Perhaps you’d like to see the cemetery?” says archaeologist Vladimir Slavchev, catching me a bit off balance. We’re standing in the Varna Museum of Archaeology, a three-story former girls’ school built of limestone and brick in the 19th century. Its collections span millennia, from the tools of Stone Age farmers who first settled this seacoast near the mouth of the Danube to the statues and inscriptions of its prosperous days as a Roman port. But I’ve come for something specific, something that has made Varna known among archaeologists the world over. I’m here for the gold.
Slavchev ushers me up a flight of worn stone stairs and into a dimly lit hall lined with glass display cases. At first I’m not sure where to look. There’s gold everywhere—11 pounds in all, representing most of the 13 pounds that were excavated between 1972 and 1991 from a single lakeside cemetery just a few miles from where we’re standing. There are pendants and bracelets, flat breastplates and tiny beads, stylized bulls and a sleek headpiece. Tucked away in a corner, there’s a broad, shallow clay bowl painted in zigzag stripes of gold dust and black, charcoal-based paint.
By weight, the gold in this room is worth about $181,000. But its artistic and scientific value is beyond calculation: The “Varna gold,” as it’s known among archaeologists, has upended long-held notions about prehistoric societies. According to radiocarbon dating, the artifacts from the cemetery are 6,500 years old, meaning they were created only a few centuries after the first migrant farmers moved into Europe. Yet archaeologists found the riches in just a handful of graves, making them the first evidence of social hierarchies in the historical record.
Slavchev leads me to the center of the room, where a grave has been carefully recreated. Though the skeleton inside is plastic, the original gold artifacts have been placed exactly as they were found when archaeologists uncovered the original remains. Laid out on his back, the long-dead man in grave 43 was adorned with gold bangles, necklaces made from gold beads, heavy gold pendants, and delicate, pierced gold disks that once hung from his clothes.
In the museum display, his hands are folded over his chest, clutching a polished axe with a gold-wrapped handle like a scepter; another axe lies just beneath. There’s a flint “sword” 16 inches long at his side and a gold penis sheath lying nearby. “He has everything—armor, weapons, wealth,” Slavchev says, smiling. “Even the penises of these people were gold.”
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