If you have ever been to Troy, in present-day Turkey, you were probably a bit disappointed or even felt slightly cheated. The unremarkable ditches your tour guide dragged you through had little in common with the glorious pictures of passion, war and tragedy embedded in the popular imagination by Homer and the Brad Pitt movie. If you listened to your guide, however, you might have gathered that the settlement that is now portrayed to tourists as the Homeric Troy is important to historians for another reason. It was continually inhabited for two millennia and hence has become a reference point for early history in the region. For example, if a particular type of pottery is found in one of the well-documented and dated layers of Troy and then the same style of pottery appears in another place (let's call it Site B), then you can deduce when Site B itself was inhabited.
What is not widely known, however, is that Bulgaria has a similar site. Like Troy, the outward appearance of Karanovo belies its historical significance. What is even worse, Karanovo, unlike Troy, had no Homer to sing about its glory. As a result, it is mainly archaeologists who are interested in it.
But Karanovo truly embodies early human history in southeastern Europe.
The Karanovo settlement is a 24,000 sq.m mound, 250 metres long by 150 metres wide, rising up to 13 metres. Situated in the fertile plain at the foot of the Sredna Gora mountains, near Nova Zagora, it has been (almost) continuously inhabited for 3000 years.
The mound itself is the result of generations of people living in one place, building their new houses of mud bricks and wood over the remains of older dwellings. The site was settled in the 7th Millennium BC, which was revolutionary, as before this the people of Europe were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Unlike their predecessors, the people of Karanovo did not live in temporary camps, following the migrations of wild animals. Instead, they settled in a single place, building houses, farming the fertile land around and keeping livestock.
Latching onto this fact, the "patriotic" Bulgarian media and some scientists claim that the people of Karanovo were "the first Europeans" or the "authors of the first European civilisation." Actually, they were a part of a great change in human history, known as the Neolithic Revolution. It started about the 9th Millennium BC in the Fertile Crescent, in Asia Minor, where agriculture was developed and mastered. In the following millennia this new lifestyle spread to Europe, passing through modern Greece and the Upper Thracian Valley in Bulgaria and heading farther into the continent.
What makes Karanovo really special is the longevity of the settlement. People continued living here from the very beginning of the Neolithic Age through the dawn and the development of the Chalcolithic Age, until its end. The settlement was abandoned then for a while, but people again came to the man-made hill in the 4th Millennium BC, at the beginning of the Bronze Age.
It was only then that the settlement we know as Troy appeared.
Archaeologists recognised the scientific significance of the Karanovo mound as early as the 1930s. In the 1970s, the seven major strata of the settlement were properly studied and Karanovo became a reference point for the dating of prehistoric sites all over south-east Europe. Only about 1,700 sq.m of the mound have been excavated so far, and the rest continues to hide its secrets.
Today, the Karanovo settlement is a site you can easily visit, if you follow the worn-out tourist signs in the modern village of Karanovo. The place itself remains mainly of interest to historians and its most exciting finds – fine early Neolithic pottery with strange symbols and decorations – are in the National History Museum and the History Museum of Nova Zagora. However, the sheer size of the settlement and the tall pole recording the different periods in its rich history can make you stop and marvel at how long Karanovo was considered a good place to live.
A visit to Karanovo, however, need not end there. A few kilometres away something more visually arresting awaits.
People abandoned the Karanovo mound, but not the area. Life here never ceased and the environs of the modern village are scattered with the remains of virtually every period of human history.
Harnessed horses were slaughtered to serve in eternity their dead Thracian master, who was buried in a mound near Karanovo, in the 1st Century AD
The tumuli of an ancient Thracian necropolis became the focus of a media frenzy in recent years. In 2008 archaeologists detected traces of treasure hunters digging in the so-called Eastern Mound, from the 1st Century AD. Excavations uncovered a perfectly preserved chariot, buried metres away from the tomb of its aristocratic owner. The skeleton of a sacrificed dog and those of horses, still harnessed to the chariot, were perfectly preserved. Undisturbed by robbers, the dead man's tomb contained precious objects, including expensive weapons and luxurious cups of glass and silver, imported from Rome.
Remarkably, the tumulus was not abandoned when the archaeologists ended their work. The skeletons of the animals were preserved in situ, and a complete replica of the chariot is now on show with them, making, by Bulgarian standards, the Eastern Mound of Karanovo an exciting and innovative museum experience.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.