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Bulgaria: Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell

Novinite Insider » SPECIAL REPORT | Author: Ivan Dikov |July 31, 2009, Friday // 14:41| Views: 15798 | Comments: 2
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Bulgaria: Bulgaria: Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell The Panagyurishte Golden Thracian Treasure is part of Bulgaria's cultural heritage that has made it to a museum. Many similar Bulgarian cultural finds, however, have ended with private collectors around the world. Photo by BGNES

Note: This article is mostly based on my work for David O'Shea, a journalist from the Dateline current affairs program of the Australian SBS TV, who worked on a documentary on treasure hunting in Bulgaria in June 2009; on this project we were aided by Bulgarian archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov.

 

Premise, i.e. Prelude to the Tragedy

An ordinary field trip back in high school to an archaeological site in Northern Bulgaria left a very lasting memory in my mind. It was just one simple thing but it absolutely astonished me: the archaeologist accompanying my class would simply lean, pick up seemingly random objects off the ground, and would say, "Roman tile - 2nd century AD", or "Byzantine vessel - 5-6th century"; or "Bulgarian ceramics - First Bulgarian State"...

He would just date back to some historical period items lying right there on the surface without having to do any digging whatsoever... And the archaeology site that my class visited turned to be a whole bunch of ancient and medieval sites located within an area of 1-2 square kilometers...

To put it briefly, many people - including most Bulgarians - do not realize that all of Bulgaria's territory is literally dotted with archaeological objects from all time periods. Any single rock you pick up from the ground in Bulgaria often would turn out to have a several-thousand-year history of human interaction!

That includes a whole variety of ancient and medieval civilizations - Prehistory, Neolith, Ancient Thrace (which, by the way, is an amazing but widely unknown civilization), Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the two Bulgarian Empires, the Latin Empire of the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire...

Apart from the major civilizations and empires, a whole bunch of peoples and ethnicities left their mark on the lands of today's Bulgaria - according to various research, between 54 and 107 different ethnic groups "passed through" the lands populated by the ancient Bulgars and Slavs between the 7th and the 15th century.

As a result, today's Bulgarian archaeologists get to discovered things like Neolithic mother goddesses, Thracian gold treasures - more amazing and much more ancient than the gold of the Incas, Thracian tombs - smaller in size but as old and impressive as the Egyptian pyramids, fully preserved Ancient Greek temples, Roman arsenal cities, statues and marble coffins, etc, etc... You might read tons of pages about Bulgaria's great archaeological heritage but it is still hard to wrap your head around it until you see, feel, and touch it on the spot...

Bulgaria's geographic location on the disputed Balkan Peninsula has perhaps always been more of a curse dooming the country to constant wars and invasions. Today, however, it finally has the chance to become a blessing if the Bulgarians avail themselves of what they inherited at this crossroads of the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval worlds. In this respect Bulgaria has at least as much to offer as Italy and Greece, perhaps even more - in terms of variety but also in terms of the fact that there is a lot yet to be discovered, studied, researched, and preserved...

One thing is clear - Bulgaria's architectural heritage is global in significance. Just like the Egyptian Pyramids, the Great Chinese Wall, Chichen Itza, or Stonehenge.

 

A New Class of Hunters and Gatherers Has Emerged

The Bulgarian archaeology paradise, however, is not just there for archaeologists to explore, and for people from all around the world to enjoy...

In June 2009, I had the unique chance to help David O'Shea, an Australian journalist working for Dateline, a current affairs program of Australia's SBS TV, on a documentary about treasure hunting in Bulgaria. Aided by Bulgarian archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov, we managed to dig a little deeper into the digging out, or hunting for Bulgarian cultural treasures...

The story of Bulgaria's treasure hunting issue is simultaneously simple and complex, and hard to tell. But here is a start: thousands of people with pickaxes, shovels, metal detectors, and bulldozers (!!!) have been destroying the global cultural heritage located on Bulgarian territory for the last twenty years, indiscriminately, at a breakneck speed, searching for coins, necklaces, rings, statues, vessels; gold, silver, bronze; weapons, books, artifacts...

