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

Period: Early Byzantine
Code: VAR.EXC.24
Session: To be announced
Academic credits available: up to 12
Cost starting from: To be announced

The Project and the Course

General Information

Project type: Archaeological field school and excavations. The variety of activities and the team's professionalism and flexibility make this project suitable for both beginners and advanced in either Field or Classical Archaeology. Individual program and task assignments are available to advanced students.   

Field school founded: 2009

Site: Early Christian monastery complex on Djanavara Hill near Varna, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.

Project venue: Varna, Bulgaria, Black Sea coast

Period(s) of occupation: Early Byzantine (5th - 6th century CE)

About the project: This field school provides a glimpse into the Early Byzantine history and culture. It enables students to learn more about the Early Christian art, architecture, theology, cults, monastic art and everyday life through excavating an Early Christian monastery and attending various lectures, workshops and excursions.

Major field school topics/activities:

Early Byzantine and Early Christian culture, Art and History;

Archaeological field techniques and methods for excavation and documentation;

Finds and samples processing;

Excursions to sites along the western Black Sea coast.

BHF partners in this project:    

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

Project coordinator: Alexander Manev, PhD Candidate, Department of Classical Archaeology, National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Field school dates:

  • Field School Two-week Session 1: To be announced
  • Field School Two-week Session 2: To be announced
  • Field School Four-week Session: To be announced

Application Deadlines: To be announced

Minimum length of stay for volunteers: Two weeks

Minimum age: 18

Number of field school places available: Maximum 20

Project language: English

Academic credits available: Up to 9 ECTS credits are available through New Bulgarian University, Bulgaria. 

Experience required: No


  • The reimbursement payment does not cover insurance. It is necessary to arrange your own insurance before your trip to Bulgaria. All EU citizens can use Bulgarian medical services, as long as they can provide evidence of their home-country health insurance with a card, certificate, etc.
  • Participants should bring clothes and toiletries suitable for warm and sunny weather, but should also prepare for rainy, windy and chilly days.
  • Participants are also expected to prepare for the field school by reading the BHFS handbook that will be sent by e-mail before the beginning of the project.

Special considerations: The project is not recommended for individuals with special illnesses that might be exacerbated during intensive outdoor activities. 

COVID-19 Safety measures: All participants should read our updated Terms & Conditions regarding BHF's COVID-19 Safety policy.

Varna and the Site

Varna is the largest Bulgarian city on the Black Sea Coast and is an important trade, cultural and tourist center today with millenary history and numerous archaeological monuments. Near the city are the spectacular Mesolithic sites at the desert-like area Pobiti Kamani and the Varna Copper Age necropolis (second half of the 5th millennium BCE) that once belonged to the Europe’s first civilization. 3000 gold items found there weigh more than 6 kg and show evidence of the world’s oldest goldsmith industry. The town itself was founded in the early 6th c. BCE during the Great Greek colonization by settlers from Milletus in Asia Minor. During Antiquity, the city was known as Odessos - a name of Thracian origin, related to the water resources. Its prosperity was based on its good harbor and the intensive maritime trade with the Mediterranean world. The Early Byzantine period (4th-6th c. CE) is one of the most remarkable in the history of Odessos. After the Late Roman administrative reforms, Odessos benefited from its geographical proximity to the the new capital Constantinople (Istanbul) and the new center of the province Moesia Secunda - Marcianopolis (Devnya) and grew into an important administrative and religious center. It became an episcopal seat. Therefore, it is not surprising that within the ancient city limits a cathedral and six churches dated to the Early Byzantine period have been discovered. At least ten more and two monasteries existed in the vicinity of Odessos.

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 7 km 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 c. 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 with the excavation results which was lost after his death. The research was interrupted for almost 100 years. The cold case file was reopened at the end of the 20th c. 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 c. 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.

The Field School

The Balkan Heritage Field School became part of the excavations of the monastery on Djanavara Hill in 2009. For three years the students, while studying and practicing, contributed to the main goal of the research: recovering the lost information from the excavations in early 20th c. This was successfully achieved and now a book about the church is underway.

