Earliest Known Cyrillic Script With Ancient Plea Found at Medieval Bulgarian Fortress

Researchers performing excavations at a medieval fortress in Bulgaria unearthed a weathered and aged lead plate that contained a hard-to-read inscription. In fact, the inscribed words were so faint that they weren’t even noticed at first. But once the script was detected, its discoverers realized they were looking at one of the earliest samples of Cyrillic writing they’d ever seen.

“After being duly cleaned, conserved, and the epitaphs deciphered, we established, with absolute certainty that the lead plate is from the 10th century. What is more, the plate itself was found in the archaeological layer where 10th century coins and belt appliqués from that period were discovered,” said the artifact’s discoverer Ivaylo Kanev, in an interview with Radio Bulgaria (BNR) .

Since the Cyrillic script was only invented in the late ninth century, this is about as old an example of this unique alphabet as will likely ever be found.

Magical Plates and a Magical Script

The inscribed lead plate was recovered from the medieval Balak Dere fortress, the ruins of which can be found near the village of Huhla in the Eastern Rhodope mountains of southern Bulgaria . The plate was recovered in the autumn of 2022, and its faded inscription was first noticed by a photographer that was taking pictures of this artifact and other items excavated at the site.

Lead plates of this type were hung from the neck and worn across the chest, often by soldiers headed into battle. It was said that these amulets protected their owner from death, injury, disease, and magic spells.

Ivaylo Kanev, an archaeologist and chief curator at the Bulgarian National History Museum, has been leading the excavations at Balak Dere, which functioned as a Bulgarian army outpost during the imperial reign of Tsar Simeon I, or Simeon the Great (893—927). Under Simeon’s leadership the First Bulgarian Empire expanded its borders and its wealth dramatically, even launching military campaigns against the powerful Byzantine Empire in their quest for more land space.

Excavations of Balak Dere Fortress, Bulgaria, where the lead breast plate was found. (Rodopi/National Museum of History Bulgaria)

Excavations of Balak Dere Fortress, Bulgaria, where the lead breast plate was found. (Rodopi/ National Museum of History Bulgaria)

Origins of Cyrillic Script

The Cyrillic inscription dates back to the reign of Simeon the Great, which is another reason it holds great intrigue.

“This text probably got into the fortress in the period between 916 and 927 and was brought by a Bulgarian military garrison,” Kanev said. He based this conclusion on the style of the letters, plus the excavation layer inside the fortress where the lead plate was found.

Up to now, the earliest example of Cyrillic writing was a sample from the year 921. The researchers can’t be sure if the newly discovered inscription is older than this, although it certainly could be.

The Cyrillic script was originally created in the late ninth century, during the early years of Tsar Simeon I’s reign. It was developed at the Preslay Literary School, most likely by the Byzantine brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius . These celebrated individuals had earlier developed the Glagolitic script , which acted as a foundation for the Cyrillic alphabet and writing style.

Close up of the Cryllic engraving on lead. (Ivaylo Kanev / Bulgarian National History Museum)

Close up of the Cryllic engraving on lead. (Ivaylo Kanev / Bulgarian National History Museum )

“Protect us, St. Dimitar!, Now and Forever!”

Previously, about 50 protective amulets dating to ancient times had been found at sites in northeastern Bulgaria. But the inscribed chest plaque from Balak Dere is the first such item recovered in southern Bulgaria, and it is the first that specifically identifies the owner of the lead plaque and mentions what they hoped to gain from wearing it.

According to Kanev, there are two individuals mentioned in the Cyrillic text, Pavel and Nikola. They were likely related, with one or both serving in the Bulgarian army garrison stationed at Balak Dere in the 10th century.

It seems the wearer of the plaque/amulet, either Pavel and Nikola, chose to inscribe it with a plea to St. Dimitar. Also known as St. Demetrius of Thessalonica, this fourth century Greek martyr was recognized during the Middle Ages in Bulgaria as the protector of Orthodox Christian soldiers involved in righteous wars against unbelieving enemies.

 “They are asking St. Dimitar to intercede with God on their behalf and protect them from such-and-such calamities,” Kanev explained.

“I will quote the last line which is very canonical and astonishing, because we have never seen anything like it before: “…wash his face with grace, exonerate the shame, heal, oh, Saint, because His is the glory, and the honor, and the state, now and forever, Amin!” Very well structured, like a canon, there are no simple wishes here. That is the other novelty.”

The inscription offers no details on the status of the person who wore the plaque/amulet. But Kanev believes it holds some clues that allow for conclusions to be drawn.

“Who was that person, was he a military man, an officer or a private?” he asks rhetorically.  “We can only guess. But the owner is not of the rank-and-file judging by the text on the amulet which is so well constructed canonically. That was something only the aristocracy could do. As far as we know, there was even a special position in the Bulgarian church called exarch, whose job it was to make sure the canon was observed and the church services conducted properly.  But we still have a lot of work to do on this inscription.”

The inscribed lead plate represents a unique find, and Kanev and his colleagues are wondering what other rare and unusual items they might unearth as they continue exploring the 1,100-year-old ruins at the Balak Dere fortress.

Top image: Faded Cyrillic script discovered on lead plate. Source: Ivaylo Kanev/ Bulgarian National History Museum

By Nathan Falde


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