In the 1970s, archaeologists in Bulgaria stumbled upon a vast Copper Age necropolis from the 5 th millennium BC containing the oldest golden artifacts ever discovered near the modern-day city of Varna. More than 300 graves were uncovered in the necropolis, and between them over 22,000 exquisite artifacts were recovered, including 3,000+ items made from gold.
Other precious relics found within the graves included copper, high-quality flint, stone tools, jewellery, shells of Mediterranean mollusks, pottery, obsidian blades, and beads.
|Gold pendants like these were often strung with stone beads. Some are believed to represent pregnant women. (Varna Regional Museum of History)|
Most people have heard of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley, which are all noted for being the earliest known civilizations to feature urbanization, organized administration, and cultural innovation. But few have heard of the mysterious civilization that emerged on the shores of lakes of the Black Sea some 7,000 years ago in Bulgaria.
The Varna culture, as it has come to be known, was not a small and inconsequential society that emerged in a little corner of Bulgaria and disappeared quickly into the pages of history. Rather, it was an amazingly advanced civilization, more ancient than the empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the first known culture to craft golden artifacts.
The Rise of the Varna Culture
Evidence suggests that it was between 4600 and 4200 BC, when gold smithing first started in Varna. As advances were made, and craftsmen mastered metallurgy of copper and gold, the inhabitants now had something extremely valuable to trade. Increased contacts with neighbours both north and south eventually opened up trade relations within the Black Sea and Mediterranean region, which was of great importance for the development of the society. The deep bay, along which the settlements of Varna, provided a comfortable harbor for ships sailing across the Black Sea and Varna became a prosperous trading center.
And so, the foundations had been laid for the emergence of a powerful and flourishing culture, whose influence permeated the whole of Europe for thousands of years to come.
|Gold, copper, and stone artifacts from Grave 4, Varna|
Elite members of society were buried in shrouds with gold ornaments sewn into the cloth wrappings and their graves were laden with treasures, including gold ornaments, heavy copper axes, elegant finery, and richly decorated ceramics, while others had simple burials with few grave goods.
Gold zoomorphic appliqués,
more than six millennia old, appears to be a bull but has buffalo-like horns. / A. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images)
While there were many elite burials uncovered, there was one in particular that stood out amongst the rest – grave 43. Inside grave 43, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a high status male who appears to have been a ruler/leader of some kind – more gold was found within this burial than in the entire rest of the world in that period. The male was buried with a scepter – a symbol of high rank or spiritual power – and wore a sheath of solid gold over his penis.
|Each weighing upwards of 110 grams, these bracelets were worn by the community’s chief and were an indicator of his high rank.|
The burials in the Varna necropolis have also offered a lot more than the precious artifacts found within them and discoveries relating to social hierarchies; the features of the graves have also provided key insights into the religious beliefs and complex funerary practices of this ancient civilization.
Read more at Ancient Origins and Smithsonian Mag