Glimpses of Thracian Landscapes

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By Gavin MacGregor


This document reports on my experience of and reflection on the Archnetwork Erasmus + structured course to Bulgaria. It was hosted by Devetaki Plateau Association, between 7th and 13th October 2019, and allowed the group of participants to experience a huge range of natural and cultural heritage related issues across Bulgaria. During the trip we travelled from Sophia, to Plovdiv, Drashkova Polyana, Troyan, Cherni Ossam, Lovech, Gorsko Slivovo and Sevlievo before returning to Sophia on the final day, which allowed for a wide experience of different types of Bulgarian settlement and landscapes.

As a heritage practitioner, I have been involved in several landscape partnerships in Scotland. As such I wanted to take the opportunity from the trip to reflect on my encounters with Bulgarian Landscapes, however fleeting, and the value it had to my practices.

The report comprises four short thematic vignettes, which then allow for brief reflection on how the concept of landscape could be important to ongoing work and aspirations of the Devetaki Plateau Association and other arts and crafts practitioners. The report concludes with suggestions for potential areas of future actions.

Memory Mounds

Crossing the flat agricultural landscapes, hemmed by distant mountains, we sped towards Plovdiv. As my eyes adjusted, to the folds and creases of a different landscape, it became apparent there were groups of large mounds, barrows or cairns. Discussion on the bus, revealed more. Most would be Thracian burial mounds, knowing little of Thrace, Thracia or Thracians, I pondered what they might contain. Magpie like, the silver was highlighted, apparently many of the larger mounds had rich burials within. Later I learned these mounds were often targeted by looters. Under night cover, fabulous fragments, stolen pasts, priceless pieces perhaps, then circulate across the world into the hands of collectors.


Days later we peer into display cases, labels largely absent, we are reduced to base responses, the oh and ah of shiny, and the unsettling presence of other styles of expression. Figures, horses, beasts and deities, otherworldly glimpses – and then I am reminded of Pictish art. Later we learn of Thracian Temples and mountain sanctuaries, I wonder what occurred there, what people believed and which spirits they called too.


For several days after I dream in Thracian.

Juniper Trails

Crossing through the Beklemeto or Trojan Pass, we peered through the leafy canopy, distant views to continuous broadleaf canopy, in which the group had dreamed of encountering wolves or bears. We had stopped at the summit, a vast stone arch, loomed occasionally out of the swirling cloud. Shivering, it became apparent, we would have to hike further into the mountains, sit calmly and wait, and only then, if we were lucky, might we glimpse one.


Traces at the side of the road, cigarette butts, piles of aromatic green tips and the smallest juniper berries, revealed people had been gathering and sieving the berries. I wondered if this was done with care. Would they be used locally, flavouring hearty stews or local spirits? Or was this a cash crop, hillside stripping, to be sold in bulk somewhere else in Europe?


So we continued leaving The Arch of Freedom to the mist and the wolves. It had been created in 1978, commemorating 100 years since the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire, a testimony to different footsteps though this landscape. And as we descended from the Stara Planina, the Balkan Mountains, we followed even older pathways. The modern road paralleled or at times ran over the Via Traiana, the Roman Road which had been used by the Emperor Trajan in the first and second century AD. Part of a Military campaign of forts and the politics of commerce to conquer the Thracians, to establish the Roman province of Thrace, only to be torn down a few centuries later by the Goths and Huns.


And I wonder what, Thracians, Romans or Ottomans, would see among the trees in these times?

Jazz Caves

We now settle, on the limestone landscape of the Devetaki Plateau. We had already heard about it and the work of the Devetaki Plateau Association but, somehow, it was still more than I had expected. Perhaps it was a difference in quality of light, or a palpable mood across the fields and villages, like some half slumber, it blanketed me in Autumn warmth. Or was it the limestone, perhaps more forgiving than harsh granite, could some landscapes actually be kinder?


On two occasions we were invited to enter the Underworld. The first, Devetashka Cave, an immersive experience of overwhelming scale and liminal beauties pulled us further into darkness. When the excited chat of visitors ceased, the pip and whirr of bats echoed overhead. But raw realities, hide in the dark. A vast stone wall of cave deposits, mounded to conceal petrochemical addictions, some said you could smell the oil and petrol, mixing with guano, a heady fuel.


But we had crossed to the Underworld, not on Charons boat, but by Hollywoods concrete slab. Briefly, a world of glittering promises, but in reality Expendable, bats and explosions should always be kept apart. I walked back across the bridge feeling somehow it shouldn’t be this easy. Perhaps special places should always be found with care, perhaps only always along narrow paths from the village above?


