Ass. Prof. Dr. Stefan Alexandrov is one of the most prominent specialists in the Bronze Age among the Bulgarian archaeologists. He has supervised and participated in many scientific studies regarding the lifestyle and the culture of the people who have lived between the fourth and the second millennia before Christ. He has been working at the National Archaeological Institute and the Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. For nearly 30 years Ass. Prof. Alexandrov has been directing his “creative searches” into the region of Vidin and Montana – Dimovo, Kutovo, Gradec. Ass. Prof. Alexandrov is a scientific consultant of the team which continuously works on the research, the restoration and the promotion of the “culture of the encrusted ceramics”. One of the most interesting cultural sites is located nearby the village of Ballei, Vidin region.
Ballei is one of the fewest fully explored settlements of a culture that no longer exists. We call it “the culture of the encrusted ceramics” since we have found a large number of ceramic objects encrusted with extremely interesting ornamental motifs made with white paste. Studies have shown that the encrustment paste was prepared from animal bones mixed with glue. The pottery itself is dark and the white encrustment provides a very beautiful aesthetic effect. “The culture of the encrusted ceramics” has developed on the Danube downstream and has reached the area between Lom and Oryahovo. As I mentioned, Ballei is one of the few fully explored settlements of this culture known more for its necropolises. The reason for this is the level of the Danube river – as these villages have been mainly situated in the valley of the Danube and have been more easily detected when the water subsided. That’s why, more necropolises rather than villages have been explored.
Since when do the studies done so far date and at what stage are they at the moment?
The settlement was initially explored by the former director of the Vidin museum Ana Yotzova and Rumen Katincharov from the Historical Museum at the BAS. They have worked for 18 years – from 1970 to the end of the 80s with several interruptions. Thanks to Skelby & White foundation in the past years, we were able to process and prepare for printing the results of these studies. Our team is quite big and includes various specialists. Together with our colleagues from the Vidin Museum, we have been processing the materials for 4-5 years. These are kept in the Museum in Vidin. Next year we shall publish a scientific study of the team. We shall publish two volumes presenting the research and analysis done so far.
This settlement has been explored for years but the location of the necropolis is still a mystery for our colleagues. An interesting story is the discovery of the first grave in the necropolis near Ballei – it happened by accident when in 2010 some local people living in the last house of the village had begun to dig a hole for an outdoor toilet. That’s how Lyubo Petrov from Ballei came upon some ceramic vessels. Thankfully, he managed to dig them out extremely professionally and called the museum. The local peopel from Ballei have often participated in the archaeological excavations along with the archaeologists, that’s why they know how to act in such cases. So in the summer of the following year we started excavations in the necropolis which was at 400 metres far from the open area before this village, about two kilometers from the banks of the Danube. We studied 27 structures in the necropolis – there are single, double and triple burials.
The researches continue and here is the moment to express our gratitude to the Ministry of Culture which financially supported the archaeological excavations.
What kinds of findings did you encounter and where can we see the artefacts?
For example, last year we worked in an area of about 75 square meters and explored 16 graves with 50 vessels inside. One archaeological structure of the necropolis with two urns and a total of 18 court, most of them richly decorated, is of particular interest. Next year, we plan a temporary exhibition in the Regional Historical Museum of Vidin for the Day of the Archaeologist in February to show some of the results from our research and the research renewed this year on a Neolithic village nearby village Mayor Uzunovo and Ratsiaria. Every year we organize an exhibition at the Archaeological museum in Sofia presenting the most important results of all excavations in Bulgaria. There will be a stand from Ballei and we shall present a complex and materials found in the grave – two urns, three vessels and a statute of an idol, around 6 artefacts in a showcase. Many of these artefacts are so beautiful, that’s why we decided to show them in full set. Our colleagues also worked hard so there will be many interesting things.
Unfortunately, the problem with the exhibitions is related to money for transport, packaging, insurance…We also have this idea to transfer to the Museum of Vidin a grave of the necropolis in situ. This will require some serious funding – it’s a matter of transporting several tons to a distance of 30 km with specialized transport to avoid damage to the structure. The task is daunting but not impossible.
