DESTINATION: ROMANIA / Sarmisegetusa Regia, the Dacians’ cosmopolitan fortress in the Orastie Mountains

DESTINATION: ROMANIA / Sarmisegetusa Regia, the Dacians’ cosmopolitan fortress in the Orastie Mountains

Cleverly placed at an altitude of 1,200 m in the Orastie Mountains, at the strategic core of a system of fortifications distributed on top of the surrounding hills, the Dacian fortress of Sarmizegetusa Regia sees history harmoniously entwining with the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

Having undergone systematic archaeological research since 1924, sometimes plundered by treasure hunters, Sarmizegetusa is a place not so easy to reach for the tourist, and from where he leaves thinking he should have found out more. The Dacian capital city is part of an ensemble of fortifications that shows the force of the people headed 2,000 years ago by kings Burebista and Decebal. The importance of the Dacian system of fortresses earned it in 1999 the designation as UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the name of “The Dacian fortresses of the Orastie Mountains.” “The system of fortifications built by the Dacian kings in the Sureanu Mountains impresses through the consistent concept transposed into this mighty edifice. The purpose was to raise a belt of fortifications to defend the religious, political and economic center of the Dacian Kingdom – Sarmizegetusa Regia, today Gradistea de Munte – Orastioara de Sus commune.

A series of fortresses close the main access roads to the capital of the Dacian Kingdom: Costesti – Cetatuie, Blidaru, Banita, Piatra Rosie in Hunedoara County, and Capalna in Alba County; civil settlements were also blooming in their vicinity, as in ancient times the area was more densely inhabited than today,” explains Dr. Cristina Bodo, scientific researcher with the ‘Archaeology’ section of the Deva city Museum of Dacian and Roman Civilization (MCDR). The expert tells us that Sarmizegetusa Regia consisted of three distinct parts, which together represent a single habitation cluster that included the fortress, the sacred area and the “neighborhoods” with civil engineering works. The latter are located east and west of the first two. The civil engineering, military or cult buildings of the fortress sit on several terraces, some several dozen metres long and 20 – 30 m wide, but only the structures with a religious purpose located in the sacred precinct are reinforced and protected by strong walls which researchers believe to have been between 12 and 14 meters high. Some of these terraces built by man had an impressive sacred precinct raised on them, where seven temples – two with a circular and five with a rectangular layout, built of limestone and andesite, wood and clay – were concomitantly in operation. The most important temples are located on the 11th terrace. “The great circular temple had a diameter of 29.40 m; there is the outer circle made of 104 andesite blocks placed side by side. Flush against this line of blocks, on the inside, is a second circle of andesite pillars grouped together – six narrow and a broad one – in a sequence that repeats 30 times. Traces of wooden poles lined with clay were found inside; they supported a circular wall interrupted by four diametrically opposed entrances. At its center there is a room with apse. This terrace is also the site of the Andesite Sun, actually a stone altar. The total diameter of the altar was 6.98 m, consisting of a central disc with a diameter of 1.46 m and ten rays with the length of 2.76 m,” details Cristina Bodo. We also learn that the 11th terrace is crossed by the two branches of a U-shaped canal made of limestone elements. The canal started from the wall that supported terrace No. 10, passed beneath the edge of the andesite altar, collected the water and other liquids resulted from the rituals performed here, and emptied over the edge of the 11th terrace, streaming down the valley. “These temples had a dramatic ending, as they were methodically destroyed by the Roman conquerors and the priests were most probably slaughtered. It was destroyed by setting it on fire and chopping off the temples’ stone elements,” added the MCDR Deva specialist.

The stone that was used to build the impressive monuments in the Sureanu Mountains is exclusively limestone extracted from Magura Calanului and andesite brought from the Bejan quarry near Deva. Yet the activity of the fortress was far more complex. In the civil settlement that is not open to visitors, the researchers found homes, barns, workshops, installations capturing and transporting potable water through clay pipes. The houses with a polygonal or circular shape had two or three rooms. Along the current line of the wall, between the western and the southern gate of the fortress, traces of a Dacian mint workshop were found and four coin dies were recovered from a pit. One of the most spectacular scientific discoveries occurred in 2013, after a violent storm toppled a centuries-old beech and a complex master embossing device used for the manufacturing of jewelry was found under its roots.

The extremely valuable bronze item was collected by the administrator of the archaeological site and handed over to the historians who started investigating it in the laboratories of the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca. “It’s a very beautiful and historically important item that is worthy to be part of the collections of any major museum around the world. The embossing device has a hexagonal shape with ornaments on all faces, embossed with the negative (the grooved side) of the model. Precious metal sheets were placed on the facets and the embossing pattern was transferred on them,” explained at the end of the study Associate Professor Gelu Florea of the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, who is the scientific coordinator of the Sarmizegetusa Regia archaeological site. The embossing device features no less than 70 models, including the head of a lion and the silhouette of a tiger. “The presence of the item at Sarmizegetusa Regia proves that this was a cosmopolitan place that could afford all that was best,” considers Professor Gelu Florea, in whose opinion the embossing device was brought to the Dacian fortress by a craftsman jeweller from the eastern end of the Mediterranean or the cities north of the Black Sea. As a matter of fact, the scientific research is linked to the treasures discovered in the Orastie Mountains after a hoard of coins was accidentally found here.

The testimonies gathered in time speak about the “treasure dreams” of villager David Albu from Chitid, at the end of the eighteenth century; at that time, the locals went in search of gold on the mountain, but found nothing but some round-shaped “poles”. A few years later, another peasant from Ocolisu Mic found several ancient gold coins in the mountains. “According to the collected testimonies, in 1802, a coin was found in the dirt dug up by pigs. Subsequent digging came upon a trove of coins. Yet the Austrian tax authorities got wind about that and sent their representatives to investigate – a team of miners led by engineer B. Aigler, who mentioned in his report several monuments, furnaces and iron objects.

Despite the tough measures taken by the Austrian authorities, as soon as the warm weather set in, the villages emptied, as the locals took to the mountain to hunt for treasures,” said Cristina Bodo. Even today the Dacian gold sends the minds of gold hunters steaming. An extensive investigation by prosecutors from the Alba Iulia Court of Appeal revealed that archaeological poachers found coins and other gold and silver objects, including a set of famous Dacian gold bangles. Of the 15 gold bangles 13 were recovered and 12 people were prosecuted in the famous “Dacian gold” case which is now pending before the Supreme Court. One year ago, the Sarmizegetusa Regia Dacian fortress was transferred under the management of the Hunedoara County Council, an institution that aims to exploit the tourist potential of this monument. Access to the area of the historic site was regulated and organized guard was set in place, including forces of the Mountain Gendarmerie. The monument can be visited nine months of the year, according to a strict schedule, and is closed in winter for works related to a proper administration of the site. In addition, the road from Costesti to the Dacian fortress will be revamped with European funds accessed by the Hunedoara County authorities. The works are due for completion in December 2015.