New Perspectives on the Varna Cemetery (Bulgaria)-AMS Dates and Social Implications

By Higham, Tom; Chapman, John et al. | Antiquity, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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New Perspectives on the Varna Cemetery (Bulgaria)-AMS Dates and Social Implications

Higham, Tom, Chapman, John, Slavchev, Vladimir, Gaydarska, Bisserka, Honch, Noah, Yordanov, Yordan, Dimitrova, Branimira, Antiquity

The research team of this new project has begun the precision radiocarbon dating of the superimportant Copper Age cemetery at Varna. These first dates show the cemetery in use from 4560-4450 BC, with the possibility that the richer burials are earlier and the poor burials later in the sequence. The limited number of lavish graves at Varna, representing no more than a handful of paramount chiefs, buried over 50-60 years, suggests a stabilisation of the new social structure by the early part of the Late Copper Age.

Keywords: Copper Age, Eneolithic, Bulgaria, Varna, mortuary practice


The Varna cemetery was discovered by accident in 1972 in the Black Sea coastal city of the same name. An area of 7500 [m.sup.2] yielded 294 graves (Figure 1) dating to the Eneolithic (Copper Age) period. What marked the site as truly significant for world prehistory was the large accumulation of gold objects recovered. Over 3000 objects of a wide range of design and weighing more than 6kg were excavated. The excavator of the site, Ivan Ivanov (1975) claimed the material dated to the fifth millennium BC, and was therefore the earliest evidence for goldwork in the world (Ivanov 1975). In addition to the goldwork, the grave goods included 160 copper objects, more than 230 flint artefacts, about 90 stone objects, and more than 650 clay products, as well as over 12 000 Dentalium shells and about 1100 imported Spondylus shell ornaments (bracelets, necklaces and appliques). Amongst the burials were 43 graves with no human remains. Some of these so-called 'cenotaph' graves contained clay masks with gold objects placed strategically on the location of eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Although the specific social structure underpinning the Varna cemetery is disputed--from early state formation (Todorova 1976; Ivanov 1988; 1991) to chiefdom (Renfrew 1978)--there can be little doubt about the hierarchical nature of the social relations that resulted in such a massive accumulation of exotic prestige objects (Renfrew 1986; Chapman 2000).


The excavations of the Varna cemetery continued into the 1990s but a full publication of the site and its archaeological finds is still awaited. One of the major gaps in our understanding of the cemetery is its absolute chronology. Typological dating of many of the artefacts flora Varna have suggested a date in the last (III) phase of the Varna culture, viz., the second hall of the fifth millennium cal BC. Diagnostic Varna objects (Figure 2) showed close stylistic parallels with other artifacts in North East Bulgarian sites such as the cemeteries at Devnya (5), Goljamo Delchevo (6) and Durankulak (7), as well as the tells at Goljamo Delchevo (e.g., Levei XV: Todorova et al. 1975: 207) and Ovcharovo (particularly Leveis XI-XIII: Todorova et al. 1983, t. 78: 17; t. 80: 8, 13). However, typological dating is not particularly fine-grained and cannot provide estimates of the length of the use of the cemetery, nor whether graves with large or small numbers of grave goods are earlier in the sequence, nor even a sense of spatial differentiation in the dates of the graves. Some of these questions may be addressed with a large enough sample of AMS dates, which could provide valuable new information on the dynamics and external relations of the Varna cemetery. It was with these questions in mind that we began a project to date the Varna cemetery. In this article, we examine the results of the first group of AMS dates produced by that project.


The new AMS dates

Samples of human and animal bone were collected in late 2003 and again in mid-2004 from the Institute of Experimental Morphology and Anthropology, Sofia. The initial choice of samples for dating was based upon three principles: first, the availability of well-preserved human long bones; second, the investigation of graves in different zones of the cemetery; and, third, the dating of graves with a wide variety of quantities of grave goods (Table 1; Figure 2).

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New Perspectives on the Varna Cemetery (Bulgaria)-AMS Dates and Social Implications


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