After a five year break, the Balkan Heritage Field School reopened the project in 2017 at the monastery on Djanavara Hill. The field school provides a unique glimpse into the Early Byzantine history and culture along with the amazing opportunity: to dig at a significant Early Byzantine monastery on the Black Sea Coast and to learn more about the Early Christian art, architecture, theology, cults, monastic art and everyday life. Additionally, participants will visit the following archaeological and historic sites in Bulgaria: the Early Byzantine and Medieval fortress at Kaliakra cape, the Early Byzantine fortress and the archaeological reserve Yailata, the Early Byzantine fortress with episcopal basilica and a winery on St. Atanas cape, the archaeological sites and the museums of history in the town of Devnya (Late Roman city of Marcianopolis) and Balchik (ancient Dionysopolis), the Late Antiquity and Medieval site Madara (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the first capital of Bulgaria - Pliska, several archaeological sites in Varna and the Varna Archaeological Museum.

The field school season 2023 envisions excavations at several places around the representative monastery colonnaded atrium (the central court) where during the previous excavations, remains have been found of several buildings with at least four periods of reconstructions, making the site a good field for studying, practicing and gaining valuable hands on experience.

Two two-week sessions and one four-week session are available. Each includes fieldwork, lectures, workshops for finds processing and documentation, excursions to significant archaeological and historical sites. The participants who join the four-week session will be able to further develop their field archaeology skills and competencies and to attend more lectures, workshops and excursions (refer to the Course Program and the Agenda below).

Students who are required to prepare field reports and presentations for their universities can receive additional instructions and assistance.

All participants will receive:

  • Project handbook (in PDF version, sent by e-mail)
  • Balkan Heritage Field School Certificate specifying the fieldwork hours, educational modules and sites visited.

The Team


  • Vassil Tenekedjiev, PhD in Archaeology 
  • Prof. Alexander Minchev, Varna Regional Museum of History, Department of Archaeology

Project coordinator:    

  • Alexander Manev, PhD Candidate, Department of Classical Archaeology, National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

The Program

The two-week field school session provides a minimum of 75 hours of fieldwork and training, workshops, lectures and guided tours as follows:

Field work

  • Practicing basic excavation techniques;
  • Creating field documentation - field journal, context sheets and labels, ground plans and cross-sections, photographs, etc;   
  • Identifying and sorting of archaeological finds;


  • Archaeological documentation of pottery (drawing, graphic reconstruction, photographing, description, etc.).
  • Cleaning and sorting of archaeological findings;   
  • Recognizing Late Antiquity pottery and lamps;
  • Recognizing building techniques and materials from Late Antiquity.


  • Introduction to the Early Byzantine History with Focus on Eastern Balkans;
  • Introduction to the Early Christian Architecture with Focus on Eastern Roman Empire;
  • Early Christian Church: Rite and Architecture;
  • History and Archaeology of North-West Black Sea Coast in Antiquity and in Early Byzantine Time (with focus on the ancient city of Odessos (Varna), Dionysopolis (Balchik), the fortresses Kaliakra and Yailata).
  • Stratigraphy and Chronology;
  • Dating Artifacts and Materials;
  • Three Dimensional Positioning of Finds, Features and Structures;
  • Excavations Preparation. Preliminary Indoor Research;
  • Excavation Completion. Post Excavation Work and Analyses. Excavation and Reconnaissance Survey Report;
  • Basic Field Methods and Practices for Excavation and Documentation;
  • Introduction to the Field Journal, Contextual Sheets, Log Book and other Forms;

Guided tours

  • Archaeological Museum - Varna and the historical neighborhood of the city (Session 1&2);
  • Archaeological sites of Balchik (ancient Dionysopolis) (Session 1);
  • Early Byzantine and Medieval fortress of Kaliakra cape (Session 1);
  • Early Byzantine fortress and the archaeological reserve Yailata (Session 1);   
  • Devnya (ancient Marcianopolis) (Session 2);
  • Late Antiquity and Medieval site Madara (UNESCO World Heritage Site) (Session 2);

The four-week session provides a minimum of 150 hours of fieldwork and training, workshops, lectures and guided tours incorporating those from the two-week session plus the following:

  • Additional and more comprehensive field work training and practices;
  • Workshop on Early Byzantine numismatics;
  • Workshop on Early Christian mosaic art;
  • Lecture: Everyday Life in the Early Christian Monastery (According to Historical and Archaeological Evidence).   
  • Lectures and workshops will take place at at the Archaeological Museum - Varna.
  • Field instructions and training will take place at the site.

The Agenda


First day

Arrival dates:

  • Two-week Session 1/ Four week session: To be announced
  • Two-week Session 2: To be announced

Arrival and check-in by 7.30 pm

8.00 - 9.30 pm - Traditional Bulgarian welcome dinner.

