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"Sport in Ancient Thrace - Тhe new exhibition in the National Archaeological Institute with Museum


On 24 April, 2018, the “Sport in Ancient Thrace” exhibition was officially opened at the National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. It is dedicated to the announcement of Sofia as the European Capital of Sport in 2018. The exhibition is directed at the place of sport in the Thracian society that inhabited the Bulgarian lands in the pre-Roman and Roman periods and underwent strong cultural influence from the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization. Moreover, the exhibition is yet another opportunity for the audience to be acquainted with the rich historical, archaeological and cultural heritage of the Bulgarian lands represented through the prism of sport. It has a rich history and turned out to be one of the unifying threads of the European culture carrying universal values and established traditions.

“Sport in Ancient Thrace” traces back to the adoption and adaptation of sports culture on the territory of Thrace. Reliefs and inscriptions on stone monuments, and scenes painted on ceramic vessels produced in the Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast, demonstrate the practice of ancient Greeks to actively participate in sports activities and to organize athletic contests in various disciplines – footraces, diskos throw, javelin throw, long jump, pancration, wrestling, boxing. Strigils – tools used by athletes to clean their bodies after training or after the end of the contest –offer some important evidence. They are found, for example, in the necropoleis of Mesambria (present-day Nesebar) and Odessos (present-day Varna) indicating that these types of articles were put in the graves as part of the personal belongings accompanying the deceased into the afterlife. The political, economic and cultural contacts with the ancient Greeks resulted in a gradual adoption of the sports culture in Thrace. The unique gold signet ring with an image of an athlete dated to the late 5th century BC, which was owned by a Thracian aristocrat is undoubted evidence in this regard. The ring was discovered together with the famous gold funerary mask in the Svetitsa Tumulus near the town of Shipka. Silver plate (phiale), decorated with engraved and gilded images in a scene recreating four-horse chariot race was in possession of a member of the Thracian elite. The plate was found in a very rich grave in Bashova mogila, Plovdiv region. The iron strigils discovered in the tomb of the Thracian ruler Seuthes III present further evidence for the perception of this element in Greek culture at the highest social level.

After the incorporation of the Thracian lands within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, sporting events played an even more active part in municipal life of Thrace, turning not only into a fashion that has become widespread in the Roman provinces, but also in a means of propagating the Roman authorities and their representatives in the city administration. The exhibition includes the reconstruction of an inscription presenting an invitation by the municipal authorities of the ancient city of Serdica (present-day Sofia) to the citizens to participate in athletic events. Images and inscriptions on coins testify to the official holding of sports festivals in the cities of Roman Thrace, and stone inscriptions dating from that period say that famous athletes from Asia Minor were also found among the participants. Artifacts from various media – coins, stone reliefs, vessels – are depicted with images of athletes competing in athletic disciplines included in the contest program of the sports games. The spherical bronze vessel (unguentarium) found in a tomb near the village of Slokoshtitsa, Kyustendil region is of particular interest. The whole body of the vessel is covered with various sports scenes displayed in relief: a combat of two pancratists (athletes who competed in pancration – a mixture of wrestling and boxing) wearing the hairstyle of professional athletes, a herald announcing the victory of a boxer putting a prize crown upon his head and tables with prizes for the contest winners. Among the exhibits is also a marble head of a pancratist found in Almus (present-day Lom), recreating in the most vivid and expressive manner the athlete’s physique and the heavy fighting fatigue.

The exhibition is realized with the kind support of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria and in partnership with 15 museums from all over the country. The exhibition includes photos of some of the most famous statues of athletes – the bronze boxer from the Quirinal Hill in Rome and the Discobolus Lancellotti, kept in the National Museum in Rome, Italy. The images of these two athletes reflect the spirit of sport in Antiquity in a unique way – the spirit that conquered ancient Thrace as well.

The “Sport in Ancient Thrace” exhibition can be visited in the Temporary Exhibitions Hall of the National Archaeological Museum from 25 April to 2 September, 2018.