Bulgarian Archaeologists Display Stunning Ancient Finds Snatched from Treasure Hunters, Traffickers

Dr. Zhenya Zhekova, numismatist at the Shumen Regional Museum of History, shows the invaluable ancient marble plate with the image of the "triple"Hecate, a Greek goddess. Photo by Dr. Zhenya Zhekova/Trud daily

Dr. Zhenya Zhekova, numismatist at the Shumen Regional Museum of History, shows the invaluable ancient marble plate with the image of the “triple”Hecate, a Greek goddess. Photo by Dr. Zhenya Zhekova/Trud daily

The Regional Museum of History in the northeastern Bulgarian city of Shumen has put together an exhibition of stunning archaeological artifacts rescued from the hands of treasure hunters and antique traffickers from the Shumen District.

The exhibit of the Shumen Regional Museum of History entitled “Rescued Relics" consists entirely of items randomly dug up by treasure hunters and subsequently confiscated by the police, often by chance; this, according to the report of the Bulgarian daily Trud, makes the exhibition absolutely unique and the first of its kind.

Albeit a really savage crime with respect to the global cultural heritage, treasure hunting and antique trafficking is extremely rampant all over Bulgaria, whose countryside is dotted with known and unknown archaeological sites from all possible ages. It is believed to be making the Bulgarian mafia about BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million) per year, according to one recent estimate, and to be “employing" between 5 000 and 200 000 – 300 000 diggers and traffickers nationwide, mostly impoverished and unemployed countrymen, including entire clans from ethnic minorities tending to live in clan-based communities.

Only in the northeastern Shumen District, Bulgaria’s police have seized thousands of illegal archaeological finds and antiques under the controversial Cultural Heritage Act which came into force in 2009, according to the report. This law has been widely criticized by antique collectors across Bulgaria because it made any antique item, including legally inherited ones, liable to confiscation if it was not declared before the authorities. Many, however, have said they are afraid to declare their collections out of fear that the police might leak sensitive information to organized crime groups.

The archaeological finds displayed by the Shumen Regional Museum of History, however, appear to come all from treasure hunters arrested by the local police.

Not unlike any other part of Bulgaria, the Shumen District is very rich in archaeological sites, including because it includes the medieval cities of Pliska and Veliki (i.e. Great) Preslav, two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire (Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD) at the height of the Bulgarian state.

“The region includes the two old capitals – Pliska and Preslav – and is extremely rick in historical monuments," numismatist Dr. Zhenya Zhekova from the Shumen museum is quoted as saying, adding that entire families from local communities have been making a living as treasure hunters.

The treasure hunters come from all ethnic communities in Bulgaria – including ethnic Bulgarians but also Turks and Roma, the Shumen District being home to a large number of people from the last two groups.

The local police in Shumen bust at least 20 illegal “archaeologists" per year confiscating illegal stockpiles of historically invaluable ancient and medieval finds described later by the culprits in court as “trash", explains the report of the Trud daily.

The most impressive item from the “Rescued Relics" exhibit is a marble plate with an image of a “triple" Hecate dating back to the 2nd-3rd century AD. Hecate is a goddess in Ancient Greek religion and mythology associated with crossroads, among other things, and often depicted in a triple form.

The Triple Hecate marble plate in question was seized by the traffic police in the town of Novi Pazar, known among local treasure hunters as a “Klondike" for its richness in archaeological sites.

On July 5, 2010, a traffic police patrol pulled over a car driven by 54-year-old Salim Osman from the town of Valnari. His companion appeared too nervous, and upon searching the car, the police found the wrapped marble plate described by the driver as a “most ordinary stone".

When the marble plate was examined by Dr. Zhekova, she immediately recognized that it had an image of Hecate which the ancient people used to place on the road in order to fight off evil and show the right direction. Zhekova was especially astonished to discover that the Hecate plate still had traces from ancient blue, red, and black dye, as that type of coloring is considered extremely rare.

In her words, such an image had never been found in Northern Bulgaria before (i.e. north of the Balkan Mountain, the former Roman province of Moesia), and was typical of Southern Bulgaria (the former Roman province of Thrace).

The culprit Salim Osman refused to tell the authorities where and how he found the Triple Hecate plate, and the local archaeologists are still scratching their heads trying to figure out the sites of the ancient workshop where such marble plates were crafted and the sanctuary where they might were been placed.

