BMCR 2005.04.38

Die Thraker. Das goldene Reich des Orpheus

, Die Thraker : das goldene Reich des Orpheus : 23. Juli bis 28. November 2004, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Mainz: Zabern, 2004. 384 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 29 cm. ISBN 3805333412 €45.00.

In the months of September and October of 2004 the archaeological world was surprised by the flood of news coming from the excavations led by Georgi Kitov in Bulgaria’s “Valley of the Kings” in the Shipka-region near Kazanlak (Central Bulgaria). Two tumuli were excavated: among the many finds in the first there was a stunning golden death mask weighing 690 grams of solid gold, dated to the late 5th or early 4th century BC by the secondary finds (ceramics). No less imposing were the results of the excavation of the second, the so-called Golyamata Kosmatka tumulus: first a life size, naturalistic bronze head (weighing some 12 kg) was found and some days later the royal burial chamber, furnished with grave goods including gold, silver, bronze, and ceramic objects. Two inscriptions on silver objects found in the grave refer to Seuthes. Together with the dating of the bronze head to the early Hellenistic period, the inscription suggests that the royal burial site of king Seuthes III, who ruled the Odrysian Kingdom in the last third of the 4th century BC, has been uncovered ( The Thracian Tomb …).

Though these finds, obviously, came too late to be included either in the exhibition in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland at Bonn, which lasted from July 23rd, 2004 to January 9th, 2005, or the accompanying catalogue, the subject of this review, they show once again the wealth, power, and taste one may find in the territories once dominated by the Thracians. As in many previous exhibitions on the Thracians throughout the world1 here, too, the eyes of the spectators were above all directed to the many, frequently spectacular, objects of precious metals. In the catalogue as well such objects have a prominent place.

In the accompanying text, divided into seven chapters, we are guided through a number of aspects of Thrace’s past which are in line with the theme of the exhibition (the golden empire of Orpheus). Each chapter is concluded by a catalogue of objects relating to the topic(s) discussed. The first chapter deals with the prehistoric period. Nikolov discusses the first farmers in present-day Bulgaria; Porozhanov the Indo-Europeans in Eurasia; and Lichardus and others the Bulgaro-German researches in the region of Drama, situated in southeastern Bulgaria, in the period 1983-2003. The section on Drama is concluded with its own bibliography. In chapter two V. Fol treats Thrace in the Mycenaean Age, focusing on rulers and priests. Royal dynasties are the subject of the third chapter. Jordanov discusses the role of and position of the Thracians within the early great empires (sc. the Persian and Macedonian) as well as the Odrysian state; Dimitrova discusses the warriors and their arms and armour; and Konova treats royal cities, residences, temples and settlements in pre-Roman Thrace.

In the fourth chapter the gods are the subject. A. Fol writes on Thracian Orphism and Vassileva on contacts between Thrace and Phrygia, which manifest themselves in the fields of writing and religion. Faith and cult turn up in chapter five. The two contributions in this chapter are by Penkova on mythical and the legendary Thrace and by V. Fol on cult sites. The religious also plays its part in chapter six, on Thracian ingenuity (or skill). Here we find three papers: one by Kitov on (artificial) hills, graves, and temples; a second by Porozhanov on Thrace and the seas (i.e. the Pontus and the Aegean); and finally Konova on Thracian-Greek syntheses. The final chapter is entitled Thracia Romana. This chapter too has three contributions, two by Shopova, one entitled Thracia Romana, the other Thracia Christiana; the other contribution is by Penkova on the Thracian Heroes sc. the Thracian horseman (one of the typical figures of Thracian iconography). A. Fol, who also produced the introduction, takes care of the epilogue about the living heritage. A chronology, a comprehensive though not exhaustive bibliography, and the list of authors conclude this book.

As already stated, the section on Drama has its own bibliography, making it more or less a separate part of the catalogue. The content of this contribution, frequently relatively technical, endorses that impression. I believe this to be a bad choice, since it may appear to suggest that this kind of relatively small-scale bilateral archaeological research is more or less unrelated to the great lines of art-historical, cultural, sociological, theological, or other theories presented throughout the catalogue or, for that matter, the exhibition, while it constitutes, in fact, a different facet of the many-faceted science we call Thracology. I think the authors of this section missed a ‘golden opportunity’ in this respect.

As might be expected the several contributions are scholarly, fairly solid and reasonably informative, but not very in-depth (with perhaps the Drama section as relative exception), unspectacular, and offer no really new information (again except for the Drama section), directed as they are at the general public, which is, generally speaking, hardly familiar with the Thracians. The only politically charged part of this publication, certainly in the light of the recent controversy between Bulgaria and Greece, is the emphasis on Orphism (basically a religion showing monotheistic traits, according to Shopova: p. 323) and the presentation of Orpheus as originally and essentially Thracian. What distinguishes this catalogue from most, if not all, of its predecessors on “Thracian gold” is its size: 24.5 x 28 cm. Both size and the high quality paper used by the publishers make the 737 colour and 17 black-and-white pictures appear to full advantage. The binding is very good and suitable for such a heavy book.

The exhibition in Bonn was not the first to show Thracian treasures, nor will it, very likely, be the last. As the introduction of this review already highlighted, excavations in Bulgaria are still very much ongoing. Not all of these offer, or will offer (as those at Drama demonstrate), such spectacular finds as Kitov’s, but they all enhance our knowledge of and insight into the culture and life of the Thracians and are therefore at least as important. In scholarship on the ancient world the Thracians have been, so far, generally regarded as the barbarous neighbours of the Greeks, a mere “Randkultur”. Gradually such exhibitions as this one are showing that this picture is in dire need of being adjusted. The perfect execution of this catalogue as well as its excellent price-quality ratio may well initiate that adjustment.


1. Such exhibitions, though not necessarily on a similar scale, have been held, e.g., in Warsaw 1976, Dumbarton Oaks 1981, Rotterdam 1984, Montreal 1987, Bonn and Mainz 1988, several cities in the United States 1998-9, Japan 2000, Helsinki 2000: this list is not by any means exhaustive. A regular aspect of such exhibitions, at least if appropriate, is to dedicate part of it to work carried out by (an) excavation team(s) from the host country in Bulgaria, like the German-Bulgarian excavations at Drama in this exhibition (cf. catalogue, pp. 39-60).