Archaeological excavations

Archaeologycal fieldschool

Archaeological excavations at Roman fortress in Iskar Gorge

July 1-14 and July 15-28, 2018

The archaeological excavations will be carried out at Batulya fortress - a Byzantine stronghold, situated in Stara planina (Old Mountain). This is relatively new archaeological site - the archaeological excavations here started in 2017. The fortress is registered for the first time in 80s but never has been studied. Nowadays on the terrain can be seen the remains of old fortification wall as well as some of the buildings inside of the твърдина. The protective walls have thickness of 1,5 meters and are preserved along about 100 meters at the Northern part of the fortification. The dimensions of the fortified area are about 1500 sq.m. The walls fence an area with rectangular layout. At the Eastern part on the terrain are traced ruins of square tower.

The fortress is situated not far from the main city of Bulgaria - Sofia. It is built on a mountain hill with altitude of 650 meters, guarding the defile of the modern River Batulyiska. In the ancient times here passed the road connecting the South part of the Balkans with the Danubian plain. It is a very important passage because it cross a dangerous lands through the mountains. The fortress near Batulya is one of the important points along this road which functions were to protect the commercial ties between North and South and to ensure safe passage of troops crossing the mountains.

Nowadays the fortress is easy accessible due to its location in vicinity of the modern village. In the foot of the hill in the beginning of the last century is built a small monastery. It was financed by the Bulgarian king Ferdinand the First who appreciated the beauty of this place and wished to turn it into a desired destination for residents of Sofia. The monastery is combination between spiritual and secular buildings. The church is devoted to St. Nicholas (much honored saint in Iskar Gorge) but the monastery building is designed for visitors and never has been used for spiritual purposes. In the Eastern part of that building a metal door leads directly to the fortress and its ancient ruins are part of the monastery complex.

Useful to know

Byzantine period in Balkans begins with the split of the Roman Empire into two parts - Western and Eastern. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD but the Eastern survived till 1453 when is conquered by the Ottomans.

"Byzantium" is an artificial concept given by the scientists. It represent the Eastern Roman Empire named by the main city - Byzantion. The residents of the empire called themselves "Romani" (Romans) as successors of the Great Roman Empire.

In 330 AD Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium and the city took his name - Konstantinoupolis ("city of Constantine", Constantinople). During the 4th–13th centuries Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in Europe and also a centre of culture and education of the Mediterranean basin.

Byzantium is a Christian Empire! Constantine the Great became the first Roman Emperor who adopted the Christianity in 313 AD.

Искърският пролом в карта Феликс Каниц от 1882 г.

The Iskar Gorge, famous with its magnificent nature, with Lakatin Rocks, Cherepish Monastery and the scenic views, changing one after another along the railway line, in fact has been never studied from historical point of view. An interesting fact is that the last and most detailed description of the historical monuments along the Iskar River was made more than 150 years ago by the famous Austrian geographer, ethnographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz. In 1871 he described the northern part of the Iskar Gorge from Mezdra to Lakatnik, where he localized eight castles. According to him, "This large number of castles is one more proof of the great strategic importance given by the Romans to the road through the Iskar Gorge. This road has connected Thessaloniki with Dyrrachium through Stobi, Serdica and Oescus with Trajan's Dacia."

Unfortunately, this information remains the first and the last, related to the ancient history of the region. Despite its close proximity to the main city Sofia, the Iskar River and its adjacent areas never attracts the attention of scientists. However, the numerous castles, located in the most picturesque places in the gorge are very interesting for every visitor or tourist. The questions "What these remains are?", "Who were their creators?" "What was their destiny?" are not only curious, but they are also part of an unspoken story to be written.

In 2016 initiated by Svoge municipality starts for the first time the systemic description and identification of the cultural and historical monuments on its territory. This project aims not only to enrich the tourist map of the region, but also to "put together" the known (and unknown) about the history, culture and heritage of the Iskar Gorge. Within a year and a half a team of specialists managed to describe, interpret and localise 19 churches, 23 sanctuaries, 6 Thracian mound necropolises and 11 fortresses. Thus, the history of the region, for which only three villages had been known in the time of Felix Kanitz, began slowly to emerge from the past.

