When the grave of ‘Varna Man‘ was uncovered inside a huge ancient necropolis in Bulgaria in the ’70s, stunned archaeologists found more gold inside it than had been found in all the archaeological sites the entire world over for that time period. Evidently an elite-status leader such as a high-chieftain or king, Varna Man was buried holding a golden scepter. Also contained in his grave was an axe, a sword, lavish gold bangles, bull platelets, hanging pendants, and discs that once adorned his now-disintegrated clothing. In total he was sent to the afterlife with 990 individual golden objects. And yes, that is even a gold sheath around his penis.
The Varna culture dates back to around 4,600 BC, making Varna Man potentially around 6,600 years old. They were a rich, dominant, and culturally advanced civilization with complex burial beliefs, metallurgy nous, hierarchical societal structuring, and widespread trade relations. Their time on Earth predates Egypt and Mesopotamia by some distance and they are the first people we know of to manipulate gold into artifacts and objects. Shells inside the graves could hint at an early form of currency.
But the Varna appear to have up and vanished without a trace around 4,000 BC, leaving the region they lived in uninhabited for centuries thereafter. The burials in the necropolis were all made within a few hundred years of one other, so the Varna age while golden, was brief. A hypothesis is that their disappearance was due to climate change gradually making their homeland arid and uninhabitable. Warring horse-mounted invaders is a factor also speculated upon, but evidence of a mass slaughter has never turned up. However, 30% of the site remains unexcavated.
Their legacy exists in the necropolis. Comprising 6.5 kilos in weight, 3,000 artifacts were uncovered and along with the grave of Varna Man there are 293 others. All males were buried on their backs, females in the fetal position. While many graves contained close to no treasures at all, indicating early social differentiation, inside others were found ceramics, axes, amulets, breastplates, earrings, pins, rings, beads, obsidian knives, clay masks, exquisitely painted pottery, trinkets, a tiara, and gold ornaments sewn into the burial wrappings.
A small number of graves contained no actual skeleton but still lots of gold – cenotaphs, or symbolic burials. But no grave was more impressive or more significant than the final resting place of Varna Man. Estimated to be around 45 at the time of his death, at 5’ 8” he was considerably tall for his time. Exceptionally important in his life as the leader of a culture that produced mankind’s oldest gold, his posthumous stature is no less substantial, as his discovery exists as the first indication of the fundamental principle of a centralized authority.
The culture had sophisticated religious beliefs about the afterlife and developed hierarchical status differences: it constitutes the oldest known burial evidence of an elite male. The end of the fifth millennium BC is the time that Marija Gimbutas, founder of the Kurgan hypothesis claims the transition to male dominance began in Europe. The high-status male was buried with remarkable amounts of gold, held a war axe or mace, and wore a gold penis sheath. The bull-shaped gold platelets perhaps also venerated virility, instinctive force, and warfare. Gimbutas holds that the artifacts were made largely by local craftspeople.