Ten years have passed since the day on which I began my studies in archaeology at Sofia University. In this decade the subject has undergone significant changes. Back then literature in foreign languages in the university library, and also in the National Library, was scarce. The students would ferret out information, burrowing in dusty catalogues in much the same way as their predecessors used to do in the time of the legendary Professor Bogdan Filov (1883– 1945). The small number of computers ran the MS DOS operating system. The excavations at Perperikon were yet to be, the name of the village of Starosel was unfamiliar to anyone but its inhabitants, and the late Dr Georgi Kitov was still to discover the fantastic gold mask of a Thracian king. The very idea of celebrity archaeology was unknown. No one would have dreamed that they might find the remains of John the Baptist – something that enjoyed breaking-news status in Bulgaria at the end of July 2010.
Yes, archaeology in Bulgaria has changed a lot in the last 10 years. The American Research Center in Sofia, or ARCS, which was founded in 2004, marks an episode in this series of changes, and a positive one at that. The centre has been funding research as well as conservation and restoration work. It has also been extending scholarships to Bulgarian graduate students to study outside Bulgaria, as well as to US students who come to learn about the country.
“Ideally, the ARCS wants to be a point of contact between scholars in North American universities and scholars in Bulgaria,” says Dr Charles Denver Graninger, ARCS’s new director.
The centre’s focus is on archaeology, but not exclusively. “We would be a place for scholars working on any aspect of Bulgarian or South- Eastern European history and culture, from Prehistory to modern times, and within a wide range of analytical frameworks, from the most theoretical anthropology to dirton- your-hands archaeology. We would be a facilitator between scholars in North America and those in Bulgaria and would build an intellectual community between these two areas,” Dr Graninger says.
Graninger, who holds a PhD in classics from Cornell University, has been in Bulgaria since the end of June. Before that he had visited the country twice, and for the last two years he has been teaching at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He had other opportunities for an academic career, but eventually he opted for Sofia.
“It’s a real chance to continue to be an academic in archaeology but to do something a little bit more active and more engaged with the public. It’s an incredible challenge but also a deliberate choice to take that challenge,” he says.
In the spring of 2010, thanks to generous support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the ARCS granted almost “$200,000 dollars to site restoration and museum enhancement in Bulgaria and also to collaborative archaeological projects between Bulgarian and American archaeologists.” The chief sites which received funding were the Roman towns Deultum, near Debelt, Burgas region, and Nicopolis ad Istrum, near Veliko Tarnovo. The financial aid will be used to conserve decaying monuments, to preserve artefacts, and to provide new signs and labels to make the sites more accessible to both scholars and tourists.
Also in the spring the ARCS extended scholarships to 15 graduate students in archaeology and history from Bulgarian universities.
“We sponsored their travel to Athens and Istanbul through the US research centres in these two countries – to use the libraries of those centres and to have a base to conduct research in museums and the like,” Dr Graninger explains.
The ARCS is a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, or CAORC, a body that unites 23 research organisations across the world – from Afghanistan to Mongolia to Rome. The centre’s closest ties are with the American School for Classical Studies at Athens and the American Research Institute in Turkey.
It goes without saying that the ARCS could hardly succeed without collaborating closely with Bulgaria’s educational institutions. “Оur goal is to be integrated in the existing academic frameworks of Bulgaria and to take full advantage of and create new advantages by being a member of that intellectual community,” Dr Graninger says. The centre has signed an agreement with Sofia University, under which some of the university’s graduate seminars in archaeology take place at the ARCS.
Some of the ARCS-sponsored projects bring together Bulgarian and US specialists, the two field research projects in the Tundzha valley being a good example.
The Tundzha Regional Archaeological Project focuses on preliminary research at the site of the Thracian town of Dodoparon, remote sensing and an archaeological field survey in the Yambol region, and environmental sampling and laboratory analyses in the Yambol and Kazanlak regions. Georgi Nehrizov from the National Institute of Archaeology and Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, or NIAM-BAS, and Stefan Bakardjiev from the Regional Historical Museum in Yambol are participating in these projects and collaborating with Christopher Ratte and Adela Sobotkova from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan.
The second project, The Balkan Valley Project Phase II: Survey of the Tundzha Valley, aims to collect and integrate diverse data from across a targeted landscape. Directed by Stefanka Ivanova from NIAM-BAS and David Strait from the University at Albany, it explores the connections between people and the environment in this part of the Balkans.
“It examines cave sites and the Palaeolithic environment of the Tundzha valley, which was a corridor of movement for people, animals and the like,” Dr Graninger says.
The programme for US students enables threeand nine-month stays in Bulgaria. During their time in this country the students receive basic instruction in Bulgarian, attend lectures in Bulgarian history and religion, travel around the country, and pursue their own research projects.
“The lectures and seminars are given by local experts from the New Bulgarian University, Sofia University, and the American University in Bulgaria, among others – beginning with Prehistory and coming to the modern period. The theme in the fall circle of lectures is Bulgarian history and in the spring it is religion,” Dr Graninger says. He has planned that the the two student trips this Fall will cover the ancient Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast – beginning at Sozopol (the ancient Apollonia Pontica) and continuing to Histria in Romania - and the Roman and Medieval sites of northern Bulgaria.
The ARCS also lends a hand to the solution of an old problem: the dearth of Bulgarian scientific literature in English. The first step towards overcoming this shortage has already been taken with the publication of Communism versus Democracy, Bulgaria 1944 - 1997 by Nassya Kralevska-Owens, a revised and updated English translation of her awardwinning 2001 book Untitled: Destroyers and Builders of Bulgaria. “I hope [that ARCS will] continue to offer translations of fundamental Bulgarian scholarly works into English,” Dr Graninger says.
Speaking of a wider audience, he adds that, in the best-case scenario, the ARCS would expand its operations outside Bulgaria, specifically in the northern Balkan region. “Sofia has the potential to become an intellectual centre of the Balkans. So we’ll see in the next three years whether we can manage to facilitate links with Northern Balkans scholars. Ideally, down the road we would be involved with joint archaeological projects in Romania, in the Republic of Macedonia and in Serbia between Pan- Balkan teams. We wouldn’t even be identified by our nationalities but would be a kind of pure intellectual community. Maybe it will be unattainable, but down the road it is something that we would like to see,” Dr Graninger says.
Among the most urgent tasks before the ARCS’s new director is the updating of the centre’s web site, www.einaudi.cornell.edu/ arcs/.Nonetheless, even in its current state it is still a good place to visit for those looking for scientific literature, as the centre’s everexpanding library is now listed in an online catalogue. The books focus primarily on classical archaeology and ancient Greek and Roman literature, but the collection is varied. Currently, ARCS experts are processing the 4,000-volume bequest of Mark Stefanovich, a professor in Anthropology from the American University in Bulgaria. The centre’s library can be used free of charge and is open to the public Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5:30 pm.
If in 1999 someone had told me that such a thing could work in Bulgaria, I’d have answered that they were kidding me. But that’s the reality now, Graninger concludes.