For the most part these are the people on the lowest level, the blue-collar workers of the Bulgarian treasure hunting industry. More often than not, they toil for hours and hours with shovels, but also with very sophisticated equipment sometimes, on Roman and Byzantine ruins, or Thracian burial mounds, or Bulgarian medieval forts...

To tell a long story short, as Bulgaria's industry and economy collapsed in the 1990s, much of the country's working class - the supposed epitome of the communist system - was left without any work on their hands - especially in the countryside, in villages and small towns. Many of these people logically resorted to "subsistence treasure hunting" - either because they were forced to, or because they found it convenient - this does not really matter.

"Earlier there was a lot of work, we were working all the time. We used to work at a military factory. We would never have thought of doing this before. But then it all ended, there was no work, we had a lot of free time on our hands. This is how we decided to try this kind of work", a group of lowest-level treasure hunters from a village in Northern Bulgaria told me and David under the condition of anonymity.

They were blaming their resorting to treasure hunting solely on Bulgaria's post-communist transition that left them penniless and unemployed. Yet, any understanding one might have for their plight could evaporate if one gets to see how they mercilessly work their way through a Byzantine fort with a pickaxe after searching it with a metal detector; how thousands of years worth of ancient civilizations get reduced to sheer dust within a matter of seconds as these people hunt for metal... or perhaps a ceramics vessel that might remain intact by the pickaxe by any chance...

At the very same time, they actually explain to you in detail what sort of civilizations left their marks around the spot, and what exactly they were destroying... (Courtesy of the communist education system, by the way; with all of its ideological flaws, it did provide good factual education even to those who only went to high school.)

And they would complain that the "yields" are becoming poorer and poorer. Which is no surprise if you have been plundering the same spot for years...

"If people are doing it tough in the villages, and not dealing well with the transition and the market economy, then the state really needs to be looking at how to improve that rather than just letting it be free for all where people are smashing their way through the history of the country to make a few bucks. And it seems at that level the money is too small to justify even a tiny bit the destruction that they are causing," Australian journalist David O'Shea commented for Novinite.com.

 

The Bulgarian Taliban and the Metal Detectors Revolution

"There has always been treasure hunting in Bulgaria and in the Balkans; it has existed forever. But the "old" treasure hunters would do negligible damage. They would decide where to dig based on local legends, or they would just find something while plowing the fields. All that changed when metal detectors were introduced to Bulgaria on a mass scale after 1990", said archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov describing in detail how the emergence of the metal detectors really "revolutionized" treasure hunting in Bulgaria, turning it into a mass-scale illegal industry.

Apparently, Bulgaria's democratic changes and market economy transition "democratized" treasure hunting and introduced the supply and demand law to it; at the same time, they provided both the men - thousands of laid-off workers, and the tools - metal detectors, bulldozers, tractors, jeeps. Thus, the treasure hunting bacchanalia in Bulgaria has been going for some two decades now.

"The treasure hunters are Bulgaria's Taliban. Thanks to them we are the second nation in the world after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that has been destroying its cultural heritage. And the Bulgarian state stands idly by. In Greece, Turkey, and Italy the laws are stricter and better enforced. This is how our cultural artifacts end up with collectors in Europe, America, Japan, the Arab states", Gergov said.

The Vandals who sacked Rome in 455 AD, the Ottomans who wiped out the Bulgarian medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo in 1393, or the Greeks who destroyed Troy - they were all just naughty kids breaking a kindergarten window on a sunny Friday afternoon compared to Bulgaria's treasure hunters. Ancient and medieval sites that lasted for thousands of years have made it to the beginning of the 21th century only order to be ripped apart, and sold in pieces to the first level of middlemen, and then up the antiques trafficking chain all around the world...

