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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE

IN THRACE: A RECONSIDERATION OF BURIAL


SEQUENCE AND DATING
*
CHAVDAR TZOCHEV
Abstract
Many scholars have tried to make sense of the puzzling situation in the Mal Tepe tomb,
which contained traces of multiple burials and objects of Greek, Thracian and Celtic origin.
A widely accepted view holds that the monument had three phases of use, with four succes-
sive burials in the tholos, the two antechambers and the corridor. By rethinking the dates of
the grave-goods and their connections with individual burials, as well as by considering
previously overlooked evidence, the present paper challenges this view and suggests a simpler
scenario.
The Mal Tepe tomb near Mezek (south-eastern Bulgaria), is remarkable in many
ways, but it is the size of the dedicated bibliography that makes it special when
compared with other Thracian tombs. Such extraordinary interest has only one
explanation: the chariot fittings of Celtic origin and the opportunities for historical
interpretations their presence in the tomb provide. This subject has been a main
line of research ever since Paul Jacobsthal,
1
and continues to be a leitmotif today.
2

With the present article I would like to shift the focus to another problem, which
has not been looked into since Mieczysaw Domaradzkis posthumous publication,
3

namely the tangled question of the sequence of burials and their absolute dates.
The monument hardly needs presentation. After the initial publication of Bog-
dan Filov,
4
descriptions of the tumulus, its architecture and inventory have been
repeated as introductions to a number of scholarly attempts at solving the history
of the tomb. Yet, with the risk of boring readers familiar with the subject, I will set
the scene with a brief sketch of the complex and the circumstances of its discovery.
*
I am most grateful to Julij Emilov and Milena Tonkova for stimulating discussions, which helped
me to clarify my own thoughts, as well as for correcting certain points of confusion at earlier stages
of this paper.
1
Jacobsthal 1944, 15152.
2
Most recently Stoyanov 2010; Emilov and Megaw 2012.
3
Domaradzki 1998, 5053.
4
Filov 1937a. For a short version of this publication in English, see Filov 1937b.
doi: 10.2143/AWE.13.0.3038730 AWE 13 (2014) 49-62
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50 C. TZOCHEV
The modern story of Mal Tepe begins in 1903 with the incidental discovery of
a life-size bronze statue of a boar, probably a part of a statuary group set up some-
where in the southern periphery of the tumulus.
5
The burial mound, 14 m high
and 90 m in diameter, kept its secrets until 1931, when treasure hunters from a
nearby village discovered the entrance to the tomb and looted the movable grave-
goods found inside. Following an investigation they returned the objects, and
testified. The original find-spots of many items were recovered, but doubts will
always exist, not only about the authenticity of the information, but also about the
completeness of the inventory, in which the paucity of silver and gold is particularly
suspicious.
Scientific excavations and study clarified the architectural plan of the tomb:
a remarkably long corridor, two rectangular antechambers, and a tholos, all built on
one axis (Fig. 1). Filov found that the slabbed floor in the tholos and the ante-
chambers lay above an earlier floor level. Upon lifting the slabs in the first ante-
chamber, he discovered cremated human remains along with gold jewellery.
6
A
similar situation appeared when he excavated the floor of the second antechamber.
Based on their discoveries, Filov and his followers were faced with a puzzling
situation. In terms of spatial organisation, the tomb has dedicated areas for three
individuals in the tholos, which is equipped with a funerary bier and two stone urns.
In terms of human remains, there are only two certain burials in Mal Tepe: the
cremated remains of the two individuals buried between the two floor levels in the
antechambers. In terms of grave-goods, the situation is much more complicated.
Apart from the two certain burials that go with their own grave-goods, scholars have
been unanimous concerning a third burial in the tholos to which the objects placed
there belong. This is made explicit by the fact that the grave-goods buried with the
cremations consisted mainly of womens jewellery, while those in the tholos included
armaments.
7
In addition, since Jacobsthal recognised the Celtic chariot fittings
found in the corridor (Fig. 2),
8
the idea of a fourth burial became fundamental.
