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Funeral Rites, Rituals and Ceremonies from Prehistory to Antiquity 69-82

New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices

in South Bulgaria
Krassimir Leshtakov

Abstract: The subject of this communication is the grave-inventory from a LBA bar-
row excavated illegally by amateurs–treasure hunters in the Rhodopes several years
ago. The ritual is cremation but no human bones were preserved. The grave goods
consist of prestigious and valuable items: a bronze double-axe and a bronze knife,
golden adornments and several ceramic vessels. The most striking item is a small
mechanical toy – a bird’s head with long neck shaking on a tripod. This artefact has
been cast by bronze and the eyes are prepared from semi-precious red chalcedony,
most probably – from carnelian. This is a unique piece which could be dated in the
14-12 c. BC, according to the shapes and the patterns of the pottery found togeth-
er. All the artefacts bear well visible traces of firing, which support the presumption
that they had been placed on the pyre together with the body. The dead person (-s)
should have been of a high position in the Thracian society and had well demon-
strated affinity to the East Mediterranean luxury.
Key-words: Late Bronze Age, tumulus, Rhodope Mountains, golden and bronze

I. Find-spot and information about the discovery.

The peak Lilovo is situated in South Bulgaria, near the town of Devin at an altitude 1431 m
(Fig. 1-2). Its flat plateau has been used for necropolis from the LBA until Roman times. A
forest road provides access almost to the very divide1. The native people as well as the treas-
ure-hunters do know very well this site provoked by the Roman tumuli. Antiquities there
have been systematically demolished by bulldozers hunting for treasures. Several years ago
three amateurs – treasure–hunters, excavated illegally this place. Surprisingly, below the ro-
man debris they found out by bulldozers a LBA grave or graves with rich inventory, which

* Krassimir Leshtakov, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Department of Archaeology, 15 Tzar Osvoboditel
Blvd. 1534 Sofia, Bulgaria
1 The synchronous settlements have not been located in the surroundings as no field surveys have been taken yet.
70 Krassimir Leshtakov

are the subject of this communication2. When all pieces were outearthed, the treasure-
hunters were surprised by the big value of the artefacts. In fact, this is the richest LBA com-
plex excavated until now in South Bulgaria. After some complications, in the course of one
year the items became property of the museums of Plovdiv and Zlatograd3 and of several
private collections as well. Accordingly, the mortuary gifts were divided into several parts.
Moreover, it is not known at all, how many pieces have been demolished by the digging or
scattered after that, thus it is not possible to postulate that we have information about the
whole range of grave-goods. The goal of the author is not to make a profound analysis of
the artefacts and their parallels – the space available here is not suitable to present the com-
plete investigation. Hence, the article has a character of preliminary study addressed to the
international audience for next debates. To trace the parallels of the findings and to com-
ment them in details is a challenge for any archaeologist but it should be done elsewhere.

II. Grave construction and mortuary rituals in the West Rhodopes.

In the concrete case, there is no information about any LBA grave installation under the
barrow-layers – platforms, stone circles, cists, etc. This important information is lost due
to the absence of interest on the part of the ‘investigators’ about any field details. Anyway,
it is reasonable to suppose that in accordance with other LBA tumuli from the region this
one should also have been a subject of special procedures. According to the available in-
formation, all the items were found in a simple pit (-s) or a cavern (-s) into the bedrock.

The low barrows are typical for the LBA in the West Rhodopes Mountains. According to
some scholars (Kisyov 1989:49), the eastern limit of their penetration should be seen in the
region of the small town Zlatograd and the northern to Pilashevo (Bukovo), i.e. some 30-40
km eastwards from the modern regional centre Smolyan (Fig. 2). There is information
about more than 15 necropolises and more than several dozens LBA barrows have been
excavated. In general, the barrows are heaped at elongated peak-ridges, high plateaus and
the upper part of the steep slopes facing south. They are grouped into 2-5 in number and
usually around and over them some EIA or Roman graves were constructed in addition.
They also are covered by stones, pebbles and earth. By so doing, the low LBA tumuli – up
to 1.50 m high – become bigger but the later layers as structure and consistence are the
same. The cremation ritual prevails in mortuary practice, with only few exceptions. The
grave construction is simple – a platform above the terrain, small pit or pottery-urn for
the ashes of the body and the rest of cremated grave-goods. As a particular feature can be
regarded the fact that most of the grave constructions as type and usage can be recognized
as late as Roman times. The authors point out pottery sherds scattered around the grave