According to Volodya Velkov, who has been the head of the Unit for Combating Illegal Trafficking of Cultural Valuables at Bulgaria's Interior Ministry in 2006, between 30 000 and 33 000 people are actively involved in treasure hunting activities in Bulgaria. There are also other estimates bringing this number up to 300 000...

 

The Archaeologists "Fight" Back

Being an archaeologist in Bulgaria is kind-of tough. Sure, there is plenty that still has to be researched, excavated, discovered, and preserved. But you are most certainly underpaid, and there is little funding for excavating expeditions. (Private funding is a rare occurrence in Bulgaria, and most funding is supposed to come from the state).

But the coolest part about the job is that you get to compete with your "colleagues", as the Bulgarian archaeologists jokingly call the treasure hunters.

There are really endless stories about how unguarded archaeological excavations would be utterly destroyed overnight by treasure hunters, or how treasure hunters would find out a place is to be excavated, and would search it first...

However, a story that archaeologist Georgi Ganetsovski from the Vratsa Regional Museum told us of how he dealt with the treasure hunting threat is really noteworthy... because of his unconventional approach...

In June 2009, we found Ganetsovski at the village of Ohotnik doing excavations on an early Neolithic site that he has been excavating for several years, a settlement bearing remains of the first civilized Europeans who inhabited it about 8 000 BC.

"We had just started work here a couple of years ago, and one day they arrived. There were two of them with a luxury jeep and a metal detector for dozens of thousands of euros - I had never seen one like that in my life. They were very anxious", said Ganetsovski describing his close encounter with what seem to be "higher-level" treasure hunters.

The thing he did that practically saved his work and his site - he just let the treasure hunters search the whole site he was about to excavate with their metal detector!!!! That was probably the smartest move - he could afford to do that as those guys were looking for METAL, and the civilization he was researching had no metal, being an early Neolithic one... When they found no metal, they "calmed down", and left. This ingenious approach, however, cannot be applied by archaeologists working on Roman, Thracian, and Byzantine cites...

Ganetsovksi told us other "exciting" stories including one instance in which a local treasure hunting mafia in northwest Bulgaria employed all means to frighten him into stopping his excavations including sending after him a corrupt prosecutor (who later became a notorious Member of Parliament, by the way).

He also told us of an easily accessible spot we visited later that day further north - a whole filed that has been "plowed" with tractors, and then holes have been dug up again and again with shovels, and where we could pick plenty of fragments of smashed Roman ceramics and tiles - all that has remained of a pretty vast Roman settlement that had been in its entirety until several years ago. And this spot is right off a major road, on the back of a gas station.

A month after we interviewed Ganetsovski for the Dateline documentary, I learned he had to stop his excavation near Ohotnik because there was no more funding for his expedition.

 

In Memoriam: Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria. The Carnage

There are many absolutely invaluable archaeological sites ALL ACROSS Bulgaria that have been affected by treasure hunting raids. But there is one that is the ultimate example of the carnage that has been going on in the last 20 years: Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria.

Ratiaria is located right on the Danube River, near today's village of Archar, in the Vidin District, Northwest Bulgaria. In a nutshell, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98 AD - 117 AD), when the Roman Empire was at the pinnacle of its might, Ratiaria was one of its six arsenal cities supplying arms to the legions that had conquered the lands north of the Danube. It must have been a very spectacular place; and in fact, it was until the late 1980s when a small part of it was researched by a joint Bulgarian-Italian expedition, whose finds can be seen today at one of the halls of the Vidin History Museum.

The only part left standing of the Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria in the 21st century is the tiny portion that was researched by a Bulgarian-Italian expedition in the 1980s; the remaining 20 hectares of the site were destroyed by treasure hunters after 1990. This photo is from a website dedicated to the destruction of Ratiaria (in Bulgarian): http://www.ratiaria.chivanov.eu/

Since then, however, Ratiaria, once a symbol of the glory and might of Rome, has been reduced to a huge field of 20 hectares covered with craters and hills. The sight is unbelievable: the land has been overturned again and again, by machines and by hand. According to local witnesses, at one point at the end of 1990s, the local people including the village mayor, the police, some higher ranking people from Sofia just split the Roman city into sections where each had the "right" to dig. At one particular time there were 17 bulldozers plowing Ratiaria at the same time!!...

