The oldest known gold artifacts were found in the Varna Necropolis, a burial site dating back to 4,560-4,450 BC, on the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea.
Internationally considered to be one of the key prehistoric archaeological sites in the world, the Varna Necropolis (also known as the Varna Cemetery) is a large burial site in the western industrial zone of Varna. It dates back to the time of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) Varna Culture that existed about 6,000-6,500 years ago.
A total of 294 graves have been discovered at the Varna Necropolis so far, containing about 3,000 gold artifacts, Archaeology in Bulgaria reports. While there were many elite burial sites uncovered, there was one in particular that stood out among the rest – grave 43. Here, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a high status male who appears to have been a ruler or leader of some kind.
Grave 43 of the Varna necropolis with burial objects of gold, copper, flint and jade, spine oyster red and orange carnelian (a mineral) and ceramics. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology
The Varna Gold Treasure was accidentally discovered in 1972 during the construction of a canning factory at the site, when an excavator operator called Raycho Marinov, then aged 22, unearthed several artifacts, collected them in a shoe box, and took them to his home. A couple of days later he decided to contact some local archaeologists and inform them about the discovery.
Following that, a total of 294 Chalcolithic graves were unearthed at the necropolis. Using radiocarbon dating, the Copper Age graves where the Varna Gold Treasure was found were dated to 4,560-4,450 BC.
Some of the most famous artifacts from the 6,500-year-old Varna Gold Treasure, part of the collection of the Varna Museum of Archaeology. Photo: Visit Varna
All these astounding treasures are the product of an ancient European human civilization that developed in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic period in today’s Bulgaria, and in the rest of the Balkan Peninsula, the Lower Danube region, and the West Black Sea coast. Some scholars refer to this prehistoric civilization as “Old Europe”.
The discoveries from the necropolis indicate that the Varna Culture had trade relations with distant Black Sea and Mediterranean regions, and likely exported rock salt from the Provadiya – Solnitsata (“The Salt Pit”) rock salt mine. Also, archaeologists reckon that the shells of the Mediterranean mollusk Spondylus found in the graves in the Varna Necropolis and at other Chalcolithic sites in Northern Bulgaria may have been used as a form of currency by this ancient culture.
Since several of the graves discovered featured a wealth of gold artifacts, archaeologists also believe that as early as the Copper Age, the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe) already had some form of statehood and a royal institution.
Necklace with a gold amulet and 26 beads of gold and minerals, mid 5th millennium BC, from grave 97 of the Varna necropolis. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology
The Varna Gold Treasure includes over 3,000 gold artifacts categorized into 28 different types with a combined total weight of 6.5 kilograms.
As noted above, one of the most interesting inventories was found in Grave No. 43, which was unearthed in the central part of the Varna Necropolis in 1974. It belonged to a male aged 40-45 who was of rather substantial size for the time (he was approx. 1,70-1,75 meters or 5 feet 6 – 8 inches tall). Over 1,5 kilograms of all gold artifacts were found in his grave, which is one of the reasons why archaeologists believe that the buried man was a very prominent member of his community, possibly a ruler or king-priest.
The gold items include 10 large appliques, a high number of rings some which were hung on strings, two necklaces, beads, an item that appears to be a gold phallus, golden decorations for a bow, a stone ax and a copper ax with golden decorations, as well as a bow with gold applications.
In another grave unearthed at the site, Grave No. 36 – a symbolic grave – the archaeologists found over 850 gold items including a tiara, earrings, a necklace, a belt, bracelets, a breastplate, a gold hammer-sceptre, a gold model of a sickle, two gold lamellas representing animals, and 30 models of heads of horned animals.
The objects were found covered with a gold-laced cloth, lining the contours of a human body with more artifacts on the right side, which is thought to signify that the grave contained a male funeral. Again, the golden artifacts were interpreted by archaeologists as royal insignia.
Similar “royal” burials have also been found in graves No. 1, 4, and 5 of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis.
The completely abandoned site of the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis as of August 2018, despite plans of Varna Municipality to promote it for cultural tourism. Photo: bTV
Many of the finds from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis are seen to celebrate the role of the smith who as a creator supplants the role of the Great Mother Goddess and transforms the matriarchal world into a patriarchal one.
In the Chalcolithic culture, the position of the smith is comparable to that of the king, as in this period metal was more of a status symbol than an economic means.
About 30% of the estimated territory of the necropolis is yet to be excavated.