The things we make and how we make them is the primordial stew of worlds. Things offer a local and infinitely large story. All things, like local food, dialects, patterns found in rugs and an alphabet of ceramic pot design and decoration draw out a map of influence, story and earth. Ceramics like most things made and collected, in every region, function to participate in the world on a spectrum between useful and ornamental. In Bulgaria handmade pottery, both useful and decorative is a well establish part of everyday life. Likewise, is the importance of historic and ancient pottery plays in the imagination of many Bulgarians and certainly its potters.

Neolithic Pottery.

Ceramics and the neolithic came unusually early to the region of Bulgaria. Ceramic figures have been found in Bulgaria that date eight thousand years before the present. 1The earliest people that brought ceramics into this region most likely experienced an ebb and flow of migrations from the ancient Levant and Middle East, Anatolia, the Steppes of Asia and back and fourth through the Mediterranean.2

In the broad history of Bulgarian ceramics a wealth of stylistic diversity is matched with innovation supported by good geological resources offering a supply of usable clays.3The unusual richness ceramics in Bulgaria seems to have a particular incredulity as the size of this crossroad state is just under that of Ohio.4Still, the Balkan Peninsula, in general, is a region rich in ancient ceramics.

Bordering on Turkey and Greece to the south, the Black sea to the east, the Danube to the north and sharing a frontier with Serbia and Northern Macedonia to the west Bulgaria sits as a hinge between the Mediterranean, the Mideast and Europe. 5People have been traveling through and making a home at this most southeastern place in Europe for a very long time. In one cave stone tools and flakes have been found that date back about one and a half million years and found in Bacho Kiro Cave are human remains dating to 47,000 before the present and are the oldest found in Europe.6

Troyan Pottery in a Velingrad Gift Store
Busintisi Museum, Busintisi Bulgaria

Today the best known ceramic traditions in Bulgaria, to foreigners are the Troyan and the Busintsi. Troyan, a multi-colored, feathered slipware, is better known. Troyan pottery thrives and its pottery is routinely found in Bulgarian homes and, in some measure, defines Bulgarian identity. It is fairly ubiquitous in Bulgaria; you can find it well displayed by street-side vendors, in some general dry good stores and almost all tourist shops. The large earthenware gyuvech pots and smaller covered bowls for serving are the easiest to find though fancy plates and bowls are also available. Busintsi is the more creative tradition but was virtually wiped out during the Communist era. Though the historic resources of the town offer significant possibilities, Busintisi presently sits in cold storage despite attempts to revive it as a place for ceramic arts. Busintsi ware takes its inspiration from the Byzantine but spins off from that cue in often dramatic and interesting ways. A museum as well as the homes of some of the town’s preeminent potters survive. There is an entertaining book, The Marvelous Busintsi Ceramics: A Phenomenon of Bulgarian Ethnoculture by Živkov and Zelenkova, that tells the story of the tradition.7

Despite evident ceramic arts talent throughout Bulgaria, the state has been doing a poor job supporting artists and art as a public good in Bulgaria. It is astounding fact that, to my knowledge, every wheel kiln and all other studio machinery in Bulgaria is made to order for by resourceful potters for other potters by the potters themselves. Pottery wheels are a luxury, most are foot powered. However, with recent – positive – changes in Bulgarian government the situation is likely to improve.8

Daniella Petrova, Valintin Naydenov and Anna Popova
Pavilkani Roman Museum

While the self sufficiency and ingenuity of the Bulgarian potters is to be admired, the absence of communal pottery spaces and tools narrow the field in a way that is not helpful either for potters of little means or public understanding of these arts. Because tools are hard to come by opportunities for training are likewise not plentiful. The kinds opportunities available to Americans to get a taste of ceramic classes at a recreation or art center are very hard to come by in Bulgaria. Another struggle that aspiring ceramic artists experience in Bulgaria is the persistence of an attitude from communist times that built a strong dividing line professional and non professional artists.

Anna Popova, a ceramic artist (and the writer’s wife) studied with two potters near Sofia: Zahari Ivanoff and the husband and wife team of Valentin Naydenov and Daniella Petrova. Breaking away from attitudes that kept “craft secrets” close to the chest, these potters have intentionally shared their skills with the community. Zahari lives in Sofia, and works at the National Art Academy and frequently offers short term workshops to children and families. Valentin and Daniella live in Vlado Trichkov, a village accessible by train and just north of Sofia. They both teach children and adults and run a pottery. I have met all three of these potters and spent a wonderful day with Valentin and Daniella.

