Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Solnitsata near the northeastern Bulgarian town of Provadiya have discovered what may be some of the oldest known worked gold in Europe. It’s a small pendant made of two ounces of what archaeologists estimate is 24-carat gold although it hasn’t been assayed yet. It was found in a necropolis dating to around 4,300 B.C., but lead archaeologist Professor Vasil Nikolov believes the piece could be 200-300 years older.
The earliest known gold hoard in the world was unearthed about 23 miles east of this settlement in a prehistoric necropolis in the Black Sea resort town of Varna in 1973. Radiocarbon testing dates the Varna tombs to around 4560-4450 B.C., so the Solnitsata piece is at least contemporary with the Varna gold and may be older. Unlike the Varna riches, however, this wee pendant was not found in a grave.
“What’s interesting regarding the gold jewel that we have found now is that it was discovered not inside one of the graves but between them, which might testify to some kind of a more special ritual. In any case, this jewel is another specimen of the art of jewelry making that was developed at the time,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.
He notes that the term “jewel” might not be the most precise one for the gold item found near Bulgaria’s Provadiya because it was not worn as a decoration but as a status symbol.
The Solnitsata settlement was immensely prosperous thanks to the salt trade. Salt processing at the site began in the Late Neolithic (about 5500 B.C.) when brine from salt water springs was boiled in small, thin-walled ceramic vases and baked into blocks in large domed kilns. The production of salt increased markedly in the Middle Chalcolithic (4700-4500 B.C.) through the Late Chalcolithic (4500-4200 B.C.) when the method of extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vases placed inside deep, open-air pits up to 10 meters (33 feet) wide. This allowed salt to be produced on an industrial scale and salt blocks were traded locally and throughout the Balkans on pack animals or possibly sleds. There was no wheel yet, so no carts were involved.
The settlement, which archaeologists estimate had a population of 350 people at its peak, was fortified with wood palisades and earthworks in the Late Neolithic and then strengthened during the Chalcolithic with stone walls whose bases were as much as 13 feet thick. By then the Solnitsata salt complex was producing an eye-watering 4,000 to 5,000 kilos (8,800 to 11,000 pounds) of dry salt at a time (the Neolithic kilns produced about 25 kilos or 55 pounds of salt in one load). At a time when salt was highly valued as the only means of food preservation, the small Solnitsata settlement might as well have been a mint. That’s why they needed such thick walls, to Fort Knoxify the place.
Given that their neighbors in Varna were mining copper and gold at the time, you might expect the salt-based wealth of Solnitsata to result in burials with similar valuables, but the little pendant is the first gold excavated at the site and it wasn’t a grave good.
It’s one of several exciting finds at the site. The exploration of the masonry fortifications is of particular interest as Solnitsata’s defensive wall is the oldest stone fortress in the world. Professor Nikolov explains:
“The [fortress] wall that we are unearthing right now shows that the fortress had a shape of a circle with a diameter of about 90 meters. It is interesting that back then the people had valuable knowledge about military affairs. In order to ensure a better defense, the wall was not made round but its sections follow straight lines. That’s because the round shape would have been harder to defend.”