''Fresco-Hunting'' Photo Research Expedition to Medieval Balkan Churches

Period: Medieval and Late Medieval
Code: MCBAL 24
Session: 25 May - 08 June, 2024
Academic credits available: up to 6
Cost starting from: 1899 EUR/ approx.1899 USD

The Project and the Course

General Information  

Project type: Field school & research expedition

Field school & expedition founded: 2008   

The sites: Participants will study, receive training, and work on the documentation of four to six medieval Christian Orthodox chapels or small churches in western Bulgaria. Participants will also have the opportunity to visit several other churches and medieval sites nearby in western Bulgaria.   

Project venue and accommodation: Participants and staff stay at Hotel Zheravna in Bankya, a small SPA town in the Sofia Metropolitan area. On field work days, we will travel to the church sites which are located approx. 50 - 75 km (31 - 46 miles) from Bankya. Travel arrangements will be organized by the Balkan Heritage Field School (BHFS).

About the project: The "Fresco-Hunting" Photo Research Expedition to Medieval Balkan Churches provides a unique opportunity for students and volunteers to take part in an expedition to document abandoned medieval churches/chapels and their frescos in western Bulgaria, and to visit many other Christian Orthodox churches, monasteries, museums and archaeological sites in Sofia and western Bulgaria. The expedition and the field school are coordinated by the Balkan Heritage Foundation (BHF).    

Participants receive training in survey management, digital photography, surveys of architecture and iconographic program, technical drawing, use of dumpy level, developing archives of digital images etc., introduction to Byzantine art,  architecture and religious iconography as well as photogrammetry, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and other photographic techniques for documentation of cultural heritage. 

The field school is designed for students and young specialists in heritage, archaeology and conservation as well as artists, but we also welcome anyone interested in:   

  • medieval civilization in Southeastern Europe (especially Byzantine and Christian Orthodox architecture, arts and iconography during the late medieval period: 13th to 17th centuries)   
  • digital photography   
  • documentation of ecclesiastic architecture and frescos   
  • cultural heritage preservation   
  • travel to significant heritage sites in western Bulgaria. 

BHF partners in this project:    

Director: Ivan Vasilev, president of the Balkan Heritage Foundation and archaeologist

Field school session available: 25 May - 8 June, 2024  

Application deadline: 25 April, 2024

Minimum length of stay: Two weeks   

Minimum age: 18

Number of field school places available: 8

Project language: English

Experience Required: All candidates are expected to have some familiarity with the basic principles of photography and DSLR cameras. For those who don’t, BHFS can offer the opportunity to take part in an additional, tailored online course about digital photography basics by Sofia Photography School prior to the field school. The cost of this training is not included in the reimbursement payment of the field school.

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

Note: Citizens of the EU, EEA, USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand do not need an entry visa for Bulgaria. Citizens of countries not mentioned above should check in advance whether they will need entry visas for one or both countries. The cost of any visas shall be covered directly by the students.   

Special Requirements:    

  • A medical COVID-19 certificate might be requested from each participant. The participants should have medical insurance including COVID-19 treatment and repatriation. The participants should inform the project staff about any health issues, allergies, and food preferences.    
  • Participants are expected to bring a laptop having at least 10 GB free disk space, a mouse and a USB flash drive. Bringing a personal DSLR camera is not required, but is recommended -- there is no better way of gaining new digital photography skills than exploring the capacities of your own camera. 
  • 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 diverse weather conditions varying from warm and sunny to rainy, windy and even cold.    
  • 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.    
  • All participants will be asked to release the copyright on all graphic materials they create and contribute to during the expedition (which may include maps, drawings, photographic images, etc.) to the Balkan Heritage Foundation for non-commercial use.   

Click here to watch testimonials of our former students.

Click here to read "Fresco Hunting in Bulgaria" by Georgia Gene Berryhill (Ph.D. in Art History), Fulbright senior specialist in Bulgaria (2010).