A few minutes after we arrived to the village of Archar together with David, and our archaeologist friend, local people who were just aimlessly hanging out in the center of the village offered us some of their "goods". They were very direct and open about it; little hiding, no fear. We went to a nearby house, and the first thing we were shown in order to get our attention was a bronze bird that apparently used to belong to a Roman legionnaire...

We left the village without buying anything much to the disappointment of the welcoming local treasure traders. After spending in the night in Vidin, we set off to film the actual destruction at Ratiaria the next morning. This is where Australian journalist David O'Shea had perhaps his most interesting episode of his Bulgarian treasure hunting project.

It about 11 am, broad daylight, when we saw a group of 4-5 treasure hunters digging amidst the hills and craters at the southern part of Ratiaria, and rushed to catch up with them in order to try to talk to them, fearing that they might escape as they become aware of our presence.

It turned out that they had not seen us, and that our archaeologist friend and I surprised them on the spot. We were just as surprised, however, when it turned out that they had dug holes that were some 2-3 meters deep, that and about twice as many people climbed out of the holes as their accomplices on the surface raised alarm.

I counted at least 12 people, including one woman, clearly local people from the village, and clearly aware of what they were doing. We managed to calm them down for a minute as we quickly said we were not the police, and that we wanted to make no trouble.

Then, however, David, who was standing on a higher hill some 20 meters away, raised his camera; this immediately caused several of the treasure hunters to become aggressive, and attack us with shovels and rocks. What saved our archaeologist friend, David, and me was the fact that we were standing at a higher stop... That probably would not have been enough, however, if that very minute in a really surprising instance of luck, we heard noise - some 50 people showed up along the path that we had come!

Those turned out to be tourists from the southern Bulgarian city of Kyustendil traveling by bus who stopped on their way to Vidin to see Ratiaria. (The poor people really believed that the craters they saw were what Ratiaria was supposed to look like; they had no idea that 20 years ago it had standing walls and everything else).

These people saw our driver back on the road who told them about our project, and followed the path to find us showing up, as it turned out, right on time. The treasure hunters quickly gathered their stuff and started leaving after our little skirmish but the dozens of people who showed up at that point took them by surprise and really scared them away... If it hadn't been for those nice tourists, we probably would have had a lot of trouble leaving the Ratiaria and the nearby village or Archar.

Once the treasure hunters were gone, we called the police; about half an hour later no policemen had shown up. As we were driving out of the village, we saw some of the treasure hunters entering their homes with their shovels, and a police car that was moving at a speed of 10 km/h... One probably should not be too picky about the work of certain public institutions in a country like Bulgaria. But as we nearly got killed with shovels by ravaging treasure hunters, we probably could afford a little irritation at what we saw....

"The real tragedy in a place like Ratiaria is that the people searching for treasure are looking for a couple of bucks here and there, where what they could be doing is sitting in a thriving tourist center. There could be hotels, and bars, and restaurants, and tourists everywhere just like there are in Rome, or Athens. That's the real tragedy. Instead, those people are sitting around, complaining that they've got no money, and that they are forced to go hunting for treasure, and the state appears to be doing very little about it, and the police are clearly not serious about it." This is what David told me in an interview for Novinite.com, and there is probably no better way to sum it all up.

 

To Be Continued...

By presenting some of the experiences that David O'Shea and I had with treasure hunting in Bulgaria, I would like to attract the attention of the readers of Novinite.com, and to invite anyone who reads this article, and is able to help tackle this issue in any way - even if only by raising awareness about it at any location around the world - to do so!...

Clearly, treasure hunting and antiques trafficking is an issue that is of major importance for Bulgaria even though the country had faced so many issues in the last 20 years that this one never made it to the priorities list. But it is also a crime that is constantly being committed against the global heritage; a striking problem that has brought to Bulgaria a current affairs program journalist from the other side of the globe!...