2 When the report for the workshop in Chanakkale was ready and the article was written, I was told that one free-
lance archaeologist and eminent politician took an official permission to make excavations at the same site, i.e. to
finish the treasure-hunters affairs. As Bulgarian mass-media inform, a sword type C and other prestigious items
had been found. It is not clear whether the excavated tumulus is the same one, which was damaged by the former
‘night-shift’ but nevertheless, the new finds proved the idea that this is one of the richest LBA necropolises in the
3 As a rule in Bulgaria, all the criminal antiquities are transported abroad, placed in black-markets and, after short
time, enter the big European or American auctions. However, perhaps because of the stronger border control
recently, the treasure-hunters decided to find market at home.
New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 71

construction or in the tumuli-layers – mostly decorated part of walls, rims and handles. It
is worth to notice that only several LBA metal items have been found until now – a bronze
dagger4, a bronze knife, beams and several awls. There is not gold jewellery at all, only ‘con-
servative’ as style pottery vessels with parallels encompassing East Macedonia and Thassos
(Kisyov 1989:41-48). No settlement has been excavated5 and the investigations of the traces
of old mining activities are very scanty yet. On the other side, the excavations at highland-
sites identified as rock- and peak sanctuaries, are usually of limited scale, and no one tries
to correlate their insufficient materials whit those coming from the graves.

In general, the investigators of the West Rhodopes LBA culture created a scenario of a peo-
ple living in a coherent but simple society with very strong traditions preferring the isola-
tion as opposed to their southern neighbours. The ‘highlanders’ should have steady tradi-
tions in supplying strategies and trade obviously, has never been the preferable economic
activity for them. Vice versa, the items under discussion could be interpreted in opposite
direction as we can see at the end of the report.

III. Grave-goods.
All the artefacts bear traces of secondary firing, well visible by the autopsy. The damages
were caused most probably by the funeral fire. As it was already pointed out, it is not as-
certained that all pieces are known to the museum keepers at present – for instance the
double axe is a part of a private collection in Sofia. Nevertheless, according to the avail-
able information it is possible to divide the grave goods into following groups:

III.1. Pottery vessels.

III.1.1. Kantharos No.1 (Fig. 3).
The fabric is semi-coarse, there is no decoration except the simple incised line, which un-
derlines the transition between the shoulders and the neck of the vessel. Initially the base
ends with a high pedestal, melt down by the pyre (Fig. 3). This is a popular type of vessel
known in vast territory of the Balkans and dated to the LBA in general.

III.1.2. Kantharos No.2 (Fig. 4).

This vessel is similar in shape and dimensions, but the entire body is densely covered by
fine incised lines forming different motives (Fig 4). The base is also damaged by the fire;
and as it could be seen from the traces there should also have been a pedestal below it.
The ornamentation has got local features typical for the western part of the Rhodopes.
Patterns in similar technique are rare for the Eastern Rhodope region and occur as im-
ports in Upper Thrace.

4 The dagger from Trigrad is kept in Smolyan Museum, Inv, No. 1409.
5 There is a primary information of small dispersed settlements – some kind of small villages similar to the unit
‘mahala’ from the time of Bulgarian Revival, which are situated on high plateaus or on the south slopes of the
peaks above 1200-1500 m altitude. In 2005 we had the chance to excavate a house belonging to this kind of vil-
lages which publication is forthcoming.
72 Krassimir Leshtakov

III.1.3. Big jug (Fig. 5).

The jug has got elegant proportions and unusually big size, uncommon for this kind of
pottery. The base ends also with high hollow pedestal (Fig. 5). Exact parallels in shape
and dimensions can hardly be specified but the rich decoration has close parallels in the
Rhodopes. If the fabric is taken in account, then the import nature of the jug should be
excluded. Obviously, the three pedestal vessels were made by one and the same person
and their local origin is out of doubt. The jug was prepared especially for the mortuary
ritual because its base was intentionally perforated before baking the vessel (Fig. 5-5), i.e.
it is useless in every-day life.

It is possible to suggest the function of the jug. Firstly, this is the biggest vessel in the grave
and there is no information about the existence of a special mortuary container. Secondly
– there is an initially perforated hole in the base before backing. It is broadly accepted
that this peculiar feature is connected with mortuary ritual; some authors even interpret
the holes as providing the way out for the soul of the deceased whose body (cremated or
not) is in the container. In other cases there is a variant of ritual ‘killing’ of the artefact –
an act allowing entrance to the other world which is popular in many regions and many
cultures. Accordingly, it is highly probable that the jug was used in the mortuary ritual as
an urn for the ashes from the pyre.