Domaradzkis attempt at arranging the sequence of burials based on the grave-
goods and their dates
9
represents another landmark in studies on the tomb. Draw-
ing from his knowledge of the funerary practices of the Thracian elite, he saw logic
5
Filov 1937a, 3438, figs. 34, 35. On the hypothetical reconstruction and the location of the
statuary group, see Stoyanov 2010.
6
On the jewellery from Mal Tepe, see Pfrommer 1990, 250; Tonkova 1997; 2002, 103; 2010.
7
An iron pectoral with silver gilt decoration (Ognenova 1961; Venedikov and Gerasimov 1973,
10405, fig. 230; Phaklaris 1985; Archibald 1985; 1998, 25556) and a sword (Filov 1937a, 72,
no. 46).
8
Jacobsthal 1944, 15152.
9
Domaradzki 1998, 5053.
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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 51
in the arrangement of the finds as described by witnesses of the looting, and
suggested that this was their original situation. Then he organised the evidence into
the following tidy scheme of four burials and three phases of use:
1. A burial in the tholos, which Domaradzki dated not earlier than the last quarter
of the 4th century BC, but refrained from assigning a more precise date, stating
that none of the objects allow such a determination.
2. Two burials under the floor of the antechambers, presumably contemporary;
dated to the end of the first quarter of the 3rd century BC.
3. An isolated burial in the corridor based on the bronze chariot fittings, golden
ornaments and a spur; dated to the middle of the 3rd century BC.
Fig. 1: Plan of the Mal Tepe tomb (after Filov 1937a, 11, fig. 5).
Fig. 2: Chariot fittings from Mal Tepe (photographs, National Archaeological Institute
with Museum, Sofia).
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52 C. TZOCHEV
Domaradzkis scheme is widely accepted, and since its publication scholarly
efforts refocused on the Celtic theme, leaving the first two phases behind. However,
the burials in these phases are problematic in terms of both sequence and absolute
dates. Curiously, Filovs idea that the two cremations are secondary in relation to
the warrior burial
10
has never been doubted, despite the lack of explicit supporting
indications. On the one hand, to Filov the objects in the tholos seemed younger that
those in the cremated graves, in particular, younger than the two coins found in the
graves. On the other hand, the cremations were made after the reconstruction of
the floor, which presumably (but not necessarily!) happened at some stage during
the use of the tomb. Domaradzki followed this logic, and only corrected the dating
of these first two phases. The dates he assigned to the cremations the end of the
first quarter of 3rd century BC have been supported with a mere reference to the
coins, the gilded wreaths, and the jewellery found among the cremated remains.
The two silver coins found in the cremation graves have been described as heav-
ily worn and burnt drachms of Alexander the Great.
11
Sadly, the only information
one gains from this description is a terminus post quem of 336 BC for both crema-
tions. The funerary wreaths and gold jewellery belong to some of the most popular
Early Hellenistic types, and have quite large chronological margins; similar adorn-
ments were certainly used in Thracian burials long before the 270s BC. The set
from Grave 2, for example, is comparable with the one from Tumulus 1 of the
necropolis of Koprinka (Seuthopolis), dated by amphora stamps to the last decade of
the 4th century BC (Figs. 35).
12
More problematic is the dating of the carnelian-
encrusted gold lamella found in Grave 1 (Fig. 6 left).
13
M. Pfrommers post mid-3rd
century date
14
has been based on the general observation that encrusted jewellery
became popular after this date, rather than on concrete parallels. The piece is some-
what unusual, but similar use of coloured gems in gold dog-tooth bezels is known
on jewels from archaeological contexts as early as the late 4th century.
15
The rest of the grave-goods from the cremations cannot be dated any better;
actually, none of these objects seem obviously later than the ones in the tholos.
The problem becomes more evident if we allow for a moment that the cremated
remains and their offerings were originally interred in the two stone urns in the
10
Filov 1937a, 29.
