Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered a previously unknown series of royal tombs from a fabulously wealthy civilisation dating back over 4,000 years.
Excavations inside a group of ancient burial mounds - 80 miles east of the capital, Sofia - are expected to yield up to 100,000 gold artefacts.
So far more than 15,000 gold objects have been unearthed at the site near the village of Dabene - mainly gold beads, originally strung together as spectacular necklaces, and gold hair decorations, all worn as part of the funerary regalia of at least three Bronze Age princesses or princes from around the 23rd century BC.
It is the first time that such a rich, gold-working early Bronze Age tradition has been discovered in the Balkans.
The discovery may provide a "missing link" between Bulgaria's earlier Copper Age gold-working cultures and later gold-rich civilisations in Mycenaean Greece and late Bronze Age and Iron Age Bulgaria.
In terms of sheer numbers of gold artefacts, the Dabene discovery appears to be the largest ever found in Europe. It underscores Bulgaria's international archaeological significance and its vital long-term importance in the ancient world as a source of gold.
Bulgaria was home to the world's first gold workers, around 6,700 years ago. Archaeological research over the past three decades has been revealing the spectacular achievements of these ultra-early goldsmiths. At Varna on the Black Sea coast, Bulgarian archaeologists found 3,000 fifth millennium BC gold artefacts weighing a total of six kilos (13lbs). At another Black Sea site of similar antiquity, Duran Kulak, recently published information reveals that 142 gold beads and other items were unearthed.
Not only did the ancient inhabitants of Bulgaria develop sophisticated gold-working at a very early period, but a few centuries earlier - in around 5000BC - they began building settlements filled with two-storey partly stone-built houses. By 2300BC current research shows that not only was the gold industry still flourishing, but small towns were coming into existence. Several substantial defended settlements from the period - some covering more than 10 acres - are now being investigated archaeologically. Four thousand years ago, in one area in southern Bulgaria up to a dozen small towns are believed to have flourished in an area just 150 miles across.
Recent finds in various parts of the country are also demonstrating how Bulgaria's gold culture continued into classical times. A fourth-century BC gold wreath, decorated with an image of the Greek goddess Nike, a gold ring featuring an ancient initiation ritual, a gold cup, and a solid gold face mask have all been unearthed over the past year .
The people of ancient Bulgaria - the Thracians - obtained their gold from mines in the Carpathian and Sredna Gora mountains and by panning for the precious metal in several gold-rich rivers.
It is possible that much of the gold of ancient Mycenae, and even of Troy itself, came from Bronze Age Bulgarian sources - but only detailed future research will confirm this.
The excavations at Dabene have been carried out by Dr Martin Hristov of the National Historical Museum in Sofia. Conservators have re-strung the ancient necklaces, which last week went on display at the museum.
"The discovery of Bronze Age gold at Dabene is of great international importance and should tell us more about the gold trade in the ancient world," said Dr Zosia Archibald of Liverpool University, a leading authority on south-east European pre-history.
The first indication that there was Bronze Age gold at Dabene came to light last year when two young archaeologists were buying cigarettes in a local shop. They noticed a local woman wearing a beautifully made gold necklace. The lady explained that her husband was a farmer and had found it while ploughing his fields.
Archaeological excavations on the site started 10 months ago and the work is still continuing.
Some of the Thracian gold jewellery found in the Bulgarian village of Dabene on display at the National Historical Museum in Sofia
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