The Late Antique Fortress at Cape St. Atanas was inhabited until 614-615. Its abandonment was an organized process – its citizens left it after having gathered their possessions and set fire to their homes. Over 30 buildings have been explored to date and all share these features – emptied and burned. All but one.

by Deyan Yanchev

What is very intriguing about the building in question is not the fact that it was burned before its owner managed to collect his belongings, but the nature of the artefacts found inside.

The building was discovered in 2013. It was of a relatively large square footage for a house from Late Antiquity. The house had two floors and its western side was attached to the fortress wall. The entrance to the building was from the main street, the so called “mesa”, and the building’s first or groud story was situated below the street level. The floor of the second story was made of wooden beams, and when the building burned, the beams collapsed and buried all the property in the ground floor. Thus, 14 centuries later the scientific expedition unearthed: a very rare and very well preserved bronze lamp, along with its support (there are only 8 known such candelabra in the world today); over thirty piled up unused ceramic lamps; more than 100 bronze coins (the latest of which dates back to the time of Emperor Phocas, from the period 603-610); fragments of late antique amphorae and household pottery (including imported); a balance arm made of bronze; a rectangular marble table top, possibly for grinding and mixing herbs, chemicals, etc.; a medical plate for grinding and mixing aroma and balm compounds and many more. The findindgs are generally dated from the beginning of the 6th to the beginning of the 7th century AD.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first reaction of the archaeologists was that the dwelling belonged to the local physician. But the hypothesis that the owner of the artifacts in question was a doctor was quickly rejected. Firstly, because the scientific papers about medicine during Late Antiquity are depressively few, and those studying the evolution of the discipline during the period in nowadays Bulgarian lands are virtually null and the archeologists can not make sufficient parallels and scientific conclusions based only on a few discovered medical objects. Secondly, because it is generally believed that physicians in Late Antiquity were a species of extreme rarety, and to conclude that our small fortress town had a doctor of its own is highly unlikely.

Yet, for a purely inquisitive purpose, this theory shall be explored more thoroughly here.

Life in Late Antiquity was very hard. According to the estimations of  R. Bagnall and B. Frier, the average life expectancy from birth was between 22 and 25 years. Child mortality was extremely high, with less than a quarter surviving to 10 years of age. Besides warfare and famine, diseases had the greatest “contribution” to the high mortality and short life span in Late Antiquity. Although the Greco-Roman world was considered to be the most civilized at that time, the attitude towards the sick was generally almost as inhumane as that of many other Barbarian tribes, some of which put to death the sick and weak. Romans and Greeks considered diseases to be a curse caused by supernatural forces, and rather tried to appease the gods with votive offerings and animal sacrifices than to organize the care and relief for the sick. There were, exceptions of course, such as Galen of Pergamum (129-216 AD), the most famous physician of the Roman Empire, who performed such complicated surgical procedures that no one would repeat them until modern days. Professional physicians as Galen, however, were only available to the very, very rich. Galen himself lived in Rome, and his patients were prominent figures from the Roman society, including a series of several Roman emperors who appointed him as their own personal physician. For the majority of the population in Late Antiquity, care for the sick came with Christianity, which laid the foundations of organized and accessible to all treatment.

When the first hospital (xenodochium) was founded is a matter of dispute, but it is a fact that the first one appeared in the East. The pioneer of this trend was Basil of Caesarea (329-379 AD), the “Doctor of the Church”, whose organization of the care for the sick took the proportions of a city with its regular streets, hospitals according to the patients’ social class, housing for the medical workers, workshops and schools. The work of St. Basil the Great was so impressive that it led to an influx of “xenodochia” appearing in every larger city in the 4th century. By the end of the 6th century hospitals became an essensial part of civil life.

Medicine as a science in Late Antiquity followed Hippocrates’ teachings about the four humors – the belief that the human body consists of four fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), and that the diseases are caused by a disturbed balance between them. To identify which of the humors is in disharmony, Byzantine doctors followed Galen’s teachings. Significant contribution to the development of medicine as a science during this period made Alexander of Tralles (525-605 AD), who developed pharmaceuticals as a direction and described over six hundred drugs he used to treat various diseases. Physicians in the 6th century were surgeons, herbalists, pharmacists, dentists and veterinarians all at once. According to William Rosen, medical staff in the 6th century consisted mainly of professional doctors who had completed a four-year training course taught by trained practitioners (iastrophists), mainly in Alexandria and Constantinople.

The surgical instruments of that time were mostly made of bronze and included a large set of different spoons, knives, probes, hooks and more. In dentistry, gold was used to fill cavities and holes in the teeth. The pharmaceutical toolbox included various marble tables and countertops, medical plates, various pots (including glassware), balances, etc. for measuring, grinding, storing and preparing various medicaments and herbal infusions.

A physician’s atelier in Late Antiquity

Back to our mystery, it is understandable why archaeologists initially assumed that the building belonged to a physician – some of the finds were typical of the late antique medicine toolkit. But as stated earlier these findings are not sufficient to make a scientifically based conclusion. Because of the large amount of discovered coins and ceramic lamps, the researchers have now accepted the hypothesis that the dwelling had a trading function, and its owner was probably some kind of a tradesman, possibly of ceramic lamps.

Though doubts about the profession of the last man standing at the fortress remain lingering, one thing could be said about him for sure – he valued the lives and safety of his fellow citizens more than his own wealth and property.


Demography of the Roman Empire. (2015). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 15, 2017 from Wikipedia.
Walsh, J.J. (1910). Hospitals. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 15, 2017 from New Advent.
Horgan, J.  2014. Justinian’s Plague. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 15, 2017 from Ancient History Encyclopedia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s