This article analyzes the
ancient Thracian inhabitants of Bulgaria, a people who settled
over 2,000 years ago and created magnificent works of intricate
golden art that surpasses much of the jewelry of today. Included
are some photos from my 2007 research trip to the Thracian
museum in Varna, Bulgaria. Also available is an a discussion
of the modern controversial debate of whether or not the Thracians
are the ancestors of the modern Bulgarians.
Map courtesy CIA World Factbook
The history and culture
of the ancient Thracian masters of Gold
During the Greek colonial
period and throughout the duration of the Roman Empire, southeastern
Europe was inhabited by a number of ethnic or social groups
of mysterious origins that are still debated today. The Dacians
of Romania, the Thracians of Bulgaria, and the Illyrians of
Albania all are of obscure origin, and many proud nationalists
from each country claim descent from these long-lost and glorious
ancient civilizations (often without any proof).
The Thracians are one of
the most unique of these ancient peoples, and despite having
a culture of metallurgy and golden jewelry that would make
most modern jewellers awestruck, few have even heard of their
lost civilization. Straddling what are now Bulgaria, northwestern
Turkey, Greece, and southern Romania, the Thracians were a
collection of clans and tribal confederacies mentioned as
far back as by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century
BCE. The modern territory of European Turkey (see the above
map) is called Thrace in their namesake. Herodotus compares
them to many of the semi-nomadic tribal confederacies like
the Iranian Scythians of Central Asia and Asia Minor. In his
History, he describes their society as one of austerity
and nomadry, saying that the Thracians are praised for their
refusal to learn settled trades and professions, and eschewed
when they do (2.167). As a result, the Greeks improvidently
considered them "barbarians" like the Persians for
refusing to settle into cities (like the Greeks). He describes
them as ever-ready for war and the hunt, often serving as
mercenaries in the Persian legions. He also describes their
use of the plant hemp for durable clothing, and proceeds to
describe the use of hemp as an intoxicant used in religious
ritual in the case of the Scythian Iranians (4.74). Although
he does not describe the Thracians as practicing this activity,
it is likely that he presumed it. Herodotus also emphasizes
the Thracian practice of human sacrifice of prisoners (9.119).
This discriminatory approach notwithstanding, Herodotus describes
their high involvement in the political and military history
of the region.
The ethno-racial origin of
the Thracians is uncertain. Their settlement in Europe is
believed to date back to 3,000BCE, although many non-Thracian
graves may have been applied to a Thracian origin unscrupulously.
The Thracians may be of a native European origin completely
isolated from any other, they may be an offshoot of the Greeks,
the wandering Celts, and they may have been related to the
Iranian race that spread throughout Asia Minor and Central
Asia in ancient history (and included the Scythians, Sarmatians,
and with some dispute the Hittites, Phyrgians, Dacians, and
Lydians). What is certain is that they were not related to
the migrating Slavs from which the Bulgarians today descend.
Xenophanes describes them as having red hair and blue eyes,
features not seen among the Greeks nor the Iranians, although
Xenophanes' description may have only applied to a few individuals
but was unusual enough for him to note a generalization. The
Thracian language, which is not fully known and had no written
form of its own, does not seem to be traced to any other racial
Although the Thracians possessed
a number of small states and kingdoms described by Herodotus
(such as Odrysia), the majority of graves and relics available
today depict a relatively tribal lifestyle with an elaborate
burial ritual and a religion heavily devoted to the afterlife.
As revealed in the pictures below from my research trip to
Varna's Thracian museum in Bulgaria, Thracian grandees were
buried with elaborate jewelry and riches for their journey
into the afterlife. Many exhumed items include swords, gems,
basins, necklaces, braces, brooches, and rings as glorious
as anything available today. As seen below, the centerpiece
of the Varna museum is an angel-like figure of solid gold,
one of the most intricate designs of the ancient world that
was so small and painstakingly designed that it is displayed
under a magnifying glass. There seems to have been a gender
segregation and inequality that was more emphasized than in
other cultures; women were buried with less elaborate goods
and were placed in the fetal position whilst men lay regally
The Thracian region was conquered
by the Romans (completed by Trajan in Dacia in the 2rd century),
then by the Germanic kingdoms of the Gepids, and finally intensely
fought over between the Byzantines and the new Bulgarian kingdom.
