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Charting the Divide between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Reconstructing the Landscape on the Danube at Dobri Dyal

Andrew Poulter, University of Nottingham, Project Grant Report 2010/11


Immediately southwest of the village of Dobri Dyal, a small hill dominates the skyline. It is relatively small—c. 110m (west/east) by c. 130m (north/south), and only c. 20m high—but its western, northern, and eastern sides are precipitous, creating a strongly defensive position. The southern slope is more easily ascended, but even here it is still a steep climb to the summit.

The site was first visited by Gail Falkingham, Michael Boyd, and myself in the spring of 2007 and appeared to be the best “type site” in the region and, conveniently, a relatively short journey from the home base in the village of Nikiup.I am very grateful to Mr Ivan Tsurov and Dr Pavlinka Vladkova from the Veliko Turnovo Historical Museum whose intimate knowledge of all the sites in Veliko Turnovo county made the choice of the ones to visit such a successful field excursion. Conspicuous during this visit was a portion of wall without facing but comprising a section of mortared rubble core, c. 1m high, indicating that at least part of the curtain-wall had survived post-medieval robbing.

Of all the sites visited during this exploratory survey of hill-top sites, Dobri Dyal was the one that both offered the most potential in the region and was accessible from the base in the village of Nikiup. The clearance of trees and undergrowth from the top of the hill, before the start of the excavations, exposed numerous robber pits. Although it is clear that robbing for stone had been carried out in the recent past, the depressions visible on the surface formed no distinctive pattern so that there would seem to have been no surface signs of buildings; the robbing appears to have been random and consequently it was expected that substantial portions of structures would have survived, particularly immediately inside the fortifications. There is only one record of earlier excavations; they were carried out by the local schoolteacher during the summer of 1933.Arheolocheski vesti, Izvestiya na Bulgarskiya Arheologicheski Institout, vol. 7 (1932–33), 393–95. The short report on the work included photographs which showed that a section of curtain-wall had been exposed. Another find, described as a “tower,” may well have been the rounded northeastern corner of the defenses that we excavated this year (B3).

Excavations by our Bulgarian colleague, Dr. V. Dinchev, were carried out in areas D, F G, and H, whereas the British half of the team commenced excavations in areas A, B, C, and E (plan of excavation areas). In addition, a detailed contour plan was made of the hill and its immediate surroundings (Gísli Pálsson), and a geophysical survey was conducted by Dr. Michael Boyd. The results of both projects were excellent and the combination of the physical and geophysical surveys proved invaluable for our understanding of the site and in the planning of future excavations.

The geophysical survey identified a strong high anomaly running around the northern, western, and eastern sides of the site. That this high resistance feature represented the course of the curtain-wall was proved by the discovery that all the excavated portions of the wall (areas B, D, E, F, and G) followed the same alignment. However, more subtle differences between anomalies inside the fortifications suggested a curious arrangement of structures. The relatively high anomalies across the eastern side of the site suggest that there was a dense spread of buildings filling up the entire area. However, on the western slope, there was no sign of any buildings, except close up against the curtain-wall (below, report by Michael Boyd). Another large building was also excavated by Dr. Dinchev in area D where it must have butted up against the curtain-wall. It is early in the progress of the excavations to be sure that this difference between the western and eastern sides of the fortified area is correct but, assuming that it is, a number of possible explanations will be proposed in the conclusion.

As far as I am aware, no systematic excavations—or geophysical survey—have been carried out at the foot of any hill-top sites in the Balkans. Clearly, there was a possibility that the hill-top was only part of the settlement and that there may have been additional structures on the lower slopes surrounding the site and beyond the protection of the defenses. Accordingly, a geophysical survey was carried out over an extensive area on the south side of the hill.  Not surprisingly, evidence for occupation was found; this evidence, though, was not for small individual houses but possibly very large structures or, more probably, enclosures.

The possible interpretation of this complex is provided by Dr. Boyd in his report but, suffice it to say that since no excavation has yet taken place here, it remains uncertain whether these features are Late Roman or not. They may be Late Roman, medieval or post-medieval, or a combination of all three.


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Charting the Divide between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Reconstructing the Landscape on the Danube at Dobri Dyal