Archaeological Context & Period


The decline of the Byzantine Empire, the rise and fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire and the Serbian Kingdom and Empire, the Ottoman conquest of Southeastern Europe and the height of Ottoman power highlight the Late Medieval period in the Balkans from 13th to 17th centuries. The churches and chapels which will be visited and studied during the field school were built during these turbulent times in one of the few Balkan areas where many Balkan late medieval builders and artisan guilds crossed their roads. What we see today from the medieval Orthodox art in the area are the small chapels and churches that survived the Ottoman invasion in the 14th and 15th centuries and the wars as well as social and political upheavals of the following centuries. Many of these monuments are characterized by humble architecture and often hide exquisite frescos behind their unattractive exterior. Most of them were abandoned long ago, and there is visible damage due to both vandalism (during the period of the Ottoman Empire by either hostile Muslims or superstitious Christians, and nowadays by looters and vandals) and/or decay due to weather and lack of maintenance following their abandonment.

The Expedition

The "Fresco-Hunting" Photo Research Expedition to Medieval Balkan Churches provides a unique opportunity for students and volunteers to take part in an expedition for the documentation of abandoned medieval churches/chapels and their frescos in western Bulgaria, and to visit many other Christian Orthodox churches and monasteries, museums and archaeological sites in Sofia, western Bulgaria. The number of these monuments has sadly been permanently decreasing due to the lack of effort to preserve and protect them from weather damage and vandalism. During the last fourteen years, specialists from Bulgaria, North Macedonia, USA, Canada and Japan as well as students from all over the world participating in the “Fresco-Hunting” Photo Expedition have expanded and upgraded the existing database of drawn and photographic records of fifteen churches and chapels in western Bulgaria. We aim to publish a complete corpus of these medieval frescos and to develop further projects to support and record the remaining endangered sites through conservation, restoration, development and/or improvement of each site's management, and fund-raising. Our work so far has been successful in raising public awareness. And, some of the sites we documented have been protected (Balsha, Kalotina, Zimevitsa). In 2017, the Balkan Heritage Foundation issued the first e-book dedicated to one of the churches documented by the Expedition, the 17th century church St. Thedore Tyro in Zimevitsa. The work on a publication of two more churches (Balsha and Golesh) is now in progress. Unfortunately, many more churches remain in desperate condition, awaiting either better times or continued deterioration.

The Field School

In 2024, the project envisions supplementing the database created during the previous seasons by documenting the architecture and frescos (and their condition) of three to six medieval Christian Orthodox chapels or small churches in western Bulgarian borderlands and collecting new data on their history, artifacts and environment. 

The Field School is comprised of:

  • Fieldwork that entails a preliminary survey of architecture, frescos and their iconographic program; creation of textual, graphic (drawn) and photographic records of ecclesiastical edifices and their frescos (in up to six churches)
  • Specialized lectures in Southeastern European medieval history; Christian Orthodox architecture, arts and iconography; documentary photography; fresco conservation and restoration; methodology of project survey as well as an introduction to photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)
  • Workshops for graphic (drawn) documentation, processing and archiving of digital images plus a free optional workshop on illustration of architectural features and frescos (using graphic software)
  • Excursions and guided tours of Sofia and Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bulgaria.

All participants will receive:

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

The Team

  • Ivan Vasilev, president of the Balkan Heritage Foundation and archaeologist
  • Dr. Vassil Tenekedjiev, archaeologist, Varna Regional Museum of History   
  • Dr. Angel Angelov, archaeologist, National Ethnographic Institute and Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
  • Miroslav Marinov, professional photographer, Sofia Photography School

The Program


  • Practicing basic survey and documentation techniques: visual inspection, measurement using laser/tape and dumpy level, scale-drawing, sketching, digital photography, etc.
  • Creating textual, graphic and photographic records
  • (Preliminary) interpretation and identification of architectural styles and construction techniques, as well as fresco iconography, techniques and styles