Today, it is split between Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece, although
the Thracians have long disappeared.
My photo of a Thracian
male skeleton complete with incredible ancient gems and gold.
(click photo to enlarge)
My photo of Thracian earrings, gems, pins, jewelry, etc. 800BCE-3000BCE.
My photo of Thracian jewelry on par with today's finest.
(CLICK TO ENLARGE)
My photo of the centerpiece of the Varna museum of ancient
Thracian history, under a magnifying glass
My photo of a wall diagram of the Thracian tombs discovered.
All the females are in the fetal position (CLICK TO
My photo of an ornate Thracian jewelry box with an Eastern
Swastika design and gems. The photo is under reflective glass
so the quality is inherently poor. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
My photo of more jewelry studded with gems on par with today's
best (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
The modern debate of a
Thracian origin of the Bulgarian people, and the disappearance
of the Thracians
It is uncertain what happened
to the Thracians, and much controversy arises due to modern
national pride sentiments. Many postulate that the Thracian
population declined due to famine and war in this very fought-over
region. Others claim that what little remained mixed in with
the Greeks, Romans, and Slavs who subjugated them. Other die-hard
nationalists claim that the Thracians survived and live today
as the Bulgarian people. There is no certainty or evidence
for any of these options.
There is an intense debate
in Bulgaria over whether they are of Slavic or Thracian racial
origin. Many even argue over a a Turkish ethnic origin. The
Bulgarians today are of an indisputably Slavic culture, language,
heritage, and identity for the last 1,500 years. They were
the first Slavic nation in the world, predating Russia's and
Ukraine's Kiev Rus. The Slavs entered the region from the
6th century onward, and were responsible for creating the
nation of Bulgaria. Others theorize a common link with the
so-called "Volga Bulgaria," a Turkic Muslim state
in modern Tatarstan (Russia) that was obliterated by Batu
Khan in the 13th century, whence the Turkic "Bulgarians"
emigrated southward to found modern Bulgaria in the Balkans.
This does not explain the undeniable Slavic character of the
Bulgarian people. Each of the above cases is merely theory,
and no theory is universally accepted.
It is also difficult to prove
the theory that the Bulgarians are the result of a uniform
mixing of Thracians, Slavs, and Turkic peoples for a variety
of reasons: 1) a small and languishing population like the
Thracians would be unlikely to universally mix with an invading
population of Slavs from a very different culture that did
not speak the same language and killed many of their relatives
in the invasions; 2) the incoming Slavs would be unlikely
to mix with this very foreign culture as well, and would likely
elevate themselves to high station that would eschew mixing
with the Thracians whom were likely considered of a lower
social strata; 3) occasional rare occurrences of mixing would
not uniformly affect the genetic makeup of a large incoming
Slavic population such that 100% of the population becomes
half-Slavic, half-Thracian, and; 4) the presence of mixed
blood from the comparatively smaller Thracian population would
have been bred out over the last 1,500 years by the consistent
presence of genes from the Slavic majority. For these reasons,
it is most likely to argue that the Bulgarians are a blatantly
Slavic people, but one with a long history of many previous
civilizations with which they interacted.
Nonetheless, the debate is
tireless in Bulgarian society. Many proud Bulgarians can be
found across the internet publishing articles, research, and
polemic Youtube videos describing the proud Thracian blood
heritage of the Bulgarian nation. Below is a selection
of these perspectives from Youtube. We are not responsible
for their opinions. You can read the arguments in the Youtube
comments to see how controversial this ethno-racial issue
James Mayfield is a historian
and the Chairman of the European Heritage Library. I have
a Cum Laude BA in History with a Minor in Germanic Studies
(language and history), am presently working for my Masters
in History, and plan to immediately progress to my PhD Doctorate.
I have a special academic interest in Europe's diverse ethnic
identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles
of native European and immigrant minority identities. See
my staff entry for more information.
Personal travels, observations,
and interviews in Bulgaria
CIA World Factbook
Herodotus' The History
The respective owners of
the displayed Youtube videos, who do not reflect our opinions
See links and courtesy throughout
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European Heritage Library®. www.euroheritage.net.
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