Meeting time/point on arrival date: 7:45 pm - Orbita Hotel lobby

Transfers from Burgas, Sofia and Plovdiv airports, train or bus stations can be arranged upon request for an additional fee.

Second day

Morning: Presentation of the Balkan Heritage Field School and collaborative universities & institutions, the project and the participants. Ice-breakers.

Afternoon: Town sightseeing and orientation walk.

Work days

6.30 - 7.10 am - Breakfast   

7.10 - 7.30 am - Transfer to the excavation site;   

7.30 am - 1.00/1:30 pm - Fieldwork, including 30 min break*   

1.30 - 5:00 / 5.30 pm - Lunch and siesta break   

5.00 / 5.30 - 7.00 / 7:30 pm - Lectures / workshops / lab work / sightseeing   

7.30 - 8.30 pm - Dinner

* in cases of rain, the project envisions finds processing workshops, lectures and film projections

Excursions schedule

The following study trips are included in the field school program and covered by the reimbursement payment:

For participants in the two-week sessions:

For participants in the four-week session: All excursions included in the schedule above.


In the middle of each two-week session a day off is envisaged. The BHFS team can organize/assist with organization of various leisure activities for participants during their free time such as excursions, visiting natural and historical sites and beaches, boating, sailing, fishing, diving, attending cultural events, etc.

Last day

Departure dates:

  • Two-week Session 1: To be announced
  • Two-week Session 2 & Four week session: To be announced

Departure day. Check-out by 11.30 am.

Transfers to Burgas, Sofia and Plovdiv airports, train or bus stations can be arranged upon request for an additional fee.

Reading Background   


Brown, P. The world of Late Antiquity. New York, 1971

Cormack, R. Byzantine Art (Oxford History of Art) . Oxford University Press, 2000

Dalton, O. M. Byzantine Art and Archaeology. London, 1911

Dalton, O. M. Early Christian Art. London, 1925

Grant J., S. Gorin and N. Fleming. The Archaeology Coursebook: an introduction to themes, sites, methods and skills. Routledge. 2008

Jones, A. H. M. The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey . Volume 1 and 2. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986

Krautheimer, R., S. Ćurčić. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. The Yale University Press Pelican History of Art, 1993

Lowden, J. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Phaidon Inc Ltd, 1997

Maas, M., eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian . Cambridge University Press, New York 2005. (Chapter 10)

Mango, C. History of World Architecture: Byzantine Architecture. Rizzoli International Publishing, New York, 1978.

Ovcharov, D., N. Ovcharov. Early Byzantine Architecture and Art in Bulgaria. In: Athena Review, Volume 3, no.1, 2001, 47-52.

Painter, K. Gold and Silver in the Late Roman World . British Museum Publications, London 1977

Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn . Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. Thames & Hudson; Fifth Edition, 2008

Velkov, V. Cities in Thrace and Dacia in Late Antiquity (Studies and Materials) . Amsterdam 1977.   



Byzantium 1200 - Computer generated reconstructions of Byzantine Monuments located in Istanbul, Turkey as of year 1200 AD

History of Byzantium podcast - Podcast about the history of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire from 476 AD to 1453 through A-Cast

Tom Sawford's blog about Byzantium


Travel & Accommodation & Practicalities



The nearest airports: Varna (VAR) airport (8 km/4 mi), Burgas (BOJ) airport (110 km/68 mi). 

Particiants who arrive at Varna airport can take a taxi to Orbita Hotel. We recommend Triumf Taxi company which office is in the terminal and which is authorized by the airport authorities. The taxi should cost about 15 BGN (9 USD).  

Transfers to Varna from Burgas may be arranged by request. Individual or group transfer prices may vary depending on both distance and number of passengers from 33 to 100 EUR. Ask for details!   

Bus connections? Bus lines connect Varna with Burgas, Sofia (the Bulgarian capital) and Plovdiv.

A detailed travel-info sheet will be provided to the enrolled students.

Visa requirements: Citizens of EU, EEA, USA, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria or any of Bulgaria’s neighboring countries for up to 90 days, with the exception of Turkey. However, the Turkish government facilitates tourism by providing the option for obtaining an e-visa at www.evisa.gov.tr/en/. Citizens of all other countries may need a visa. The Balkan Heritage Foundation can send an official invitation letter that should be used at the relevant embassy to secure a visa to the program. For further details please visit our Visa information page.


