Ancient Greek Shrine of Demeter and Persephone Discovered in Bulgaria – Brewminate

The Ancient Greek shrine of Demeter and Persephone on Cape Stolets in Bulgaria’s Sozopol is located near the ruins of a Late Antiquity fortress tower, a medieval Christian basilica, and a 19th century windmill, among other things. Photo: TV grab from BNT

By Ivan Dikov / 09.20.2016

Archaeology in Bulgaria

A shrine of goddesses Demeter and Persephone from the 6th century BC has been discovered during the 2016 archaeological excavations of the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica, today’s Bulgarian Black Sea city of Sozopol.

The discovery has been made by the team of Assoc. Prof. Krastina Panayotova, a long-time researcher of ancient Apollonia Pontica, on the Cape of Stolets (also known as Skamniy or Scamnia (from “skamnion” – an ancient sitting stool)), reports BNT.

Earlier in summer 2016, Panayotova’s team discovered 2,600-year-old “arrow coins” near the Apollo Temple on the St. Cyricus Island (also known as Sveti Kirik, or the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island), which today is a peninsula connected with the Old Town of Sozopol and the Bulgarian mainland.

In addition to the discovery of the Demeter and Persephone shrine, the archaeologists have also completed the excavations of the ruins of a 12th century Christian basilica.

The rock Cape of Stolets (Skamniy) is one of the landmarks of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, and is frequented by local and international tourists every day.

In the 6th century BC, however, it was selected as the location of a shrine by the Ancient Greek settlers who established Apollonia Pontica. The shrine was hewn into the rocks on the Stolets Peninsula.

The specific deities to whom the Ancient Greek shrine was dedicated have been identified thanks to the discovery of clay and terracotta figurines.

“First of all, the traces of the hewing into the wall are visible, and the entire space was filled with gifts. For example, votive vessels which were made specially for the rituals – miniature jugs… about 10 cm tall. They imitate the normal vessels. We have found a lot of statuettes of baked clay and terracotta and, as a matter of fact, it is thanks to them that we have found out that this place was a shrine of Demeter and Persephone,” explains Panayotova.

“The heads of the statuettes are best preserved, and these are all female depictions. The one with the younger face is Persephone, and Demeter is the older and sterner one,” she adds.

Lead archaeologist Krastina Panayotova shows just one of the 6th century miniature votive vessels discovered at the newly found Demeter and Persephone shrine in Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Heads of clay and terracotta statuettes from the Ancient Greek shrine depicting goddesses Demeter and Persophone. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The archaeologist points out that the Ancient Greeks used caves for their religious rituals but the settlers who founded Apollonia Pontica attracted by copper deposits in the region had no caves nearby which is why they had to make do with the rocks on the Cape of Stolets (Skamnia).

“In this case, the relief [of this location] on the edge of ancient Apollonia provided an opportunity for performing these rituals by using this rocky cape, including by digging pits and hewing holes into the rocks. Because we know from the legend about Persephone that she was sneaked into the underworld through a cave. Apparently, [the Ancient Greek settlers] were looking for this connection to the underworld through caves, cracks, etc.,” elaborates the lead archaeologist.

It is noted that similar Ancient Greek rock-hewn shrines have been found on the Island of Thasos and in Miletus which is where the settlers of ancient Apollonia Pontica came from.

Panayotova says the cult for Demeter and her daughter Persephone was very strong and important because the former was the patron of fertility, trade, and laws, whereas the latter, with her descending and return from the underworld, symbolizes the seasons, birth, fertility.

The archaeological excavations on Cape Stolets in Sozopol have also revealed that in the 6th century AD, i.e. the Early Byzantine period, a large fortress tower was constructed on the same spot together with a water cistern and a horreum (granary).

It is unlikely that the fortress tower on the rocky peninsula was ever attacked because of the shallow water of the Black Sea right of the coast preventing military ships from coming too close, the archaeologist notes. Yet, the robust construction indicates that the tower was deemed crucial for the defenses of Apollonia Pontica (Sozopolis) in the Middle Ages when the city was part of Byzantium and later the medieval Bulgarian Empire.

Inside the fortress wall on the Cape of Stolets, the archaeologists have been researching a necropolis with a total of 180 graves, the last 30 of which have just been excavated.

While medieval Christian burials usually contain no funeral inventories, in one of the graves the researchers have found a beautiful ceramic bowl.

A colorful ceramic bowl discovered in one of the graves from the medieval Christian necropolis on Sozopol’s Cape Stolets. Photo: TV grab from BNT

During the 2016 archaeological season, Panayotova’s team has also completed the excavations of the 12th century Christian basilica on Cape Stolets named after St. Peter and St. Paul. Its floor was made of marble and bricks, and the temple probably had frescoes but no fragments of them have survived.

In the midst of the ruins of the basilica, however, the archaeologists have stumbled upon the massive foundations of an initially mysterious structure which has turned out to have been a windmill from the early 19th century.

“In the early 19th century (i.e. the period of the Ottoman Empire), the church didn’t exist any more, and the construction of a chapel was not allowed, which is why this windy spot was used for a windmill,” Panayotova explains.

Her colleagues and she have found evidence that a chapel was built there later, in 1864. The precise year of its construction was discovered in an unorthodox way.

“The builders had placed four glass bottles, one in each corner of the foundations of the chapel. One of the them was from a French perfume, and the producer, Lubin Parfums Paris, is still making perfumes. We contacted them, and they told us that the respective series was produced in 1864. The bottle was used in the chapel because it was a nice, strong bottle,” says the lead archaeologist.

Her team is also hoping to discover the ruins of a monastery called “Holy Apostles” which is known to have been located nearby.

An aerial shot of the rocky Cape Stolets in Bulgaria’s Sozopol showing the ruins of the 12th century Christian basilica in the foreground, with the ruins of the 6th century BC Ancient Greek shrine, and the 6th AD Byzantine fortress tower in the background. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Another aerial shot of Cape Stolets (Skamnia) showing the ruins of the Ancient Greek shrine, the Byzantine fortress tower, the medieval basilica, and the 19th century windmill, with Sozopol’s Old Town in the background. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world.

An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis.

Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria.

Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 13.2-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium.

During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base.

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov.

The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists.

In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.


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