Late Antique ‘Peacock’ Mosaic Discovered in Early Christian Basilica



The newly discovered late 4th century mosaic floor in the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv features a “medallion” with a peacock in its middle. Photo: BGNES

By Ivan Dikov / 10.25.2016

Archaeology in Bulgaria

A previously unknown and very well preserved mosaic floor featuring an image of a peacock and fragments of a medieval mural possibly depicting St. Peter have been unearthed by archaeologists in the Early Christian and Early Byzantine Great Basilica in the city of Plovdiv, the successor of ancient Philipopolis, in Southern Bulgaria.

Only recently, in early October 2016, the archaeologists working on the excavations and restoration of the 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica with layers of beautiful mosaics in the city of Plovdiv (known as Europe’s oldest city) announced the discovery of a medieval necropolis, in which bodies were placed directly on top of the Late Antiquity floor mosaics.

Now, however, the team led by archaeologist Zheni Tankova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, has found a previously unknown mosaic floor featuring what has been described as a “medallion” with a peacock in its middle, with other bird images around it, which are connected with the previously known mosaics, reports BGNES.

“The finds have exceeded our expectations,” the lead archaeologists has said, as cited by the Trud daily.

The newly found mosaic floor dates back to the end of the 4th – the beginning of the 5th century AD, i.e. the Late Roman / Early Byzantine period, and is located at the entrance of the Great Basilica.

“When we started the excavation [of the respective section], we first came across the peacock medallion, which is almost 100% preserved, and which led the church goers through the main entrance of the basilica. Around it, there is a medallion in squares with bird images situated in a rhomboid fashion. This is the first layer of the floor mosaics [of the Great Basilica], and we are dating it to the second half of the 4th century AD,” explains Tankova, as cited by the Monitor daily.


The newly discovered mosaic floor in the Early Christian Great Basilica in Plovdiv covers an area of 20 square meters. Photos: BTA


She notes that her team had had indications that a mosaic floor might be found in the respective section of the major Early Christian temple but that they had never expected to unearth such a beautiful and well preserved mosaic.

“We’ve been surprised by the good condition of the western façade wall of the basilica, the entrances, the mosaic floor, and these amazing scenes that it depicts,” adds the lead archaeologist.

She has also made it clear that with the discovery of the mosaic which covers 20 square meters, a total of over 300 square meters of floor mosaics have been unearthed so far in the excavations of the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv.

The peacock mosaic floor, however, is not the only highly intriguing latest find in the Early Christian temple.

The archaeologists have also discovered fragments from a medieval mural depicting a bearded man who is believed to be St. Peter, with part of an inscription which is yet to be read.

The mural dates back to the end of the 10th – the beginning of the 11th century, and was made using the buon fresco technique.

“One of the fragments depicts the lower half of a man’s face, his beard, part of his hair, with a colorful buon fresco technique, and a fragment with an inscription. When put together, the mural fragments, albeit small, give us reasons to believe that they did not originate in the basilica but in a medieval church which was built later,” Tankova explains, adding that the church in question probably existed from the late 10th until the early 12th century.

She notes that the Early Christian Great Basilica itself was destroyed by a major earthquake in the 6th century AD.


A fragment from the newly discovered medieval Christian mural. Photo: BTA


A fragment from the newly discovered medieval Christian mural. Photo: PodTepeto


The newly discovered medieval inscription. Photo: PodTepeto


The different newly discovered mural and inscription fragments. Photo: PodTepeto

The medieval mural has been discovered in the section of Plovdiv’s Great Basilica, underneath its northern nave, where the archaeological team found the medieval Christian necropolis, with a total of 36 burials and 6 burial pits unearthed so far. The necropolis probably existed from the end of the 10th century until the beginning of the 12the century.

(During this period, Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire which conquered the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018, and retained control over Bulgaria until Asen and Petar’s Uprising (later Tsar Asen I (r. 1187-1196) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1186-1197)) which established the Second Bulgarian Empire.)