III.2. Bronze items.

III.2.1. Bronze knife (Fig. 6).
The knife had been long time in use judging from the shabby blade. There are two grooves
along the blade-ridge and rich decoration engraved between them and the handle, still
preserved at present. The best parallel is one knife from the tumular necropolis near the
village of Gela6, barrow No. 2 (Kisyov 1993:2, Fig. 2d). The shape, the cross-section of the
blade and the rivet-sticking of the handle are identical. Furthermore, the decoration is
analogical as technique and very similar as patterns. The correspondence is so close that it
can be stated the common producer of the arms!

III.2.2. Bronze double-axe (Fig. 7).

The labrys is already published, but only with a bad-quality picture, without any commen-
tary (Detev, Detev 2003:71). The autopsy has shown that it is in excellent condition, cov-
ered by thick green patina (Fig. 7-1). This is an axe typical for Bulgarian lands, labelled
in the literature as ‘Beguntsi-type’ (Panayotov 1980, 186-190, Fig. 6. 1). It is worth to note
that the casting is very fine and there are no traces of usage on the blades. Accordingly,
it is reasonable to suppose that this was some kind of insignia or a special piece prepared
for the mortuary ritual as a gift. It is interesting to note the irregular shape of the hole for
handle (Fig. 7.1-2).

6 Excavations at the Gela necropolis were undertaken by V. Naydenova in 1972. The finds are in the Smolyan mu-
seum, and the knife has Inv. No. A-313. The piece is 25 cm long. The decoration consists of triangles in incised
technique and strokes, well comparable with the example from Lilovo.
New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 73

III.2.3. Bronze bird on a tripod (Fig. 8).

The most attractive item from the collection – the bird, was cast by bronze so precisely that
after the moulding only several traces of additional work are visible. The bird has traces of
firing on the beak and the very end is missing. The tripod-legs are in bad condition – one
is broken at the base, the second is half-preserved and only the third is complete. The bird
and the tripod are covered by thick green patina, damaged at some places (Fig. 8.1-2).
The eyes were made of red chalcedonic stone, most probably carnelian. Only one of them
is still preserved (fig. 8-3).

The high hollow neck is now broken at its lower part. As a section this is not a regular
cylinder but oval so only two opposite points of the neck-base can touch the cylindrical
‘basket’ of the tripod. The tripod itself consists of three high and very slim legs on which
stands a hollow cylinder. There is a short slim stick in the internal side of the cylinder
which base is open (Fig. 8-4). The bird’s neck can be put into the wider upper part of
the tripod and the stick doesn’t allow reaching the base of the cylinder. Composed in this
manner, the item has one solid part – the tripod, and another one, which is movable – the
bird’s head (Fig. 8-5). The head can be shaken to and fro several times with only one gen-
tle pushing of the finger, even now! The effect is that of a bird drinking water or picking
grains. The small drinking-water birds were very popular toys at the fun-fairs in the middle
of the last century and probably in this case the idea was the same but several millennia
older. If the reconstruction is correct, we have in hands the first mechanical toy invented
already in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. As far as I know, no parallels either
in the Balkans or in the Aegean world exist, so the toy can be interpreted as a unique one
and as a great achievement of the human mind for the time being.

The eyes, made of red semi-precious stone, deserve special interest. The miniature size
and the fine elaborated shape all speak of high-quality stone-working. The form is not a
simple lens incrusted but a long cone ending deeply in the head, and on the opposite,
visible part – with a flatted hemi-sphere. The two sharp points of the cones almost stick
each other inside the head. Carnelian has been very popular and of special importance in
the Mediterranean region and the Middle East during the Bronze Age, so it is not surpris-
ing the great care taken in preparation of the eyes. There are no sources of this stone in
some regions and there it has been supplied by trade. The raw material and some jewel-
lery made of carnelian have been a subject of long-range trade sometimes at enormous
distances (Aruz 2006:48). In the concrete case it is doubtful to think of a true import from
some foreign atelier, having in mind the existence of rich local sources in the Rhodopes
and the well-establishing tradition in working semi-precious stones from the Neolithic pe-
riod onward. However, before undertaking a special analysis, the origin of the carnelian
remains disputable but it should be underlined that this forms the kernel of the question
about the provenance of the bird-installation in general.

III.3. Golden items (Fig. 9).

