Archaeology Magazine Archive

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At the Museums: Thracian Glitter Volume 51 Number 4, July/August 1998
by Susan I. Rotroff


The fourth-century B.C. gilt-silver Rogozen Treasure from northwest Bulgaria
(Courtesy The Trust for Museum Exhibitions)

Who were the Thracians? Among the peoples of the Mediterranean, they have usually been numbered among fringe cultures, shadowy folk on the periphery of the bright world of Greeks and Romans. Emerging as a distinctive culture during the third millennium B.C., they lived in tribal groups in an area bordered on the south by the Aegean, on the east and west by the Black Sea and the Vardar River, and on the north by the Carpathians. Although loosely linked by culture and, apparently, by language, they never achieved political unity, living in small towns and villages. Cities did not appear until late in their history, and their most monumental buildings were tombs. The Thracians left no written account of their customs and history, and their language is known only from place names and a small number of inscriptions written in Greek characters. The Greeks, however, were well aware of their northern neighbors, with whom they came into contact, and conflict, in the course of colonizing the northern Aegean shore. To the Greeks, Thrace was a wild and woolly place: the birthplace of the violent war god, Ares, the home of the man-eating mares of Diomedes, and the land where demented women tore the singer Orpheus limb from limb. Homer's Iliad provides a striking portrait of the Thracian hero Rhesos, an ally of the Trojans and a fearsome warrior, remarkable for his large and beautiful horses, his ornate chariot, and his golden armor. The historian Herodotus describes the Thracians in some detail, commenting on their large numbers, their lack of political unity, and various customs such as polygamy and branding of slaves that, from a Greek perspective, struck him as very odd (Histories, 5.3-8). Greeks settled in Thrace and Thracians lived in Greek cities, and there was significant interaction between the two cultures, but any portrait that emerges from surviving written sources is fundamentally biased--the Greeks regarded the Thracians as barbarians. It is only by turning to archaeology that we can gain a better understanding of these people.

[image]The fourth-century B.C. Panagyurishte Treasure, left [LARGER IMAGE]; gold ring bearing one of the longest-known Thracian inscriptions, right [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy The Trust for Museum Exhibitions)[image]

Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians, Treasures from the Republic of Bulgaria now at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, makes a small but spectacular part of that archaeological heritage available to American museumgoers. Thracian lands lie within the borders of many modern nations; some of the most remarkable discoveries have been made in Bulgaria. The show, which presents some 200 gold and silver objects, opened in St. Louis in February, and it has now embarked on an extensive tour of the United States. The exhibition draws on the riches of the following Bulgarian museums--the Archaeological Institute and Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia; the Archaeological Museum, Varna; the Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv; the History Museum, Burgas; the History Museum, Kazanluk; the History Museum, Kiustendil; the History Museum, Lovech; the History Museum, Montana; the History Museum, Pleven; the History Museum, Razgrad; the History Museum, Russe; the History Museum, Stara Zagora; the History Museum, Targovishte; the History Museum, Pazardjik; the History Museum, Veliko Turnovo; and the National History Museum in Sofia.


California Palace of the Legion of Honor
San Francisco, CA
July 31-October 11

New Orleans Museum of Art
New Orleans, LA
October 31-January 4, 1999

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Memphis, TN
January 17-March 14

Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, MA
April 2-June 7

The Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit, MI
June 25-August 29

* Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

Susan I. Rotroff is professor of classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America