Unogundurs, Kuban, kureni, auli, Great Bulgaria, Phanagoria

Documentary sources attest that at the end of the IV c. - V c. AD a part of the Unogundurs-bulgars (vh’dur-bulgar), previously inhabiting the region of the eastern Fore-Caucasus known as ‘Land of the Bulgars’, moved westward and occupied the low lands of the river Kuban along the north-eastern Black Sea coast and the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov (Meotida). The V-VI century authors located there the Unogurs, and Procopius and his successors in the mid-VI c. - the Utigurs. Contrary to the Dagestan Bulgars, who started to settle down comparatively early, their compatriots in the eastern Meotida continued the life of nomads till VII c., which makes more difficult the recovery of their material remains.

In 1947 a necropolis near stanitsa Novo-Labinskaja in the middle course of Kuban was investigated . The graves exhibit many details characteristic for the Dagestan Bulgars - narrow, oriented to the north pits, with virtually no artefacts (which make difficult a more exact dating), and artificial skull deformation in some cases. The investigator Nechaeva [1] attributed this uncharacteristic for the earlier inhabitants of that region necropolis to penetrated in IV-V c. from the east nomadic tribes, which later formed to the Kuban Proto-Bulgarians.

Another necropolis which, on the basis of the anthropological data and the ways of burial, can be attributed to the Proto-Bulgarians is that near the resort village of Borissovo, ten kilometres to the north of the town of Gelendzhik. A half of the 135 graves contain inhumations, the rest - cremations, the two types being separated in different parts of the common necropolis. Very characteristic is that the body remains were put in cameras built of rock slabs. The northern orientation is predominant, all burials are individual, contrary to the collective Alan burials, and are relatively rich in objects accompanying the dead - dress accessories, pottery, sometimes weapons (axes, swords, arrows, etc.).

The excavator V.V. Sahanev [2] dated the Borissovo necropolis to the VI-VIII c. while the modern investigators accept its existence till the beginning of the IX c. M.I. Artamonov attributes the Borissovo necropolises to the Goths-tetraksites who were neighbours of the Utigurs, but it is well known that those Goths were Christians since the IV-V c. and consequently that pagan necropolise could not be their work.During the early stages of functioning of the necropolis the graves with inhumations were predominant, while later the share of the cremations apparently increased [3].

The inhumation burials with their primitive sarcophagus-like cameras of rock slabs and the accompanying the dead objects (amphora-like pottery, belt ornaments) show great similarities with a numbers of pagan necropolises from the Lower Danube, especially from the eastern part of north-eastern Bulgaria and Dobrudzha [4]. Other similar to the above are the Pashkovski necropolise near the city of Krasnodar and the necropolise at the river Djursju, near the city of Novorossijsk.

As it was already mentioned, the nomadic life of the Proto-Bulgarians left scarce material remains, but thanks to the long and patient work of Pletnjova [5], we have some idea about their life and social structure. The archaeological investigation of great areas along the eastern and western coast of the Sea of Azov and the lower Don basin revealed that the earliest traces of the Proto-Bulgarians (pottery fragments, bones of domestic animals) are confined to a narrow (50-300 metres wide) strip of land along these basins. The finds are very scattered, sometimes 3-5 pieces of pottery or bone per one kilometre. No cultural layer could be found, pointing to the mobile character of the nomadic camps, founded on a different place each spring after the migration of the flocks. 70% of the pottery fragments represent amphorae, speaking about active Proto-Bulgarian contacts with Crimea and Byzantium since the VI c. The amphora fragments are also the best tool to date the phases in the development of the Proto-Bulgarian society - from a nomadic life to a settling down in permanent dwellings. With the time some camps were transformed in seasonal, and later - in permanent dwellings. These seasonal camps (kureni) were quite large - 1.5 km x 0.2-0.3 km and were inhabited by several hundred families.

Later, since the VII c. on, the camps were reduced in size to accommodate only 20-30 families, reflecting the social and economical changes - the differentiation of enriched families who, together with their poor relatives, parted from the kureni to form smaller auli. The economical organisation of auli, as well as additional factors (the Khazar expansion, the Arab-Khazar wars), contributed to a further impoverishment of a significant part of the Proto-Bulgarian population. The deprived of their cattle nomads had to look for new means of support - agriculture and crafts, and to settle down more or less permanently. Thus in the VIII-IX c. some of these small auli were transformed in permanent villages. Another factor facilitating that process was the Proto-Bulgarian conquest of several urban centres as Phanagoria and Kepi as early as the first half of the VI c. [6]. Byzantine amphorae are always found, even in the most remote mobile camps. Favourable for the creation of permanent villages conditions appeared at the end of the VI c. and in the first half of the VII c. when the Azov Proto-Bulgarians under the leadership of Khan Kubrat shaked off the yoke of the Turcuts and created the military tribal union Great Bulgaria [7].