My first-hand knowledge of Bulgarian pottery, incomplete but not unrepresentative, comes from visits to places easily accessible from Sofia or Velingrad with the exception of a more distant excursion to the Pavilkani Roman ceramics production museum in north central Bulgaria.9 Pavilkani is an extraordinary outdoor museum and excavation site that includes excavations of Roman era pottery workshops and kilns, the remains of owner’s villa and baths as well as reconstructed first century pottery studio and kilns. I have not yet made a visit to Troyan from where the iconic low fire Bulgarian slipware is made.

Given the complexity and bulk of the subject some kind of imposed division and structure is in order. Because of the wealth of the history of Bulgarian pottery with a time depth of over nine thousand years, The posts will proceed, therefore, chronologically with five posts starting with this introduction and a survey of the Neolithic and prehistoric to the present time. I will confine the survey to seven posts:

1) This Introduction 2) Early – late Paleolithic – to the emergence of ceramics. (1.4 million b.p. – 8K bp.) A look at some of the earliest Hominin sites found in Europe to the first signs of pottery in, mostly, northern regions of Bulgaria along the Danube and Northeast coast of the Black Sea. Also described is the emergence of Old Europe. 3) Neolithic to immigration of the lettered people the central Mediterranean. (8Kbp. – 300BCE) A fuller description of the ceramic art of Old Europe to a change in the culture six thousand years ago after a brief era with fewer artifacts and a reemergence that includes Thracian cultures. 4) Ceramics made during the First Bulgarian State through the fall of Ottoman domination 600AD-134; A brief description of ceramic art appearing amid many bloody conflicts between kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean, principally the Byzantine Empire and their Balkan neighbors as well as the establishment of a Bulgarian identity. Pottery made in Bulgaria through the end of the last Bulgarian state (1396) to the end of Ottoman domination in 1878. 5) Ceramics at the beginning of the new Bulgaria: 1878 – 1912; 6) Ceramics in an era of modern war and Stalinism: 1912 – 1944 – 1989; and finally, 7) Ceramics after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989-Present.

  1. Staff. Early Neolithic Figurine found in Bulgaria. In Archeology. Nov. 2 2018. (accessed 28 Oct 2021)
  2. Several references support the notion that the region of and around Bulgaria was populated from north and east of the Black sea as well as populations from the Levant, Anatolia and North Africa. References: Modi, A., Nesheva, D., Sarno, S. et al. Ancient human mitochondrial genomes from Bronze Age Bulgaria: new insights into the genetic history of Thracians. Sci Rep 9, 5412 (2019). (accessed 5 Feb. 2022 11:41 am EST) Oxford University Press Blog offers an except of Andrew Baruch Wachtel’s book The Balkans in World History. The except describes the depth of habitation in the region (50 thousand years BCE) and writes that Neolithic (farming) populations arrived from Anatolia. As an aside, without mentioning Marija Gimbutas, has doubts about her notion that persons from the Steppes of Asia brought a violent invasion to already settled populations there in Old Europe. (accessed 5 Feb. 2022 12:29 pm EST). ___ et all discuss research pointing to frequent east – west Mediterranean migrations through a Sicily – Balkan corridor. Sarno, S., Boattini, A., Pagani, L. et al. Ancient and recent admixture layers in Sicily and Southern Italy trace multiple migration routes along the Mediterranean. Sci Rep 7, 1984 (2017). (Accessed 5 Feb 2022 12:38 pm).
  3. This includes superior clays for terra-cotta through stoneware with some unusual clays, including a glacial looses used as a component for an underglaze. P. Petrov and P. Parvanov. “Clay Deposits in Bulgaria” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece vol. XXX/3, 295-300, 1994. Proceedings of the 7″ Congress, Thessaloniki, May 1994 [accessed on the internet from: on June 10 2021.]. The article comments on five types of clay: kaolin, bentonites, kalonite, fine ceramic clay and refractory clays “highly exceeding the volume of production” and discuses modern geological surveys of clays (the first known being in 1948) as well as modern production (which met its high point in 1980 and dropped precipitously in the 1990s.
  4. The footprint of Ohio measures to 44,825 square miles while the area of Bulgaria is 42,855.
  5. Bulgaria boarders on the Çatalca Peninsula, the only region of Turkey that sits on the European continent and north of the Bosporus. On the Peninsula is one of Turkey’s, then the Ottoman Empire, ancient capitals Edirne.
  6. An article about Late Pleistocene findings in Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro Cave Hajdinjak, M., Mafessoni, F., Skov, L. et al. Initial Upper Paleolithic humans in Europe had recent Neanderthal ancestry. Nature 592, 253–257 (2021). (Accessed 28 October 2021).
  7. Zhivkov, TSanko. The Marvelous Busintsi Ceramics: A Phenomenon of Bulgarian Ethnoculture. Sofia: Bulgarian Bestseller, 2006.
  8. Like many places around the world, including the United States to some extent, Bulgaria __________
  9. Pavlikeni Museum Facebook Site

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