Archaeology Hot Spot on St. Cyricus Yields Yet Another Greek Treasure

Over the last few years, excavations on St. Cyricus, near the  Bulgarian town of Sozopol, have been particularly fruitful, unearthing a long and eventful history in the area. Now, on the St. Cyricus island-turned-peninsula, located on the southwestern Black Sea coast in  Bulgaria, archaeologists have discovered a 2,500-year-old terracotta relief that includes a depiction of ancient Greek warriors on the march.

What Were Greek Warriors Doing on St. Cyricus Peninsula?

The warriors depicted on the terracotta relief were known as hoplites. Recruited from the ranks of the civilian population in Greek city-states, these citizen-soldiers were used to defend their people against invasion or other external threats. It might seem unusual to find a carved image of this type in such a remote location, but there was in fact a prominent Greek settlement in the area now occupied by the  Bulgarian town of Sozopol in the sixth century BC, a time when hoplite warfare was widely practiced.

Far from being unusual, the newly discovered artifact is just the latest to be found on St. Cyricus Island (also known as Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island). Now connected to Sozopol via a bridged roadway, the St. Cyricus peninsula is one of the most extraordinarily fertile archaeological sites ever discovered on the Black Sea coast. This Black Sea colony, which was known as Apollonius Pontica, was named after the Greek god Apollo, perhaps the most admired of the  Olympian deities .

Since excavations of the island began in earnest in 2009, under the authority of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, Bulgarian and French archaeologists have discovered the remains of two temples devoted to  Apollo, along with many other artifacts and treasures that have revealed the complex truth about the island’s eventful and colorful past.

The terracotta relief, for which several puzzle pieces have been found on St. Cyricus, depicts hopolite warriors which would have been found at the Greek colony of Apollonius Pontica in the sixth century BC. (Public domain)

The terracotta relief, for which several puzzle pieces have been found on St. Cyricus, depicts hopolite warriors which would have been found at the Greek colony of Apollonius Pontica in the sixth century BC. ( Public domain )

St. Cyricus Discovery Is Just One Piece in a Larger Puzzle

This hoplite relief isn’t something unique, but literally represents one piece of a much larger puzzle. The terracotta slab belongs to a larger relief that at some point was broken into sections. This particular piece fits neatly with other slab puzzle pieces that were discovered within the remains of the two Apollonian temples during separate excavations.

“[The newly found fragments of the slab with Ancient Greek  hoplites] complement the ones [we] discovered in 2018 and 2019,” explained Bulgarian archaeologists and excavation leaders Krastina Panayotova, Margarit Damyanov, and Daniela Stoyanova in an official written statement. “They already number 20, a large part of which belong to the same scene.” The freshly reconstructed hoplite relief, which includes the latest piece inserted beside the others, has been on display at the Bulgarian Archaeology 2020 exhibit at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia since February.

Over the years, various sites at St. Cyricus have yielded an astonishing variety of discoveries, which have revealed much detail about the lifestyles, architectural, political, spiritual, and cultural practices and beliefs of the Apollonius Pontica colonists, who occupied the area for several hundred years. Among the more interesting findings, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of homes, estates, cemeteries, mines, and manufacturing facilities on the island.

Several articles in  Archaeology in Bulgaria  have reported that inside and around these structures, excavations have found fascinating artifacts like a ceramic sarcophagus, bronze arrow tips that doubled as coins, roof tiles stamped with  Apollonian imagery  and ceramic kilns for copper melting.  The Sofia Globe  also reports that on St. Cyricus archaeologists also uncovered a bronze statuette of a ram’s head, pottery covered with images of Oedipus and the  Sphinx, and a written decree from the island’s legislature inscribed on stone.

Apollonius Pontica, the Greek colony on St. Cyricus, was once home to the enormous Colossus of Apollonia Pontica, a impressive statue of Apollo which inspired the Colossus of Rhodes, seen here, which was built 200 years later. (Public domain)

Apollonius Pontica, the Greek colony on St. Cyricus, was once home to the enormous Colossus of Apollonia Pontica, a impressive statue of Apollo which inspired the Colossus of Rhodes, seen here, which was built 200 years later. ( Public domain )

The Colossus of Apollonius Pontica: Will it Rise Again?

Apollonius Pontica was founded in the seventh century BC by settlers from Miletus, a Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The colony was originally called Anthea, but was eventually renamed to honor its patron god Apollo. The colony’s namesake was a revered figure in Greek culture. At  Greek Mythology , Apollo is identified as “the Olympian god of the sun and light, music and poetry, healing and plagues, prophecy and knowledge, order and beauty … he is harmony, reason, and moderation personified, a perfect blend of physical superiority and moral virtue.”

Given his exalted status, it is unsurprising to learn that his most devout worshippers were determined to honor him in the right way. In addition to the two temples, the community at Apollonius Pontica also constructed a 42-foot-high (13 m) statue of their favorite Olympian that came to be known as the Colossus of Apollonia Pontica. This impressive statue of Apollo was built in the same style as the famed  Colossus of Rhodes , a 108-foot (33 m) statue that stood on the island of Rhodes and was acclaimed as one of the  Seven Wonders of the World .

However, the  Colossus of Apollonia Pontica was erected nearly 200 years  earlier than the giant statue in Rhodes, revealing that the world’s most famous ancient statue was really an elaboration of a previously established theme. Unlike its renowned successor, which was  destroyed in an earthquake  less than 60 years after it was built, the Apollonian colossus stood undisturbed guarding its island home for more than 400 years before the Romans dismantled it and took it back to  Rome in the first century BC.

In 2016, officials from the Natural Museum of History floated the idea of rebuilding the Colossus of Apollonia Pontica on St. Cyricus, reports  Archaeology in Bulgaria . This plan has been on standby. But that situation may soon change if a grand new project recently announced by the Bulgarian government actually comes to fruition.

An Archaeological Museum for the Ages

Last autumn, the head of the  Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, Boil Banov, proposed a bold and ambitious initiative. With financial and logistical assistance from the Louvre Museum in Paris and its affiliate in Abu Dhabi, the Bulgarian government would like to convert the entire island of St. Cyricus into an archaeological museum, center for the arts, and historical preservation site. Should this project find the necessary funding, it would include the construction of the new Colossus of Apollonius Pontica.

“[It is going to become] a museum of archaeology. You know what kind of things have been extracted from the island, it is a unique archaeological site. It should also have a museum of  underwater archaeology , where we would put together everything coming out of our  Black Sea  coast,” Banov declared. “The place [the St. Cyricus Island] might look squalid now,” added Nayden Prahov, Director of the Center for Underwater Archaeology in Sozopol, a body of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in  Sofia. “But here beneath those sacks, beneath the soil lie conserved exceptional archaeological sites.”

In November 2020, Banov escorted a delegation of dignitaries to St. Cyricus to inspect the property. These included archaeological and historical experts associated with the  Louvre Museum  and the Museum Agency of France, along with the French and United Arab Emirates ambassadors to Bulgaria. A final project plan is scheduled to be released in about six months, after which the hard work of securing firm funding commitments will commence.

Top image: The 2,500-year-old terracotta relief discovered on St. Cyricus depicts marching hoplites. Source:  National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

By Nathan Falde


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