11
Filov 1937a, 76, 79.
12
Cf. Filov 1937a, 32, 74, figs. 30.14, 94.12; Dimitrov and Cicikova 1978, figs. 8990,
fig. 2ac. On the date of the stamps from the tumulus, see Balkanska and Tzochev 2008, 193,
tabl. 1.
13
Filov 1937a, 75, no. 2.
14
Pfrommer 1990, 250.
15
For example Themelis and Touratsoglou 1997, 12129, no. Z10, fig. 28.
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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 53
tholos, and later on were reburied under the floors of the antechambers. Filov already
noted this as a possibility,
16
but missed a piece of supporting evidence: the coun-
terpart of the encrusted gold lamella found in Grave 1 (Fig. 6 right) has an unknown
provenance,
17
meaning that it was among the objects looted by the villagers before
the two graves were excavated.
18
This second lamella, which undeniably belongs to
the same set of adornments, could have been lost during the ancient reburial.
19
16
Filov 1937a, 2930.
17
Filov 1937a, 32, no. 4.
18
Filov explicitly states that the second plate was not found in Grave 1 (Filov 1937a, 75).
19
Zofia Archibald (1998, n. 22) already noted that the two jewels may indicate contamination
between the burial in the tholos and the cremations under the floor.
Fig. 4: Earrings and necklace from
Seuthopolis, Tumulus 1 (photographs,
National Archaeological Institute
with Museum, Sofia).
Fig. 3: Earrings and necklace from Mal
Tepe, Grave 2 (photographs, earrings:
National Archaeological Institute with
Museum, Sofia; necklace: after Venedikov
and Gerasimov 1973, fig. 198).
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54 C. TZOCHEV
When considered in this way, the sequence of the three burials and the existence
of the first two phases do not seem certain at all. In fact, the warrior and the two
cremated women could have been buried in any order within 3040 years, or all at
the same time, without this being visible in the grave-goods. The women may have
preceded the warrior in the tholos if one accepts the reburial scenario. A second
pavement of the floor certainly took place before the interment of the cremations
in the antechambers, but the relation of this operation to the male burial in the
tholos is uncertain. The second layer of slabs may have been in place before any
burials were made in the tomb.
The third phase of use is no less problematic. Existing interpretations include a
burial of a Celtic warrior, a burial of a Thracian leader who captured the Celtic
objects or received them as a gift,
20
or a votive by a Thracian on occasion of a vic-
tory over the Celts.
21
Now Julij Emilov convincingly suggests that the fittings, along
with other parts of the chariot, are better explainable as an addition to a sacrificed
horse, rather than to a separate human burial.
22
If so, a relationship between this
sacrifice and the warrior burial in the tholos seems a completely legitimate option.
20
Fol 1991, 384; Cunliffe 1997, 17475; Domaradzki 1998, 51; Megaw 2005, 213.
21
Stoyanov 2005, 127.
22
Emilov and Megaw 2012, 1114.
Fig. 5: Thasian amphora stamp from the embankment
of Seuthopolis, Tumulus 1 (photographs by author).
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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 55
* * *
The riddle described above seems discouragingly difficult to solve without closely
datable objects associated with the burials. Bronze vessels, armour and gold orna-
ments are not only hard to date, but can also have unpredictably long periods of
use before interment. However, besides the metal pieces, the other objects from the
tomb included two ceramic transport amphorae which have been disregarded since
1937. The initial publication presented these amphorae along with general-plan
photographs and brief descriptions, including Filovs note that the handles of both
jars bear stamps with pictorial devices. Instead of raising scholarly interest, this
remark sank into oblivion. Photographs of the stamps were never published, while
the amphorae were only briefly mentioned as examples of Thasian containers from
the first half or the middle of the 4th

century BC.
23
Paradoxically, one of the
amphorae
24
was displayed until recently in the permanent exhibition of the National
Archaeological Museum in Sofia, and was one of the first objects that visitors saw
when entering the Museum. My focus in the following paragraphs will be this jar,
which I believe, along with the chariot fittings, is a key piece of evidence for recon-
structing the Mal Tepe tombs history.
