Archaeologists Dig for Gold

Hammered copper and gold ornaments from an early Chalcolithic cemetery in Varna, on the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea, reveal that 6,500 years ago this area was a bustling maritime center and the home of one of the world’s earliest metal industries.1 The grave finds included 23.5-carat gold beads, scepters, bracelets, rings and animal- and horn-shaped plaques.

Thirteen Chalcolithic settlements have been discovered around Lake Varna, which at the time was a bay of the Black Sea—not, as today, a separate lake—reaching 13 miles inland and providing a natural harbor for ships. The Varna people traded around the Black Sea, up the Volga and Danube rivers—perhaps as far as Rudna Glava in former Yugoslavia, where the world’s oldest copper mine has been found—and into the northeastern Mediterranean.

Why this sudden cultural flowering? Apparently, because of metallurgy. The region west of Varna has long supplied copper and minerals coveted not only by Chalcolithic peoples, but also by later Mycenaeans in the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and by modern nations. Approximately 200 miles southwest of Varna, at Ai-Bunar, lie some of the area’s richest mines; surrounding the mines are the remains of dwellings—evidently early craft specialist towns—dating to the Chalcolithic period. Since no ancient copper mines have been discovered nearer to Varna, the ore was probably mined at places like this and sent to Varna for refining and production.

Although copper was worked much earlier, largely for ritual and ornamental purposes, it did not find wider uses until the Chalcolithic period, when smiths in southeastern Europe and southern Israel made major advances in copper metallurgy. Tools, vessels and weapons previously made of bone, clay or stone gave way to metals, and led to significant advances in agriculture; in Varna, there is evidence of new irrigation techniques and of the use of yoked oxen for plowing—both making use of metals.

Prosperous and technologically sophisticated, Varna had a high level of social organization—indicated by the division of labor in its metal-working industry.

Varna’s huge cemetery (12,000 square yards) was discovered by accident in 1972 when a tractor unearthed copper and gold objects. Nearly 300 graves have been found so far. The burial graves are generally oriented with the head of the deceased pointing toward the sea. Some of the Varna graves contained the remains of a single body, others a selection of bones, and still others burial offerings with no human remains. The dead were shrouded and interred with personal effects; a number of gold ornaments sewn onto burial cloths have remained intact. Burial objects were carefully arranged around the bodies, with clay vessels, apparently for food, placed near the head, gold ornaments on the face and chest, and flint tools beside the arms, as in the photo at left. Archaeologists dubbed this burial plot the “grave of the ruler of Varna” because of its quantity of precious grave goods. The “ruler,” a 45-year-old, tall, athletic man, holds a scepter in his right hand.

This extraordinary culture disappeared as abruptly as it arose—about 6,000 years ago—perhaps because climatic changes raised the water level in Varna Bay, flooding the settlements along the shore. Not for hundreds of years did the Varna region develop again.