Dichin, Bulgaria: Roman Fort Excavated

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In Bulgaria, a Roman fort, probably built to contain a band of federate troops (as opposed to a regular military unit) has been excavated at Dichin. The discovery of this fortress was a great surprise. Andrew Poulter of the University of Nottingham was leading a major Anglo-Bulgarian expedition to investigate the complex problems of how the Roman world came to an end in Bulgaria at the hands, at first, of the Goths in the 4th and 5th centuries, and then of the Slavs at the end of the 6th. He has also been carrying out a major survey of the countryside (using a new technique he has developed) and had chosen what he hoped would be a major village site for large-scale excavation involving almost 200 archaeologists and student volunteers per season. But once he began digging he found that – shock horror – it was not a village at all. The first discovery was a good stout Roman defensive wall, still standing 2m high, with two elaborate Romangateways, a curtain wall, internal towers and an outer defensive perimeter, called a proteichisma. These were not defences belonging to a village but were of such highquality that they could only have been built by Roman military engineers. What was at first surprising was that it did not date to the time of the emperors Diocletian and Constantine, when most impressive late Roman forts were built, but much later, to the very beginning of the 5th century. His team set to work to excavate the interior and the character of the internal buildings was even more surprising.

There were rows of structures, built not of mortar but of earth and stones with a superstructure made of mudbrick. On the west side of the site they contained rows of mudbrick bases that had supported a raised floor – clearly granaries but of a type previously unattested in the Roman Empire. They had all been destroyed by fire and the carbonized remains of grains of all types, amphorae and Roman shields were found in the debris.

Obviously, during the final days of the fort, these buildings must have been used as general storerooms. In the central area, there were the ‘barracks’, again built of mudbrick, earth and stone. The ground floors had holes which contained amphorae and pots for storing foodstuffs while the occupants lived on the upper floor, reached by a flight of steps. It seems that this fort had been built by the Romans for barbarians who had constructed their own traditional houses which were very different from standard Roman barracks. There was a small church but no headquarters building as would be expected in a normal Roman fort.

Nicopolis the great

Here, there were two Roman cities. The major city, laid out soon after the conquest of Dacia by Trajan in 110-117, was a classical city whose outlines can easily be determined by following the trenches of the stone robbers. It appears to have been more Greek than Roman, and unlike in Britain, where the towns were populated by native inhabitants, at Nicopolis it seems that the inhabitants were brought in from the more civilised parts of the Roman Empire, speaking Greek – or at least putting up Greek inscriptions. There were the usual grand civic buildings at the centre, and the roads were magnificent, but it was not densely occupied – large parts were taken up by extensive ‘villa’ type dwellings, sometimes occupying two insulae (blocks) within the town.

This site had not previously been explored, and it was here that the British team set to work. It proved to be the late city of the 5th-6th centuries AD, and a very strange sort of city at that. There were churches, two of which were excavated. There were workshops, and there were even barracks. What was lacking were houses, or anywhere for the inhabitants to live. It became clear that this was simply a citadel, an administrative centre for churches and workshops, with the people living around the outside. Indeed, the only evidence for civilians came from outside the city and within the ruins of the abandoned Roman town: they were poor structures, made of mudbrick.

The economy too had changed. Whereas, the earlier Roman town was provided with a wide range of grain and meat from its fertile territory, the early Byzantine ‘citadel’ relied upon a kind of ‘market garden’ economy, using spring grown crops and foodstuffs which could be grown within the fortifications or immediately outside. It was also clear that the Byzantine site of the 6th century imported a wide range of wines and oil from the Aegean and the Near East, something which had not proved necessary when the Roman city was still in existence.

But what happened in the countryside? How did the economy change with the successive blows, the advent of the Goths in the late 4th century and when Roman control was finally ended by the invading Slavs in the 6th century?

To investigate this, Andrew Poulter carried out a major field survey – but of an innovative type. He was able to choose from some 500 sites spread over a large area, 50 miles north to south, and 80 miles east to west, lying south of the Danube. Unlike traditional survey, he did not at first pick up pottery but recorded the density of pottery and building materials across the total area around each site, to a distance of more than 1km from its centre. In this way he was able to identify all the Roman buildings in the surrounding landscape and then to use geophysics to produce plans of the buildings and to identify their function. Only then was pottery picked up as too the building materials, not at random, but on the site of each building so the character of each structure, its date and whether they were occupied or not could be assessed.