And still I hear the faint buzz of the mythical gummy bear bats.


The second cave, Garvanitsa Cave, felt like falling into it, a slow motion spin down the steep steel stairs. We disturb pigeons as we descend, reaching the base of the sink hole, a side cavern extends down deeper underground, with time running out we look up and relish the bright streaming sun. And the name, Raven’s Cave, as the local farmers would fling dead animals in, it would become a corvids feasting table.

Yet there are moments when the carrion call ceases. Moments when chatter and laughter fills the cave air from above, falling like feathers of hope. Times now, with improv jazz, contemporary beats excite the heart of the Devetaki Plateau.


Lost Generations

I walk down the main street, its early, several old women are taking cattle, sleepy and skittish, from the house byre, and with flick of stick, amble across the main road and into the country lanes to the nearby fields.


It seems incongruous with the other remains which line the street, the empty petrol station whose door hangs open, the restaurant with dust covered counter and the concrete factory blocks within which swoop the nesting swifts. And something larger hovers still, a reminder of times before. Like some giant metallic insect, the MIG 4 overlooks the main street. Its faded Soviet era symbols barely legible, I smile thinking of how a Sophia street artist would paint it?


At the cultural centre, we chat with the ladies, who welcome us with evident pride, about the people and stories of Gorsko Slivovo. The gallery space provides powerful juxtaposition: on one wall, dark eyes stare, four mothers dressed in black, four sons sacrificed, partisan scenes of resistance and death. A shrine remembers oppressions past, Soviet, Ottoman, Roman; on the other wall, paintings of traditional dress, costumes of colour and hope, the shepherds practical garb, lively animals and fertile fields. The promise of bounty and celebration of a community, who knew it is only the land, which has always been there, and through commitment sustains them. Like some ongoing conversation across the gallery, these faces of Bulgaria continue to speak.

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And when I learned of 1000 houses in the extended village, only 300 are now occupied. Like many other rural places in Europe, many of the young have now left for the cities, and many remaining are older. Of the buildings, mudbrick, tile and timber assemblages, many are now returning to the ground. But with a little care and simple repair many could be reused.

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We spend time, gathering walnuts from within the walled garden, sit sharing seasonal foods and salute with fiery spirits all that is good on the Plateau.


Landscape Perspectives and Landscape Actions

The concept of Landscape, and why it is important to communities, is best expressed in the European Landscape Convention. In the ELC, landscape has been defined as

‘an area perceived by people whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.’

It promotes an understanding that landscape is a dynamic cultural and ecological system, which is both actual and conceptual. Additionally, it promotes more democratic and better integrated landscape governance and management. There are potential opportunities for the Devetaki Plateau Association to explore a landscape based approach to access, management and interpretation.

During our time in Bulgaria we discussed EcoMuseums with our hosts and the potential such an approach could have for the Devetaki Plateau Association. This model of landscape scale community planning and interpretation could prove a useful opportunity for future action.

Other opportunities for other forms of sustainable tourism activity which might be of interest could be a Dark Sky Observatory approach.

More broadly in terms of archaeological and heritage management it is clear from discussion in Bulgaria and subsequently reading the 2017 paper by Loulanski and Loulanski that are major issues of inadequate monument protection in the country. Such issues could be a focus for further research, training and management actions within a wider international context.

Finally the conversation with landscape, through more creative art and heritage practices could be useful for the Devetaki Plateau Association to explore further. Research and action around this would build on existing cultural programming (e.g. the Jazz Festival) and perhaps support opportunities for further exchange and collaboration between Bulgarian and Scottish practitioners and communities.


Thanks to Archnetwork, host organization Devetaki Plateau Association and my supporting organisation Archaeology Scotland. Special thanks to: Velichka and Encho Gankovski for hospitality and learning at Eco Art Guest House; Desislava Vudbra for the tour of the Trojan Museum; Maya Krasteva for such an interesting discussion around Bulgarian Crafts; for hospitality and learning at Bilkarska Guest House; and Iva Taralezhkova of Devetaki Plateau Association for such useful insights to their work. Particular thanks to Velis Chilingirova for coordinating the visit and providing support to the participants. Finally thanks for the mutual learning and support from the others from Scotland: Debbie, Gail, Kirsten, Kat, Libby, Matilda and Tom. Fabulous one and all.

Appendix of Useful Background Information:

Interest in Legislative and Policy Context

Archaeology & Heritage

Loulanski, T & Loulanski, V 2017 ‘Thracian Mounds in Bulgaria: Heritage at Risk’ The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice 8:3, 246-277.

Expendables Impacts on Devetashka Cave:

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