The accidental discover of the Varna Cemetery (otherwise known as the Varna Necropolis) on the Black Sea coast of modern day Bulgaria, has shed light onto the lives of the people in the vicinity and the burial customs they practiced.
When it was discovered in 1972, a mass of gold and other metals were uncovered, dating back to the 5th and 4th millennium BCE, and this was one of the many reasons why archaeologists flocked to the area to study the area. The majority of the gold discovered was in the form of gold beads, but other forms were discovered. One of the more famous items found was the penis sheath. Other items found included hammered sheet pectorals, and “the gold appliqués (often zoomorphic in form) with perforated edges for sewing onto the clothing of the deceased” (Scarre, p.403). According to scholars, many of the discoveries were decorations; some worn around the wrists or upper arms, pushed through holes in the lips or ears or sewn onto their clothing.
The fact that many of these items were highly prized decorative objects is particularly interesting. It has led to the theory that they were specially made for the purpose of burial and not for use while the person was alive. It indicates the method of how societies in this time were able to show the differences in social status.
It has been suggested by scholars that due to the richness of its treasures, especially the considerable quantity of gold jewellery, that these were the tombs of rulers. However, it should be stressed that there is no evidence at this time to back up this hypothesis.
Not all the graves contained a rich amount of grave goods. Indeed, while the majority have up to 10 items placed in the graves, there were 23 graves that contained none at all. Most interestingly, was the discovery of no skeletons in some of the graves, even though these were handsomely furnished with objects. These have been classed as ‘cenotaphs’ – a memorial to those whose body could not be found or buried in another location.
The Varna Cemetery offers us great insight to the growing complexity of communities in southeast Europe during the 5th millennium BCE. While certain questions cannot be answered at this present time, the continual study of the Varna Cemetery will continue to provide unknown aspects of the Black Sea societies in the future.
Scarre, Chris (2005) The Human past – Holocene Europe, Thames & Hudson, London.