Bears are depicted on a lead plate amulet found in the medieval fortress of Balak Dere near the village of Khukhla in southern Bulgaria. one of the earliest known Cyrillic inscriptions. The amulet was discovered last autumn in a layer of artifacts from the first half of the 10th century. Epigraphic analysis of the inscription confirms the date based on the archaic writing style.
It was found folded in half and in dire need of cleaning. The inscription was not originally visible to the naked eye. The photographer who documented the find was the first to notice the inscription, and only after cleaning and conservation were the researchers able to begin deciphering the inscriptions. Reflection Transformation Photography (RTΙ) was used to make out the hard-to-read inscription.
There are seven lines of text on the inside of the folded rectangular plate, and four lines on the outside. They contain prayers for the protection of named persons. The plate was worn as a pendant to protect the wearer.
It was believed that such apotropaic amulets protect their owner from the evil eye, magic spells and diseases. To date, about 50-60 such artifacts of the 10th century found in northeastern Bulgaria have been studied, but the find in Balak-Der is unique and still has no analogues, the researchers say.
“The difference is that here we have a petition, even the names of the petitioners are known – Nikola and Pavel,” explains (head of the excavation) Ivaylo Kanev. “They ask St. Demetrius to intercede for them before God and protect them from such and such disasters, as the authors say, and I will quote the last line, which is very canonical and amazing, because we have never seen anything like this before: “… wash your face with grace, cleanse the shame, heal, oh holy one, for His is glory, and honor, and state, now and forever and ever, Amin!” Very well structured, like canon, there are no simple wishes here. This is another new one.”
Recent excavations at the top of the hill have unearthed evidence that the fortress was used sporadically from the 4th to the early 13th centuries. It was part of a system of fortresses built in the middle of the 4th century to protect the imperial capital of Constantinople. It was burnt down at the end of the 5th century, but quickly rebuilt.
It was destroyed again by the Avars at the beginning of the 7th century and was only re-occupied in the 10th century, when the troops of the Bulgarian king Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927) used it during the tsarist wars against the Byzantine Empire. What happened happened in the 12th century, when the troops of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) occupied the fortress. This place was finally abandoned in the first quarter of the 13th century.
The archaeological layer of the lead plate amulet was discovered by archaeologists in order to compare the inscription with the Cyrillic script from the reign of Tsar Simeon. The Cyrillic alphabet was developed in the 890s at the Preslav Literary School in the Bulgarian capital Pliska. The earliest dateable Cyrillic inscriptions have been found there, the earliest of which date back to 921. Simeon’s Bulgarian troops were in Balak-Dera between 916 and 927, so this amulet could be the EARLY known Cyrillic inscription, and not just one of the earliest.