Bulgarian Archaeologist Finds 5000-Year-Old Relief from Ancient Mesopotamia among Artifacts Seized from Treasure Hunters

An ancient stone slab with images is among the items rescued from the treasure hunters in Shumen. Photo by Interior Ministry Press Center

A stone slab from Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia is among the items rescued from the treasure hunters in Shumen. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

A 5000-year-old stone relief from Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia has been identified by Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov among the impressive artifacts confiscated recently from treasure hunters and antique traffickers by the police in the northeastern Bulgarian city of Shumen.

The relief, along with dozens of Ancient Greek and Roman statues and figurines, and thousands of authentic and forged ancient coins, was presented to the public by the police in Bulgaria’s Shumen on March 24, 2015.

The archaeological items have been confiscated from treasure hunters and antique traffickers in Shumen, Novi Pazar, and Ivanovo.

During their joint press conference with the police on March 24, local archaeologists pointed out that one of the stone slabs had Sumerian or Sumerian-looking motifs but were unable to confirm its Sumerian origin and to date it.

However, according to Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov, who traveled to Shumen to study the 19 statues and marble and stone slabs, including one engraved stone altar, found among the confiscated ancient artifacts, the relief on the stone slab is indeed from Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, and can be dated to about 3000-2500 BC.

Ovcharov has confirmed the initial statements of the Shumen archaeologists that the rest of the items seized from the treasure hunters are Greco-Roman works from the 1st-2nd century AD.

“The [seized] artifacts are mostly parts of sarcophagi and altars. There is a very nice sculpture of a lion. They are from the later Grego-Roman period," he says, as quoted by Top Novini Shumen.

“However, the Sumerian slab is unique. There are very few such monuments in the entire world. There are several such slabs in the Louvre, one is exhibited in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and one is kept in the museum in Baghdad, Iraq," explains the renowned Bulgarian archaeologist.

Ovcharov, who was invited to study the various items seized from the treasure hunters in Shumen, emphasizes that he is not a specialist in the history of Ancient Sumer but that he has done sufficient research.

In his words, the monument exhibits features that are typical of the Akkadian – Sumerian art in Ancient Mesopotamia. The slab has a round hole in the middle, which is used for attaching it to walls inside temples.

“Of all the similar finds known in the world, this one is best preserved," Ovcharov claims.

The Bulgarian archaeologist also believes that the Sumerian slab seized in Shumen is closest in appearance to the one kept in the Louvre in Paris.

The Sumerian relief of the king of the Sumerian city of Lagash Ur-Nanshe (also known as Ur-Nina), the first king of the First Dynasty of Lagash (around 2500 BC), is kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov thinks the Sumerian relief seized by the Bulgarian police bears close resemblance to it. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikipedia

The Sumerian relief of the king of the Sumerian city of Lagash Ur-Nanshe (also known as Ur-Nina), the first king of the First Dynasty of Lagash (around 2500 BC), is kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov thinks the Sumerian relief seized by the Bulgarian police bears close resemblance to it. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikipedia

The Sumerian slab depicts multiple scenes with people and animals. According to Ovcharov, the first row of scenes contains images of a ruler’s feast.

He can make out three rulers served by cup bearers. The rows of scenes below show pastoral images of people and animals as well as preparations for a sacrifice.

He is certain that the Sumerian artifact did not originate in Bulgaria but has no idea how it got here.

“There is an investigation underway which needs to establish how and why the Sumerian slab made it to Shumen," Ovcharov says, adding he is unable to estimate how much the antique might cost on the black market.

In his words, if the Bulgarian court decides to leave the confiscated antiques to the Bulgarian state, the Bulgarian museums will become owners of one of the most valuable archaeological artifacts.

When it was first presented, local archaeologists mentioned that the scenes on the stone slab appear to have been influenced, at the very least, by the art of Ancient Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia, adding that it resembled the Sumerian relief of the king of the Sumerian city of Lagash Ur-Nanshe (also known as Ur-Nina), the first king of the First Dynasty of Lagash (around 2500 BC), which is kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Sumerian stone slab and of the other items have been confiscated from 51-year-old citizen of Turkey, Veisal Sanli, who had been followed by the Bulgarian police for 2 months before he was arrested.

It is still unclear whether or how the Turkish man smuggled the artifacts into Bulgaria, or how many of them, especially the Greco-Roman statues and figurines, have “local" origin, i.e. were dug up from Ancient Roman sites located in Bulgaria.

The Shumen police have said at least part of the confiscated archaeological finds had been destined for exports to other EU countries.

You can see more photos of the items seized from the treasure hunters in Bulgaria’s Shumen in the original story from March 24, 2015.

A lion's head, apparently a fragment from an ancient sculpture, is among the items seized by the police in Shumen. Photo by Interior Ministry Press Center

A lion’s head, apparently a fragment from an ancient sculpture, is among the items seized by the police in Shumen. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

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.