Read and Review – Thrace, control and social complexity

Letnitsa treasure | from Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Having nearly completed my Egyptian Module, I have discovered I really enjoy the ‘Read and Review’ format. So, as part of my mini-dissertation provisionally entitled, ‘How did the Odrysian Kingdom use its physical and cultural geography to maintain control of its subjects during the reigns of Sitalkes and Seuthes (431-407)?’, I had to complete a literature review about the main texts and arguments within the field. Where possible I have included links to the texts.

This study aims to build on approaches to understanding how the Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace asserted control over its lands. Specifically, I want to address what I see as a gap in research, namely that the approaches to the Odrysians are too separate, when in fact they should be considered two strands of the same rope. I will examine the two main approaches taken in Thracian studies, landscape surveys and examinations of the mortuary archaeology, and I will consider them together, along with the literary evidence. In this literature review I am going to examine several secondary sources and how they fit into the two approaches, in addition what the primary literary sources can tell us.

Archibald, Z.H. 1998. The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace: Orpheus Unmasked. (Amazon Preview)

Ancient Thrace was a “peripheral society”, one on the edge of the Greek Cities and Persian Empire that represented “the core” (Archibald (1998) 4.) Archibald’s approach is to make ancient Thrace, particularly the Odrysian Kingdom, centre stage, showing all the connections to the supposed ‘core’ societies and how as a culture, the Odrysians could stand strongly on their own.

Archibald takes an approach very similar to mine, in that she has very meticulously examined the physical geography of the region, as well as using the archaeological and literary evidence to show that the Odrysians were able to supersede the previous tribal system in order to create a strong state. (ibid. 3.) This is shown by the building of roads (shown in landscape surveys and in the literary sources), cross cultural connections amongst the elite (from grave goods), and the adoption of Greek as a bureaucratic language (seen in epigraphy). However, I think the approach she takes does focus on too much on the mortuary evidence from the elite, and this perhaps skews the evidence. Of course, Archibald was writing before any of the large-scale landscape surveys were undertaken, but it still must be considered.

Archibald argues that due to its status as a peripheral society, the Odrysians became dominant and unified the tribes for them to hold their own against the societies that bordered them. She admits that they didn’t have complete sovereignty over the entirety of Thrace (ibid. 103.) This is of interest to me, as my question relates to how the Odrysians were able to control their subjects, the lack of complete sovereignty over the whole of Thrace didn’t stop them being dominant. I can compare the evidence she has gathered from the mortuary remains and grave goods and compare it with the later Archaeological landscape surveys that help to bring understanding to rural Thrace.

Sobotkova, A. 2013. Resisting Rule in Ancient Thrace. (

Sobotkova is a landscape archaeologist and has worked extensively in Thrace. This article is both a response to Archibald and aims to challenge certain views. She argues that Thrace hadn’t reached the level of a centralised state, and she argues this via the archaeological evidence gained through survey archaeology. Sobotkova argues that the survey evidence from areas around the 4th century city of Seuthopolis show that the economy of Thrace was not diverse (Sobotkova (2013) 139.) with an emphasis on subsistence farming and little evidence of any industry. She takes this as evidence that there was no centralised bureaucracy in the Odrysian state who helped to orchestrate these more complex activities (ibid. 141. n.57). However, I think this simplifies matters, as pastoral archaeology can look very similar, especially when they live a partly nomadic life. Horse breeders, cattle and sheep herders, show that there is diversity within the field of pastoralism, and these are occupations that are attested in the literary sources, and in similar societies such as Macedon.

As well as responding to Archibald, Sobotkova wanted to challenge the dominance of the literary and mortuary sources, as she saw them as skewed towards the elite. She also argues that a pretty elementary mistake was made, that the archaeological evidence proves the literary evidence: the “mortuary archaeology seems to agree with Thucydides view of Thrace.” (Ibid. 136.) This is without examining the reality for the bulk of the population, and her paper helps to balance the scales to help recreate the lives of all those who where under the control of the Odrysians.

Ross, S.A and Sobotkova, A. 2015. The Tundzha Regional Archaeology Project: Social complexity and the rise of the state in early Thrace (

The Tundzha Regional Archaeology Project Report offers a more in depth look at the issues of social complexity in Ancient Thrace from the view of landscape archaeology. Sobotkova and Ross go through the background, methodology and outcomes of the survey. Sobotkova’s earlier argument about the emphasis of previous study being on the elite via mortuary remains and the literary evidence is seen as key to understanding how the social complexity of Thrace has been overstated.

It also becomes clear that landscape studies have been underutilised in Bulgarian archaeology, and that this TRAP offers a fresh approach to studying the bulk of the population, whilst looking at fresh evidence.

Most interesting from my perspective is the evaluation of the types of settlements that are present. Within the Thracian Plain, they are mainly non-permanent and indicate that the population was highly mobile. Elsewhere, in the Yambol region, the settlements were still small, but more permanent, with an emphasis on agriculture, as opposed to a more mobile form of life (likely to be herding). This gives good information regarding the physical and cultural geography of Thrace, since it reveals how the people used the landscape to their advantage, and how that landscape meant they were fairly autonomous and not under lasting control by any ruler. (Ross and Sobotkova (2015) 20.).


Archibald, Z.H. 1998. The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace: Orpheus Unmasked. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ross, Shawn A. “The Tundzha Regional Archaeology Project: Social Complexity and the Rise of the State in Early Thrace.” Australian Archaeological Fieldwork Abroad III, 2015.

Sobotkova, Adela. “Resisting Rule in Ancient Thrace .” Exploring the Hospitable Sea, Proceedings of the International Workshop on the Black Sea in Antiquity Held in Thessaloniki, 21–23 September 2012, 2013.


Figure 1. Letnitsa treasure | from Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

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