Mysterious Benefactor from Maryland Returns Thracian Ax Labrys Smuggled from Bulgaria to USA

Mysterious Benefactor from Maryland Returns Thracian Ax Labrys Smuggled from Bulgaria to USA

This Ancient Thracian labrys ax from the 4th – 3rd century BC has had an unexpected voyage half the world away, having been dug up by treasure hunters in modern-day Bulgaria, smuggled to the USA by antique traffickers, and then shipped back to its “native” Bulgaria by an American benefactor. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology

An Ancient Thracian labrys, a battle ax, which had apparently been smuggled out of Bulgaria to the United States, has been returned by a mysterious benefactor from the state of Maryland, who has shipped it with an anonymous parcel to the Museum of Archaeology in the Black Sea city of Varna.

Bulgaria has a vast problem with large-scale treasure hunting causing wide-spread destruction to the thousands of archaeological site across the country, with the illegal harvested historical artifacts getting smuggled to destinations with rich collectors such as the USA in a criminal trade worth hundreds of millions of US dollars per year, according to experts’ estimates.

The unknown American benefactor seemingly bought the Ancient Thracian ax labrys at an auction in the United States, and decided to return it to its origin country after learning that it was found somewhere in Northern Bulgaria, announces the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History), the institution which has received the labrys with a parcel from Maryland.

In a brief letter to the archaeologists from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, the US sender explains that the double-bitted Ancient Thracian labrys ax dating to the 4th – 3rd century BC was most probably part of treasure hunters’ plunder, and was most probably exported from Bulgaria illegally.

“The Thracian ax must be returned to the country where it has been discovered, it belongs to Bulgaria’s culture,” writes the anonymous benefactor.

The person in question does not reveal whether he indeed acquired the Thracian labrys at an auction, or how much money he might have paid for the ancient artifact.

The only contact detail that the benefactor has provided is the number of a post office box in the US state of Maryland, leaving it to the Bulgarian archaeologists to surmise as to whether the person is an American who might have visited the Varna Museum of Archaeology, or who might have come across its website by accident, or who might be a Bulgarian originally from Varna.

“This is the most unique thing, for the first time a find that had been smuggled abroad is being returned to us from America in this way,” says Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology.

The nearly 2,500-year-old Ancient Thracian labrys returned to Bulgaria from the United States is 25 centimeters long, 10 centimeters wide, and weights app. 3 kilograms.

Archaeologist Elina Mircheva, who is a curator of the Museum’s Antiquity collection, hypothesizes that the Thracian ax might have been dug up somewhere in the area of the Ancient Roman city of Novae, near today’s town of Svishtov, on the Danube River in Central North Bulgaria.

However, it does not date back to the Roman period, which in the lands of today’s Bulgaria began in the 1st century AD, but the earlier period of Ancient Thrace.

She points out that the Ancient Thracians used the double-bitted labrys ax for both battle and hunting as well as a cult (religious) artifact, and a symbol of power.

Archaeologist Elina Mircheva shows the Ancient Thracian labrys ax which has been received at the Varna Museum of Archaeology in a parcel from Maryland. Photo: Varna Museum of Archaeology

Mircheva also notes that similar Thracian battle axes are depicted in the murals of the Alexandrovo Tomb in Southern Bulgaria.

She adds that the Varna Museum of Archaeology already owns a similar labrys found in an Ancient Thracian necropolis, which, however, is narrower than the one mysteriously returned to Bulgaria from the United States.

The Varna Museum of Archaeology is going to send a letter of gratitude back to the mysterious rescuer of the Thracian labrys from Maryland, USA.

*End of Original Article*

Article Topic Background Update as of 2019:

Treasure hunting and antiques trafficking out of Bulgaria is a massive criminal industry, with an estimated annual turnover of up to EUR 1 billion.

Possiblity the most comprehensive popular book on treasure hunting looting in Bulgaria, “Plunder Paradise”, is authored by Ivan Dikov, the founder and publisher of It classifies modern-day looters in three different categories.

The book “Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria” released in July 2019 is based on author Ivan Dikov’s wide-ranging, in-depth experience of covering the topic for more than 11 years as an English-language journalist in international online media, and as the fixer in two international documentaries on treasure hunting and archaeology in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian archaeologists are often pitted against treasure hunters in real life, trying to save whatever can be saved before or after the latter’s destructive raids against Bulgaria’s tens of thousands of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites.

Unfortunately, public tolerance for the treasure hunting crimes in Bulgaria remains rather high, law enforcement seems to be failing to crack down on them to a sufficient degree, and it is usually just lowest-level diggers who get caught, and even those, more often than not, get away with suspended sentences – as in a very recent case in Southwest Bulgaria.

Background Infonotes:

Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.

An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.

According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.

Possiblity the most comprehensive popular book on treasure hunting looting in Bulgaria, “Plunder Paradise”, is authored by Ivan Dikov, the founder and publisher of

One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past” (in which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.


Support on Patreon

with $1 per Month!

Become a Patron Now!


Make One-time Donation via Paypal!

Your contribution for free journalism is appreciated!


Download the ArchaeologyinBulgaria App for iPhone & iPad!

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest!