Treasure Hunting in Bulgaria Starting to Decline, Veliko Tarnovo Archaeologist Claims

This photo from 2011 shows part of the illegally trafficked coins and other artifacts returned to Bulgaria by the Canadian authorities. Photo by Ministry of Culture

This photo from 2011 shows part of the illegally trafficked coins and other artifacts returned to Bulgaria by the Canadian authorities. Photo by Ministry of Culture

The rampant treasure hunting destroying Bulgaria’s archaeological sites on a mass scale has started to decline in the past 2-3 years, believes archaeologist  Assoc. Prof. Dr. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

While Dochev’s claim is disputable since outrageous treasure hunting raids are often reported all around Bulgaria, he has referred to his observations from the District of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria where he says treasure hunting is almost non-existent. The District is home to Veliko Tarnovo, once known as Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) as well as a lot of other archaeological sites.

“This is due to the good work of the Interior Ministry. They have captured large groups of treasure hunters, mainly on the borders, with large shipments of smuggled artifacts,” he has explained, stressing that, “Wherever there is a rich cultural heritage, there is treasure hunting,Dochev has told Radio Focus – Veliko Tarnovo in an interview.

He also notes that treasure hunting has been an occupation since the time of the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. In Bulgaria, treasure hunting was an occupation for entire clans in the period of the Ottoman Turkish yoke (when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire), and has been an occupation for some ever since, Dochev elaborates.

“The worst part is that these people are wrecking fortresses, tombs, water fountains. In our region, there is perhaps only a single Roman water fountain from the 4th-5th century AD that has been left intact,” he notes.

“Organized groups are the most dangerous ones. These treasure hunters hire a lot of people, and pay them per item, and then take away all valuable finds,” Dochev adds.

He points out that thousands of archaeological artifacts and coins smuggled to the USA, Canada, and Western Europe have been returned to Bulgaria so far.

In his words, invaluable archaeological items discovered by the numerous treasure hunters in Bulgaria and smuggled abroad by the powerful antique trafficking mafia have been returned thanks to the expertise of archaeologists from Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology and National Museum of History, which has convinced Western governments that the respective treasures originate in Bulgaria.

He points out to cases of returned antiques from Canada, the USA, Italy, Germany, and Austria.

“The [Canadian] government believed our research and explorations and returned the coins and artifacts even without the signing of a culture exchange agreement,” the archaeologist explains, referring to a case in 2011 when some 21 000 coins were sent back from Canada to Bulgaria.

“We have also contributed to the signing of a culture exchange agreement with the USA because we provided evidence that one of the large shipments containing thousands of coins originated in Bulgaria. Our research has contributed to the recovery of a large number of coins from Italy, Germany, and Austria,he adds.

In his words, in the past 4 years he himself participated in some 50 expert reports facilitating the recovery of smuggled Bulgarian archaeological artifacts.

He also explains that the security of the two major fortified hills of the medieval Bulgarian capital Veliko Tarnovo – Tsarevets and Trapesitsa, including the Holy 40 Martyrs’ Church (built in 1230 AD by Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II) has been tightened, and that the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city Nicopolis ad Istrum (founded in 101-106 AD by Roman Emperor Trajan in honor of his victory over the Dacians) is also guarded well against treasure hunting raids.

A view of the Trapesitsa Hill, one of the two major fortified areas of medieval Tarnovgrad (today's Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photo by Izvora, Wikipedia

A view of the Trapesitsa Hill, one of the two major fortified areas of medieval Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Photo by Izvora, Wikipedia

Dochev, who has been excavating the Trapesitsa Hill in the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tarnovo, has announced the excavations are set to continue in the summer of 2015 with funding from the Bulgarian government.

“A total of BGN 8 million (app. EUR 4 million) have been requested. The government allocated BGN 1.5 million last year, and BGN 750 000 the year before that. The Deputy Minister of Culture said that the funding will focus on ancient and medieval sites as well as Ancient Thracian sites. All of those sites will be attractive for both Bulgarian and international tourists, the archaeologist elaborates.

He believes that the excavations in Veliko Tarnovo, and especially on Trapesitsa Hill, will help boost the government funding.

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 about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

Nicopolis ad Istrum (also known as Ulpia Nicopolis ad Istrum) was an Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city (not to be confused with Nicopolis Ad Nestum in today’s Southwest Bulgaria).

Its ruins are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Its name means “Victory City on the Danube River”. It was founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacian tribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) on a plateau on the left bank of the Rositsa River. This is where the two main roads of the Danubian Roman provinces intersected – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

(Ulpia) Nicopolis ad Istrum was first part of the Roman province of Thrace but after 193 AD it was made part of the province of Moesia Inferior. Nicopolis ad Istrum flourished in the 2nd-3rd century, during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD). It further developed as major urban center after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Its organization was similar to that of Roman cities in Thrace and Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon. It was ruled by a council of archons, a city council and an assembly, with local priests worshipping Ancient Roman and Greek deities such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithras. At the time, Nicopolis ad Istrum was inhabited by Thracians, Roman military veterans, and settlers from Asia Minor. Nicopolis ad Istrum is known to have minted 900 different emissions of bronze coins. The city had orthogonal planning, with an agora (city square), a cardo maximus and a decumanus maximus (main streets), a market place, other public buildings and residential areas, limestone-paved streets and underground sewerage, as well as three aqueducts and several water wells, many of which has been unearthed in archaeological excavations.

The fortress walls of Nicopolis ad Istrum were erected only after the city was ransacked by a barbarian attack of the Costoboci, an ancient people possibly linked to the Getae (Gets) inhabiting an area in today’s Western Ukraine. The city square (agora) featured a statue of Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse, a number of other marble statues, a Ionic colonnade, a three-nave basilica, a bouleuterion (a public building housing the boule – council of citizens), a building to the cult of goddess Cybele, a small odeon (theater), thermae (public baths) as well as a building which according to an inscription was a “termoperiatos” which can be likened to a modern-day shopping mall – a heated building with shops and closed space for walks and business meetings. A total of 121 stone and brick tombs and sarcophagi have been found by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the city’s necropolis. Some villas and other buildings in the residential parts of Nicopolis ad Istrum have also been excavated.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD. The Early Byzantine fort covered one about one forth of the Ancient Roman city – 57.5 decares (app. 14.2 acres) out of a total of 215.5 decares (app. 53.2 decares), and was also the center of a bishopric. The Early Byzantine fort was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval city in the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

Nicopolis ad Istrum was visited in 1871 by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz who found there a statue of the wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD). The city was first excavated in 1900 by French archaeologist J. Seur whose work, however, was not documented, and in 1906-1909 by Czech archaeologist B. Dobruski. In 1945 and 1966-1968, there were partial excavations led by T. Ivanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Systematic excavations were started in 1970 and were led again by T. Ivanov. Between 1985 and 1992, Nicopolis ad Istrum was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-British expedition from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and a team of the University of Nottingham. The joint Bulgarian-British excavations were resumed in 1996. The Nicopolis ad Istrum archaeological preserve is managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. In 1984, the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was put on the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.