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Early Roman Thrace: New Evidence from Bulgaria

Early Roman Thrace: New Evidence from Bulgaria

Edited by Ian P. Haynes (JRA Suppl. 82). Pp. 158, figs. 178. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2011. $87. ISBN 978-1-887829-82-3 (cloth).

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This volume presents the papers delivered at a Roman Archaeology Conference session held at the University of London on 31 March 2007 as part of the International Roman Archaeology Conference Series. The organizer and editor of the volume, Haynes, has assembled a stellar cast of eight prominent Bulgarian scholars to discuss recent research of Roman provincial archaeology in Bulgaria (11). All eight papers, including Haynes’ introductory essay, were presented at the conference, except for Hawthorne, Varbanov, and Dragoev’s paper on the Thracian pit sanctuaries. The volume abounds with well-reproduced plates of artifacts, a few black-and-white photographs, legible stratigraphic sections and excavation plans, five maps, and a two-page index.

In the introductory essay, the editor sketches out the establishment of Roman hegemony in Thrace by focusing on a selection of major political and military events. He further argues that the formation of Roman provinces needs to be understood through the lens of earlier phenomena such as the Greek colonization and Macedonian urbanization in inland Thrace. On the whole, Early Roman Thrace is designed to address the interaction between Thracians and Romans utilizing two major paradigms borrowed from New Archaeology: continuity vs. change and tradition vs. adaptation. These concepts transpire in most of the papers. The ultimate goal is to capture “the evolving picture of provincial life,” as Haynes puts it (11). Strictly speaking, however, “Thrace” in the title Early Roman Thrace is a bit problematic, since most of the papers, apart from “Thracia,” deal with Moesia Inferior as well; thus, the former is perhaps better replaced, albeit awkwardly, with “Bulgaria.” Although Haynes’ desire to go beyond the borders of present-day Bulgaria is laudable, there is a clear emphasis on archaeological projects codirected by British teams, both in Bulgaria (Nicopolis ad Istrum) and Turkey (Anastasian Long Wall Project), at the expense of others (e.g., Polish-Bulgarian at Novae, German-Bulgarian at Iatrus and Karasura, Italian-Bulgarian at Ratiaria). In addition, readers will notice that the bibliography used is a bit sketchy, with several notable omissions of recently published edited volumes and books on Roman archaeology, in Bulgarian but with good English summaries (e.g., M. Tacheva, Vlast I sotsium v rimska Trakiya I Miziya [Sofia 2000]; R. Ivanov, ed., Roman and Early Byzantine Settlements in Bulgaria. 3 vols. [Sofia 2002, 2003, 2008]; Archaeology of the Bulgarian Lands. 3 vols. [Sofia 2004, 2006, 2008], which deals with evidence from Moesia Inferior and Thracia from Octavian to Diocletian; I. Boyanov, Rimskite veterani v Dolna Miziya I Trakiya (I–III v.) [Sofia 2008]; M. Zahariade, The Thracians in the Roman Imperial Army: From the First to the Third Century A.D. Vol. 1 [Cluj-Napoca 2009]).

Although each of the remaining seven chapters has its own distinct character and informed scholarship, they can be divided into four categories: (1) wide-ranging historical surveys or archaeology as history (Minchev); (2) excavation reports (Vagalinski; Hawthorne, Varbanov, and Dragoev; Balabanov); (3) object-based studies (Boteva, Nenova-Merdjanova); and (4) social histories through epigraphy (Sharankov).

Minchev presents a dense and very traditional historical narrative about the Greek apoikia of Odessos based on a wide range of data (e.g., literary sources, architecture, metal finds, sculpture, inscriptions, coins) on the assumption that the significance of a place in history can be demonstrated through political and historical facts. Archaeological evidence is there to illustrate historical processes and validate evolutionistic theories.

Vagalinski’s discussion of the discovery of seven Early Roman kilns situated about 2 km north of the Late Antique fort at Iatrus raises tantalizing questions, since the results are insufficient to associate securely the lime production center with Early Roman Iatrus, which has yet to be located.

