The story of the rich archaeological heritage of Bulgaria is not only one of what has been found but also of what has been lost.
A case in point is the area around central Sofia’s Largo and Serdica underground railway station area, recently in the headlines after an urgent appeal by Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova to the national Culture Ministry to take action to preserve Roman-era archaeological finds left exposed to the elements.
Across Bulgaria, the dangers to the country’s archaeological legacy – Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman – have proved to range from outright theft by treasure-hunters to construction projects that have reduced finds to rubble.
Reports over recent years have alleged that in some cases, construction projects have moved swiftly to destroy inconvenient finds that might otherwise have been the cause of considerable excitement in the world of archaeology. About some of these cases, dating back decades, there is consensus about what happened, while in others, there is only rumour and speculation.
In the case of the Largo in Sofia, the current problem is an administrative, procedural and judicial one.
The area of the Largo stretches roughly from the Party House to the Serdica metro station, the latter bearing the Roman-era name of Sofia.
The metro station construction projects, resulting in two stations that serve as passenger junctions at the intersection of two lines, led to the uncovering of a wealth of finds.
An ambitious project envisages these as remaining permanently on public display and, as far as possible, largely in place precisely where the finds were made.
However, television reports showed that for some months, relics of Roman Sofia were being exposed to the elements, sunk in water that has resulted in mini-swamps, proliferation of weeds and even a breeding spot for frogs.
Fandukova’s letter to the Culture Ministry resulted in an on-site inspection attended by caretaker Culture Minister Martin Ivanov, Sofia’s deputy mayor in charge of culture Todor Chobanov and Mario Ivanov, a veteran of key archaeological digs in various parts of Sofia.
Reports on August 17 said that an “expert committee” involving engineers, architects and archeologists would have, in a very short time, to recommend what to do to prevent permanent damage to the artefacts.
A tender procedure was initiated for the construction of the envisaged Serdica complex but currently it is the subject of an appeal to the Competition Protection Commission.
Culture Minister Ivanov said that it was not known when a decision would be taken by the commission or whether the matter might then be the subject of judicial proceedings, “but we are all worried about what lies at the heart of Sofia that might be irrevocably destroyed”.
Ivanov said that in regard to Fandukova’s request for emergency financing for preservation, the Culture Ministry budget had no funds for this and such resources would have to be sought elsewhere.
Chobanov told reporters, “The Largo is one of the most important sites in Sofia and in Bulgaria as we have many preserved archaeological structures below the modern city in our Bulgarian capital, which was the capital of two Roman provinces, a really important city in its existence of thousands of years”.
He said that all the options for preserving and exhibiting the ancient artefacts had been considered in the past five to six years because they also were part of the cultural heritage of Europe.
Chobanov was quoted as saying that when the Serdica 1 metro station was built “nothing was preserved” but an entirely different approach had been taken when Serdica 2 metro station was built. He said that at the insistence of mayor Fandukova, the Serdica 2 project was revised five or six times to ensure the preservation of the archaeological finds.
He noted that the Serdica site was a very difficult one to deal with because it was low-lying while the level of underground water was very high. The project for the site provides for a drainage system to be built as soon as possible.
Serdica 1 came into operation at the end of October 2000 and Serdica 2 at the end of August 2012.
Chobanov’s words, if quoted correctly, about the lack of preservation of artefacts ahead of the opening of Serdica 1 touch on a central history in the long history of the area that includes the Largo and the Serdica stations.
In an interview with local media about two years ago, Chobanov dismissed as an “urban legend” the whispers that the metro construction had resulted in the destruction of cultural heritage around the Largo and Roman-era Serdica’s Via Principalis.
Referring at the time to the Serdica 2 project, he said that each stage of the activities had been discussed by a large committee of representatives of many institutions and experienced specialists.
As for the street known as Decumanus Maximus, it was preserved in good condition although in places there was serious damage from the 1950s, Chobanov said, referring to the communist-era grandiose construction project that resulted in the Largo – the area dominated by the Party House, the Tsum store and other mainly government and state buildings.
In a July 2011 interview with local media, Sofia municipality’s chief architect (the equivalent of a town planner) Petar Dikov insisted that no architectural finds had been destroyed in the construction of the metro underground railway.
Dikov said at the time that more than 10 per cent of the territory of the ancient city had been uncovered and that this had been done with great care.
At the same time, Dikov said that “perhaps there is an element of truth in that archaeological remains had been dismantled, “but there (apparently a reference to the section along Maria Louisa Boulevard) where had four of five layers of archaeology on top of each other”.
The archaeologists themselves had removed the separate layers to get to the next layer, he said. “They believe that the Roman layer of the second to the fourth century is the most valuable”.
The remains of buildings from the Ottoman era had been dismantled and transferred elsewhere.
In referring to the communist-era construction of the Largo, Chobanov has referred to an important phase in the history of the area.
Most of the original “ground clearing” was the result of the extensive air raids on Sofia by Allied air forces – in which US, British and Commonwealth bombers took part – during World War 2.
Although some of the fabric of pre-1940s central Sofia was left intact, communist bosses decided on the grand-scale, imposing and Soviet-style architecture that was to be the Largo. Leaving aside the question of aesthetics, there is common consent that as the massive foundations were laid, little or no heed was paid to what was found – whether there was simply outright destruction or whether some of the more precious finds were filched by communist hands will never be known.
Considering that at least a small part of the finds, the eastern city gate, was partly preserved and is to be seen in the underpass today between the cabinet and presidency buildings, this may be fairly be said to be a classic case of the barbarians at the gate.
There are, of course, finds that we know about. The work of recent years has uncovered the remains of churches said to be from the 14th and 16th centuries and a necropolis. The Ottoman-era house to which Dikov referred is said by archaeologists to date from the 14th to 19th centuries.
These, not to mention some other finds, are indeed important parts of a city said to date back as a settlement to about 7000 years ago.
Roman Serdica, after the first century CE conquest of the city, brought important changes, notably in the form of roads and plumbing.
The forum was in front of the landmark hotel of 20th and 21st century Sofia known to residents of the capital as the Sofia Balkan or the Sheraton Hotel and some archaeologists believe that palace of Constantine the Great, who was fond of the city and spent several summers in it, may be beneath the hotel.
The tantalising aspect of all of this is the mystery of what has been destroyed, especially in the 1950s and 1960s under communism, and perhaps later too.
Plans are for there to be further excavations under the Sveta Nedelya Square in 2015 in a quest to find further Roman-era state buildings, which may have been residences of Serdica’s governors or the local mint.
Meanwhile, much comes down to money. Especially in 2013 and early 2014, there have been reports from various parts of Bulgaria about some archaeological sites being at risk either from insufficient funds for preservation or insufficient funds to guard them from treasure hunters – or both.
And, as with the case of the Largo and Serdica areas, the extent of the reckless destruction of the past or of simple theft will never be known (sometimes such theft is not the work of organised groups; some time before Serdica 2 opened, there was a report of a labourer on the site being arrested after being caught trying to make off with a handful of ancient coins).
As for the Serdica site, it was announced on August 20 that an agreement had been reached between the municipality and the Culture Ministry that enabled pumping of water out of the site to begin.
But it remains unknown when the open-air museum meant to see the long-term preservation of the existing finds at the Serdica site – part of the capital city’s boasts in its aspirations to be named European Capital of Culture 2019 – will begin. The contest over the project remains in the hands of the lineal descendants of those ancient Roman officials who no doubt had troubles of their own with finances, bureaucracy and the eternal shortcomings of unchanging human nature.