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The Thracian Tomb of Alexandrovo: A Stroke of Luck 23 Years Ago Today

The Thracian tomb near Aleksandrovo, Haskovo Province, South-Eastern Bulgaria, was uncovered on December 17, 2000 by accident. An earth-moving machine working near a hillock known as Roshavata Chuka, some 500 m from Alexandrovo, revealed remains of ancient masonry. When the following year reknowned Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov led a rescue excavation of the tomb, he discovered that treasure hunters have already visited the site and had damaged some of the frescoes and looted artefacts. What Kitov’s team revealed was a round chamber of about 3 m in diameter, accessible through a small antechamber and a narrow tunnel, approximately 6 m long. The tomb was dated to c. 4th century BCE.

Movable objects of value were missing: there was no “Aleksandrovo treasure” of gold, silver or precious gems. Yet the frescoes are a real treasure. Like the other three Thracian tombs with preserved frescoes (of Kazanlak, Sveshtari and Maglizh), the Aleksandrovo tomb frescoes fill in some of the missing elements from the picture of ancient Thracian life. Ancient Thracians had no writing of their own and what we know about them comes mainly from Greek sources and from artefacts found. As a result, there are obscure fields of Thracian culture that allow conflicting explanations about the purpose, origin, usage and importance of the selfsame artefacts. These explanations are based on modern ideas about the distant past, or use comparative studies and models established by other cultures.

Researchers still argue on the purpose and origin of many Thracian artefacts, including on whether the graffito in the Aleksandrovo chamber, inscribed with the Thracian name Kozemases, indicates the tomb’s patron or its artist.

Experts believe that the Aleksandrovo frescoes provide proof of changes in fashions due to Greek influence. Topknots – that had invited creation of helmets with pointed tops designed to accommodate the top-knot hairstyles of warriors – are missing. “Fawn-skin boots”, described by Herodotus as typical of the Thracians, are missing too – replaced by shoelike footwear. Tattoos and hats have disappeared; metal torcs appear around the necks of some of the figures.

For the general public, frescoes fill in the gap in understanding the past through visualization: prodding our imagination with pictures and scenes that were once understandable. In a unique way the tomb images give us insight to Thracian culture, showing us real images, made by long deceased people. We still could not be sure what the scenes represent, nor the meaning of them.

For example, most experts consider the scene in the main chamber to be purely mythological: a naked man wielding a double axe representing the Thracian god Zalmoxis – or some mythical progenitor. (The convention of Classical Hellenistic art interprets the double-axe as representing royal power.) But what we, non-experts, see on the wall, is a real hunting scene: we see moving figures, dogs attacking a boar, red blood gushing from open wounds of an animal attacked. These scenes have once been real for the artist, no matter how conventional his art was. Conventions do not work forever and the clues to some of them is lost. As a result, a contemporary observer can hardly believe that the naked figure represents a god: it doesn’t fit with contemporary ideas of depicting a deity.

But all these considerations do not affect the unique impression we are left with. The frescoes make the ancient life real to us. Images give us details that help even the non-experts to reconstruct the outer appearance of people living millenniums ago. Small details like the color of Thracians’ hair, or the unknown to us staff-like weapon carried by one of the figures, or the small size of the horses.