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Greek inscription discovered at Deultum-Debelt National Archaeological Reserve in Bulgaria

Archaeologists from the Deultum-Debelt National Archaeological Reserve near Bulgaria’s Burgas have discovered the first written evidence that the Roman colony Deultum had a port, BGNES reported.

Greek inscription discovered at Deultum-Debelt National Archaeological Reserve in Bulgaria
The inscribed sarcophagus fragment [Credit: Archaeologia Bulgarica]
The newly discovered inscription fragment, found south of the baths in Deultum, is part of a limestone sarcophagus, dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD.

Experts say that the three line inscription, which is in Greek, the text can be reconstructed as follows: “To the Chthonian gods. [I, xxxxx], the shipowner, set up this sarcophagus [for xxxxx]. If someone [dares to put another body inside, he will be fined xxxxx denari…]. "

Unfortunately, the names of neither the deceased nor the man who ordered the sarcophagus have survived. However, something much more important is preserved - his profession: owner or captain of a ship (in Greek naukleros). Thus, for the first time, this small fragment provides definite written evidence that Deultum had a port and was perceived as a harbour town - something that until now was only assumed based on the images of ships and seascapes appearing on the city's coins.

Another important feature of the inscription is the use of Greek. Although Deultum was a Roman colony, Latin did not prevail and quickly gave way to Greek, which was spoken in the area for centuries.

In the 3rd century AD only the city authorities were still obliged to write in Latin, but they were already having difficulty with the language, and not only was there a strong Greek influence in the official inscriptions and texts on the Deultum coins, but even individual Greek letters crept into the Latin alphabet.

Naturally, for a captain of a ship in the Black Sea, there was nothing more natural than to use Greek. However, as a sign of his belonging to the Roman colony, he begins his text with the dedication: "To the Chthonian Gods", which is not typical of Greek inscriptions, but is a literal Greek translation of the standard Latin formula "Dis Manibus".

Greek inscription discovered at Deultum-Debelt National Archaeological Reserve in Bulgaria
View of the ruins of Roman Deultum [Credit: TripAdvisor]
The last few letters preserved on the fragment represent the beginning of the usual warning against desecration and reuse of the tombstone.

The sarcophagi, carved from huge stone blocks over 2 metres long, were the most expensive tomb type and only the wealthiest could afford them.

This also led to numerous thefts since the necropolises were often located at some distance from the towns and it was not therefore difficult for experienced thieves to steal a sarcophagus and offer it for sale again after disposing of the remains of the deceased.

To prevent such thefts and abuses, the sarcophagi typically carried detailed inscriptions describing who was entitled to be placed in them, and this privilege was often not even for the whole family, but only for certain members of the family.

Thus we read on one sarcophagus from Deultum: "I declare that after my death no one has the right to place another body in my sarcophagus", while another that was intended for Sebastian's family had an extra line added below in different lettering, probably after the family had expanded, reading "I allow my son-in-law Vass to be placed here as well."

Of course, an inscription could easily be erased or altered, so most people registered their sarcophagi with the city councils or before the Roman provincial authorities, who for a fee were obliged to monitor their integrity.

Violators were fined a considerable amount - usually between 3,000 and 5,000 denars - though on some of the more expensive sarcophagi the amount to be paid was often written in a prominent place on the sarcophagus itself. Part of this amount was earmarked for the person who reported the theft, and this was a strong incentive for citizens to be vigilant and to ensure the inviolability of burial monuments. Sometimes a curse was added after the allocated fine so that the perpetrators would also incur divine retribution.

In later years, when the Roman Empire was shaken by political and economic crises, many of the sarcophagi of Roman Deultum were used as building material to restore and strengthen the city walls. Hence the reason why many have come down to us in the form of properly cut fragments.

Source: Archaeologia Bulgarica [trsl. TANN, May 25, 2020]


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