The Treasure from the Golyama Brestnitsa Village and the Relation: Sacred Object – Rite – Faith

The silver treasure from the Golyama Brestnitsa Village, Yablanitsa Municipality, Lovech region, is well known to academic research owing to its timely publication after it was found (Петков 1960: 26-28), the photographs and descriptions published in a number of catalogues of the Thracian exhibition, as well as in Europeana and Bulgariana under an IBSCT Project (Docheva-Peeva in Marazov 1998: 227; L’or des Thraces 2002: 208, 222-223; Penkova in Europeana (Fig. 1). As the treasure is characterised not by its ornamentation, but by the inscriptions on two of the vessels, it has remained outside the focus of attention on the part of scholars, with the exception of those working on epigraphics, Thracian anthroponyms and theonyms (Митрев 2001: 203-204, Gočeva 2006 with the preceding literature on the meaning of the theonym and anthroponym). In only one case attention is devoted to the ritual significance of the treasure in the context of Thracian religiousness (Фол 2002: 219-220). The treasure has not been interpreted from a functional and ritual perspective and that prompted me to direct my attention to it, because it would be interesting to shed light on the relation object – rite – faith at the time of Romanisation to the north of the Balkan Range.

The making of the vessels is dated to the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century, and its burying is associated with the barbarian incursions and more specifically with the late 3rd century. That conclusion is based on the coin hoard found in the same area where the silver set was found. The traditional explanation is that its owner hid it, but did not survive the incursions, hence the vessels remained in the ground (Петков 1960: 28; Божкова 2006).

The treasure consists of a cylindrical vessel and five dippers with a total weight of 1.650 kg; chemical analyses show that it was made of the highest grade silver (Петков 1960: 26-28 and note 1). An inscription is incised on the bowl and on one of the dippers, which informs that the beneficiary Flavios Mestrianos dedicates it as a sign of respect for the master hero Pyrumeroulas:

Κυριω Ηρωι Πυρουμηρουλα Φλ(αβιος) Μεστριανος β(ενε)φ(ικιαριος) ευχαριστηριον (Fig. 2).

The inscription has been commented many times. The prevalent opinion on the meaning of the epithet Pyrumerulas is “big/brilliant fire” (Митрев 2001: 203-204; Фол 2002: 219-220; Gočeva 2006: 39-40 with latest analyses of the epithet with the entire preceding literature and discussion of its meaning), and the name of the beneficiary Mestrianos – as Latinised Thracian name (IGBulg II 587, Стоев 2012 on the name Mestrianos, with the entire preceding literature on the Latinisation of the Thracian root or Latinised name, epichoric for Dardania). A votive tablet of the Thracian Hero with the same epithet as the one in the inscriptions on the bowl and on the handle of one of the dippers originates from the same region where the treasure was found (IGBulg II 588).

The place named Zhidovets is located on the southern slope of a ridge to the north of the Golyama Brestnitsa village, which had been populated already in the pre-Roman period and in all probability it flourished during the first three centuries of the first millennium AD, which is also suggested by the coin hoards found in the region (Божкова 2006). The ridge on which the settlement and a possible sanctuary of the Thracian Horseman are located, which is suggested by several votive tablets of the deity found on the slope, is crowned with a tumular necropolis, which – in the year when the treasure was found – consisted of four tumuli. The Zhidovets ridge and the one on which the Golyama Brestnitsa village is located, formed a large valley in which the water of a big spring was collected and flowed into the Panega River (Петков 1960: 25 with detailed description of the terrain and the archaeological environment in which the treasure was found).

The treasure was found accidentally during trenching of a vineyard (1958), hence the archaeological context is unclear, with the exception of the fact that the five dippers had been placed inside the bowl and they were buried in the ground in that way (Петков 1960: 26). There is evidence of such arranging of vessels also from the people who had found the Panagyurishte gold treasure, who reported that the rhytons and the amphora had been placed in the phiale (Фол 2002: 223-224). It is not possible for the descriptions to have been influenced by one another and this suggests seeking symbolism in the arranging of the vessels, all the more that the treasures comply with the theme of the ritual deposition of valuable objects, which has been repeatedly discussed in the specialised literature. The act of burying treasures in the ground is interpreted as a gift to the Great Goddess-Mother in connection with inauguration or with the aim of acquiring or confirming autochthonous status as marking of territories and as an act of symbolic hierogamous relation with the Goddess-Earth (Фол 2002: 208-220, with preceding literature). However, the set from Golyama Brestnitsa is a gift for the ruler-hero Purumerulas – most probably an equine deity with a fiery-solar (Gočeva 2006: 40 associates the epithet with fire) nature (i.е., connected with light) and the arranging of the vessels before they were buried tends to suggest a ritual act recreating a hierogamous relation between the fiery equine deity and the Great Goddess-Earth.

The questions arising to which hypothetical answers need to be sought with a view to explaining the functionality of the set in the object – rite – faith relation are: was the set used for drinking and/or libations? What was the liquid poured into the bowl and scooped with the dippers? Why is the dedication repeated on only one of them, and floral ornamentation is applied symmetrically in the handle of another one? It should also be pointed out that the dippers were not with identical dimensions and ornamentation (Figs. 3 and 4).