"The scale of the theft and the destruction, and the loss of Bulgaria's cultural heritage, and the potential loss of what could be millions of dollars of tourist revenue that's really striking... The state should be embarrassed by what they are allowing to go on here... And it's not a matter of just fixing it up later. This stuff is gone forever. You are not gonna wrestle it out of the private collections of unscrupulous Western and local collectors," Australian journalist David O'Shea stated, while also commenting on the intended impact of his film, " I hope the police are embarrassed, I hope the state is embarrassed, I hope some of these collectors are embarrassed..."

"There was a lot of talk about this new law that came into effect in April. Depending on who you talk to there is some level of optimism. I hope that it can stop some of the excesses that are happening", David said in June 2009. A month later the law in question, the "Cultural Heritage Act", was disputed by the Bulgarian Ombudsman, Ginyo Ganev, before the Constitutional Court, with argument that violated individual property rights...

This article discussed mostly the issues of treasure hunting as far as the lowest level of treasure hunters is concerned. However, there are also traders and middlemen, and corrupt cops and customs officers, and museum thefts, and policemen and prosecutors trying really hard to do their job, and legislators who often do not do a very good job, and perhaps that happens for a reason...

The Editorial Staff of Novinite.com will remain committed to investigating further Bulgaria's treasure hunting and illegal antiques trafficking issues in a series of articles that perhaps should be framed as "Treasure Hunting Diaries". We hope for the support of our readers from all over the world.

Special Report » Be a reporter: Write and send your article
Tags: archaeology, archaeologist, treasure hunting, Ratiaria, Vidin, police, David O'Shea, SBS TV, Australia, Dateline, Ventsislav Gergov, Georgi Ganetsovski, Volodya Velkov
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» To the forumComments (2)
#2
Devil's Advocate - 1 Aug 2009 // 04:11:13

Finally a story that tells it like it REALLY is. My favorite part was the corrupt prosecutor who is now a notorious member of parliament...

#1
Buddy - 31 Jul 2009 // 15:20:15

Its a true and sad story. But I doubt that any of the previous governments would have done something becaus most of their representatives where engaged in "securing" something of that what was enherited from previous times, that is so called privatization, but enlargment of the PRIVAT POCKET. The same was and is obviously going on with the cultyral heritage. You are right and public awareness should be raised not only in BUlgaria, but also abroad, where thankfull collectors, beeing in Munich, Monaco,London or New York, or gold treasury hunters in Istanbul, are waiting for the illegaly exported goods from Bulgaria. So treasures and monuments which should belong to a modern society in BUlgaria, which should thing and aim at presrving the goods for future generations, are coming into the hands of cultural heritage collectors, usualy for peanuts, if not for nothing. But what could you expect from a society which since the earle days of the clown Zhelyu Zhelev, over Peter Stoyanov and finaly to Parvanov and the respective governments are not in a position to preserve the monuments of national heroes in thge park called Borisovata gradina... Al or a number ofletters, made of metal have disapeared, from the monuments. Certain Monuments made of metal disapeared not only in Sofia, but all over the country.Not to speak about huindreds of monuments and graves of antifascist who havebeen desacrate , like for instance that of Mariyka Gavrilova in Etropole, a young antifascist which was murdered on December 31st 1943, on the road to Sofia the Area of Arabacona, where the piedestal stays lonely with fascist shvastika on it, but without the beautiful Head of the young antifascist Fighter.
Rest assured editor in chief and publisher of Sofia News you will be held also accountable, since democracy gentlemen is not only for you guys hanging around the capital and presenting yourselves as faithfull democrats, but the whole thin is something about checks and balances, rules of law and implementing those principles all over the country. Shame on the publisher of Sofia news, who's voice has never been heard even abroad in condemning the desacrification of monuments and graves of those who have been killed by bulgarian fascists!