It is not clear how many golden artefacts had been placed initially in the grave. Fourteen
pieces are kept in the Plovdiv museum – two big lamellae with curved ends, some damaged
74 Krassimir Leshtakov

parts of other jewellery and seven ‘earrings’, lock-rings (‘Haarlockenringen’) or parts of a

composite adornment. All of them are made from 23.65 carats gold. The plates were cut
down from a sheet thick only 0.35 mm. The overall weight of the pieces in the Plovdiv
museum is 19.9 gr. All of them have traces of contact with high temperature due to their
being on the pyre. The original arrangement of the jewellery on the body and the cloths
is unknown and this makes difficult their functional identification. There is a version al-
ready published in the popular literature reconstructing the arrangement of the items
around a mortuary mask like these known from the Grave-circle A in Mycenae. Some
authors claim the two big plaques should indicate ears on a mask and the earrings are sus-
pended on them (Detev, Detev 2003:72-73). The idea for an imitation of the Mycenaean
golden masks from the shaft-grave period in the Rhodopes is very attractive and tempting
but improbable, unfortunately. The time-span between the two types of graves is ca. 500
years and no real cultural correlation between them can be traced by any facts. Moreover,
the great geographic distance does not allow thinking about trade, military or any political
activities from the side of Mycenaean aristocracy reaching the north part of the Rhodopes.
In this line of investigation it should be stressed that the so-called ears have a very nice
parallel in a stray-find from the Central Balkan Mountains (Vassileva 2004). In that case
the ‘ear’ is only one, but in material (almost pure gold), size and shape it resembles so
close the items from the Rhodopes, that I was wondering whether they are not representa-
tives of one tripartite adornment! However, six pieces produced in the same style were dis-
covered in Mycenae, Grave-circle A, Grave III (Schliemann 1878: 225-227, Nos. 295-296).
It should be mentioned here one sufficient difference between two compared groups of
jewelleries which does not allow the direct comparison: those from Mycenae were worked
out by solid wire fabricated by hammering while the items from Bulgaria were cut down
from thin golden sheet. Beyond any doubt, the Mycenaean ones are heavy enough to be
earrings and had been used as pendants on female coiffure according to Schliemann’s
opinion (for ‘Haarlocken’, cf. e.g., 1878, 243). Obviously, this view, quite acceptable for
the items from the Shaft-grave period, is not automatically valid for the similar golden
pieces from Bulgaria and can hardly support some better interpretations for them.

The small semi-smelt plaque with circle (-s?) in the decoration might be a part of an eye
if the reconstruction of the mortuary mask is correct, as believes J. Detev (Detev, Detev
2003). More reasonable is to think about a chest-plaque or a diadem – well presented
prestigious adornments from the LBA onwards. There are similar examples in the Shaft-
grave IV, Grave-circle A at Mycenae (Karo 1930: Taf. XXXVI, Nos. 232-235) and if it is
so, the reconstruction would be in accordance with the adornments with encircled ends
found in analogical context.

IV. Date of the grave-goods.

The ceramics provide the most profound base for dating in view of the fact that the metal
items usually have got a long-life and normally have been kept through several genera-
tions. Close parallels in main pottery shapes, the high pedestals beneath the pottery-bases
and especially in the decoration can be found in the Rhodope Mountains as well as in
East Macedonia and Thassos (Kisyov 1989: 49 with ref.; Leshtakov 1990 with ref.; Kisyov
New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 75

1993;) and in less scale in Upper Thrace (Leshtakov 2002: 193-194, Fig. 31-32). The mo-
tifs triangle, circle (-sun), zig-zag lines, hatched bands, ‘furchenstich’ and ‘kerbschnitt’ tech-
niques as are well-know from many examples in South Bulgaria and are emblematic for
the developed stage of the LBA. The big jug (the urn) should be highlighted due to its
unusual dimensions but patterns are definitely local as well as the technique of decora-
tion. Accordingly, the vessels can date the complex as a whole in the second part of the
LBA – 14-12 c. BC with preferences to the end of the period.

V. Conclusion
The analysis of the complex under consideration shows that the artefacts probably belong
to several graves. If we consider the jewellery, the bird, the double-axe, bronze knife and
pottery vessels as a whole, it becomes acceptable to think about two graves at least – of a
man and of a woman. Double-axe, knife, one of the diadems or chest-plate (?) are presum-
ably male attributes. The other things could be regarded as female personal items. The
vessels are typical for both cases and obviously are grave goods prepared for the mortuary
ritual but the big jug could be attributed to the male grave, with a grate caution of this

Hence, if the supposition is correct, the treasure-hunters have destroyed two graves in
one tumulus. We know similar practice – for instance tumulus No. 1, near Borino village,
where several graves are in one barrow and the grave rituals were made in short intervals
(Kisyov 1989:43).