When the police searched the car and the home of Osman, they found more than 150 various archaeological artifacts as well as two metal detectors. During his trial by the Shumen District Court, Osman told the judges that his own goal had been to find and sell scrap iron in order to feed his four children, while the “trinkets", as he described them, were byproducts of his scavenging for scrap.

Local judge Neli Batanova gave him a 2.5-year suspended sentence with a 4-year probation period, and a fine of BGN 7000 (app. EUR 3 600). According to the report, Osman has now found employment as a goat herder and has no clue that his marble plate find is now the centerpiece of a museum exhibition.

The local police are quoted as telling another interesting case. As they were searching the home of 42-year-old Efraim Redzhepov for drugs in the city of Shumen, they found two unique coins that led to a further search.

While they discovered no drugs, they did come across over 100 archaeological items, including silver coins minted by Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, also known as the Syrian, (c. 685-741 AD, r. 717-741 AD) from the 8th century, and a copper coin minted by Byzantine Emperor Tiberius III Apsimar (r. 698-705 AD) from the 7th century.

“This was the second time such coins are found in Bulgaria; the other coins are now in private collections," explained Dr. Zhekova. Redzhebov, who had a clean criminal record, also got away with a suspended sentence and with paying BGN 230 (app. EUR 117) for court expenses.

Some of the other impressive finds on display in the “Rescued Relics" exhibit include two 14-carrat gold coins from the 11th and the 14th century, a 2000-year-old bronze earring, and a gold-plated fibula from the 5th-6th century AD.

The last item comes from the treasure hunting “collection" of another local, Ali Ibryamov, 42, from the town of Karavelovo. The police seized almost 300 ancient archaeological artifacts from his home, which got him a 2-year suspended sentence and 600 hours of community services. Instead of digging at archaeological sites he is now said to digging in local vegetable gardens.

The exhibition of the Shumen Regional Museum of History also includes pottery vessels confiscated in March 2011 from the home of Georgi “The Beard" Georgiev, 53, from Shumen.

Georgiev had personally collected and restored over 4 000 ancient and medieval ceramic vessels without informing the local museum. Some of the most important items from his “collection" include an amphora from the 4th-6th century AD and a cantaros cup from the 4th-3rd century BC. Georgiev too got away with a suspended sentence and a BGN 3000 (app. EUR 1530) fine after a plea bargain with the prosecution.

Local judges are quoted as saying they have heard all kinds of “plausible" explanations from treasure hunters about how the archaeological items had been found. The culprits would state that they had not heart of the Cultural Heritage Act, or had no idea how valuable the items were (even though they usually kept them well wrapped and hidden in special compartments), or had just found them and were on their way to turn them in at the museum, or were saving them from the plowing and use of fertilizers in the fields.

The Shumen exhibit also features completely fake “archaeological" items forged by locals in order to dupe potential collectors.

Local historians say that every village in the Shumen District has at least several archaeological sites, and it is extremely hard to protect them from raids.

The archaeologists abstain from designating them in order to keep them secret from the treasure hunters, and have no way of securing all of the sites. Quick rescue excavations are practically impossible because “the Bulgarian lands offer work for several generations of archaeologists", as Bulgaria is believed to be the third richest country in Europe in terms of archaeology sites, after Italy and Greece.

That is why the contraband of antiques and archeological items in Bulgaria continues to flourish, and the fight against it… just continues.

Update: A related story from the District of Shumen – on March 24, 2015, the Shumen police and the Shumen Museum presented a new batch Ancient Roman artifacts, statues, and coins freshly seized from treasure hunters.

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. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are low-level impoverished diggers.

Bulgaria’s 2009 Cultural Heritage Act has been widely criticized by private antique collectors because it made any antique item, including legally inherited ones, liable to confiscation if it had not been declared before the authorities. Many, however, have said they are afraid to declare their collections out of fear that the police might leak sensitive information to organized crime groups.

Hecate is a goddess in Ancient Greek religion and mythology associated with crossroads, among other things, and often depicted in a triple form.

Pliska and Veliki (i.e. Great) Preslav are two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire. Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD, and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD, at the height of the Bulgarian state. The state capital was moved from Pliska to Veliki Preslav, a new medieval city nearby, in 893 AD in order to seal Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script. The ruins of both Pliska and Veliki Preslav can be seen today in the Shumen District in Northeast Bulgaria.