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

II. History of the investigations

There were no further excavations after these of F. Uspenskij and K. Schorpil in Pliska in the next thirty years. Their discoveries and conclusions were accepted by the scholars as something to be admired. Disputable remained only the problem of the antique building elements, found during the excavations – predominantly bricks with private and state Roman and Byzantine stamps. On the basis of these there was formulated the hypothesis that Pliska was built on the site of a Roman village [5]. The idea did not find solid support but it resurfaced some forty years later. The digs were resumed as late as in the 1930s. The Union of the archaeological societies from north-eastern Bulgaria "Bulgarska starina" ("Bulgarian Antiquity") sponsored the clearing of the accumulated soil and the facilitation of the public access to the site. This was followed by new, partial excavations around the palaces which yielded important results. In several pits, dug by Krustjo Mitjaev beneath the foundations of the Throne Palace, he found the remains of a massive building, several times larger then the Throne Palace. In many places there were signs of a massive fire — ashes, coal, burned building elements. There were also discovered the burned remains of a secret underground passage leading from the palace to the north. Mitjaev connected these remains of a fire with the mentioned in the sources burning of the palace of khan Krum by the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I in 811 A.D. [6]. He called the building "Krum’s Palace".  To the north of the Small Palace Mitjaev unearthed a solid building whose layout resembled that of the palace and, hence, called it Bolyar dwelling. At the same time Petur Karasimeonov cleared one part of the courtyard in front of the Small Palace and found the foundation of a pagan temple, and to the west of it — the remains of two baths and a small church [7]. Thus new buildings began to appear around the Palace centre excavated by K. Skorpil. New data allowed also for a better periodization of the individual buildings. At the same time the Hungarian Geza Feher excavated mound No XXXIII. At the top, beneath a thick layer of ash, Feher found around twenty clay vessels — the first artefacts of the proper proto-Bulgarian culture in Pliska. But he did not give them the attention they deserved. Around that time dominant became the idea that the layout and the building technique in Pliska were a manifestation of the proto-Bulgarian originality and of direct contacts with the Sassanian culture of Iran [8]. These unjustified statements stifled the sober views of K. Mitjaev about the similarity between the Pliska palaces and the contemporary to them Byzantine architecture [9].

Regardless of the post-war difficulties, Pliska was among the few sites of regular excavations initiated after 1945. They were concentrated on the territory of the so called Outer town — the area between the stone fortress and the earthen rampart and ditch. Even Schkorpil had pointed out various ruins of buildings there. They appeared only as not very tall mounds. Beneath some of them there were discovered foundations of churches and of residential buildings. A large complex of residential and business buildings and workshops were investigated around one of the churches (site 31) – the first example of an unknown type that was also being uncovered at Preslav at the same time. But more important was the discovery of the dwellings of the ordinary population of Pliska – quadrangular semi-dugouts heated by stone stoves. At site 31 these dwellings had constituted one part of a larger settlement, over which the architectural complex was later built. Consequent excavations at the banks of the stream Assar-dere, to the west of the stone fortress, showed that there were other similar settlements in different parts of the Outer town.

The Inner town (aerial picture)
Source: AKuzev, p. 51
The Palace complex of the pagan rulers (aerial picture)
Source: SStanilov2, p. 55
(All pictures refer to Pliska/finds from Pliska unless stated otherwise.
The pictures come from more than one source. See Abbreviations )

The excavations of the Palace centre were resumed at the end of the 1950’s and during the 1960’s. A large reservoir was found next to the western wall of the enclosure around the Small Palace, one more bath – close to the reservoir. The accumulation of new data led to attempts to order chronologically the buildings and to access their cultural and historical value [10]. The new generation of archaeologist, working at Pliska, did not have an united opinion about the dates of the massive stone buildings and the surrounding them fortress walls. In the 1950’s the linguist D. Krunzhalov, who emigrated to Czechoslovakia, developed the hypothesis that Pliska was a Roman town. He published several works trying to show that all monumental stone constructions there dated from Roman time. His conclusions were explicitly or implicitly shared by some archaeologists, including those working at Pliska [11]. Other archaeologists did not agree with Krunzhalov’s views as they contradicted the archaeology of the site [12]. The discussion about Pliska also led to a more general discussion about the impact and the role of the Slavs and the proto-Bulgarians as builders of the old Bulgarian culture. The “antiquity” researchers summarily dismissed any contribution of the proto-Bulgarians, referring to their “nomadism” and granted the lion’s share of the old Bulgarian achievements to the Slavs as a the “more cultured” people [13]. Their opponent St. Stanchev (a.k.a Vaklinov) pointed to the historical role of the proto-Bulgarians in the establishment and the management of the [Bulgarian] state and to their decisive importance for the building of the monumental constructions in Pliska [14]. The dispute was an echo of the recurring ideological bias in the Bulgarian scholarship, this time – in the years after 1944, which glorified the Slavs at the expense of the previously (in the pre-WWII years) glorified proto-Bulgarians. Although the two sides in the dispute held to their views, the ensuing discussion allowed the public to hear their detailed arguments. In the meanwhile, the general tendency of national uniqueness, which was gaining grounds in the 1960’s, did not allow the thesis about the antique (Roman) origin of Pliska and about the “low culture” of the proto-Bulgarians to become the official point of view of the Bulgarian archaeology.