25
The shape of this vessel (Fig. 7) can be termed the canonical Thasian amphora
of the late 4thfirst half of the 3rd century BC. During this period the workshops
on the island produced two different shapes, corresponding to different units of
volume. After around 310 BC vessels of the smaller unit are very rare;
26
most of the
23
Bon and Bon 1957, 19; Lazarov 1973, 29.
24
Filov 1937a, 72, 74, no. 56, fig. 82.
25
The other ceramic transport amphora, inv. 6399, while not less interesting, is not relevant to
the dating of the burials. I will discuss this amphora in another study.
26
For example Tsibidou-Auloniti 2005, 65, pl. 19.
Fig. 6 (left): Carnelian-encrusted gold lamella from Mal Tepe, Grave 1;
(right) Similar lamella found elsewhere in the tomb
(photographs, National Archaeological Institute with Museum, Sofia).
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56 C. TZOCHEV
complete jars that survive, including our amphora, belong to the larger unit. Their
shape is very much standardised and only changed slightly during the period in
question. A number of complete stamped vessels dated to the 290s270s BC have
silhouettes very similar to the Mal Tepe amphora.
27
Variations occur mostly in the
profile of the toe, but these depend more on the habits of individual potters, and
at this stage of research are not chronologically indicative. The evolution of the
27
Cf. Lazarov 1973, no. 145 (Kleofn II); Monakhov 2003, pl. 49.4 (Dalkov); Akamatis 2011,
312, fig. 1 (Megakledjv); Delemen 2004, 73, fig. 73 (Polunekjv); Pulak et al. 1987, 50, fig. 25
(Puqwn V); Bon 1957, 22, fig. 6.5 (Atokrtjv); Monakhov 2003, pl. 49.6 (Skmnov I); Monakhov
1999, 484, pl. 206.1 (Puqwn II/IV).
Fig. 7: Transport amphora from Mal Tepe. National Archaeological Institute with Museum, Sofia,
inv. 6398. Found in January, 1932. Intact. H: 71.7 cm; diameter max.: 33 cm;
diameter rim: 10.7 cm. Reddish micaceous fabric (photograph and drawing by author).
97030.indb 56 2/09/14 08:28
THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 57
shape in the 260s250s BC is not very clear, but what emerged from it in the later
3rd century is a narrower, bobbin-like jar.
28
Looking more closely at the shape of
the Mal Tepe amphora eventually will provide some indication to which stage of
the evolution it belongs, but this would be an unnecessary effort if the stamp is
legible.
In the primary publication, Filov noted that the stamp on the handle depicts a
small pointed amphora without any accompanying text, and that this device com-
monly appears on Thasian stamps. He was right about the origin of the stamp, but
he failed to notice the inscription, which is fairly worn. Placing the handle in con-
trasting light makes parts of the legend become visible above and below the device
(Fig. 8). The imprint is not unique; a number of stamps imprinted by the same
die
29
help to complete the reading:
Qas[wn]
amphora
A[]na[v]
Fig. 8: Stamp on handle of Thasian amphora from Mal Tepe
(photographs by author).
The date of Thasian official Ainav varies according to different specialised publica-
tions: ca. 285, ca. 294, ca. 292 or ca. 291 BC.
30
These dates are achieved through
calculation, although none of them can claim precision, they show the margin of
possible variation. The term of Ainav falls in a section of Thasian amphora-stamp
chronology, which is well grounded and unlikely to change much in the future.
This is because between the 310s and the 260s BC the list of officials is complete,
there are few problematic homonyms, and most of the names are bound in order
28
Cf. Garlan and Blond 2004, 125, fig. 8 (Sturov II); Bon 1957, fig 4.5 (Boulkritov Ai(-)).
29
Lenger 1957, no. 7; Avram 1996, no. 383; Debidour 1999, no. 1206.