The mountains around the Iskar River, now hospitable and densely populated, have been in the past an insurmountable border between the Danube and the Thracian Plain. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, there haven't been road to passing by, and Kanitz described his journey as follows: „Indeed, riding at some points was too tense because the road was leading through paths that could only be walked on foot. They passed along deep abysses in which the bones of fallen animals and humans were visible.“. In ancient times, the difficult to inhabit area has predetermined the character of local culture, which is unique, partly isolated but also protected. These places were hardly reached by enemies, and the wars, migrations of entire peoples and ethnic clashes have remained far to the north or south.

It is no coincidence that according to the archaeological date, the earliest settlement in the region refers to the Thracian times. The name "Thracians" (Latin: Thraci) means "wild", "harsh" people. Their style of life is characterized briefly and accurately by the father of history Herodotus (484 BC - 425 BC): "To be out of work, they think it is wonderful, to work the land - humiliating, but to live by war and robbery - for the best." The results of the documentation of the archaeological sites show that a large amount of Thracian burial monuments (mounds) are located on the territory of the municipality of Svoge. Probably some of the strongholds lying high in the mountain also belong to this period. Since these monuments are registered for the first time and have never been studied, it is difficult to day which specific Thracian tribes inhabited the area and at to what time the tombs belong. According to Thucydides (460 BC - 395 BC) the region of Serdica lived "Treres and Tilataei". In 29 BC in Sofia region are mentioned "Serdi". Between the Danube, the Iskar River and the Old Mountains inhabited "Triballi".

What distinguishes the area of Svoge, however, is the extremely large quantity of these monuments, which can not be compared neither to the Sofia field, nor to the area north of the mountain. The fact that the mountain was hardly accessible and therefore - protected, allowed the intensive development of a unique and protected from external interference culture. And the most interesting - this culture has somehow reached to this day. This is evidenced by the numerous votives (crosses) placed exactly on the ancient Thracian mounds. Assuming that the mounds were built in the fifth or fourth century BC, the memory of the "sacred places" has been passed down through generations for 2500 years! Until now. This means not only a deep and extremely ancient folk memory, but also a genetic connection with the ancestors of the people who still live in these places.

The area around the Iskar River seems to be unaffected by the bloody events that led to the military annexation and the accession of the Thracian lands to the powerful Roman Empire. In 29 BC the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus, under whose command were five legions and auxiliary troops (or about 30,000 soldiers), started a war against the Triballi in the north. Upon their retirement the Roman troops suffer heavy losses, passing through the lands of the Serdi (present-day Sofia field) and the Maedi (in Struma valley). The ancient authors do not specify the exact route of Roman troops, but it is more likely they had followed the Timok valley, not the inaccessible and dangerous mountain passes.

However, in 27 BC the Romans took the main city of the Serdi - today's Sofia, and in 15 BC was founded the Roman province of Moesia (today's northern Bulgaria). The mountainous area around the Iskar River became a geographical part of the Roman Empire. Still, there is no evidence of the presence of Roman troops or military parts during this early period (1st-3rd c. AD). The only thing that is known is that at the end of the 2nd c. AD a strong military fortress was built at the exit of the Iskar Gorge (near modern Mezdra), which purpose was to guard the access to the pass.

In the 4th century AD a new series of events led to significant changes even in the protected and independent area of the Iskar Gorge. In 272 AD, the Roman troops left an entire province - Dacia (modern Romania) and relocated its population to the south of Danube. At the end of the 3rd century Emperor Diocletian began a reform, which in fact divided the Roman Empire into two parts - Eastern and Western. In 313 AD Constantine the Great accepted Christianity as an official religion of the Empire, and in 330 officially declared Constantinople (now Istanbul) the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 4th century the Empire experienced several devastating wars with the Goths, and the beginning of the 5th century was marked by the dreadful threat of the Huns' invasions.

