The City of the Dead in Ancient Apollonia

Necropolis in old Greek means a city of the dead. The Christian cemetery is the place, where the mortal remains of people, from whom the immortal soul has departed are laid to rest. In Antiquity, however, it was commonly believed that after their death, too, people continued a kind of a life and had needs, similar to those of the living, including the possession of a city of their own. That is why the ancient necropolises yield numerous finds and have an interesting structure. The Bulgarian-French team of Dr Krastina Panayotova has recently been exploring such a unique monument near the Black Sea town of Sozopol.

Apollonia, the city-state, was founded in 611 B.C. by about 1000 Greek settlers, coming by ship from Miletus and Phocis. They reached an agreement with the local Thracian tribe of the Scormians and received permission to settle. The settlement rapidly developed by way of the intermediary trade between Thrace and Hellas. Located on a convenient peninsula, Apollonia was surrounded by strong fortress walls and urbanized, with squares decorated by statues, streets and temples of Greek and Thracian deities. The pride of the city was a 13 m tall bronze statue of Apollo, moulded by the renowned sculptor Kalamis. Anaximander of Miletus, the founder of materialistic philosophy, in turn, drafted the laws of the democratic polis. In the early 1st century, the settlement was captured by the Romans, and destroyed by fire, but was later rebuilt by them. In the wake of the 4th century, the Byzantine and Old Bulgarian descendant of Apollonia – Sozopol, or “the town of salvation”, continued to be an important centre of Black Sea commerce.

So far more than 3000 intact ceramic vessels have been found in the necropolis, one-third of them with decoration. Hundreds of samples present rare vessels of glass and alabaster. The little statuettes of clay, the deities worshipped by the buried citizens of Apollonia, number more than 400. Small bronze mirrors distinguished the deceased ladies, while the scrubs for cleansing the skin after sports competition, the so-called strigili, characterized the men. Jewels and weapons, but no objects of precious metals can be found in the graves. The ancient Greeks mocked their neighbours the Thracians for their Barbaric splendour and the custom of placing countless treasures in the tombs. They rightfully judged that gold could be put to use more rationally. Their democratic society did not allow any differences after death, either. That is why there are no splendid tombs. Even at the initial phase of the necropolis, dated to the 5th century B.C., burials in pits became basic, which continued until the end of its functioning in the 3rd century B.C. From the 4th century B.C. tombs surrounded by tiles or stone slabs started to appear. Some of them were dyed in white and red, which scholars assumed might have been a sign of gender.

The most valuable discovery for the archaeologists has been the “via sacra” – the sacred road, following which the burial processions from Apollonia entered the necropolis. First they passed through a stone wall, separating the town of the living from the city of the dead. On the left and on the right were the family plots of the outstanding families of Apollonia. Judging by the ceramic statuettes found the guardian deities could be identified without any mistake. These were: Apollo, the patron deity of the city, Pallas Athene, Aphrodite and particularly frequently, the merry Dionysus. It is curious to note that initially, the deceased were laid whole, whereas after the 4th century B.C. tombs with cremated bodies could also be found. Some scholars think that these were the Thracians, who had settled after the Greeks, while others interpret cremation as a way whereby the soul more rapidly arrived into the underground world. Together with their masters, were also burned as slaver had not been banned in democratic Greek society. Skeletons with iron loops on their legs provide evidence of this.

The uncovered vessels with red figural decoration offer an extraordinary opportunity to observe the cultural views of the ancient citizens of Apollonia. Scenes of funereal feasts, satyrs and Bacchanalia women of the Dionysus cycle predominate; depictions of the brave warrior women – the Amazon women; as well as the mysteries of the Elevzian festivals. Some of the artists were among the famous talents of the age, but they did not leave their names. For that reason scholars have conventionally called them “the Apollonian master” and “the artist of the black thyrsus”, who alone had painted the wreath of Apollo in black. And in 2005, a unique figural vessel with gold plating came to light. It presents the God Eros, with the symbol of death, the cock. But besides the produce imported from Greece, no doubt, there was local production in Apollonia, evidenced by the incomplete ceramic vessels.

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