Archaeologists Find Shrines in Ancient Heraclea Sintica

Lead archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski shows the last of the total of four ancient shrines discovered after every three stores in the city of Heraclea Sintica. Photo: TV grab from BNT

By Ivan Dikov / 11.05.2017

Archaeology in Bulgaria

Shrines located within the stores lining the main square of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica near Petrich in Southwest Bulgaria have been discovered by archaeologists – alongside evidence of Heraclea Sintica’s Late Antiquity rivalry with the nearby Roman city of Parthicopolis (near today’s town of Sandanski).

Heraclea Sintica is thought to have been founded around 300 BC by Cassander, King of the Kingdom of Macedon in 305-297 BC, who also founded Thessaloniki, today in Greece. It is possible, however, that Heraclea Sintica was first settled even before that.

The city was named “Heraclea” after the mythical Ancient Greek hero Heracles, more popularly known today as Hercules, and “Sintica” after the Thracian tribe of the Sintians who inhabited the valley of the Struma River.

Since 2007, the ancient city has been excavated by a team led by Ass. Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Sotir Ivanov, Director of the Petrich Museum of History.

During the 2017 summer excavations in Heraclea Sintica, the archaeologists have also found a 4th century Roman gold necklace which is hypothesized to have been made in Rome itself.

The Ancient Roman gold necklace discovered in Heraclea Sintica. Learn more about its discovery here.

The latest digs have helped the researchers exposed the central square of Heraclea Sintica, which used to be a major commercial and production center for some 8 centuries, in the Hellenistic and then the Roman Era, BNT reports.

In fact, the recent excavations and georadar (GPR) data about Heraclea Sintica’s main square have given the archaeologists grounds to consider it comparable in scope to the forum of ancient Philipopolis – the predecessor of today’s city of Plovdiv in Central South Bulgaria, which is, among other things, deemed to be the oldest city in Europe.

Herclea Sintica’s downtown square was surrounded by the city’s civic basilica (found in 2016) which is 22 meters long and 16 meters wide, and whose walls have been partly preserved, up to a height of 5 meters, and by a long line of stores, which are still being excavated.

It is now known that as the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city began to decline, the stores were turned into homes. The Roman gold necklace has been discovered in one of them.


[LEFT]: A pedestar containing what seem like sacrificial altars in the middle of the shrine which has been discovered last. Photo: TV grab from BNT
[RIGHT]: A decorative niche in the shrine. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Among the stores lining the square, however, the archaeological team has discovered shrines dedicated to a deity which is unknown yet.

“One of the rooms here is most probably a shrine. First, it is shaped differently, it is larger, features an arc, has a very nice decorative niche, and in its middle we find a pedestal with [what were] most probably sacrificial altars,” explains lead archaeologist Lyudmil Vagalinski, pointing to one of the newly found shrines.

Three more similar shrines containing altar niches have been discovered so far, with their locations showing a pattern: there is one shrine after every three stores that line Heraclea Sintica’s central square.

“The shrine might be connected with Hermes, for example. We haven’t found evidence yet indicating to what deity it was dedicated. It could be connected with the local deity, or the one they worshipped the most here. In this particular case, we should expect that would Heracles, i.e. Hercules,” Vagalinski hypothesizes.

He notes that it is possible that the shrines amid the stores might have been used to seal commercial deals, with pledges made in the name of the respective deity.


Another of the shrines, with its own altar niche (below). Photos: TV grabs from BNT

His archaeological team has concluded that the buildings lining Heraclea Sintica’s main square are stores because of the typical organization patterns in Ancient Roman cities.

“[That is] not because we have found some kinds of goods that they traded but because squares in the Roman Era had a layout, according to which the [adjacent] buildings were erected,” the archaeologist says.

“In our case, I am certain that they traded with textiles because there were craftsmen’s workshops right above [the stores]. They also made [here] very nice pottery, including glazed terracotta, theater masks,” he adds.

The ancient Hellenistic and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica near Bulgaria’s Petrich suffered several earthquakes during the time of its existence, and is believed to have been ultimately destroyed by a strong tremor at the end of the 4th century AD.

A finger from a Roman bronze statue has been discovered during the digs at one of the newly found shrines in Heraclea Sintica. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Earlier earthquakes are believed to explain one intriguing find from the 2017 excavations there – a finger from a massive bronze statue which was found in the same place as the shrine discovered last but in a different archaeological layer.