During the previous archaeological excavations of the Great Basilica back in the 1980s, which encompassed its southern section, a total of 98 burials were discovered.

In the newly discovered medieval Christian necropolis, the burials have been found on three different levels on top of the Late Antiquity mosaic floors of the basilica, the highest of which stands 0.8 meters above the mosaics.

It is notable that until the start of the restoration and excavation of the Great Basilica in Plovdiv in 2015, the respective section lay underneath the asphalt of a busy modern-day road. The road in question is not going to be rebuilt by the municipal authorities, and is to be turned into a square when the restoration is completed.

The archaeological team has also unearthed parts of a chancel in the area before the apse of the Early Christian Great Basilica. The chancel itself is delineated with marble blocks, and medieval burial have been found in it as well.

In addition to the 4th century Late Roman mosaics, and the 10th-11th century mural, the archaeologists have found a number of small vessels and other artifacts (including two bronze crosses which are engolpions (encolpions), i.e. a (religious) item, for example in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom, which may contain a saint’s relics, and are yet to be opened, examined, and restored).

A large number of Roman and Byzantine coins from the 4th-6th century has been found as well, with another interesting find being an 11th century lead seal which belonged to a strategos named Vardes. One side of the seal features an image of St. Nicholas, while the other depicts the strategos himself. The seal is interpreted to mean that in the High Middle Ages the site of the ruins of the imposing Late Antiquity basilica was densely populated.

The archaeological team has also unearthed completely the central nave of the three-nave Great Basilica. The central nave had three entrances. The 9 marble columns discovered there in July 2016 indicate the richness of the architectural ensemble, Tankova notes.


One of the bird depictions surrounding the peacock medallion in the middle of the newly found mosaic floor. Photo: Monitor daily


Uncovering the newly found peacock mosaic floor. Photo: PodTepeto


Bird depictions surrounding the peacock medallion in the middle of the mosaic floor. Photos: PodTepeto


The ruins of the Great Basilica are located close to the modern-day Catholic cathedral St. Ludwig in downtown Plovdiv. They are just meters away from the residence of the Catholic bishop of Sofia and Plovdiv, Monsignor Georgi Yovchev. The same residence was visited briefly by the late Pope John Paul II during his visit in Bulgaria back in 2002.

After the completion of the excavations and restoration of the basilica, which is supposed to be done by 2018, the space around the ancient church is to be turned into a square and a pedestrian zone.

The excavation and restoration of the 5th century Early Christian Great Basilica with its stunning mosaics in the city of Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria is a joint project of Plovdiv Municipality and the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a Sofia-based NGO.

The Early Christian Great Basilica (or Bishop’s Basilica) is located in the center of the ancient city of Philipopolis, which is itself in the downtown of today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria. It was discovered in 1982 by a team of archaeologists led by Elena Kisyakova. The excavated remains of the Great Basilica were fenced off as part of conservation efforts but have not been excavated further ever since.

Back in 2002, Plovdiv Municipality sold the property to a private firm even though it contained a formally recognized monument of culture. As a result, once the scandalous deal unraveled, it took the municipality and the central government seven years of court trials to regain the ownership of the Great Basilica site. The Philipopolis Bishop’s Basilica is impressive in size – its length totals 86.3 meters (the combined length of its naos with the apse is 56.5 meters), and its width is estimated to be 38.5 meters.

The entire floor of the three-nave basilica is paved with unique Early Christian mosaics covering a total area of 700 square meters. The mosaic floors were created in two construction stages. The color mosaics feature primarily geometric motifs and images of birds typical of the second quarter of the 5th century. About 70 different species of birds have been identified, some of which appear to be unknown to contemporary ornithology. Based on the mosaics, the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica in the ancient city of Philipopolis is dated back to the first half of the 5th century BC, the Late Roman – Early Byzantine period. It was destroyed in the middle of the 6th century, possibly during a barbarian invasions. It was built on the foundations of an earlier building of similar size and potentially with similar functions.

The history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta“, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity periodEumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)),Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.