archaeology volunteer presenting his work to archaeological field school


Project type/s: Archaeological excavation and research at the Early Christian Мonastery on Djanavara Hill near Varna, Bulgaria and archaeological field school.

Project duration: 2009-2011, 2016-present

Location: Varna, Bulgaria

The archaeological site: Early Christian Мonastery

Periods: Late Antique, Early Byzantine (5th – 6th century CE)

Excavation Directors: Vassil Tenekedjiev, PhD in Archaeology and Assistant Professor at Varna Regional Museum of History, Department of Archaeology and Prof. Alexander Minchev, Varna Regional Museum of History, Department of Archaeology

BHF contribution: Excavated over 100 sq. m., including a monastery residential and economic complex, surrounding a massive Early Christian church. Involvement of 12 team members and visiting specialists and more than 50 volunteers – students from all over the world; The excavated finds have been cleaned, documented and stored. Some of the discovered pottery vessels have been conserved and restored with financial contributions from Balkan Heritage Foundation.

BHF project partners: Varna Archaeology Museum, Bulgaria and Institute for Field Research (IFR), USA.

BHF field school: Byzantine Cold Case File: Excavations of an Early Christian Мonastery near Varna on the Black Sea –


The monastery on Djanavara hill was one of the biggest and the most impressive Early Christian complexes not only in the Varna region but in the northeastern Balkans. It was situated seven kilometers from the ancient city and not far from the renowned Via Pontica – a road along the western Black Sea Coast between the Danube delta and Constantinople. The remains of the monastery were discovered in the beginning of the 20th century by one of the founders of the Bulgarian Archaeology and Varna Archaeological Museum, Hermenegild Skorpil. He excavated the monastery church which had an unusual ground plan which parallels those outside the Balkans, in Asia Minor and the Near East. The church’s monumental architecture, colorful mosaics and beautiful marble decorations were impressive but the most breathtaking find was hidden under the altar. In the underground crypt, Skorpil discovered relics (bones) of a saint in an elaborated golden reliquary decorated with semi-precious stones. The reliquary was placed in a small silver sarcophagus-shaped box, placed in another one made of fine white marble.

Skorpil didn’t excavate more than the church and the courtyard with colonnades in front of it. Unfortunately he didn’t publish his manuscript and so excavation results were lost after his death. The research was interrupted for almost 100 years. The cold case file was reopened at the end of the 20th century by Prof. Alexander Minchev and his team from the Varna Archaeological Museum. Over the course of twenty years, they have managed to recover most of the lost information about the church and proved the hypothesis of the discoverer of the site: the Christian temple was part of a large monastery, which developed gradually around it. So far, archaeologists have determined four periods of building and reconstruction between the middle 5th and the early 7th century CE. The thrill and the satisfaction of its excavations and discovery remain for the participants in the forthcoming excavations. Among the current research topics and questions are: what is the monastery architecture and planning like (archaeologists expect to find its library / scriptorium, the abbot house, the monks’ dormitories, the kitchen, the monastery enclosure, the gate/s, the outbuildings, the water supply system, etc); where is the monastery necropolis; why is the monastery church architecture so unusual and whose holy relics were placed under the altar (at the moment samples from the relics are in an Oxford lab for DNA analysis). Answers to all these questions can help researchers revеаl the origin and history of this significant Early Byzantine monastery and to which Early Christian community it belonged.