All these events irrevocably changed the life in the Empire. Whole regions deserted and their population settled in uncomfortable for living, but protected and safe havens in the mountains. It is then that the gorge around the Iskar River becomes an attractive and desirable place, protected from enemies and therefore convenient for living. Although not studied, most of the fortresses located on the territory of Svoge municipality probably belong to that time.

The Fortress near Batulya is part of the system of fortified settlements raised (or renewed) during the devastating attacks of the Goths and Huns in 4th and 5th c. AD. It is also the first fortress, studied through archaeological excavations throughout the Iskar Gorge and its adjacent territory. Its fully investigation will give answer to many questions about the structure and layout of these kind of settlements, about the military organization and the way of life of the population in this period.

Nowadays the fortress is easily accessible, since at the foot of the fortress at the beginning of the 20th century was built the monastery "St. Nicholas". Thanks to the municipal administration of Svoge, the monastery complex and the ancient fortress next to it will become an attractive place for rest and visits.

In July 2017, with the financial support of the municipality, started the archaeological excavations of the fortress, which main goal for this season was to clarify the topography (dimensions and layout of the fortress) and the chronology (the time of occupation) of the site.

An interesting fact is that the ancient fortress is situated in close proximity to the modern dirt road to the village of Bukovets, in the outskirts of which is registered another similar fortress. It is very likely that the modern road follow an ancient road path that connects the settlements in the mountain and from the village of Bukovets is climbing the ridge of Golema (The Big) mountain (which now coincides with the trans-European hiking trail Kom-Emine) and cross the mountains in North direction. Thus the fortress probably is part of the defensive system of the road linking Northern Bulgaria with Sofia field.

The fortress is situated at about 640 meters above sea level, in a place surrounded by three rivers - at its eastern foothills influx River Krasteshka in Batuliyska River and from the north passes Ogradshishka river, which flows into Krasteshka. Nowadays along the Ogradishka River and near the fortress there are several springs, from where probably the fortress was supplied with water. In fact, the lack of direct water supply is a typical phenomenon for the 4th, 5th and 6th century. In some places in Bulgaria are discovered whole facilities, which lead to wells or springs outside the fortress walls - cut stairs, shafts and even underground tunnels. In the fortress near Batulya, in its easternmost part, is registered a deeply carved into the rock square-shaped facility, which probably had similar functions.

Another way of supplying water were the cisterns (storages), which were filled with rainwater or were manually loaded with water brought from the nearby springs. Sometimes for this purpose were used large pots (Greek: πίθος, Pithos; Latin: Dolium). The doliums were buried in the ground so that only their rims have appeared on the surface and were used for storage of various products - mostly grains, but also water, wine, etc. In Batulya fortress during the excavations were found quite large amount of fragments of such vessels that have been intended for storage and preservation of food.

The fortress itself was positioned in such a way that it protected its occupants from almost all directions. From the north the mountain slope descends steeply to the river Ogradischka. From the south, the terrain is a sheer cliff, positioned so that the fortress's builders were forced to build the southern wall arched toward the interior of the habitable space.

Only from the west the terrain is not steep and leads to a narrow mountain road, which after about 150 m reaches the modern route to the village of Bukovets. Exactly at that place was located the entrance of the fortress. The construction of this place is quite original and can be seen for the first time among the known fortresses in Bulgaria. Since the place is the most vulnerable point in the defense of the fortress, it is protected by a large-sized rectangular tower whose foundations now outline a square with walls of 10 m. The configuration of the terrain, however, did not allow the construction of one more tower from the other site of the gate. Thus, the fortress wall is extended in front of the tower, forming this way a narrow passage that has been used as entrance.

In east direction the fortification reaches to a very narrow and high cliff edge, long more than 100 m. Apparently it was part of the fortress, as in its easternmost site there was a narrow postern (additional emergency entrance) carved into the rock. Probably in antiquity this postern was led to very steep east slope of the hill. With the building of the monastery, the terrain just below it is artificially leveled, and now this eastern approach to the fortress is situated in close proximity to the monastery building.