A new discovery served to resolve the disputes and the tensions around Pliska. During additional investigations at the Large Basilica Stamen Mihajlov found four stone sarcophagi. One of them was covered by a reused plate on which there was chiselled out a grave inscription from the time of khan Omurtag. Another sarcophagus – No 4, was tightly closed. Even before its opening, it was expected that the sarcophagus would be the resting place of a high-ranking official. Pliska and the Pliska sarcophagi earned wide popularity. The then chairman of the State Council Todor Zhivkov sent a special greeting to the Bulgarian archaeologists. A special chamber was built over the sarcophagi, lifting equipment and facilities for immediate conservation of organic remains were brought. The heads of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and members of the cabinet arrived at the site. The excavator himself was not allowed to the chamber and was forced to leave the site and Pliska. The opening of sarcophagus No 4 brought disappointment. Instead of the expected regal insignia there was found a skeleton in an advanced state of decomposition, together with the remains of two leather belts, one of them – with a golden buckle and a golden point.

The beginning of the 1970’s [15] saw changes in the teams working at Pliska and Preslav. The leadership was entrusted to a three-man committee headed by the Director of the Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. A long-term programme of excavations over wide area was established which led to the location of new archaeological monuments and to the elucidation of the nature of previously excavated ones. The new materials as well as the forthcoming celebration of the 1300th anniversary of the creation of Bulgaria (in 1981) led to the creation of a special branch of the Archaeological Institute at Shumen and to the publication of a collection “Pliska-Preslav”. Three sites, initiated by K. Skorpil, were excavated at Pliska – the Palace centre, the Large Basilica, and the fortress walls. Wide restoration works were also planned (fortunately, the latter projects were not realised). The generous funding allowed the archaeological season to start in April and end in October-November for years in a row. The result towards the end of 1981 was impressive. The monastery around the Large Basilica was completely studied; additional studies were done in the basilica itself. The northern half of the eastern as well as a sector of the northern fortress walls were uncovered. The southern and western walls (1,500 m in total length), the so called Krum’s Palace and building No 32 were all completely uncovered. Additional studies were done in the baths, the secret tunnels in the Citadel, the earthen ramparts as well as of some of the devtashlars. The most important result was the discovery of traces of wooden buildings in the Palace centre. Stratigraphically, they preceded the stone constructions and represented a new, most early horizon. During this period, a Soviet expedition under the leadership of S.A. Pletnjova worked in the region to the south of the palaces. It discovered the remains of, probably, the earliest defensive construction – a double wooden wall [16].

After the end of the celebrations around the 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria, the excavations continued for some years in the same fashion, but under severely reduced funding. The digs in the Palace centre, at the western fortress wall and of the settlement next to site No 31 continued. New digs started at the site of a suspected reservoir next to the Boljar dwelling, at the settlement next to church No 11, at the complexes of workshops and dwellings in the Outer town. The digging of irrigational canals in the Outer town uncovered new archaeological monuments over a large territory. After 1989 there were further, more extreme cuts in the funding which allowed for limited digs only. This tendency reached its final point in the years 1997-1999, when no funding was allocated and any digs at the defended perimeter of Pliska practically ceased. The National Museum of History intervened in these years by allocating funds for study of the mounds to the west of the earthen rampart. The joint Germano-Bulgarian expedition, which started work in 1997, practically returned the excavations to their initial stage in 1899 in respect to the funding.


5. FILOV B. Edna problema iz istoriyata na Aboba. – Bulgarska sbirka XV, 1908, p. 250-256.

6. MIYATEV K. Krumoviyat dvorec i drugi novootkriti postroyki v Pliska. – IBAI XIV, 1940/1942, p. 73-130.

7. KARASSIMEONOFF P. Neue Ausgrabungen in der Residenz von Pliska. – IBAI XIV, 1940/1942, p. 136-168.

8. FILOV B. Starobulgarskoto izkustvo. S., 1424; PROTICH A. Sasanidskata hudozhestvena tradiciya u prabulgari ge. – IBAI IV, 1926, p. 211-235; FEHER G. Les monuments de la culture protobulgare et leurs relations hongroises. Budapest 1931.

9. MIJATEV K. Der grosse Palast in Pliska und die Magnaura von Konstantinopel. – IBAI H,1935, p. 136-144.

10. MAVRODINOV N. Starobulgarskoto izkustvo. Izkustvoto na Purvoto bulgarsko carstvo. S.,1959, s. 35-54; STANCHEV ST. Za periodizaciyata na pliskovskiya dvorcov centur. – Sbornik v pamet na Karel SHkorpil. S., 1961. p.101-109.

11. MIHAYLOV ST. Stroitelnite periodi v Pliska i proizhodut na starobulgarskata monumentalna arhitektura. Arheologiya 1964, 2, p. 13-23.

12. STANCEV ST. Pliska – theories et fails.- Byzantinobulgarica 1, 1964, p. 349-365; Pliska und Preslav. Ihre arhaologischen Denkmaler und deren Erforschung. – Antike und Mittelalterin Bulgarien. Berlin 1962, p. 219-264.

13. GEORGIEVA S. Po vuprosa za haraktera na rannosrednovekovnata bulgarska kultura. Arheologiya 1962, 3, p. 1-5; MILCHEV AT. Po vuprosa za kulturata na slavyani i prabulgari v nashite zemi prez rannoto srednovekovie. Arheologiya 1964, 2, p. 1-12.

14. STANCHEV ST. Slavyani i prabulgari v starobulgarskata kultura. – Arheologiya 1962, 4, p. 1-6.

15. For general reviews of the excavations till that time see: VAKLINOV ST. Pliska za trideset godini. – Arheologiya 1974, 3, p. 28-39; MILCHEV AT. Razkopki v Pliska (1945-1970). - Arheologiya 1974, 3, p. 39-48.

16. For a general review of the results of the excavation in the Inner town during 1974-1994 cf. RASHEV R. Pliskovskiyat aul. – Pliska-Preslav 7, 1995, p. 10-22.