  • History of Bulgaria and the Central Balkans in the Middle Ages -- onsite at the National History Museum   
  • Shaping the Holy Space: Impact of the Liturgy on Orthodox Church Architecture, Interior Design and Arts
  • Introduction to Orthodox Church Architecture (with Special Attention to the Late Medieval Churches in Western Bulgaria)   
  • Window to Heaven: the Orthodox Icon between Art and Theology
  • Kingdom of Heaven on Earth: Who is Who in the Iconographic Program of the Late Medieval Churches in Western Bulgaria
  • Basic Field Methods and Practices for the Survey and the Documentation of Architecture and Frescos
  • Graphic and Photographic Documentation for Fieldwork
  • Introduction to Documentary Photography
  • Introduction to Photogrammetry, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and Other Photographic Techniques for Documentation of Cultural Heritage
  • History of Sofia -- onsite in Sofia
  • History and Art of Boyana Church -- onsite at Boyana Church
  • Life in the Orthodox Monastery -- onsite in the Rila Monastery
  • History of the Rila Monastery -- onsite in the Rila Monastery


  • Post-expedition work and digital archiving   


On-site instructions:

  • How to Organize My Expedition Field Journal
  • How to Organize My Field Graphic and Photographic Documentation Project
  • How and What to Measure Using Laser/Tape Measure and Dumpy Level
  • How to Draw Architectural Ground Plans, Elevations, and Cross-sections to Scale
  • How to Sketch an Iconographic Program
  • Digital Photography for Heritage Documentation in Action – What, How and When
  • Health and Safety


Guided Tours:

  • Sofia Downtown Walking Tour with visits to the City Cathedral (the biggest fully functioning Christain Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans completed 1912) dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevski (including the Gallery for Christian Orthodox Icon in its crypt; Saint Sofia Church (6th century); the remains of Roman Serdica (2nd – 6th century CE), Saint Georgi Rotunda (300s CE), the Ottoman Banya Bashi Mosque (16th century) and the third largest Jewish synagogue in Europe.
  • Boyana church (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bulgaria


  • Lectures and workshops take place at the halls of the project’s hotels.
  • Instructions and training take place at the project's sites. 



The Agenda


25 May, 2024

Arrival day:   

Arrival and check-in by 7.30 pm.

8.00 pm - Welcome dinner.

26 May, 2024

9.30 am - Introduction, Orientation

1:30 pm - Lunch 

3.00 pm - Lectures

7.30 - 8.30 pm - Dinner 

27 May, 2024

Morning: Lectures   

Afternoon: Sofia Downtown Walking Tour with visits to the City Cathedral

28 May, 2024

Morning: Lectures   

Afternoon: Workshops 

29 - 31 May, 2024

Working days - Fieldwork at the sites (approx. 7-8 hours per day).

1 June, 2024

Guided visit to the Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site) -This is the largest and oldest surviving Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It was established in 10th century by St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila).

2 - 4 June, 2024

Working days - Fieldwork at the sites (approx. 7-8 hours per day).

6 & 7 June, 2024

Time for processing, archiving and reporting.

Presentation of preliminary project results. 

8 June, 2024

Last day:   

Check-out. Departure* by 11:30 am.

*Taxis can be arranged at any time upon request. Their price varies between 20 and 25 EUR and is not included in the project cost.

Reading Background


  • Chavrukov, G. Bulgarian monasteries. Septemvri Publishing House, Sofia. 1978
  • Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art (Oxford History of Art). Oxford University Press. 2000
  • Crampton, R. J. A. Concise History of Bulgaria (Cambridge Concise Histories) - Cambridge University Press; 2 edition (2006)
  • Gabov, Alexander and George Bevan. Recording the Weathering of Outdoor Stone Monuments Using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI): The Case of the Guild of All Arts (Scarborough, Ontario).Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation (J. CAC), Volume 36, 2011
  • Dorrell, P.G. Photography in Archaeology and Conservation. Cambridge University Press. 1994   
  • Huntington, John C. Photography for Art Historical Field Research and Documentation
  • Hupchick, D., Cox, Harold. Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of the Balkans. Saint Martin’s Press Inc. 2001
  • Langford, Michael. Basic Photography. Focal Press, Oxford, 2 edition (2000)
  • Mango, Cyril. History of World Architecture: Byzantine Architecture. Rizzoli International Pub­lishing, New York. 1978.
  • Mora. P., Laura Mora. Examination and Documentation. In: Conservation of Wall Paintings (Butterworth - Heinemann Series in Con­servation and Museology). Butterworth-Heinemann. 1984



  • Raykovska, M., G. Bevan and I. Vasilev. The Integration of Different Computational Photographic Modalities in High-Accuracy 3D Building Models: The Case of the Church of St. Petka, Bulgaria – In: Virtual Archaeology (Methods and Benefits) Proceedings of the Second International Conference held at the State Hermitage Museum 1-3 June, 2015, Saint Petersburg, The State Hermitage Publishers, 2015; pp. 139-157 


  • Safran, L (Editor). Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium. Pennsylvania State Uni­versity Press. 1998
  • Tragido, Alfredo. Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Guide to Imagery Series). 2006.
  • Warda Jeffrey (Editor). The AIC Guide to Digital Photography and Conservation Documentation, AIC 2011   




Iconography and Wall Paintings

Understanding the Histogram

Understanding How a Camera Works

Camera Lenses: Focal Length and Aperture

Understanding How Depth of Field Works

Choosing and Using a Tripod

Color Temperature and White Balance

Light in Photography

Digital Photography


Travel & Accommodation & Practicalities    



Nearest Air Terminal: Sofia (SOF)

Where to go? Please arrive on the 25th May 2024 not later than 16:30pm in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Visa requirements: Citizens of EU, EEA, USA, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria. 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.       

Bulgaria joined Europe's vast Schengen area of free movement, opening up travel by air and sea without border.


Accommodation & Meals   


Accommodation*: Participants will stay at the Hotel Zheravna, Bankya in Sofia Metropolitan area in rooms with two to three beds (bathrooms with shower and WC, TV, wi-fi). All participants will be given a pick-up transfer option from Sofia Airport, Terminal 2 to Bankya.    

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

Meals: Three meals per day are covered by the reimbursement payment. Meals usually take place in the hotel restaurant, except the brown-bag lunches (when on site and during the excursions). Requests for vegetarian food are accepted. Participants will have to pay extra for additional days in the project hotels, for single room accommodation, as well as for any meals and beverages, services or products outside the project package. Single rooms are available upon request for the duration of the field school for an additional cost of 400 EUR.


  Free Time & Trips    


Free time: Sofia offers many opportunities for good entertainment, spa, sports, sightseeing and shopping. For more information see: http://www.sofia-guide.com. Hiking, horse riding, and spas are possible leisure activities easily accessible in Bankya.    

Trips: Guided visits of Sofia, including the Downtown, Boyana Church (UNESCO World Heritage Site) as well as Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Bulgaria, are organized for all field school participants and covered by the reimbursement payment.


Technicalities & Practicalities  


Insurance: The reimbursement payment does not cover medical costs. It is mandatory to arrange your own insurance before your trip to Bulgaria. The insurance must cover as a minimum the following risks: medical treatment in case of an accident or disease, specifically covering COVID-19 as well as costs related to evacuation and repatriation.

Weather: A moderate continental climate influenced by the surrounding mountains dominates in Sofia and the area of the expedition. Springtime is traditionally refreshing and rainy (12-25 C, 56-77 F), but the weather in May-early June can be unpredictable -- it may be cool or be surprisingly hot (up to 30-35 C; 86 – 95 F).

What to bring?