30
Respectively: Avram 1996; Garlan 200405; Tzochev 2009; Debidour 2011.
97030.indb 57 2/09/14 08:28
58 C. TZOCHEV
by various interdependencies. Uncertainty about the date of Ainav comes from
the lack of indications for his position in relation to the other officials of chrono-
logical groups VIVII, which gives seven to eight years of play. To this one should
add a couple more years, because the absolute dates of the whole sequence could
move up or down depending on what dates one accepts for the officials of the
Koroni group. In all cases the year of Ainav falls either in the 290s or in the early
280s BC.
Now that we finally have a well-dated object among the artefacts from the tomb,
a certain amount of doubt still remains about which burial it belongs to. The infor-
mation that the amphorae were found in the tholos and not in the antechambers
suggests that they are associated with the warrior. However, choosing the reburial
scenario, one can imagine that the two amphorae belonged to the cremations, but
being too big for the new graves were left in the tholos. Since the situation in Mal
Tepe is so far without parallels in other tombs, and is made further uncertain by
the robbery, it would be best not to build an interpretation based only on the spatial
arrangement of the grave-goods.
In terms of function, the amphorae also make more sense as part of the warrior
burial in the tholos, than the cremated graves. As wine containers, the jars combine
with the other vessels to form a dining set, which originally should also have
included drinking cups.
31
Such luxury dining sets are essential equipment for the
tombs of the Thracian and Macedonian elite. In contrast to Macedonia, where
grave-goods rarely include transport amphorae,
32
in Thrace one or several Greek
wine jars (most often two) are an integral part of funerary dining sets. Actually, the
warrior burial appears rather odd without the two amphorae. Based upon multiple
funerary deposits containing dining sets and wine jars along with weapons and
sacrificed horses,
33
one can safely consider this combination a norm for the Thracian
31
In Thracian elite tombs these vessels were usually made of silver or gold. The fact that no such
vessels were returned or reported after the plunder makes it very probable that they were stolen either
by the modern robbers or in antiquity. Indeed, Filov reported small pieces of a silver vessel found in
the corridor, near the entrance to the tomb (Filov 1937a, 72, no. 45).
32
To date I know of only six cases: Amphipolis (Lazaridis 1957, 71, fig. 20a); Nikisiani (Lazaridis
et al. 1992 for the amphorae, see p. 18, pl. 12), however, the Macedonian interpretation of this
complex is problematic both in terms of geography and burial rite; Pella (Chrisostomou 1998,
p. 60, pl. 11); Syndrivani (Chronique des fouilles et dcouvertes archologiques en Grce en 1957.
BCH 82.2 [1958], 75859, 769); Thessaloniki (Tsibidou-Auloniti 1986, 127, pl. 4b); Thessaloniki
(Tsibidou-Auloniti 2005, p. 65, pl. 19). It is possible that the custom of including a transport amphora
in the burial dining set spread to Macedonia from Thrace. The Macedonian examples are much fewer,
never related to royal necropoleis, and all of them postdate Macedonian expansion into Thrace under
Philip II.
33
Undisturbed, archaeologically documented examples include: Dalakova mogila (Kitov and
Dimitrov 2008; Tzochev 2009, 5657); Kaloyanovo (Chichikova 1969); Naip (Delemen 2004);
Peychova Mogila (unpublished excavations of Georgi Kitov); Sashova Mogila (Kitov 1996a; Tzochev
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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 59
military elite of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. This leads us to the final question:
if the parts of the Celtic chariot were deposited with the sacrificed horse, could this
act be concomitant with the same burial which included the Thasian amphora?
Mal Tepe is one of the few funerary deposits in which Aegean and La Tne
chronologies meet,
34
but unfortunately in such obscure circumstances. Yet Jacobsthal
expressed regret for the complicated situation,
35
which inhibited a synchronisation
between the Greek and Celtic objects from the tomb. Such association has never
been tested even hypothetically, not only because the absence of closely dated
objects among the Greek imports, but also because the Celtic bronzes seemed
considerably later than the artefacts from the tholos.
