Renowned archaeologist dies at temple dig

Image: Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov
Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov drinks wine from an ancient golden cup as he poses with a golden wreath found in an intact Thracian mausoleum in October 2004 near the town of Shipka, one of the largest Thracian tomb ever discovered on Bulgarian territory.Tcvetan Tomchev / AFP - Getty Images File
/ Source: The Associated Press

Archaeologist Georgi Kitov — an expert on the treasure-rich Thracian culture of antiquity — died of a heart attack while excavating a temple in central Bulgaria considered to be one of his greatest discoveries, his family said Thursday. He was 65.

Kitov died Sunday during the excavation of a large Thracian temple surrounded by lavishly furnished graves near the village of Starosel, according to his wife, Diana Dimitrova.

The temple, unearthed by Kitov in 2000, as well as other sensational finds over the past 16 years brought him international attention.

His discoveries include two 5th century B.C. gold funerary masks — one weighing a pound — from the Shipka valley in central Bulgaria, a bronze head from a statue of a Thracian ruler, gold and silver jewelry and a complete set of bronze armor.

But he was also criticized for using bulldozers in some of his digs.

Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov described Kitov as "a phenomenon" in archaeology.

"Many disagreed with his methods, but his great discoveries will be remembered by Bulgarians," Ovcharov said.

Kitov compared the previously little-known Thracian civilization to that of ancient Greece. Though unlike the Greeks, the Thracians had no written language, and so left no records.

"We found indisputable evidence that the Thracian civilization was at least equal to the ancient Greek one," Kitov said in 2004. "In fact, we proved that Thracians were co-authors of the ancient culture, which often is called Hellenistic by mistake."

First mentioned in Homer's Iliad as allies of Troy, the Thracians were an Indo-European nomadic people that settled in the central Balkans around 5,000 years ago. They were conquered by Rome in the 1st century, and were assimilated by invading Slav peoples in the 6th century.

Fierce warriors and horse-breeders, the Thracians were also skilled goldsmiths. They established a powerful kingdom in the 5th century B.C. Its capital was thought to be Seutopolis, whose ancient ruins lie under a large artificial lake near Shipka, in an area dubbed "the Bulgarian Valley of Kings" for its many rich tombs.

epa01450669 A Thracian gold ruff is seen during excavations of a tomb near the village of Krushare, some 280km from Sofia, Bulgaria, 16 August 2008. Bulgarian archeologist Georgi Kitov discovered a gold ruff, ring and funeral gifts of a richly Thracian funeral dated to the 5th century B.C. in a Thracian tomb. EPA/IVAN YANEV BULGARIA OUTIvan Yanev / BGNES

Kitov once told The Associated Press that the temple at Starosel "vies with ancient Greek temples in Sparta, Athens and Mycenae."

Some other archaeologists criticized Kitov, however, for using heavy machinery in his digs. Kitov defended his high-speed technique by saying it was necessary to keep ahead of looters.

Some archaeologists also accused him of failing to adequately document or publish his finds.

In 2001, Bulgarian authorities rescinded his excavation permit for a year for allegedly digging without permission.

Sofia's National History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov said Kitov regarded archaeology as a duty more than a job.

"He suffered from the widespread looting, and tried to counteract by digging more and more," Dimitrov said. "Very often he won the race against the looters."

Kitov was born on March 1, 1943, in the southwestern town of Dupnitsa. He earned a history degree from the University of Sofia, and studied art history at the St. Petersburg State University.

He is survived by his wife and 9-year-old daughter. A funeral is planned for Friday.