The Panagyurishte treasure, named after a tongue-twisting town in Bulgaria, is a masterpiece of Thracian worksmanship. It consists of a phiale, an amphora and seven rhytons, all made of solid 24-carat gold. The treasure weighs a total of 6.164 kg (13.5 pounds) and is arguably the single most valuable set of artifacts ever found on the territory of Bulgaria.
A Monumental Discovery
On December 8, 1949, brothers Pavel, Petko and Michail Deikov were working on the Merul clay pit in the vicinity of the Bulgarian Revival town of Panagyurishte. While sifting clay at a depth of 2.4 metres, they found the nine pieces mentioned above. They were diligently turned over to the local authorities, which sent them on to Plovdiv. Due to its extreme rarity and value, the original treasure is typically kept in the vault of the Bulgarian National Bank, and there are three faithful copies which are exhibited worldwide. The first, made in the 1970’s, is ordinarily housed in the Archaeological museum in Plovdiv, although they all tend to travel quite a bit.
A Set Fit for a King
The Thracian civilization which inhabited the land south of the Balkan mountains had formed the Odrysian kingdom in the 5th century BC along the banks of the Maritza. King Seuthes III moved its capital to Seutopolis (present-day Kazanluk in Southern Bulgaria) and was buried there, in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, around 300 BC. It is thought that the Panagyurishte treasure was used to serve ceremonial wine in his palace.
Phiales, Amphoras and Rhytons
The bulk of the treasure consists of seven rhytons, which are often described as wine cups used by the Thracians. Their role is a bit more complex. A rhyton is in fact a ritual cup for sanctifying wine. Wine is poured into the top of the rhyton, and poured out of a tiny hole in the bottom into a phiale, from where it could be consumed.
Three of the rhytons depict women (possibly Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, possibly Amazon warriors). Out of the other four, one depicts the Judgement of Paris, one has Theseus and Hercules performing feats of strength, and all are faced with the heads of stags, rams or goats.
The phiale, a shallow drinking bowl with a hemispherical divot in the middle, was the vessel that was actually brought to the drinker’s lips. The single phiale in the set is about 25 cm in diameter, and its bottom symbolizes the sun, ringed with 24 acorns (matching the crown of Seuthes III which consisted of acorns and oak leaves), and three concentric rings of 24 Ethiopian heads each used to ward off evil.
The amphora is the most fascinating vessel in the set. Depicting seven warriors (possibly the seven kings from the Theban cycle, possibly seven Thracians outside the gates of a temple), it was used as a ceremonial vessel of peace. With a single entry point at the top and two libation holes (both embedded in Ethiopians’ heads), it was used to simultaneously pour wine into the phiales of two kings as a sign of peace. This had a practical implication as well, as drinking from the same sanctifying vessel eliminated the possibility that one king might poison the other.
The phiale and the amphora share a set of weight symbols used in the ancient Marmara sea port of Lampsacus, where it is likely that the Thracians first had contact with African tribes.
The first copy of the treasure can be seen in the Inn of Hadji Nikoli in Veliko Tarnovo until October 2012, after which it will return to the Archaeological museum in Plovdiv. There are a total of three official, perfect copies of the original: the Plovdiv one, one for the National History Museum in Sofia, and one to be exhibited in the History Museum in Panagyurishte when the original is not there.