In conclusion it should be stressed the well attested affinity to the luxury from the side of
the people buried in the Lilovo necropolis. Some of the grave goods definitely indicate
their high status in the local society and the big variety of their foreign interrelations.
The attested wealth probably is due to mining of silver and gold in the Rhodopes – there
are indications for similar activities in the regions southern of Devin. Nevertheless that
the special investigations are scarce yet, there is no reason to believe that these activities
started as late as in the Roman period without any tradition before.

I was acquainted with the collection considered here three years ago. The artefacts, kept
in the Zlatograd museum, were available due to the kind permission of Mr. Alexander
Mitushev, a sponsor of this institution. I warmly thank him for the opportunity to study
the artefacts and to collect additional information about the findings. For the other items
published here, I am extremely grateful to the artist Jordan Detev, who is responsible
for collecting them from the treasure-hunters and for their entering the Archaeological
Museum of Plovdiv. He also made the double-axe available for drawing and photograph-
ing. The original drawings of the two-handled vessels are prepared by V. Petrova from
Sofia University in 20047.

7 All illustrations excepting No. 9 are prepared for publication by the author.
76 Krassimir Leshtakov

Aruz, J. 2006: Central Anatolia and the Aegean (ca. 2650-1700 B.C.): Beads, Seals and Ivories-Enhancing
the case for Interaction. In Avunç, B. (ed.). Studies in Honour of Hayat Erkanal: Cultural reflections
(Istanbul), 48-56.
Detev, J., D. Detev. 2003: The Thrace Atlantis. Book Two: The People. Sofia
Karo, G. 1930: Die Schachtgräber von Mykenai. Münich.
Kisyov, K. 1989: New evidence on the mortuary rituals from the LBA in the Middle Rhodopes. Annual of the
Museums in South Bulgaria XVI, 41-51 (in Bulg.).
Kisyov, K. 1993: Pottery from the LBA in the grave context in the Central Rhodopes. Archeologia (Sofia)
XXXV(2), 1-13 (in Bulg.).
Leshtakov, K. 1990: Decoration of the LBA ceramics from Alada peak in the East Rhodopes. Archeologia (Sofia)
XXXII(1), 1-17 (in Bulg.).
Leshtakov, K. 2002: The Bronze Age in Upper Thrace. Annuaire de l’Universite de Sofia “St. Kliment Ohridski”,
Faculte d’Histoire – Studia Archaeologica(3), Sofia (2006), 141-216 (in Bulg.).
Panayotov, I. 1980: Bronze Rapiers, Swords and Double Axes from Bulgaria. Thracia (V), 173-198.
Schliemann, H. 1887: Mykenae. Berich über meine Forschungen und Entdekungen in Mikznae und Tiryns.
Vassileva, M. 2004: Late Bronze Age Gold Find in the Central Balkan Mountains. Archaeologia Bulgarica VIII(3),
New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 77

Fig. 1 Map of the Balkans showing the position of the necropolis near Devin.
78 Krassimir Leshtakov

Fig. 2 Map of the Rhodopes and the location of the necropolis Lilovo.

Fig. 3 Kantharos No. 1. Drawing. Fig. 4 Kantharos No. 2. Drawing.

New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 79

Fig. 5-1 The jug. Drawing. Fig. 5-2 Decoration on the neck of the jug,

Fig. 5-4 Decoration on the shoulders of the jug, photos.

Fig. 5-3 Decoration on the handle of

the jug, photos.

Fig. 5-5 Perforated base of the jug.

80 Krassimir Leshtakov

Fig. 6-1 The knife, photos.

Fig. 6-2 Decoration of the knife, left side.

Fig. 6-3 Decoration of the knife, right side.

Fig. 6-4 Drawing of the knife from Lilovo.

New Evidence on the LBA Mortuary Practices in South Bulgaria 81

Fig. 7-1 The double axe, photos. Fig. 7-2 The double axe. Drawing.

Fig. 8-1 The bird, left side, photos. Fig. 8-2 The bird, right side, photos.

Fig. 8-3 The bird, left side of the head, photos. Fig. 8-4 Construction of the tripod, photos.
82 Krassimir Leshtakov

Fig. 8-5
Drawing of the all parts of
the bird-installation.

Fig. 9
Gold adornments,
photos by J. Detev.

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