Archaeologists in Bulgaria uncovered the earliest golden items ever found in the 1970s, close to the present city of Varna, in a massive Copper Age necropolis from the fifth millennium BC. The true significance of the discovery was not understood, however, until they arrived at grave 43. More gold was discovered in grave 43 than was discovered in the entirety of the world at that time. Within were the bones of a high status male who had been buried with unimaginable riches.
Most people have heard of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, which are renowned for being the first civilizations to be recognized to have urbanization, structured government, and cultural innovation. The mystery civilisation that first appeared 7,000 years ago on the borders of lakes close to the Black Sea, however, has mostly gone unnoticed.
The Varna culture, as it has come to be known, was not a little, insignificant civilisation that developed in a remote region of what would become Bulgaria and vanished without a trace into the annals of time. As the first known society to produce golden items, it was an astonishingly advanced civilization that was older than the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
A richness in cultural traditions, intricate funerary ceremonies, an antiquated religious system, and the ability to create gorgeous and expertly-crafted objects are reflected in the biggest known prehistoric necropolis in south-eastern Europe, which is located in Varna. The term “cradle of civilization” in Europe has come to refer to it.
According to available data, goldsmithing originally appeared in Varna between 4600 and 4200 BC. The population now had something incredibly precious to trade as technology advanced and craftsman mastered the smelting of copper and gold. The development of the society depended heavily on the opening of economic links between the Black Sea and Mediterranean region as a result of increased interactions with neighbors in both the north and south. Ships traveling across the Black Sea could dock comfortably in the deep port where the villages of Varna were located, and the city grew to be a thriving commerce hub.
The metallurgists were able to amass wealth thanks to increased trading, and very rapidly a social stratification with the metallurgists at the top, merchants in the center, and farmers making up the bottom class emerged. Extraordinary finds at a nearby cemetery further bolster the idea that Varna formerly had strong rulers or kings, but we will get to that later.
Hence, the groundwork had been done for the establishment of a strong, thriving civilization that would later impact all of Europe for thousands of years.
Tools, containers, utensils, and figures made of stone, flint, bone, and clay are the first examples of ancient Varna culture. Suddenly an amazing by chance find was made, making international news. The oldest gold objects ever discovered were found in a large Copper Age necropolis that excavator operator Raycho Marinov discovered in October 1972.
It eventually rose to prominence as one of Bulgaria’s most significant archaeological finds. Under the guidance of Mihail Lazarov (1972–1976) and Ivan Ivanov (1972–1991), extensive excavations were conducted that allowed for the first time to be seen the splendid civilisation of Varna.
In the necropolis, more than 300 graves were found, and over 22,000 beautiful objects, including 3,000+ pieces of gold with a combined weight of 6 kg, were retrieved from them (13.23 lbs.) Other priceless artifacts discovered in the burials included copper, excellent flint tools, jewelry, Mediterranean mollusc shells, ceramics, obsidian blades, and beads.
Analysis of the graves revealed that the Varna culture had a highly structured society. Elite members of society were buried in shrouds with gold ornaments sewn into the cloth wrappings, and their graves were filled with treasures like gold ornaments, heavy copper axes, elegant finery, and richly decorated ceramics, while others had simple burials with few grave goods.
Despite the fact that numerous elite graves had been discovered, grave 43 stood out from the others. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a high level guy who looks to have been a monarch or leader of some sort inside grave 43. This tomb contained more gold than was discovered in the rest of the world at the time. The male, who came to be known as the Varna man, was buried with a scepter, a representation of great rank or spiritual power, and he wore a sheath of solid gold around his penis.
It is the first documented elite male burial in Europe, making the burial extremely noteworthy in addition to the grave items. Women and children had previously gotten the most extravagant funerals.
The well-known Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas asserted that matriarchal pre-Indo-European communities can be inferred from Neolithic sites throughout Europe. She also suggested that the transition to male domination in Europe started about the end of the Fifth Millennium BC. In the Varna culture, it was noted that men began to receive better posthumous care about this time.
In addition to the priceless objects discovered inside and the social hierarchy revelations made, the burials in the Varna necropolis have also revealed important details about the religion and elaborate funerary customs of this ancient civilisation.
Researchers soon realized that the males and females were arranged differently within the graves: the males were positioned on their backs, while the ladies were positioned in the fetal posture. The finding that some graves had no skeletons at all and were instead considered “symbolic graves” was the most surprising of all. These graves were the wealthiest in terms of the amount of gold and other things found inside of them. Unbaked clay masks of human size that were positioned where the head would have been were also found in some of these symbolic tombs, also known as cenotaphs.
It was also discovered that the tombs where the clay masks were buried had gold amulets in the form of ladies placed in the neck region. These amulets, which are connected to pregnancy and delivery, show that the ‘burials’ were intended for women. This is further supported by the discovery of copper pins, flint knives, and spindle whorls instead of battle-axes in each of the cenotaphs.
The once-dominant Varna culture started to fall apart towards the end of the fifth millennium BC. The collapse of the Varna civilisation has been attributed to a number of factors, including climate change, which converted vast tracts of agricultural land into marshes and swamps, and the invasion of soldiers on horses from the steppes.
The people of the ancient Varna civilisation left behind many enduring legacies and prepared the way for the creation of succeeding civilizations across Europe, despite the fact that they left no direct offspring. They possessed metallurgical abilities that were unmatched in Europe, if not the entire world, and their society exhibited many traits of a highly developed civilisation.
They also created the societal framework for a centralized authority, or someone or something that would watch over and guarantee the smooth operation of the society. A model of civilisation that we still adhere to today had all the key tenets of contemporary society uncovered.