Accommodation & Meals


Accommodation*: In a downtown hotel Orbita Hotel, in comfortable rooms with two to three beds (bathrooms with shower and WC, TV, a/c and fridge). Cheap laundry service and free wifi are available at the hotel. Participants are not expected to bring any additional equipment, bed linens or towels. Single rooms are available upon request for the supplement of 120 EUR per week. Staying an extra day at the hotel costs 30 EUR (per night per person).   

Students who prefer another accommodation can organize it and pay for it directly. They will receive a discount of 75 EUR (per week) off the reimbursement payment. This choice should be communicated in advance with BHFS Admission officer. Varna is a major tourist destination and there are many nice hotels, B&B and hostels in the downtown area.

NB! It is important to note that no matter of the accommodation venue all students should be on time at the designated meeting points for the shuttle to the site on working days and for the excursions. 

The distance from the hotel to the site is app. 8 km/4.5 mi, and it takes app. 15 min drive. Daily BHFS shuttle service is arranged for the participants to bring them to the site and back.    

*Subject to change. May be substituted with similar level accommodation.

Meals: Daily breakfast and the official welcome and the farewell dinners are covered by the reimbursement payment. Students are responsible for their own lunch and dinners.

Varna offers variety of restaurants that can meet everyone’s preferences and dietary requirements – from fast food options to cozy gourmet restaurants. The average meal price (soup/salad, main dish and dessert) can cost between 6 to 12 USD. The project team will recommend restaurants for different preferences (cuisine, cost, dietary needs) and will arrange discounts for the students.

Participants must pay on their own for extra days and for single room accommodation as well as for extra meals, beverages, services and products!


Free Time & Trips


During the summer Varna offers a lot of opportunities for sports and entertainment. Possible leisure activities during the siesta and days off are: swimming, sunbathing, surfing, scuba diving, fishing, sailing, boating and even ice-skating. Participants can visit local beaches, the splendid Sea Garden for a walk and and numerous natural and heritage sites in Varna vicinity. The city offers cinemas and theaters, modern shopping areas, bars and restaurants, Aquarium, Dolphinarium, different museums and galleries, and open-air stages, where concerts for popular and classical music often take place.


Technicalities & Practicalities


Insurance: The reimbursement payment does not cover insurance. It is mandatory to arrange your own health insurance before your trip to Bulgaria. All EU citizens can use Bulgarian medical services, as long as they can provide evidence of their home-country health insurance with a card/certificate, etc.

Weather: South-European (Transitional Mediterranean to Continental) climate with hot summers (30-40°C, 86-104°F) dominates in the region. Rainy and chillier days in this season are not uncommon.

What to bring?

  • A pair of working shoes (sneakers, running shoes) and a pair of comfortable shoes for walking/hiking;
  • Clothing suitable for an outdoor working environment: light clothes with long sleeves and legs (protecting from the sun and insects), including a light raincoat (consider weather conditions from hot and sunny to rainy and chilly)   
  • Wide brim hat   
  • Small backpack (for your water bottle, snacks, camera, etc.)
  • Medication - only prescription medicines you may need. It is not necessary to bring non-prescription medicine from your country since you can buy all basic non-prescription drugs in Bulgaria.
  • A converter to EU type electricity wall-plug if needed.
  • A good attitude for work, fun, study and discoveries ;)

Excavation & documentation tools and materials, as well as working gloves are available at the site!


The Cost    


In order to participate in this educational project the BHFS expects all participants to reimburse their related costs, i.e. B&B accommodation (hotel + breakfast per day), tools, materials, excursions/sightseeing tours/entrance fees and other administrative costs. All participants are invited to support the project realization through donations. Information about all related costs will be published as soon as the WHO organization announces the end of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Reimbursement Transfer Options:

- Bank transfer
- Online transfers via the Balkan Heritage virtual POS Terminal VISA, MASTERCARD & MAESTRO cards are accepted.   
TransferWise money transfer

For further information contact Admissions Office at [email protected].

Academic Credits   


New Bulgarian University grants 6 ECTS credits to students for attending two- and four-week sessions and 9 ECTS credits for attending the four-week session. Transcripts of Records (ToR) are available upon request for an additional tuition fee For details: Regulations for obtaining Transcripts of Records.




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

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