36
Now the first of these prob-
lems is remedied with a solution that makes the second problem surmountable.
If we set aside the historical interpretations of the Mal Tepe chariot fittings, they
could easily be contemporary or even earlier than the Thasian amphora. A profound
analysis offered by Vincent Megaw
37
clearly demonstrates the problems with their
dating: isolated parallels scattered over a very large area, few of them from dated
deposits, unclear production centres, all this leaving us with a loose dating centred
on the earlier part of the third century BC.
38
This would give a great deal of
latitude to the date of the Mal Tepe items, if they had been found in western or
central Europe. But their discovery in a Thracian milieu has delineated the opinions
on their date with the assumption that they arrived in south-eastern Thrace with
the Celtic invasions. The supposed date of deposition varies from one scholar to
another depending on which particular historical scenario is chosen.
39
Most opin-
ions cluster around the defeat of the Celts at Lysimachia in 277 BC, while the
earliest possibility suggested so far coincides with the beginning of the Great Celtic
invasion in Thrace somewhere around 280 BC.
40
2009, 58, 59, fig. 2); Simeonovgrad-Asara (Domaradzki 1998, 54); Zlatinitza (Agre 2011). For many
plundered deposits the information is incomplete and usually the metal vases are missing: Dolno
Izvorovo (Nekhrizov and Parvin 2011); Kazanlak (Mikov 1954); Ostrusha (Kitov 2003, 2325;
Valeva 2005, 1214); Panchova Mogila (unpublished excavations of Georgi Kitov); Ploskata Mogila
(Kitov et al. 2006, 129); Slavchova Mogila (Kitov 1996b). Information for horses is absent in several
cases which are not documented archaeologically, for example Mramor Mogila (Filov 1918, 1429)
and Brezovo (Filov 1918, 314), but their inventories include horse trappings.
34
For other instances, see Kavur and Kavur 2010.
35
Jacobsthal 1944, 151.
36
An earlier opinion of Ivan Venedikov offers an exception. He did not accept the Celtic origins
of the chariot fittings, and related them to the main burial in the tholos, which he dated to the 4th
century (Venedikov and Gerasimov 1973, 6870). In a later publication Venedikov (1998, 83)
expressed doubts, but allowed for a Celtic origin and a date after 279 BC for the fittings.
37
Emilov and Megaw 2012, 1423.
38
Emilov and Megaw 2012, 18.
39
Cf. Emilov 2007, 59.
40
Megaw 2005, 213.
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60 C. TZOCHEV
Let us leave aside the speculations of whether or not the chariot could have
arrived earlier in Thrace theoretically, it could have belonged to the range of
diplomatic gifts which circulated between the Greek world and the Celtic aristocrats
from the region of the middle course of [the] Danube.
41
Synchronisation between
the Thasian amphora and the Celtic chariot is possible in either case. Judging by
other funerary deposits containing multiple stamped jars, there is a great chance
that the amphora was not deposited brand new in the tomb. A variance of up to
ten years should be considered normal in such cases,
42
which allows synchronous
deposition for the amphora and the Celtic bronzes, even if the latter arrived in
Thrace after 280 BC. Choosing this option makes the Mal Tepe complex look more
comprehensible in its Thracian context. It eliminates the problematic third phase
and the need to look for a burial in the corridor. Instead, it offers a less extra-
ordinary example of a local leader buried with his arms, horse, dining set, and
somewhat unusual war trophies. Since the horse sacrifice would have blocked the
corridor, the two cremated individuals seem better explained as preceding the main
burial, initially in the tholos, and later on (reburied) in the antechambers.
This is of course only a hypothetical reconstruction, and it will hardly be the last
one. The beauty of the Mal Tepe tomb is that 80 years after its discovery it still
offers an intellectual challenge, and after so many attempts, missing pieces of the
puzzle still await discovery.
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THE HELLENISTIC TOMB OF MAL TEPE IN THRACE 61
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