Material cultural regionalisms in Early Iron Age Thrace

Donald Crystal, PhD Candidate
Cardiff University

The topic of cultural regionalism in Iron Age Thrace (1100-300 B.C.) is a subject which is often overlooked within English speaking academia. Academics often assume that Thrace, or the area which encompasses northern Greece and south Bulgaria consisted of one single cultural entity, often label as the ‘Thracians’. Yet, as I have shown as part of my PhD research, Early Iron Age Thrace was anything but a single and homogenous cultural zone. Instead, what I have found is that what we call ‘Thrace’ was actually inhabited by a number of materially distinct communities which expressed their own regional identities through the objects they used in their daily life and the different ways that they buried members of their community.   

Within the writings of contemporary ancient Greek historians we are told that Thrace was inhabited by numerous tribal groups. Herodotus gives us one such account during the 5th century B.C. in his description of the Persian king Xerxes’ route to Greece via Thrace: “Xerxes marched past these Greek cities of the coast, keeping them on his left. The Thracian tribes through whose lands he journeyed were the Paeti, Cicones, Bistones, Sapaei, Dersaei, Edoni, and Satrae.” (Hdt. 7.110). Unfortunately, beyond this account we know little about these tribes and what made them distinct from one another beyond their names. Yet more critically, we do not know if the tribes within the region thought of themselves as different, past what the ancient Greek authors wrote about them. It was, therefore, the purpose of my research to look behind what the ancient Greek authors wrote about Thrace, to look to the archaeology, in order to assess whether or not it offered something different. One of the ways through which I attempted to analyse this was through a typological and spatial analysis of tomb types around different parts of Thrace.  

Map showing the distribution of tomb types around Iron Age Thrace

For my analysis, I plotted the distribution of six different types of graves that I identified around Thrace that occurred during the Early Iron Age II period-Late Iron Age (8th-4th centuries B.C.) around Thrace. The results from my analysis stood in direct contrast to what many people assume of Thrace during this time, specifically that it was a culturally similar region. What a rudimentary analysis into the distribution of tomb types around Thrace showed, however, was that Thrace was anything but homogenous, and in fact even from the perspective of tomb architecture, Thrace exhibits large levels of regional cultural diversity. Of course, some tomb types did not reveal anything in particular and seemed to be spread randomly throughout Thrace due to the existing excavation bias.  

Dolmen from the outskirts of the village of Hlyabovo, Bulgaria
Rock-cut grave from Tatul, Bulgaria

Nevertheless, the most notable results from the spatial analysis of tomb types, however, was the concentration of dolmens and rock-cut graves in east Thrace, cairn inhumations in central Thrace, and the concentration of pithoi inhumations on the Aegean Thrace coast. The regional specificity of several of these tomb types stands to show, that Thrace was a materially diverse and dynamic place. 

Cairn inhumations in central Thrace
Pithos inhumation from the Virbovo cemetery in central Bulgaria

From the perspective of typology, clear distinctions could now be made between largely contemporaneous architectural forms which, along with the regional extent of these forms, underpin significant evidence for cultural diversity during the Iron Age in Thrace, contrary to much of the information that we are told from English speaking academia. What has been highlighted is on one level clear heterogeneity in terms of funerary architecture with regions opting for funerary forms which seem almost isolated within their respected regions, and on another level strong levels of architectural regionalism which hint at reflecting the wider social and ideological similarities and differences between communities in these areas. Typology and spatial distribution, therefore, have served to complement one another in an attempt to better understand the potential nuances of architectural forms and levels of regional cultural diversity around Iron Age Thrace.