Perhaps the interior of the fortress was densely built. A massive building, located in the narrowest part of the fortress, was partially discovered in 2017. At this point, the southern and northern fortification walls are closer than 10 meters apart. Typical for the fortresses of the period, however, is the maximum use of the protected area. Many of these strongholds have been overcrowded because of the population's desire to seek safety behind the fortress walls. The Batulya fortress is not exception - even in this narrowest section were located buildings, one of which was studied this season.

The building has a very stable construction. Its walls are built in so-called opus impectum - a technique where the two faces of the walls are formed by large stones and the space between them is filled with smaller stones, mixed with binding material, in this case mortar. In this way are usually built the fortification walls, and in our case the revealed building is more like a small bastion than a residential one. Its connection with the fortification system is not excluded, given the proximity of the discovered room to the northern wall.

The building was built entirely of stones, as no bricks were found during the digs. It probably had a second floor, as the thickness of the walls suggests great height of the building. The roof has been covered with tiles (imbrices) as in its ruins were found such building materials. Perhaps the floor and the walls have been plastered with clay, because some fragments of clay coats with a well flattened surface were discovered around.

South of the building was discovered part of stone flooring, which probably marked the street with east-west direction. Since this is the narrowest place of the fortress, it can be assumed that the street has connected the two wider parts of the fortress and had of central importance. In the upcoming seasons, tracking the route on this street will probably reveal the most important elements of the fortress. Parallels with similar fortresses show that this place should have besides residential buildings as well as administrative, economic and religious. A find of a bronze cross that was discovered in the fortress and is currently kept in the monastery "St. Nicholas" indicates that at the place was existed a church.

The finds found during the excavations suggest that the fortress was inhabited by civilian populations and was built for its protection, rather than strategic or military purposes. Of course, the existence of a small military garrison, possibly emitted from the population of the fortress, may be presumed. For now, however, in the fortress were found only artifacts with domestic character - vessels used in everyday life (jugs, pots, lids for these pots, etc.), a millstone used for grinding cereals, doliums for storage of products.

It is important to emphasize that this is only the beginning of the study of this fortress. In the next season the efforts will focus on clarification of the internal planning, tracking the main street and possibly uncovering a part of the fortification wall. Thus will reveal the first and so far the only ancient fortress in the Iskar Gorge, and we will learn many more interesting facts about the history of this region.

The archaeological excavations are a complicated work which requires the joint efforts of different specialists. Our main goal for the next season will be to uncover as much as possible structures incide of the fortress and to collect archaeological data about the everyday life of the ancient population. That's why we're going to work in several sections and we should take care about the documentation and describtion of our work.

Certainly, the first action we must take is to dig. We're going to dig at least in three different sections. That's because we need to check at different point of the site for archaeological structures. This way our team will be separated and your help will be very valuable. At the terrain we're going to need relatively great number of people to take care for measurements, to watch not to miss artefacts (archaeological finds) and to clean archaeological structures. Yes, the archaeological work is hard but not because of the digging but because of the scientific work that should be done at the field. And this is not all ...

The second part of our work consists of cleaning, photographing, drawing and describing. All finds coming from the site must be put in order as they are the main source of information. For example, the pottery must be washed, sorted and packaged in bags. The metal finds must be cleaned, measured and described. Furthermore, all this finds should be situated with exact coordinates of the place they were found. That's a great work and we will appreciate your help. Never forget - the archaeological excavations in fact destroy the archaeological sites! That's means that if we make mistake (miss to document something) we can not go back and restore the unearthed place as it has been before.

The archaeological field work is a complicated discipline which required wide range of skills. At the site you will learn some geodetic methods: how to measure the ground and localize your place of work, how to calculate the position of the materials found, how to work in different scales. We should master the methods of documentation of different archaeological situations - drawing vertical and horizontal plans, measuring coordinates of the finds, taking professional photos. Dealing with the archaeological finds at the site is aslo very important skill. You will learn the basic methods of collecting pottery, metal, bones, etc. Very important skill is to learn how to recognize and interpret the different chronological periods at the terrain (the archaeological layers). We will very carefully go deep into the cultural layers and describe all details in the archaeological diary.