Is there any analogue to this kind of encrusted ceramics, have any similar finds been found anywhere apart from the Danube region?
This type of ceramics is nowhere else to be found, it is really unique. However, some similar “river civilizations” have been found elsewhere.
What are the most common ceramic articles?
The items are numerous and diverse – household ceramics, idol sculptures. Mainly female objects with high aesthetic value. We still cannot determine the purpose of some of the artifacts found. There are quite a few baby rattles in a different form – ducks, animals. Inside the rattles are hollow and we still don’t know what’s inside since there is no x-ray analysis done so far. This river civilization had no writing system and we can only assume that these are rattles, as worldwide there have been found kid’s toys dating back from the Neolithic since the begining of the ceramics. But it’s not impossible that these figures have been used in various rituals.
What was the occupation of the people from the river civilization along the Danube?
Analyses have been made and we can only be certain that they have been mainly engaged in agriculture and stockbreeding. What’s interesting especially for Ballei is that there used to be one of the largest population of beavers in Europe.
Have people traded with the furs?
These are only assumptions, however, we are talking about events some 3,500 years ago. What is established with certainty is that the ancient people of Ballei have hunted beavers and used the meat for food. That was found by Prof. Nikolay Spasov. Contemporary archaeology is a collaborative science – there are different specialists – paleontologists, paleobotanists, metal analysis specialists, flint specialists. So behind the words of a man who talks about an archaeological site, there are the hard work and efforts of many specialists.
For example Dr. Tancheva from the Historical Museum at BAS works with flint stone and flint weaponry in Ballei. According to her, the flint came from a field near the village of Muselievo, Pleven region, at some 200km from Ballei. It’s a matter of trade and this is proven. There was slag found from the late Bronze age and it revealed that somewhere in or around the village there used to be a raw bronze production center for jewels making and for some of the objects. But this is also still a hypothesis that needs more evidence.
What did the people from the river civilization hunt apart from beavers?
Around 20-25% of the meat they ate used to come from hunting. Boars were mainly hunted as there was a skeleton of a wild boar found with a height of about 1.2 m. There used to be many deers, as well. The interesting thing at the time is that domestic horses in these lands were the size of a boar – people have mainly used horses from the European breed which were about 1.30 m. in height. As a joke , this shows that in the regions west of Vidin, the tendency has always been to support more connections with Central Europe than with the East.
What’s the attitude of the local people to your research in Ballei?
They assist us all the time. They are wonderful people and friends of mine – they even teach me Wallachian and I teach them Romanian so we found some differences in grammar and vocabulary. The people are very kind and nice. Unfortunately, here as well as in the entire region, the problem of the unemployment is huge. The Northwestern Bulgarian region is unique not only for the archaeologists and it has huge potential for development.Ballei “A prehistoric settlement and necropolis ” is a joint project between the National Historical Museum at BAS and the Regional Historical Museum of Vidin. The excavations of the necropolis are financed by the Ministry of Culture.
Members of the team are:
Anna Yotsova † (scientific advisor to 2012, RHM-Vidin)
Stefan Alexandrov (a scientific advisor in the excavation works and a project manager, NHM at BAS)
Tanya Hristova and Georgi Ivanov (heads of the excavations, NHM BAS)
Nikolay Kazhashki (a deputy head, RHM-Vidin)
Bistra Gyaurova (geodesist at NHM BAS)
Martin Nikolov (specialist, University of Sofia)
Elena Nacheva and Vecheslav Nikolov (interns, NBU)
Ekaterina Ilieva (restoration, RHM-Vidin)
Nadezhda Atanasova-Timeva and Borislava Galabova (anthropological analysis, IEMPAM-ban)
Stanimira Taneva (professional flint tools, NHM-BAS)
Peter Zidarov (specialist processed bone , geomagnetics, NBU)