STAROSEL, Bulgaria (Reuters) - A Thracian temple recently discovered in Bulgaria and believed to be the largest yet found faces the threat of being buried again under concrete for lack of funds, a top archaeologist said on Tuesday.
Digging at the site began a month ago and archaeologists uncovered the large Thracian sanctuary dating back to the fifth century BC near the village of Starosel in the central Plovdiv region.
"This is the most impressive and well preserved Thracian monument discovered so far in the area of the Balkans inhabited by ancient Thracians," the head of the archaeological team, Georgi Kitov, told Reuters.
Located in a scenic valley near Bulgaria's second largest city, it could become a tourist attraction, provided the government spent $150,000 to restore and conserve the temple.
But the government, which is prepared to spend only $2,500, has offered to bury the tomb again under soil and concrete once excavations are completed, said Kitov.
"That would be a sad loss," he said.
The team needs some $20,000 to complete exploration in a month but sponsors are hard to find.
TOMB OF ANCIENT THRACE'S MOST POWERFUL KING
According to Kitov, high level religious ceremonies were held at the temple before it became the burial cite of Sitalk, one of ancient Thrace's most powerful kings.
A monumental staircase leads to an imposing entrance to the temple hidden in a 20 metre (66 feet) high mound overlooking a vast valley. It is surprisingly intact after 25 centuries.
The mound with a diameter of 90 metres (295 feet) is surrounded by a 240 metre (785 feet) long stone wall and has also withstood well the ravages of time.
"It is extremely rare to see traces of colouring preserved on external walls," said Kitov, pointing to black and red stripes along the relief ornaments surrounding the entrance.
The two colours symbolised worship to two Thracian gods.
A 17 metre (55 feet) long corridor leads to two rooms, one rectangular and one round, which archaeologists have yet to explore.
When they started digging, they found clear signs of numerous raids by treasure hunters.
"This temple was known in the whole Thracian world. It had been plundered by treasure hunters since ancient times. People took what they liked and what they did not, was left for us," said Kitov.
The ancient Thracians, ruled by a powerful warrior aristocracy rich in gold treasures, inhabited an area extending over most of modern Bulgaria, northern Greece and the European part of Turkey.
They are regarded as one of the bedrock peoples of the Balkans whose ethnic stock, though much diluted, has endured to the present day.
Kitov's team found earthenware, coins, arrow tips and cult objects. Gold and silverware usually buried with Thracian aristocrats were missing. The team, which has worked together for the past 30 years has uncovered some 350 Thracian sanctuaries scattered throughout Bulgaria.