Pliska - 100 years of archaeological excavations
R. Rashev, Ya. Dimitrov

I. The discovery of Pliska

The name Pliska is Slavic in origin. According to the linguists it is cognate with the Old Russian word pleso, pljos, meaning 'a lake, a swamp'. Probably the Slavs had given this name to the drained nowadays swamp near the town of Kaspichan or to some of the rivers running earby. Similar names are known throughout the Slavic area. Even now, there is a small town called Pliskov in Central Ukraine, in the Vinicka district. This town is situated at the border between two archaeological cultures of the VI-VII c. AD, which are connected with the early Slavs — the Penkovo and the Prague-Korchak. [--->  Comments on the Slavic etymology of Pliska]

Pliska (under the form of Plyuska) is mentioned for the last time in the Bulgarian Apocriphal Chronicle of the XI c. Notwithstanding the fact that import historical events occurred in its vicinity at the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, its name does not appear in either Bulgarian or foreign sources. But the name was not forgotten, it was even known in Western Europe. It appeared for the first time on a geographical map printed in 1688 AD in Amsterdam. A little bit later it appeared on other Western European maps. It is unlikely that anybody back then knew what this old town looked like or where it was situated. Western European travellers had limited access to the then Ottoman Empire, and Pliska was situated along a rarely used by them road. The German traveller Karsten Nibur passed through these places in 1767 AD and heard that near the town of Novi Pazar there were ruins of a large town, but he could not visit the site and did not know its name. In 1878 AD the Hungarian Felix Kanic inspected the ruins, managed to read the name 'Burdizo' on a half-buried stone column and assumed that this was the name of the town. This uncertainty was due to the fact that Aboba — the name of the small Turko-Tatar village that was established at the site the XVII c. had no connection with the name of the long abandoned and forgotten town. Only in 1884 AD, during his big tour of Bulgaria, the Czech historian Constantine Irechek realised that the ruins next to the village of Aboba were remains of the town of Pliskova, mentioned by Byzantine chroniclers of the X-XI c. AD [1].

 Constantine Irechek  Karel Skorpil  Fjodor Uspenskij
A bit earlier the brothers Herman and Karel Skorpil had settled in Bulgaria as a part of a large group of Czechs, whose aim was to assist the newly established Bulgarian state. Herman and Karel started work as teachers in natural science and mathematics, devoting their free time to the search and description of antiquities. The latter turned out to be Karel's true vocation. He was born on 15.07.1859 in the town of Visoko Mito, Czechia. He graduated in mathematics, but  ancient history attracted him stronger. After settling in the Bulgarian town of Varna he started to systematically inspect north-eastern Bulgaria. The ruins at Aboba impressed him deeply. He visited them repeatedly and the views of the large stone fortress and, especially, of the earthen ramparts made him ask himself whether this town was in existence even before its mentioning in the X c. and whether the older capital of Bulgaria, prior to Preslav, was here. His view was a herecy at the time when it was thought that Preslav was the only capital of the First Bulgarian kingdom. Initially Karel Skorpil did not express his suspicions openly. But with time evidence in his support accumulated. The stone fortress was surrounded by an enormous earthen rampart of a type unknown from either the Christian Bulgarian or the earlier Romano-Byzantine periods. Around the rampart there were devtashlars – sites of erected stones, placed in orderly fashion, which were undoubtedly connected with pagan customs and rites. The ruins of the mysterious town and the surrounding area produced several Greek language inscriptions from the pre-Christian Bulgarian period. The names of the rulers Omurtag and Malamir could be read on them. Besides this evidence, the distance of 85 km between the old and the new palace of the ruler Omurtag, stated in the inscription from Veliko Turnovo, did not correspond to the distance between Preslav and any part of Danube. Karel Skorpil was aware of the authorative explanation of C. Irechek, but he was not convinced by it. At least he expressed his views. In 1897 we read in his book "Mogili" ("Mounds") that: "... here (at Aboba) was, I think, the old Bulgarian capital of Asparukh, Krum, Omortag and Malamer, the capital having moved after that to the near-by Preslav." [2] This laconical conclusion was repeated in the Annual report of the Varna archaeological society from 1897-1898. The views of Skorpil came to the knowledge of the eminent Russian Byzantologist Fjodor Uspenskij, at that time — the head of the Russian Archaeological institute in Constantinople. The Russian scholar was known for his efforts to reveal the true place of the Slavs in their relations with Byzantium and supported an attempt to locate the oldest capital of Bulgaria.
Stone inscription of khan Omortag, found in Veliko Turnovo, speaking about the building of a fine dwelling at the river Danube
DOvcharov, p. 83
+ Ka(n)a subi-
gh Wmo-
rtag i-
s ton pole-
on ukon a-
utou meno(n)
epuhsen up-
erfumon uko(n)
is ton Danoub-
hn k(e) anamesa
ton duo uko(n)
ton panfu-
mo(n) katametrh-
sas is tin auth(n) meshn  e-
puisa toumban ke
apo tin auth(n) meshn
ths toumbas eos thn auli(n)
mou thn arcea(n) isin orghe
muriades b| k(e) epi ton D-
anoubin ishn orgies muriades b|. to auto toubi(n)
estin panfumo(n) k(e) metrisa(n)-
tes tin gin epuisa ta grama-
ta tauta. o anqropos k(e) k-
ala zon apoqniski ke al-
os genate ke ina o escaton gh-
nometos tauta qeoron  upomnh-
skete ton puisanta auto. to de d-
noma tou arcontos esthn W-
mortag kan<n>a subigh o Q(eo)s a-
zhosi auton zise et-
h r| .
"Kanasubigi Omortag, inhabiting his old home, made a famous home at the Danube and in the middle between these famous homes, after he took measurements, he made a mound, and from the middle of this mound to my old palace it is 20,000 measures and to the Danube it is another 20,000 measures. The mound itself is famous and after I measured the land, I made this inscription. A man even if he lives well, dies and another is born. Let the one born later, when looking at this inscription, remembers the one who made it. And the name of the archon is Omortag kana subugi. Let God grants him to live for a hundred years."


