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  Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell. PART II  posted by support on 26 Nov : 00:11
Originaly posted in Author: Ivan Dikov

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


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): [link]

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, 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, 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 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.

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