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

Period: Medieval and Late Medieval
Code: MCBAL.EXP 22
Session: 21 May - 4 June
Academic credits available: up to 6
Admission fee starting from: 1699 EUR/ approx.1947 USD

The Project and the Course

General Information  

Project type: Field school & research expedition

Field school & expedition founded: 2008

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, western Bulgaria and eastern Serbia. 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.  An optional workshop for illustration of architectural features and frescos using graphic software corresponding to the latest trends in digital humanities supplements the program.

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 and eastern Serbia. 

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 and in eastern Serbia.

Project venue and accommodation: Participants and staff stay the first two days at the L'Opera Guest House, Sofia, then move to Erma Spa Hotel in Tran, a small town at the western border of Bulgaria. On field work days, we will travel to the church sites which are located approx. 50 - 75 km (31 - 46 miles) from Tran. Travel arrangements to Tran and back to Sofia as well as to and from the sites will be organized by the Balkan Heritage Field School (BHFS).

BHF partners in this project: New Bulgarian University, Sofia Photography School (Bulgaria). 

Directors: Ivan Vasilev, president of the Balkan Heritage Foundation and archaeologist and Dr. Vassil Tenekedjiev, archaeologist

Dates: 21 May - 4 June, 2022

Application deadline: Until the places are filled, or 21 April, 2022

Minimum length of stay: Two weeks   

Minimum age: 18

Number of field school places available: 7

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 admission fee of the field school.


  • 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 admission fee 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.   

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 and Serbia. 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 is not included in the price of the field school.  

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).

The Expedition and the Field School

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 and eastern Serbia. 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 twelve years, specialists from Bulgaria, Republic of 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.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT: 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 FIELD SCHOOL: In 2020, the project envisions to supplement 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 near Tran and collect new data on their history, artifacts and environment. The region in focus is geographically and culturally very close to present-day eastern Serbia, where a photography excursion to several medieval ecclesiastical monuments will also take place. The students will be able to identify parallels and make comparisons between the churches and their murals across the border in Serbia and those that they will be working to document in Bulgaria.    

The Field School is comprised of:

  • Fieldwork that entails 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 introduction to photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)
  • Workshops for graphic (drawn) documentation, processing and archiving of digital images plus free optional workshop on illustration of architectural features and frescos (using graphic software)
  • Excursions and guided tours of SofiaRila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bulgaria, as well as a photography excursion to Serbia.

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 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
  • Architecture of Orthodox Churches
  • Medieval and Late Medieval Churches in Western Bulgaria
  • Iconographic Program of Orthodox Churches
  • Themes and Characters in Orthodox Iconography
  • Orthodox Icon and Iconostasis -- onsite in the Gallery for Medieval Bulgarian Art, Sofia
  • 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
  • Introduction to hagiography
  • Illustration (using graphic software) of architectural features and wall-paintings – optional but free

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.
  • National Museum of History and the Boyana church (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bulgaria
  • Eastern Serbia: Palja and Vlasina Lake


  • 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


23 May, 2020

Arrival and check-in by 7:30 pm

24-25 May, 2020

Orientation. Lectures. Workshops*. Tours of Sofia.

Tours of Sofia include the Downtown, National Museum of History and the Boyana Church (UNESCO World Heritage Site).   

*Incl. optional workshop on illustration of architectural features and frescos (using graphic software) - free of charge. The workshop will take place upon request.

26 - 27 May, 2020

Trip to Tran. Check-in. 

Lectures. Workshops. 

28-29 May, 2020

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

30 May, 2020

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).

31 May, 2020


1-4 June, 2020

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

Photo excursion to eastern Serbia

5 June, 2020

Time for processing, archiving and reporting.

Presentation of preliminary project results. 

6 June, 2020

Check-out. Departure to Sofia at 9:00 am.  

A drop-off to Sofia airport and Downtown is scheduled for 9:00 am departure and is free of charge. The trip will take approx. 90 to 120 min.

Taxis can be arranged at any other time upon request for an additional fee of 70 EUR.

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

Camera Exposure and Metering

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 23 May 2020 at L'Opera Guest House, 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 and Serbia. 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*: For first four days of the field school, participants will stay at L'Opera Guest House in rooms with shared bathrooms in historic Downtown Sofia. Then the project team and students will move to the small town of Tran in western Bulgarian borderland area. They will stay there for the remainder of the field school in comfortable rooms with two to three beds (bathrooms with shower and WC, TV, wi-fi) in the Erma Spa Hotel, which also provides free access to the SPA center. All participants will be given a free ride back to Sofia Downtown and airport on 6 June. The departure is scheduled for 9:00 am. The trip will take approx. 90 to 120 min.

Meals: Three meals per day are covered by the admission fee. 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 fee of 350 EUR.     

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

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 Tran.    

Trips: Guided visits of Sofia, including the Downtown, National Museum of History, Boyana Church (UNESCO World Heritage Site) as well as Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Bulgaria and Eastern Serbia: Palja and Vlasina Lake, are organized for all field school participants and included in the admission fee.     


Technicalities & Practicalities

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 Admission Fee


BHFS admission fee includes: Educational and fieldwork activities, 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 admission fee does not include: travel costs to and from the project venue or related to activities not included in the field school program; medical products and services and any expenses related to medical quarantine (food delivery, accommodation, etc.).


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


Early Bird Special - until March 31, 2022:


Early Bird Admission fee for two-week project session is 1699 EUR/ approx.1947 USD


Regular admission fee - after March 31, 2022:      


The regular admission fee for two-week project session is 1849 EUR / approx.2119 USD   


All students registered for BHFS season 2020 shall contact BHF Admissions office at b[email protected] for further information about the conditions of their participation in season 2022. 

Admission Fee 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 this field school. Transcripts of Records (ToR) are available upon request for an additional tuition fee. For details, Regulations for obtaining Transcripts of Records.   

For non-EU students: 6 academic credits = 450 EUR (approx. 490 USD)

For EU students: 6 academic credits = 300 EUR (approx. 330 USD)




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

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