Hawthorne, Varbanov, and Dragoev’s paper is the only collaborative work in the volume, consisting of two distinct parts: a diachronic critical survey of Thracian pit sanctuaries (Hawthorne) and a case study provided by the excavation report on the multiphased “pit sanctuary” at Sexaginta Prista (Varbanov and Dragoev). Hawthorne provides not only a comprehensive account of the constant outpour of newly excavated classical and Hellenistic sites in Bulgaria, conveniently mapped and charted (59–60), but she also attempts to problematize what has become a hot topic of Thracian archaeology in the last decade by putting the phenomenon in a wider perspective.

Balabanov’s paper discusses the excavation of 33 graves, located about 1.8 km northwest of the Roman colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium, covered by a large tumulus known as Helikon during late antiquity. The case study is brought to enrich our knowledge about “continuity and change in funerary ritual in Roman Thrace” (107). The archaeological value of this fascinating complex aside, there is little to explain why it should be used as the most representative of the “Thracian” burial tradition of raising tumuli. In any case, a stratigraphic section of the excavated tumulus would have enabled the reader to get a better grip on the site’s complicated burial record.

Boteva’s paper adds another compelling treatment of the so-called Thracian Horseman—a topic on which she boasts an outstanding publication record (101–2). By focusing on marble votive reliefs depicting the latter (inscriptions excluded), Boteva adduces archaeological evidence from the Sanctuary of Asclepius Limenos near Slivnica in northwest Bulgaria and the burial mound at the village of Isperihovo, Pazardjik district, to understand better the significance of this “emblematic figure for the culture of Thrace” (85). To a great extent, the paper engages critically with Oppermann’s Der thrakische Reiter des Ostbalkanraumes im Spannungsfeld von Graecitas, Romanitas und lokalen Traditionen (Langenweissbach 2006) and Dimitrova’s article on the Thracian Horseman (“Inscriptions and Iconography in the Monuments of the Thracian Rider,” Hesperia 71 [2002] 209–22). Several claims appear to be reading too much into the evidence, which leads to the establishment and/or reiteration of a rather tenuous link between the votive reliefs of the Thracian Horseman and Thracian burial practices (e.g., a votive relief was found in the burial mound at Isperihovo and the observation that the arched upper side of several votive reliefs corresponds to, and is reminiscent of, the form of a tumulus).

Nenova-Merdjanova’s paper focuses on the production and consumption of bronze vessels and chariot decorations based exclusively on mortuary data (the exclusion of data from settlements is not explained [115]). Apart from presenting in a textbook style the most commonly used vessels, the author merely assumes and takes for granted that they should be unquestionably associated with the landowning “Thracian elite,” which was thriving during the centuries of Roman administration. The assertion that some bronze vessels were produced locally based on the bronze analysis showing that more than half were imports remains to be further substantiated (130).

The last paper, by Sharankov, is exceptional in several respects; it is the only contribution that meaningfully addresses the title Early Roman Thrace: New Evidence from Bulgaria, not only because it limits the discussion to the boundaries of the Roman province of Thracia but because it draws extensively on many recently published or little-known inscriptions. The result is a lucid, vivid, and exhaustive sketch of the rich social fabric of the province illustrated by hard epigraphic data.

The overall production of the volume is impeccable; the only typographical error I found is Mesimbria, which should read Mesambria, on the north Aegean coast in figure 1.1 (6). A list of figures, a separate one for maps, as well as a short bibliographical essay appended to the introductory paper, would have served the volume well. Finally, the publication of the proceedings from the conference is no doubt a big step forward by making the progress of Roman archaeology in Bulgaria more visible to a wider range of scholars abroad.

Emil Nankov
American Research Center in Sofia
1510 Sofia

Book Review of Early Roman Thrace: New Evidence from Bulgaria, edited by Ian P. Haynes

Reviewed by Emil Nankov

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Nankov

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