Eventually, an interesting picture of the Roman countryside in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was revealed, with two very different types of villa implying two very different types of settlement. Along the River Rositsa small villas were laid out at regular intervals Рone every 2.5kms. All with very similar architecture based around a central peristyle with an attached courtyard containing another large building. However, there were no associated settlements, just the villa and its outbuildings. The spacing of the villas is so regular as to suggest an ordered Рeven planned Рlandscape, where estates were all about 500ha in size: perhaps the allotments had been allocated to family farms when the city was first founded, providing lands for members of the city élite. The situation further north was very different. Here, the distribution of villas is less dense and more irregular. Many of them also had associated settlements: villages where perhaps the estate workers were living. These villas may well have been the estates of the local Thracian aristocracy who continued to occupy the lands that they owned before the Roman conquest and who kept their estate workers living close by. The villa estates were certainly owned by the upper classes who met in the assemblies of the Roman city and who supported the city by paying for its lavish marble buildings and offered gladiatorial games for the enjoyment of the population. But the picture of an idyllic Roman landscape came to an abrupt end in the late 4th century. All the villa sites surveyed had been destroyed by fire and abandoned in haste.

Complete scythes, woodworking instruments and even metal parts of Roman carts or chariots were found lying on the surface, where they had been disturbed by recent ploughing. None of the sites survived into the 5th century. All had been abandoned and the social structure in the countryside had been destroyed and with it went the people upon whose wealth and interest the city of Nicopolis depended. So this collapse of the villas perfectly explains why Nicopolis declined and then, after its destruction, could never be revived. Instead, the early Byzantine ‘city’ was created by the central government in Constantinople to serve its own and not local interests, and was supported, not by the rich hinterland around, but mainly by the importation of goods from other parts of the Byzantine Empire.

Fire and brimstone

Why did the Roman economy collapse so dramatically and why could it not be reinstated when the Byzantines came effectively to control the region again at the beginning of the 6th century? Crucially, was the collapse of the region and the city true only of the lower Danube or did what happened there reflect a general decline which might apply to the rest of the Byzantine World? It was these problems that the excavations at Dichin were intended to solve.

So what kind of fort was Dichin and who were the ‘barbarians’ who lived there? It proved possible to learn a great deal about the site and its occupants because, some 80 years after it was established, the fort was destroyed by fire. Nor was this a simple accident. Many complete metal objects, including 30 scythes and sickles were found within the destruction level, as well as several bodies, some as ‘body parts’, others as complete skeletons, including adults and children. What they all had in common was that their limbs had been gnawed by carnivores, either wolves or domestic dogs who had been abandoned and must have been desperate for food. Clearly, the bodies had been left in the destruction level and were never given a Christian burial. That the fort had been attacked and sacked seems the most probable explanation, but whether by the Byzantine army or another warband of Goths, we shall never know. The finds, in an excellent state of preservation, provide a remarkable insight into the lives of the occupants. There were shield bosses, heavy throwing darts and spears, so it is clear that it still contained a military garrison. However, there were also agricultural implements (apart from the scythes, billhooks, cowbells and even a Roman plough). The storerooms contained a wide variety of grains, certainly harvested from the surrounding region, as well as imported amphorae from the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. All of which points to a military garrison but one which was also engaged in farming the surrounding land, the rich valley of the river Rositsa which, a century earlier had been cultivated by the Roman villas. The presence of these ‘soldier farmers’ exactly matches the historical sources which tell of how the emperor Theodosius, after the Battle of Adrianople, settled the Goths on the lands south of the Danube. They were allowed to retain their traditional social structure, arms and chieftains. In return for being given land to farm within the Empire, they were nominally obliged to support Byzantine forces against their enemies. But, in fact, for much of the 5th century, the Goths were in complete control of the region and were able to extract subsidies of gold from the emperors in Constantinople. (It may be significant that amongst the coins found at Dichin there are gold issues – normally a very rare find on archaeological sites.)

What the sources do not tell us, however, is that Theodosius actually had forts built for the Goths. Nor would such an admission be expected in the historical records: it would hardly go down well with the ordinary citizens of the Empire. Nevertheless, the evidence from Dichin suggests that this was precisely what did happen. Dichin was probably not alone. There are a string of other forts, also south of the Danube, which are similar in character, stretching the length of the plain south of the frontier. So Dichin was not an isolated example. It formed part of a system. We can only guess at the reasons why this happened but it is the field survey which provides the answer. Once the villas were destroyed, there was no city able to extract taxes and produce from the region to supply the military. This would still have been needed in the 5th century to supply the forces strung out along the right bank of the Danube.

The destruction of Dichin c.AD 480 was not the end. Within months of this catastrophe, it was reoccupied and rebuilt upon much the same lines. However, there was a change in the character of some buildings. There were still some of stone and earth with mudbrick walls, built upon much the same plans as those in the 5th century, but they were much less carefully built and probably did not have an upper storey. Significant, however, is the appearance of new, flimsy wooden structures which suggest that we are dealing with a very different kind of garrison, probably still serving as soldiers, perhaps Slavs. Finally, the fort was again destroyed by fire, c.AD 580 and abandoned, never to be reoccupied. But it was then and over the next few years, that Byzantine control over the lower Danube was finally lost and the region begins its own dark age.

When the region again appears in our historical sources, it already formed part of the early Bulgarian state which played its own role in creating the foundations of Europe’s early Medieval network of independent states. But that is another story waiting to be told.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 17. Click here to subscribe

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