The post field work will give you ability to understand and interpret the archaeological data. This is the second stage of the archaeological work and is focused on the materials found at the terrain. It will give you a basic knowledge on field conservation of the artifacts, documentation of finds and preliminary analysis of the archaeological data. You will learn how to deal with different type of archaeological finds, how to sort so called "mass material" and how to fill in inventory book. Short lessons will be given on illustration of the archaeological materials (technical drawing), processing of geodetic data and working with the appropriate computer software - AutoCad, Photoshop, etc. Within 15 days you will go through all necessary competencies of field archaeology. Never forget, however, that the practice is the best teacher! So, we're open for your ideas and we hope that you wll become a valuable member of our team.

The field school will be hosted by "St. Nicholas" monastery in the village of Batulya. This is a small monastery situated in a mountain foots in the defile of the River Beaulyiska. It is easy accessible and close to the main road connecting Sofia with North Bulgaria. The monastery is only 500 m away from the village and 40 minutes by car from the main Bulgarian city - Sofia.

Batulya monastery is relatively new - built in the beginning of 19 century. Interesting fact is that the monastery's building never has been used as a convent. This building was designed to be used for hostel (or guest house). Nowadays the monastery is managed by a single priest (Mr. Stefan) who is very kind and hospitable to the visitors.

The monastery offers shared rooms which are not luxury but clean and comfortable. The bathrooms are two - at the first and at the second floor. The monetary has a large kitchen with dining room as well as nice garden with open fireplace and barbecue suitable to be used in the warm summer evenings. Smoking in the building is not allowed. The monastery possesses its own Wifi connection which is free for the visitors.

Useful to know about the Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox presbyters and deacons may marry before ordination; Roman Catholic clergy are celibate.

There are no orders of Orthodox monks (male and female) as there is among Roman Catholics (Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines, Cistericans, etc.). More recently, many Roman Catholic monks and nuns have put away their traditional habits.

Orthodox clergy wear beards; Papist clergy are generally beardless.

The Orthodox Church teaches that all bishops are equal. To be sure, there are different ranks of bishops (patriarch, archbishop, metropolitan, bishop); nevertheless, a bishop is a bishop. Such differences apply to the administration of a church or group of churches, not to the nature of the bishop. The president of a synod of bishops is called archbishop (Greek custom) or metropolitan (Russian custom).

Again, icons are a necessary part of Orthodox piety. The Orthodox honor and kiss icons, a devotion which passes from the icon to the person or persons represented in them. Icons are not idols and the Orthodox do not worship them. Worship is reserved for God alone. The statues set up in Roman Catholic temples are not commonly venerated; they are visual aids and decorations.

How much it will cost?

One session (2 weeks) - € 738

Double session (4 weeks) - € 1328

Svoge municipal administration covers almost all necessary expenses for the excavations. All necessary materials and supplies are ensured. Also, you will not have to worry about your travelling in foreign country - our English speaking team will guide you and will organize your program. However, a low participation fee is required as you should cover your accommodation and meals as well as the educational tax.

We should respect as well as the monastery management and the efforts to keep in good condition the buildings and the monastery property. 30% of the participation fee will be given to the monastery in order to support its preservation and activities. Also you will need some additional money in your own if you plan to organize your own trip in the weekends. Sofia is too close to our accommodation place and you will have a chance to spend one or two days in the capital of Bulgaria.

Dr. Katya Melamed

Leader of the excavations

Katya Melamed, PhD, is one of Bulgaria’s foremost experts in Medieval Archaeology. Recently retired from the Bulgarian Institute of Archaeology, she continues to direct a number of excavations. She has a particular interest in the continuation of burial practices from the Thracians to the Christian era. Educated at St. Cyril and Methodius University, Veliko Turnovo, the Institute of Archaeology in Poland, and London University’s Institute of Archaeology. She has published many works in her particular research fields: the development of Balkan culture in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods; the pagan period of the early Middle Ages; continuities between antique and medieval culture; the archaeology and culture of the great migration period in Balkan history, and ethnography and ethno-archaeology. Katya is at present compiling a Bulgarian-English archaeological dictionary.

