The city of Varna in Bulgaria is one of the oldest cities in Europe, with a history dating as far back as 4600 BC during the Chalcolithic period. The people who lived in Varna at this time have been simply called the ‘Varna Culture’, and the majority of information about this culture comes from the Varna Necropolis.
The Necropolis was accidentally discovered in 1972, and the enormous extent of the site has resulted in around 30% of the area still remaining unexcavated. There are 294 documented graves, many containing highly sophisticated pieces of gold and copper jewelry, gold-painted pottery, high-quality obsidian blades, stone beads, and shells. In total, the amount of artifacts from the excavated graves numbers over 4000 items – which represents an incredible amount of wealth to have been buried for any civilization, not to mention one which lived over 6,000 years ago!
The burials themselves vary, as it appears that bodies were either placed in a crouched or extended position – or in some cases, there was no body at all… only grave gifts! And oddly enough, those graves that didn’t contain a body were the ones that held more gold artifacts than any others. Out of all the goods that were found, 3000 of these were gold, weighing around 6 kilograms in total – these people were not lacking for finances! In fact, Grave 43 itself contained more gold in that one burial than has been found in the entire rest of the world from the Chalcolithic period.
Based on the artifacts and burial goods from Varna, it is likely that the Varna culture traded extensively with people from the lower area of Volga in Russia, as well as with groups living in the Greek Cyclades. Copper from the artifacts also seems to have come from a mine in south-central Bulgaria, while the shells have been identified as Mediterranean Spondylus mollusks – evidently, these people were experienced travelers!
Although little else is known about the Varna culture’s society, the burials do give some indication of a social hierarchy at least during some period of the culture’s existence. Grave 43, the oldest known burial in the Necropolis, was of a male who must have been part of the society’s elite: not only did it have more gold than any other graves, but he was also buried holding a war mace and wearing a gold sheath on his penis. In addition, small golden bull-shaped platelets from the grave suggest a common prehistoric association between bulls, warfare and male virility.
The culture seems to have come to a dramatic and immediate end around 4100 BC, and this has commonly been ascribed to a sudden climate change in the region. While it can be said for certain that the Varna culture was very concerned with the afterlife, as evidenced through the care and wealth they put into the Necropolis burials, the rest of their history will likely remain mysteriously hidden for the rest of time.
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Tomorrow: Beware of the mummy’s…toe?