Mac Congail


In the early 1980’s excavations carried out at the Hill of Zaravetz (Zarevetz/Tsarevetz)  (Veliko Tarnovo) turned up unexpected results. Under the medieval Bulgarian capital, in what archaeologists expected to be layers pertaining to the Thracian culture, artifacts and habitation layers relating to a completely different culture began to appear. The settlement layers from the late Iron Age yielded La Têne material (Kvinto 1985) which clearly indicated that the site had been inhabited by a Celtic population. Subsequent excavations at the site in recent years have uncovered further material which confirms the earlier findings. (see ‘New Material (2)’ article)

   In the context of the present study of most interest are a number of coins found in the Celtic habitation layers at the site. In total 5 coins were uncovered – one bronze of Alexander III (the Great) and 4 ‘barbarian’ issues – 2 bronze and 2 lead. The barbarian coins were ignored in academic circles until further publications of such coins followed over the next decades. (Lazarov 1992; Burvarov 1994; Topalov 1999; Mac Congail 2008) It has subsequently emerged that these low value barbarian emissions provide invaluable information about the culture which inhabited northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age.

   The Celtic Zaravetz type coins are based on autonomous bronze emissions of the Greek colony of Odessos (Fig. 1) which had been previously dated generally to the  3rd – 1st c. BC. The fact that the Celtic ‘imitations’  (Fig. 2) have been found in an archaeological context which dates to the end of the 3rd – beginning of the 2nd c. BC logically dates the Greek prototype to the period prior to the end of the 3rd c. BC.



In terms of distribution the Zaravetz issues have been discovered in an area which includes most of present day northeastern Bulgaria, with a particularly high concentration in the Veliko Tarnovo area. (See map  n8) Besides the Zaravetz hillfort (map n8 #1), further examples have been recorded in Veliko Tarnovo itself (Lazarov 1992), the Hill(fort) at Rachovetz, 7 km. north of Veliko Tarnovo,( map n8#2; Burvarov 1994; Topalov, 1999, 160) and in the vicinity of the village of Samovodene, slightly to the west of Veliko Tarnovo (map n8 #3; Gerasimov 1934). Other finds have been recorded in northeastern Bulgaria at Byala (Russe region) (map n8 # 4; Mac Congail  2008: 46-48), Schumen (map n8 # 5; Lazarov 1992; Topalov, 1999, 260 – 270 and 310 – 313), Tutrakan (Silestra region) (map n8 #6 -Fig. 3), Razgrad (map n8 #7 – Fig. 4 ), Opaka (Targovischte region) (map n8 #8; Gerasimov 1979; Stoykov 2002-2003), as well as in large numbers from the western Varna region (map n8 #9; Lazarov 1992; Topalov 1999; Mac Congail 2008).



 The local Celtic coinage circulating in northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age therefore ranged from Celtic silver tetradrachmas of the Philip II and Thasos types, drachmas of the Philip III type, while the lower value coinage consisted of the aforementioned Zaravetz bronze and lead issues. This broad spectrum of coinage of differing intrinsic and economic value indicates a highly developed and organized economic system among the ‘barbarian’ population of this area in the pre-Roman period.


  From a scientific perspective the lowest value coins – the Zaravetz lead issues are most significant. (Chemical analysis has shown a lead content of 98.25%; Lazarov 1992: 20-21) Coins minted in lead are unknown in Europe in this period, and were produced neither by the Celtic culture nor in the Greco-Roman world. The Zaravetz leads as part of the coinage system in northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age would therefore appear to be a unique numismatic phenomenon. 


  As has been pointed out (Lazarov 1992), such coins would not, because of their low intrinsic value, have circulated beyond the borders of the authority which issued them. The distribution of these coins therefore logically enables us to roughly delineate the extent of the Zaravetz Culture in the III-I c. BC period. Based on the present data at our disposal (topographic, historical and archaeological as well as numismatic – see ‘The Zaravetz Culture’ article – forthcoming) the influence of this ‘state’, which was in fact probably more a confederation of tribal groups, covered an area which extended to the Jantra river in the west, the Danube in the north, and the Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains in the south. In the east the Greek Pontus cities remained autonomous, but intense trade links between the latter and the Celto-Thracian state in the interior is indicated by numismatic data. The fact that the Zaravetz issues themselves are modeled on an Odessos bronze prototype further confirms these close economic links.

  Extensive trade links between the Zaravetz Celts of northeastern Bulgaria and the ‘Scordisci’ in the northwest of the country is confirmed by the circulation of Celtic Thasos, Philip II and Philip III issues throughout northern Bulgaria during this period. (see relevant sections) A similarly close economic relationship appears to have developed between the Celto-Thracian Zaravetz culture and the Bastarnae (Peucini) in the area of Scythia Minor (corresponding roughly to today’s Dobruja region in northeastern Bulgarian and southeastern Romania). (See ‘Bastarnae’ article – forthcoming) Discoveries of Celtic coins in Bastarnae territory, particularly in the Kavarna-Balchik-Silestra area, as well as archaeological data, indicates intensive trade and cultural contacts between the Bastarnae and the Zaravetz Celts, while the minting of Hellenistic type coins by the Bastarnae on which the royal title ‘Basileus’ is used (Fig 5/6), indicates that the latter, as was the case with the Greek cities on the coast, remained economically and politically independent – these relationships being  mutually beneficial from an economic perspective.







 * Does not include Celtic Paeonia ‘imitations’, coins of the ‘Tyle’ state or Bastarnae coins