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ROMAN TOMB AT HISARYA

During the late antiquity period (4th-6th centuries), the Roman and early Byzantine city of Diocletianopolis, located at the Hisarya mineral springs, was one of the five largest cities in the Roman province of Thrace. It is historically documented in the geographical text (συνεκδημος) of the ancient Greek chronicler Hierocles, written during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565). In the list of the cities mentioned by the ancient author, Diocletianopolis was the third largest city after Philippopolis (Plovdiv) and Beroe (Stara Zagora). This fact speaks volumes about the importance of Diocletianopolis in provincial Thrace's settlement structure. As a result of years of archaeological excavations conducted in the territory of the present-day town of Hisarya, fundamental questions have been answered regarding Diocletianopolis' defense system, topography, urban planning and architecture. The city was laid out in accordance with Roman construction norms. It included urban planning features developed by Hippodamus, namely seen in its broad streets intersecting at right angles.

An important part of the overall study of Diocletianopolis is dedicated to its necropolises (cemeteries). Examining these closely makes it possible to distinguish the social and economic status of the population that inhabited the city in ancient times. Archaeological finds show that five cemeteries were located in the city's nearby suburbs. While some burial sites located at these cemeteries are less impressive and contain few interred articles, others are large and have spacious tombs.

One of the richest cemeteries of Diocletianopolis is located about 300 meters to the south of the southwestern corner of the city's fortress wall, on the high right bank of the little Slaveev Dol River. In 1957, while irrigating nearby orchards, villagers came into contact with the building's massive walls, which reached almost to the surface of the land under cultivation. Archaeological excavations confirmed the existence of a great Roman family tomb at this site. Its interior makes this the most interesting and impressive tomb ever found in the vicinity of ancient Diocletianopolis. During its construction, the ground was first excavated to a depth of about 7 m. The tomb consists of a long staircase corridor and arched burial chamber. Stone and brick were used as building materials. Cement mortar was used with an admixture of finely crushed brick. The walls of the corridors are made entirely of stone, while the burial chamber is composed of mixed masonry (opus mixtum) with alternating stone and brick bands (five brick rows per band).The staircase corridor provided a route from ground level to the underground burial chamber. It is divided into two parts separated by a pronounced gap.The forward portion of the corridor is not arched since it was at ground level. Its western end, which was completely underground, has an arched roof. This part of the corridor is structurally connected to the burial chamber itself. Visible traces of frescoes in geometrical motifs can be seen on its walls. The approach to the chamber through the corridor follows a series of steps. These steps were carved into the bare ground and covered with a thick coat of plaster. Due to repeated use, the surface of each step is highly worn. At the bottom of the corridor there is a small arched opening that forms the beginning of the drainage system for water entering the chamber. The drainage channel goes eastward to the little Slaveev Dol River.

Access to the burial chamber was via an entryway whose sides were made of massive stone blocks. These blocks are shaped on their outer surfaces so as to form a concave frame equipped with grooves designed to hold a single door in place.

The chamber consists of a rectangular vaulted space, on the four sides of which are six symmetrically positioned niches. The walls of the chamber and those of the corridor were covered with paintings of floral and geometrical motifs. The six decorative niches were also painted with murals. As for these motifs, of particular interest is the one on the northern decorative niche, which depicts red roses in bloom.

The earliest record mentioning rose cultivation in Bulgaria comes from the ancient author Pliny the Elder (23-79). In his "Natural History" (Book 21, Chapter VI), he mentions the existence of 12 types of roses that bore the names of the provinces where they were grown. According to him, one variety was the so-called "Thracian rose", a fact that clearly demonstrates Thrace's role as a center of rose production since ancient times. Important physical evidence of this is also found in a fresco in one of the niches of the Roman tomb in Hisarya, which strongly supports the ancient author's information and is one of the earliest images of roses in the present-day territory of Bulgaria.

A light ocher-colored coat was applied to the areas being decorated which served as the murals' base and background. The decorated wall zone extends up to 1.50 m off of the floor. It is divided into separate rectangular fields surrounded by red lines. On the north wall, where the murals are best preserved, the decorated zone is divided into three fields. Two of them are filled with oval-shaped, greenish spots resembling the coloring pattern of green marble. Apparently, the ancient artist intended to create a convincing illusion of marble lining the inside of the chamber. The murals on the south wall are damaged, but what remains also appears to be a marble-like pattern facing the burial chamber. On the west wall there are five decorated fields in which marble-like tiling can again be seen. The eastern wall seems to be quite different owing to the inclusion into the decoration of the entry-way's fluid threshold. The entire entrance is framed by a red line and is treated as an independent decorated field.

The floor of the chamber is covered in a colorful mosaic. Given its ornamentation and degree of preservation, this mosaic dominates the interior of the tomb and is of the particular interest. It was made using the "opus vermiculatum" technique, whereby properly fitting colored pebbles were arranged on a thick layer of mortarboard. The central geometric motif includes a square filled with overlapping octagons. They, in turn, surround 16 smaller squares. The large square is bounded by a mosaic framework in which red and white triangles are positioned symmetrically.

On the north and south sides of the burial chamber there are two burial beds which sit on top of the periphery of the mosaic-tiled floor. The walls of the burial beds are decorated with rectangular panels filled with a pattern depicting multicolored drapery. In their ornamentation and artistic technique, the decorations on the grave beds are more primitive than those used on the chamber walls and niches. The beds, which were coarsely made of reused construction materials (pieces of brick and clay pipe), and their primitive decoration indicate that they were built later, during a relatively chaotic time when the quality of construction and painting were in decline.

Research and analysis of the chamber show that the tomb was used twice. For the first funeral, there were no beds in the burial chamber. How, exactly, this funeral was carried out is unclear. The deceased man's remains may have been laid in a wooden sarcophagus placed directly on the mosaic-tiled floor, or his body may have been cremated and both the urn and the gifts were placed in one of the decorated niches. When the tomb was reused, two beds were built oriented from east to west. The deceased were not laid in the cavities of the beds, but rather on top, where a brick grill was installed for that purpose. What is certain is that at that time the site was already being used as a family tomb and was intended for members of the local aristocracy.

The tomb was not entirely covered. The eastern part of the corridor reached the surface and provided access to the burial chamber so as to allow certain rituals to be conducted. It is likely that the entrance to this chamber was fitted with a massive stone door.

A comprehensive study of the Roman tomb at Hisarya has found that this site, with its burial chamber located deep underground, bears the architectural features typical of tombs from the late antiquity period. The construction methods used date it to the second half of the 4th century. A belief in life beyond the grave found expression in this tomb, which was built to convey the deceased and his domicile from the earthly realm into the afterlife.

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