  • Work shoes and clothes that will suit outdoor work -- keeping in mind the diverse weather conditions (from rainy and cool, to sunny and warm.) Don’t forget both your raincoats and sunscreen. A pair of comfortable hiking shoes are required. Long pants are recommended because of the potentially irritating plants, insects and reptiles. You will also be asked to help carry some of the project equipment.
  • Medication -- Please bring only the prescription medicines needed. It is not necessary to bring non-prescription medicine since you can easily buy all basic non-prescription drugs in Bulgaria.
  • Equipment and tools: The participants are encouraged to bring a laptop having at least 10 GB free disk space, a mouse and a USB flash drive. Operating system recommended: Windows XP or newer. Participants will not need to bring drawing or measuring supplies, nor any other tools. These will be provided by the field school.
  • For participants who want to bring their own cameras, we recommend a high-resolution digital photo camera, with a higher ISO and optical stabilization. Bear in mind that working conditions are frequently challenging: low to no light, humid and moldy environments. The Balkan Heritage Field School has flood lights but these are only usable if there is electricity. Don’t forget to bring your camera USB connecting cable (esp. in case you cannot bring your laptop).   
  • Wide brim hat.   
  • Small backpack (for your water bottle, snacks, camera, etc.)
  • A converter to EU-type electrical sockets if needed.
  • A good attitude for work, fun, study and discoveries!


The Cost


All field schools are conducted as non-profit projects by the Balkan Heritage Foundation, Bulgaria. Their costs, including students' costs related to participation in the field school are covered by the reimbursement payments made by field school students.   

BHFS project reimbursement payment covers: Educational and fieldwork activities, pick-up shuttle on arrival, full-board accommodation (hotel + 3 meals per day), tools, materials, project handbook or readings, issue of Certificate of Attendance, administrative costs, travel related to the fieldwork and the excursions included in the field school program plus relevant entrance fees.

BHFS project reimbursement payment does not include: travel costs to Sofia and from Bankya or costs of any activities not included in the field school program; medical products and services and any expenses related to medical quarantine (food delivery, accommodation, etc.).


The costs in USD are approximate. Please check the current exchange rates!


Early Bird Cost - until February 29, 2024:


Early Bird cost for a two-week project session is 1899 EUR/ approx.1899 USD


Regular Cost - after February 29, 2024:      


The Regular Cost for a two-week project session is 2099 EUR / approx. 2099 USD   


All students registered for BHFS season 2020 shall contact BHFS Admissions office at b[email protected] for further information about the conditions of their participation in season 2024. 

Reimbursement Transfer Options:

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

For further information contact Admissions Office at: [email protected]!

 Discounts off the regular cost:

* 5% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Participation in more than one BHFS project in 2024 (discount applies to the second, third, etc. project).
  2. Membership in the Archaeological Institute of America.

* 10% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Participation in any BHFS project/s in the past.

* 12% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost available for:

  1. Group Participation (three or more people who participate together in one BHFS project in 2024). The discount is valid for each participant.

* 15% DISCOUNT OFF the regular cost is available for:

  1. Group Participation (three or more people, who participate in more than one BHFS project in 2024 (the discount is valid for each participant).
  2. BHFS alumni, who participate in more than one BHFS project in 2024. (discount applies to the second, third, etc. project).
  3. BHFS alumni who attended a full project in the past and return to the same project.


For more information about scholarships, low-cost flights, hotels, etc. please feel free to contact us or look at our recommended links.


Academic credits   


New Bulgarian University grants 6 ECTS credits to students for attending this field school. Transcripts of Records (ToR) are available upon request for an additional tuition fee of 400 EUR for EU students and 600 EUR for Non-EU students.

Details: Regulations for obtaining Transcripts of Records.     

Participants in the field school who do not need academic credit units are not expected to pay for them.




''Fresco-Hunting'' Photo Research Expedition to Medieval Balkan Churches

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