Thursday, November 1, 2012
Archaeologists in eastern Bulgaria have unearthed the oldest prehistoric town ever found in Europe and an ancient salt production site that may explain massive riches discovered in the region.
"We are not talking about a town like the Greek city-states, ancient Rome or medieval settlements, but about what archaeologists agree constituted a town in the fifth millennium BC," said Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria's National Institute of Archaeology, after announcing the findings earlier this month.
Dr Nikolov and his team have worked since 2005 to excavate the Provadia-Solnitsata settlement, located near the Black Sea resort of Varna.
A small necropolis, or burial ground, was also found this year, but has yet to be studied more extensively and could keep archaeologists busy for generations.
Archaeologist Krum Bachvarov from the National Institute of Archaeology described the latest find as "extremely interesting" due to the peculiar burial positions and objects found in the graves, which differed from other neolithic graves found in Bulgaria.
"The huge walls around the settlement, which were built very tall and with stone blocks... are also something unseen in excavations of prehistoric sites in south-east Europe so far," Dr Bachvarov added.
Well fortified, a religious centre and most importantly, a major production centre for a specialised commodity that was traded far and wide, the settlement of about 350 people met all the conditions to be considered the oldest known "prehistoric town" in Europe.
"At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart, these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them? [It was for one reason] - salt," Dr Nikolov said.
'As precious as gold'Dr Nikolov says the area is home to huge rock-salt deposits, some of the largest in south-east Europe and the only ones to be exploited as early as the sixth millennium BC.
These deposits were key to Provadia-Solnitsata's success and survival.
Nowadays, salt is still mined there but 7,500 years ago it had a completely different significance.
"Salt was an extremely valued commodity in ancient times, as it was both necessary for people's lives and was used as a method of trade and currency starting from the sixth millennium BC up to 600 BC," the researcher explained.
Salt extraction at the site first began in about 5,500 BC when people started boiling brine from the nearby salty springs in dome kilns found inside the settlement, Dr Nikolov said, citing carbon dating results from a British laboratory in Glasgow.
"This is the first time in south-east Europe and western Anatolia that archaeologists have come upon traces of salt production at such an early age, the end of the sixth millennium BC, and managed to prove it with both archaeological and scientific data," Dr Bachvarov confirmed.
Salt production was moved outside the settlement towards the end of the sixth millennium and productivity gradually increased. After being boiled, the salt was baked to make small bricks.
Dr Nikolov said production increased steadily from 5,500 BC, when one load from the kilns in Provadia-Solnitsata yielded about 25 kilogrammes of dry salt. By 4,700-4,500 BC, that amount had increased to 4,000 to 5,000 kilos of salt.
"At a time when salt was as precious as gold you can imagine what this meant," he said.
The salt trade gave the local population huge economic power, which could explain the gold riches found in graves at the Varna Necropolis and dating back to around 4,300 BC.
The 3,000 jewellery pieces and ritual objects have been internationally recognised as the oldest gold treasure in the world, raising questions as to how a culture of farmers and stock-breeders from a region otherwise poor in natural resources could acquire such wealth.
The excavations have however suffered from a chronic lack of state funding, which Dr Nikolov has replaced with private donations.
A British anthropologist, a Japanese ceramics expert and a team of radiocarbon specialists from Germany have worked on the site for free this season.