“There was a bronze statue [here] but it belonged to a layer that precedes the shrine in the form that we see it now. That is, if there had been a shrine preceding this one, probably in the 2nd century AD, and the bronze statue was human sized,” Vagalinski explains.

“And that [statue] was massive, not a hollow one but it was thick bronze. They usually made the statues a little hollow, to save bronze. This here, however, is very thick, [the finger is] with a nail. It will look very nice once we clean it up,” he elaborates.

The archaeologist also jokes that the bronze finger seems “not strong enough” to have come from a statue of Hercules / Heracles. However, it may have been part of a statue of member of Rome’s imperial family.

It is noted that the possibility of finding the rest of the Roman bronze statue is slim given that a large number of the statues were melted and recast back in the Antiquity period because bronze was an expensive material.

The archaeologists have found that the square of Heraclea Sintica, which was first built in the 4th century BC, was rebuilt at least three times, largely due to the earthquakes. The last earthquake that destroyed the ancient city actually conserved much of the structures of the downtown square in their original place.

The researchers have established that much of the later structures and buildings were made with materials from collapsed or demolished earlier ones.


Lion head sculptures from the newly exposed ruins of Heraclea Sintica. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

For example, material from an earlier building was used for new stairs, and lion head sculptures+ from an earlier public building were also incorporated in the later construction.

One massive building with a colonnade lining the city square has been found to have been destroyed during the construction of a dirt road during Bulgaria’s communist period but most of the other buildings, including many ancient homes, are yet to be discovered and researched.

Part of the findings reveal evidence of Heraclea Sintica’s rivalry with the nearby Roman city of Parthicopolis (whose ruins are in today’s Bulgarian town of Sandanski) which was founded in the 2nd century AD, and later emerged as a major center of Early Christianity.

The base from the statue of Sulpicius, a 2nd century AD patron of Heraclea Sintica, whose inscription reveals information about the city’s rivalry with the neighboring Roman city of Parthicopolis. Photo: TV grab from BNT

On Heraclea Sintica’s main square, the archaeologists have discovered a base from the statue of a revered benefactor of the city. An inscription on the base reveals that his name was Sulpicius.

“It says that Sulpicius was very beautiful and virtuous. What’s impressive about this inscription? This phrasing. This is a very old, ancient phrasing which was used in the 5th-4th century BC. After that, it became outdated, it wasn’t used anymore. And yet, here they applied it in the 2nd century AD. Why?” lead archaeologist Vagalinski asks rhetorically.

“They were trying to prove that were the most ancient successors of the ancient Macedonians because they had this irritant in the 2nd century AD. That was Parthicopolis which was founded by the Romans only in the 2nd century AD, in opposition to the old Heraclea Sintica,” he answers.

“They [the Romans] took part of Heraclea Sintica’s territory, and gave it to Parthicopolis to collect tax from. So they [the two cities] began arguing. There are inscriptions about that. That was when the [people of] Heraclea Sintica started to go back to the past,” the archaeologist elaborates.




Different aerial views of the ruins of Heraclea Sintica which have been exposed so far. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Background Footnotes

Heraclea Sintica was an Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city located near the town of Petrich in Southwest Bulgaria. It was the center of the ancient region of Sintica along the Struma River, which was inhabited by the Thracian tribe of the Sintians.

The ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was mentioned by Homer, Herodotos, and Thycudides in their works. It was founded around 300 BC by Cassander, King of the Kingdom of Macedon (r. 305-297 BC), who also founded Thessaloniki.

In the not so distant past, the location of the ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was a matter of contention between archaeologists from Bulgaria and Greece.

In 2002, Bulgarian archaeologists managed to identify the city for sure after they found a Latin inscription dated back to 308 AD, in which Roman Emperor Galerius (r. 293-305 AD as Caesar, 305-311 AD as Augustus) addressed the local urban citizens of Heraclea Sintica responding to a plea to restore their lost civil rights.

Heraclea Sintica had a civic basilica (found in 2016) which is 22 meters long and 16 meters wide, and parts of its walls have been preserved up to a height of 5 meters.

Its ruins are located right near the ruins of a similar public building which is some 700 years older (dating back to the 4th century BC, i.e. the early Hellenistic period), and was discovered in 2015.

In the Late Antiquity, the city of Heraclea Sintica gradualy waned and was replaced as a regional center by the nearby city of Parthicopolis founded by the Romans in the 2nd century AD (today’s town of Sandanski, previously known as Sveti Vrach).

In recent years, Heraclea Sintica has been excavated by Ass. Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Sotir Ivanov, Director of the Petrich Museum of History.