Prof. Dr. Dragomir Lalchev

Professor Dragomir Lalchev is a prominent scientist in the field of historical linguistics, onomastics and etymology. He is a member of Bulgarian Lexicographical Society, which is a branch of the International Association of European lexicographers, member of the National Expert Council of Bulgarian Onomastics, member of the Union of Scientists in Bulgaria. Founder and Head of the Laboratory for Linguistic Demography of the Balkans at the department of Philology, Southwest University "Neofit Rilski", Blagoevgrad.

In 2005-2009 he organized several field expeditions for localization of the cultural and historical monuments (churches, monasteries, fortresses) in Eastern Thrace. Author of 3 books and numerous articles.

Ass. prof. Dr. Tosho Spiridonov

Tosho Spiridonov is a specialist in Thracology, historical geography and cartography, historical ethnography and ethnology. Since 1973 he has been engaged in settlement studies and site mapping. In 1974 he took part in the first international expedition in Carthage, and since then had lead or participated in many field researches for localization and excavations of Thracian sites.

He is author of eight books as well as more than 45 papers and researches on different issues in the field of Thracology, Historical Geography, Historical Ethnography and Ethnology. He is director of the Information Science and Tourism System DAGIS 2.0, created with the help of scientists from over 20 museums and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Viktor Iliev

Viktor Iliev graduated Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" with Bachelor's degree and specialization in Archaeology. Although he has graduated recently he is experienced field archaeologist as he has done several fieldschools and practises at different archaeological sites. He works perfectly with small finds and geodethic documentation.

Currently he is working on his master thesis. His research interests are connected with the agricultural tools in the Medieval period as well as the Vikings history and archaeology.

What is the time period for the fortifications we are excavating? Is it early, middle, or late Byzantine?

The fortress is dated back to the end of 4th and 5th c. AD. No latest materials were found this season. So, on the basis of the reasearches so far the site can be identified as Early Byzantine.

2017 was your first dig on the site. What were you able to learn during this season?

This year we defined the dimensions of the fortification which are quite big - 100 x 50 m. We succeeded to uncover a well preserved building in the middle of the fortress, destroyed by fire. The pottery and the metal finds helped to define the chronology of the site. We done as well some geodetical work, so now is clear the layout of the fortification system.

Does the monk who runs the monastery speak any English?

The monk in the monastery doesn't speak English! However, all of us (our team) speak English and we will help you to communicate.

I am interested in Orthodox Christianity and would find it a bonus to be able to have some philosophical discussions with a monk of the faith.

We work very successful with many local priests as part of the program for document the churches and the sacred places in the region. So, our participants will have lots of contacts with the local monks.

What would be useful for me to study pertaining to the site?

After approval of your application we can provide you different books and papers according to your specific interests. The main topic of course is the Late antique fortification system in the Balkans. However, there are quite big numbers of connected topics as Early Christianity, Late antique military system, etc. So, it's depends of your personal interests.

Is it in close vicinity to the monastery a shop where we can shop if we need something?

The monastery is 1 km away from the village or about 20 minutes walking. In the village there are a restaurant, groceries and three coffee shops.

How we do your laundry?

The monastery possess its own washing machine so you can use it any time you need.

Is the monastery provides towels or we should bring our own?

Yes, the monastery provides towels and any other items necessary for your normal life.

Participant’s profile

This program is open for everyone who would like to support the European cultural heritage. However, you should be open to the foreign culture and ready for new experiences and challenges. Our target group is focused on young people (ages between 20 and 30) with a marked interest in History, Archaeology, Ethnography, Art and Culture. Hiking enthusiasts and nature lovers are also warmly welcome.


To join us you should simply fill in our Application form. In the time of applying we required 30% of the participation fee (or € 221) to be paid in advance. This amount is not refundable! Your place is considered reserved only after the payment of the fee.

After receiving of your application we will proceed your documents and will contact you within three days with further instructions. The rest of the fee (€ 517) is payable 4 weeks before beginning of the field school. This amount is fully reimbursable!

Any additional questions concerning application procedure and field school conditions you can send to