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morfrain_encilgar
Sunday, May 29th, 2005, 07:56 PM
Treasures fit for the kings : A spate of spectacular discoveries could completely change our view of the Thracians, one of history's most mysterious peoples

(Jumana Farouky)

They had been digging for 12 years, 4 months a year, 18 hours a day. Since 1992, Georgi Kitov and his team have been searching through Bulgaria's Valley of the Kings, a 100-km, heavily forested region in the center of the country. The valley is dotted with ancient burial mounds erected by the Thracians, whose legacy as a pillar of ancient Europe lives on in texts and stories, but whose civilization remains a mystery. Kitov is slowly exploring the necropolis and making some of the country's most incredible discoveries in the hopes of adding to historians' limited knowledge of the Thracians, who flourished during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. in Bulgaria and parts of modern Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Turkey before being conquered by the Romans.

Last July, he was taking a break from the valley to explore an enormous ancient temple near the central village of Starosel. But when the 62-year-old archaeologist, a short, plump man known as Bulgaria's Indiana Jones, got word that looters had been spotted in the valley at the site of a mid-5th century B.C. tomb near Kazanlak, 170 km east of Sofia he dropped what he was doing and rushed to the scene. Whatever was in that tomb, Kitov's crew had to get to it first. Otherwise, the tomb raiders could make off with priceless historical artifacts.

So Kitov and crew moved to Kazanlak, to a site near a spring with rumored healing powers. And they began to dig. Finally, about a month later, they struck gold literally. Inside the tomb, they found the remains of a man who had been chopped into pieces, the bones of his legs, hands and lower jaw positioned carefully on the ground. Next to the dismembered skeleton was a life-size mask made of solid gold. Kitov was so excited, he now can't recall how he reacted. But his teammates remember him grabbing his head with both hands. "It can't be possible," he gasped. "It can't be possible."

The 2,400-year-old mask is just the first in a vast haul of treasures including a gold ring engraved with the figure of an athlete, and a near-complete set of armor as well as bronze arrowheads, spearheads, swords and breastplates that together amount to one of the most sensational archeological finds of recent years. The Thracian artifacts were first brought together at Sofia's National Archaeological Museum, but this week they move to a local museum in Kazanlak before heading off to Japan to appear at the World Expo in mid-June. Beautiful and intimidating, these objects bring the legends of a rich and powerful kingdom to life. "We always knew that the Thracians had great wealth from references in ancient texts," says James Sickinger, a professor at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. "These findings show that the Thracians had wealth that rivaled that of any other great kingdom of the time."

The Thracians were known as great warriors; Spartacus, the gladiator slave who led a rebel war against the Romans, was a Thracian. And they were renowned throughout the ancient world as expert metalworkers; in The Iliad, Homer describes the Thracian King's golden armor as "a wonder to behold, such as it is in no wise fit for mortal men to bear, but for the deathless gods." With little else to go on, historians have tended to rely on ancient Greek depictions of the Thracians as a savage, tribal society that had no politics and no alphabet of its own. But after three months of digging, Kitov surfaced with over 130 pieces of magnificent jewelry, weaponry and ritual artifacts that show Thracian culture rivaled that of the Greeks. They prove that the Thracians were "not a society of barbarians," says Alexander Fol, a Bulgarian expert on Thracian history. "They had a system of values and were consciously abiding by it. This was an aristocratic society with a great hierarchy."

And the man buried in Kazanlak with the golden mask was likely at the top of it. The mask is one of the highlights of the collection. Weighing in at 672 g and made of 23.5-carat gold, it has a menacing expression, and its mustache, beard and small locks of hair are rendered in exquisite detail. "There have been other gold masks discovered, but all of them are made of foil-thin gold," Kitov says. "Gold masks with this shape and weight are absolutely unknown." He believes the mask was owned by a Thracian ruler, who, in a ritual that has been described in ancient Greek texts, would drink wine from it at public occasions and then place the mask over his face. "His subjects, or foreign emissaries, would look in awe at the golden face of the divine ruler." The mask, and the way it was placed beside the skeletal remains in the tomb, suggest the Thracians' spirituality may have been as complex as their artistry. "The separation of body parts, the golden mask placed where the face must have been it all seems like it has been designed to transfer the spirit into immortality," says Fol.

The exhibition also features items from a second tomb Kitov uncovered only 2 km from the first, called Goljamata Kosmatka (literally, the Big Hairy, because the hill over the tomb used to be covered in trees). Instead of the more common large single chamber, this tomb is made up of three rooms at the end of a 13-m-long corridor. When Kitov broke through the stone walls covering the entrances, he found the first room contained the remains of a sacrificed horse. The grave itself is in the third chamber, carved out of a single block of limestone weighing more than 60 tons. Inside was a ritual deathbed, a resting place for the spirit, covered in gold thread. But no bones: the body was most likely burned or buried.

Kitov believes the tomb, which was built around 150 years later than the one that contained the mask, belonged to King Seuthes III, who ruled in the late 4th century B.C. and fought Alexander the Great's predecessors. The first clue was the bronze head he found when he entered the corridor. It had been broken off a statue and hidden in a carved hole, under a pile of stones. The sculpture is eerily lifelike, even down to a small mole on the left cheek. And then there are the name tags: a series of carved dots on the handles of a vial and on a small pitcher are coded messages claiming the items belong to the King. "The Thracians believed in resurrection, but the rebirth was as a spirit, not a body," says Kitov. "They believed that the spirit has the same needs as the body. That's why they would put so many things inside."

Now that the ancient kings no longer need them, Kitov, along with fellow archaeologists and historians, can use those things to learn more about the lives of Bulgaria's ancestors. In the meantime, he and his team are busy planning more excavations. While there is still much mystery surrounding the Thracians, Kitov is determined to keep on digging.