Chasing the Bulgarian Treasure Hunters

Roman Forum and modern underpassThere has been no shortage of sad stories surrounding the economic hardship of those living in the former Soviet Union. Nearly all of its satellite states, as well as the Russian homeland, have suffered an economic black hole after the Berlin Wall came down, where a tremendous chasm swells between the monied Mafioso and super-rich oligarchy, and the rural peasantry and jobless. And in Bulgaria, a country hiding millennia of prosperity beneath its soil, the tragedy has extended below surface level – as thousands of people loot national treasures to make ends meet. Prehistoric and Neolithic tribes, Ancient Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Bulgars, Crusaders and the Ottomans have all left their marks on the unstable Balkan state, leaving it as one of the world’s truly stunning treasure troves.

Gold jewellery and iconography, Thracian tombs, prolific ancient cities like Seuthopolis and Roman arsenals litter the countryside, making the country an archaeologist’s dream. But a combination of modern technology, zealous profiteering and lack of state intervention are quickly stripping Bulgaria of its greatest possessions – a sad state of affairs illustrated by Sofia-based journalist Ivan Dikov, who spent some time shadowing Australian wordsmith David O’Shea searching two major archaeological sites for news agency Novinite: Ulpia Ratiaria, in the country’s north western corner, and the village of Ohotnik, where the pair met museum curator and archaeologist Georgi Ganetovski at a Neolithic settlement.

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Ganetovski tells Dikov about his first encounter with the treasure hunters: “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,” he says. Scared for his well-being, Ganetovski let the hunters pace up and down with their metal detectors, knowing that the Neolithic culture he was examining didn’t have metal objects.

Luckily the danger passed and the men retreated to their luxury transport. The metal detectors hunters are using were a by-product of the fall of the iron curtain. Now there are thousands in circulation, the staple tool of the looter. “Earlier there was a lot of work, we were working all the time. We used to work at a military factory,” a low-level hunter tells Dikov. “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.” Early hunters were usually careful peasants who left site undisturbed as they took anything of value. Nowadays, with fewer treasures about, hunters are resorting to more destructive methods, like tearing up soil with industrial diggers, to get the job done: ripping apart centuries of history in the process.

This process has razed much of the Roman arsenal town of Ulpia Ratiaria, which has become a haven for hunters who sell their ill-gotten bounties on site much to the chagrin of O’Shea: 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.

The solution? Tricky. The Bulgarian government has done little to prevent the pillaging (many believe it to be party to the illicit trade), and even a recent ‘Cultural Heritage Act’ which prohibits treasure hunting has been disputed on individual property grounds. The police are underpaid and frequently in the pockets of the traders, and there seems little public outcry at the looting of a nation whose historical story, though vast and impressive, is rarely told. O’Shea takes a rather nihilist view of it all: I wonder whether it’s all too little too late, because in the 20 years that this has been going on as a free for all, so much has been lost to Bulgaria that I wonder whether anything now will (be returned).

Images by Ribizlifozelek

and Gerry van Gent.