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  Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell. PART I  posted by support on 25 Nov : 22:43
Originaly posted in Author: Ivan Dikov

Bulgaria: an Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell.

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

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...

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