for the living. On a narrow and easily defensible plateau by the Krapinets River, a walled city thrived between the last quarter of the 4th and the middle of the 3rd centuries BC. Back in the day it was called either Dausdava or Helis (historians disagree on the exact name) and spread on over 25 acres. The city's inhabitants enjoyed Greek wine and olive oil to such an extent that they left us the most extensive collection of imported amphorae ever found in ancient Thrace. The city gained its importance by its position on an ancient salt trade road. 

The end of the Thracian city at Sboryanovo came with a bang. It was destroyed for good by a strong earthquake, about 250 BC. 

Today archaeological research of the remains continues, but the trenches and low stone walls are not particularly spectacular. 

Several shrines of the Getae have been identified in Sboryanovo. One of them, currently called Demir Baba Tekke, is a good example of how one set of beliefs has built on another, ensuring continuity of religions and superstitions. 

It all started with the Thracians who, between the end of the 4th and the early 

1st century BC, created a shrine with rock altars and strong walls by the cold waters of a spring, now called the Five-Fingers Spring. When Christianity replaced paganism in the 5th and 6th centuries, the site was abandoned. It was revived again in the 16th century, when the tekke, or shrine, of the Muslim sage Demir Baba, or Iron Father, was built over its remains. Pilgrimage to what had been a pagan site started anew, by Muslims. The tekke is still an active religious site, visited by people who believe that Demir Baba will cure their illnesses. The strange, heptagonal stone tomb of the sage is an arresting sight, positioned straight over the rock altars of the ancient Thracians. 

Sveshtari in New Light 

In the summer of 2022, visiting Sveshtari Tomb became even more exciting. The Sveshtari in New Light project, managed by the Credo Bonum gallery with funding from the US Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation, invested $184,000 in restoration, conservation and modernisation of the tomb and the surrounding infrastructure. The project focused on expert renovation of parts of the tomb, installation of professional lighting and development of new exhibition and information, including with VR. 

The caryatids' dresses imitate the signature curl of acanthus leaves

The caryatids' dresses imitate the signature curl of acanthus leaves

The project united the expertise and efforts of Bulgarian and international professionals. A British company, Sutton Vane Associates, was commissioned to design the new lighting. The company has worked on China's Terracotta Army, a temporary exhibition at The British Museum, and sites such as Titanic Belfast and The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. 

Since 2002, the United States has donated over $2,000,000 for preservation of historical and archaeological heritage in Bulgaria. 

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