It was quite probable that they had utilised some of the conquered antique centres on the coast. After the WWII  Soviet historians, using the documentary sources and accepting the proposition of the prominent Russian armenist Patkanov that Khan Kubrat was buried in Phanagoria, advanced the hypothesis that this city, situated on the Taman peninsula on the coast of the Straits of Bosporus, was the capital of Great Bulgaria [8]. The subsequent archaeological excavations indeed revealed that at the end of the IV c. the flourishing by then city was destroyed by the Huns. In V-VI c. its population left virtually no traces, and Phanagoria was revived back to life only in the second half or even at the end of VII c, that is, after the break up of Great Bulgaria and the conquest of the eastern Azov lands by the Khazars [9]. At the end of the VII c. Phanagoria was one of the most important administrative and military centres of the Khazar khaganate, which during the years 698-704 gave refuge to the dethroned Byzantine emperor Justinian II.

The fact that up to now in Phanagoria no unequivocal Proto-Bulgarian artefacts were found makes Pletnjova think the Proto-Bulgarians did not ‘master’ the city, but rather used it as an intermediate for their commercial contacts with Byzantium and the cities in Crimea.

Similar to that of Phanagoria was the fate of the other important urban centre on the Taman peninsula - the Taman gorodishte (the antique Hermonasa, the medieval Tamatarkha-Tmutorokan). In its thin V-VI c. cultural layer there are no Proto-Bulgarian artefacts. Only during the VII c. hand-made pottery characteristic for the Proto-Bulgarian camps along the Sea of Azov and the lower Don, started to appear, and it evidences the VII-VIII c. significant influx of Proto-Bulgarians [10].


Thus in the VI-VII c. the Proto-Bulgarian population east of Azov generally preserved its nomadic way of life and primitive material culture. Their contacts with the Black Sea cultural centres were reduced mainly to the acquiring of the necessary agricultural and craft products. Quite probable is, however, the early settling down of some Proto-Bulgarian, especially along the Black Sea coast. To such groups probably belong at least part of the graves with inhumations at Borissovo, at the river Djursju, at the Artuganov, Pashkov and Jasenopoljanskij necropolises. These of them which were studied anthropologically, contain artificially deformed skulls.

The necropolises with northern orientations of the graves (at Novolabinka, Artuganovi, Borissovi) are similar to Proto-Bulgarian necropolises of Northern Dagestan and confirm the ethnic unity of the population in the eastern and western fore-Caucasus (Unogundurs-bulgars). At the same time, necropolises with the same burial artefacts and the characteristic artificial skull deformation, but with western orientation of the graves (at Pashkov, Jasenovopoljanov) have to be attributed to another Proto-Bulgarian tribe, most probably to the mentioned in the Armenian geography Kupi-Bulgars.

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[1] L.G. Nechaeva. Ob etnicheskoj prinadlezhnosti podbojnyh i katakombnyh pogrebenij sarmatskogo vremeni v Nizhnem Povolzh’e i na Severnom Kavkaze. s.158.

[2] V. Sahanev. Raskopki na Severnom Kavkaze v 1911-1912 godah. - Iizvestija Imperatorskoj arheologicheski komissii, vyp. 56, Petrograd, 1914, s.77-78.

[3] V.B. Kovalevskaja. Severokavkazkie drevnosti. - V: Stepi Evrazii (Arheologija SSSR). M., 1981, s.93.

[4] D. Il. Dimitrov. Pogrebalnijat obred pri rannobylgarskite nekropoli vyv Varnensko (VIII-IX v.) - IAI, XXXIV, 1974, s.52-92.

[5] S.A. Pletnjova. Ot kochevij k gorodam. Saltovo-Majckaja kul'tura. - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 142, 1967, s. 13-15; Nomadski poselishta prez VII-IX v. v Priazovieto i basejna na reka Don. - Arheologija, VI, 1964, kn. 4, s.1-2.

[6] Procopii Caesariensis. Libri de bellis VIII, p.508.

[7] V. Zlatarski. Istorija na bylgarskata dyrzhava prez srednite vekove, S., 1970, I, 1. s.130-175.

[8] A.P Smirnov. V: Istorija SSSR s drevnejshih vremen do nashih dnej. Tom I, M., 1966, s.331.

[9] S.A. Pletnjova. Drevnie bolgary v bassejne Dona i Priazovjja. - Sb. Pliska-Preslav, 2. S., 1981, s.16.

[10] S.A. Pletnjova. Srednevekovaja keramika Tamanskogo gorodishta. - V: Keramika i steklo drevnej Tmurtarakani, M., 1963, s.10,14,63-64.