The set was used for a long time and even one of the dippers had been repaired. The traces (spots) noticed on the body of the cylindrical vessel opposite the inscription are interpreted as places where the handle – which has not been found – was attached. If at that time there had been a handle, it should be assumed that the bowl was suspended and/or held in a position allowing the inscription to be seen, as well as the dividing sign that resembles an ivy leaf. The mouth of the vessel is turned inwards and is 2 cm wide. This shows that it was impossible the vessel to have been used for ritual pouring of liquid. However, it may be assumed that the spots noticed were from some appliqué. If the bowl, which is 22 cm in diameter and with a height of 9 cm, made of massive silver, was filled with liquid, it would have been rather heavy for sacred rites to be performed with it, if it was held by one handle. Therefore, it seems more probable that it was placed on an altar or on a table so that those who scooped from it with the dippers could see the inscription and the image of the deity or of some attribute of his.

From the time of the first publication of the set it was assumed to have been used for drinking wine during some rite. Sets made of precious metals and bronze are generally associated in specialised literature with drinking wine or libations with it, ignoring the other ritual liquids: water, milk, honey and blood. However, the set found near the Golyama Brestnitsa village suggests another hypothesis as well, because it was found near a spring the water from which flows into the Panega River (on the sanctuary near Glava Zlatna Panega see Добруски 1907). There is a very high probability that the spring was worshipped as sacred in the search for the water–fire opposition (on account of the fiery nature of the worshipped deity). Purifying rites were mandatory, especially those involving washing with and drinking of the sacred liquid prior to entering the sacred space and performing sacred acts. Libations in honour of Purumerulas can also be assumed from the inscription: To the great god Purumerulas from Lucius Cestius Ulpianus Longinus from the village of Kovachevo, Sandanski municipality. The inscription is well dated with an indication of the year 193 of the Augustan Era, i.е., 162 AD (IGBulg ІV 2304; Митрев 2001).

The differences seen in the ornamentation of the dippers indicate that there was hierarchy in their use. There are two options: hierarchy of the persons using them or hierarchy of the sacred acts. In both cases the dipper with the inscription was in the hands of the beneficiary Mestrianos. After the report of Kalin Stoev (Стоев 2014), the question of the origin of Mestrianos arose. Bearing in mind that inscriptions with epithet Pyrmerulas, Pyrumerulas, Pirmerulas, Pyrymerylas and Purumerulas­ occurred to the south of the Balkan Range (Detschew  19762: 386-387) and along the Struma River, it may be assumed that the donor of the treasure with dedication to the horseman-deity (and hunter) with fiery-solar characteristics originated from there, and also that the epithet was transferred to the north by Thracians who settled in the region after their military service. The ornamentation on the outer side of the bottoms of the dipper with inscription and with ornamentation of the handles is also with solar symbolism: four concave concentric circles, grouped two by two, with marked centre. The ivy leaves serving as dividing lines in the inscription on the body of the bowl suggest the other fiery-chthonian-Dionysian image of the deity.

The treasure from Golyama Brestnitsa supports the theory that the cultural-historical fabric of the population between the Balkan Range and the Danube during the first two centuries of the first millennium AD had at least two faces, and it should not be forgotten that it was peripheral with respect to the centre. From a culturological point of view, the change of the rulers and of the system of governance could be slower or faster, but in all cases it did not proceed in parallel with the change in thinking, of faith and of rites. The crises and the upsurges of the economic and political processes were not parallel with those in culture. The study of culture (in the most general sense of the term) reveals another version of history. Therefore, we could define two types of transformations as a result of the inclusion of the Thracian lands within the confines of the Roman Empire: visible, formal Romanisation – urban and communications infrastructure and emergence of multicultural enclaves, name system, formation of a common trade space, and actual Romanisation – of the way of life, faith and rite.

                                                                                   Valeria Fol


Detschew, D. 19762: Die thrakischen Sprachreste. Wien.

Gočeva, Z. 2006: Die örtlichen funktionalen Epitheta des Thrakischen Reiters. – Orpheus 16, 33-41.

Inscriptiones Graecae in Bulgaria repertae, ed. G. Mihailov, vol. II. Serdicae 1958; vol. IV.  Serdicae 1966 (IGBulg.).

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Marazov, I. (ed.) 1998: Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians. Treasures from the Republic of Bulgaria. New York.

Божкова, Б. 2006: Монетно съкровище (ІІ-ІІІ в.) от с. Голяма Брестница. – Нумизматика, сфрагистика и епиграфика 3, 1, 121-130. 

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Пенкова, Е.: Съкровище от с. Голяма Брестница. – В: Europeana

Петков, Хр. 1960: Новооткритото съкровище от с. Голяма Брестница, Плевенско. – Археология 1, 25-28.

Стоев, К. 2012: Романизация на Горна и Долна Мизия по данни на антропонимията (І – ІІІ в.). Дисертация за придобиване на образователната и научна степен „доктор”, защитена в Института по балканистика с Център по тракология „Проф. Александър Фол”.

Стоев, К. 2014: „Местните” в провинция Долна Мизия и тяхното положение в структурата на римската армия. – Seminarium Thracicum 8 (in press).

Фол, Ал. 2002: Тракийският Дионис. Книга трета. Назоваване и вяра. София.