In June 1899 F. Uspenskij, accompanied by his assistant M. Popruzhenko, arrived in Bulgaria in order to select a place for the sponsored by his institute excavations. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education on its part dispatched K. Skorpil and the historian V.N. Zlatarski and this four-men commission left for Aboba. There Skorpil presented his arguments in detail. They were accepted by the rest of the commission as worthy an excavation. The arguments were repeated publicly a little bit later by V. Zlatarski at an archaeological congress in Kiev [3].

The excavations started on October 6, 1899, with 20 workers. Their number increased to 35 by the end of the season. A mound of ruins, called "Sarajeri" ("Palace") by the local Turkish population was excavated. On October 16, 10 workers were send to start digs at the locality "Klise-eri" ("Church"). Skorpil's feeling of the site allowed him to select the two most significant monuments of Pliska, designated as early as then as the Throne Palace and the Large Basilica. The results were surprising and impressive. The excavated buildings, despite the destruction, were so impressive, that initially F. Uspenskij thought they were not Bulgarian, but Byzantine. The excavations continued in 1900, when the work on the localities from the previous year was finished and new, partial excavations of the stone fortress and of buildings to the west and to the north of the palace were initiated. A large pagan temple, converted consequently into a church, and two buildings, described as the living quarters of a palace were discovered. The massive stone walls, built of large ashlars, the layout of the buildings as well as the artefacts did not leave space for doubt — this was the capital of Bulgaria from the pagan period. Its name, however, was not revealed. Was it unknown to the sources or was it indeed the mentioned in X-XI c. sources 'Pliskova'? The excavations could not answer this question.

 Inscription bearing the name of Pliska ('PLSKA') found in the aul of Omurtag at the village of Khan Krum (Chatalar)
SVaklinov, p. 122
--->   more about this aul..
Kana subigi
Wmortag is tin
gin opou egeniqin,
ek Qeou arcon estin.
is tis Plskas
ton kanpon me-
nonta epuisen aulin
is tin toutzan ke me[tigagen
tin dunamin tou [is tous
Grukos ke sklabous ke
tecneos epuisen gefu[ran
is tin Toutzan me to aulin
stulous tesaris ke e[pano ton
stulon estisen leon[tas
duo. o Qeos axiosi ton ek Qeou a-
contan  me ton poda aoutou
ton basilea kalo[patounta, eos tre-
ci h Toutza ke eos [----
tous polous Boulgaris epecoun[ta,
tous ecqrous autou upotasonta ce-
ronta ke agaliomenos zisin
eti ekaton. ito de o keros, otan
ektistan, boulgaristi sigor elem,
grikisti indiktionos ie| .
"Kanasubigi Omortag is by God ruler of the land he was born in. Living in the camp of Pliska, he built a small camp on (the river of) Ticha and moved his army there against Greeks and Slavs [*]. And he skilfully made a bridge over Ticha together with the small camp and he put four columns in this small camp, and on top of the columns - two lions. Let God grant the archon placed by God to trample well with his feet the emperor until Ticha flows and until ..., as he rules over the many Bulgarians and subjugates his enemies, to live in happiness and joy for a hundred years. The time when this was built was in Bulgarian shigor elem, and in Greek - indiction 15." 

[* Omurtag, who kept a 'deep' peace with the Byzantines (see the 30-year peace treaty from Sechishte/ Sjulejmankjoj), probably has in mind Thomas the Slav, the Byzantine rebel who proclaimed himself an emperor. Later, Omurtag defeated Thomas near Constantinople]

The following years were devoted to the preparation of the report, published in 1905 in vol. X of the Russian institute's journal [4]. The work was done mainly by K. Skorpil. Meanwhile, in 1905 F. Uspenskij organized minor excavations at Preslav. At the same time, following Skorpil's advice, the young archaeologist from Shumen, Rafail Popov, excavated a large half-buried stone column in the field to the west of the then village of Chatalar (modern Tsar Krum), at 6 km to the north of Preslav, on the road towards Pliska. The 25-lines of Greek text on this column inform about a palace, which Omurtag built along the river Ticha in 821-822 AD. In the inscription Omurtag calls his residence 'the military camp Pliska'. Thus we came to know the name of the first capital. A little bit later the Bulgarian Apocriphal Chronicle from the XI c. was also discovered. The chronicle attributed the foundation of Pliska to tsar Ispor (Asparukh).

Karel Skorpil had a real archaeological discovery on his hands. It was not incidental, but deliberate, the fruit of a long period of preliminary work. In some aspects it mirrors some of the discoveries of the European archaeology in the Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt.

1. For a review of the excavations at Pliska see BESHEVLIEV, V. Iz kusno-antichnata i srednovekovnata geografiya na Severoiztochna Bulgariya. – IAI XXV, 1962, p. 1-18.

2. SKORPIL H. and K. Mogili, Plovdiv 1898, p. 153.

3. ZLATARSKI V.N. Gde nuzhno iskat’ pervuyu bolgarskuyu stolicu – Trudy XI Arheologicheskogo suezda v Kieve 1899 g. T. II. Protokoly. M., 1902, p. 116-118.

4. Izvestiya Russkogo arheologicheskogo instituta v Konstantinopole. T. X, 1905.