Treasure hunters “at work” in the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria near the town of Archar, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria. Photo: TV grab from SBS TV documentary “Plundering the Past”
In a rare occurrence, a Bulgarian treasure hunter has been sentenced to a jail term for digging for archaeological artifacts in the Ancient Roman arsenal city of Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria located on the Danube in the northwestern District of Vidin.
The man has pleaded guilty to conducting illegal digs in search of ancient items within the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria, which has come to symbolize the rampant savagery of treasure hunting in post-communist Bulgaria since from an archaeological site almost intact in the 1980s, in the past 25 years it has been reduced to rubble and craters.
The sentenced treasure hunter committed the crime on March 8, 2015, with a metal detector, shovel, and pickaxe, reports local news site Tribali.
The Vidin District Court has sentenced him to six months in prison, and since this is the man’s second treasure hunting offense, the Court added a one-year term from his previous suspended sentence for a total of 1.5 years.
Jail sentences of treasure hunters are rare in Bulgaria regardless of the rampancy of this kind of savage crime; in the few instances of jail sentences, it is usually individual low profile diggers who get sent to prison, while the organized groups of diggers, and the antique traffickers up the chain are rarely busted and imprisoned.
A very small portion of the ruins of the once impressive Ancient Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria has been preserved; the rest have been destroyed by treasure hunters in the past 25 years. Photo: ratiaria.eu
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.
Ratiaria, also known as Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, is an Ancient Roman arsenal city located on the right bank of the Lower Danube, near today’s Bulgarian town of Archar, in the Vidin District. Some scholars believe that the city of Ratiaria was first founded by the Thracian tribe Moesi in the 4th century BC, near a gold mine. In 29 BC, the Moesi were defeated by Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus sealing the Roman conquest of today’s Northwest Bulgaria. All of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD, and in 87 AD, Roman Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD) organized the region of Moesia into the Roman provinces of Moesia Superior (in today’s Northwest Bulgaria and Eastern Serbia) and Moesia Inferior (in today’s Northern Central and Northeast Bulgaria, and the Romanian part of the region of Dobrudzha).
It is assumed that the Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria was set up during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD). After the Roman conquest of the Dacians, the Thracian tribes north of the Danube, in 107 AD, Ratiaria became a colony in Moesia Superior under the name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, taking the names of its founder, Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD). In 271 AD, Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD) transformed the province of Moesia Superior into the province of Dacia Aureliana with its capital at Serdica(today’s Sofia), after vacating Dacia Traiana beyond the Danube. Around 283 AD, Dacia Aureliana was divided into two provinces, Dacia Mediterranea, with its capital at Serdica, and Dacia Ripensis (“Dacia from the banks of the Danube") with its capital at Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria). Throughout its entire existence in the Roman Empire, and later the Early Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), Ratiaria was a key Roman outpost defending the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the frontier area of the Roman Empire on the Lower Danube. It was one of a total of six Roman arsenal cities, i.e. producers of arms, along the Limes Moesiae. The Roman Legion Legio IV Flavia Felix (“Lucky Flavian 4th Legion) was based at Ratiaria at least until the Roman conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD). During the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), it was the headquarters of Classis Moesica, the Lower Danube fleet of the Roman Empire established between 20 BC and 10 AD, which controlled the Danube from the Iron Gates to the Northwest Black Sea as far as the Crimean (Taurica) Peninsula. At different points in time, it was headquartered at Noviodunum (near Isaccea, today’s Romania), Ratiaria, Sexaginta Prista (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse), and with secondary bases at Novae (near Bulgaria’s Svishtov) and Ulpia Oescus (near Bulgaria’s Gigen), and Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). The name of Ratiaria is derived from the Latin word “ratis" (raft) or from “ratiaria", a type of vessel, signifying its significance for the Roman Navy, especially since only two of all Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae have names connected with sailing – Ratiaria and Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships", today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse). As the capital of Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis, Ratiaria served as the seat of the military governor and the base for Legio XIII Gemina (the 13th Twin Legion). Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria was the home of many Roman patricians (aristocrats). According to 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, the city of Ratiaria existed until 586 AD when it was destroyed in a barbarian invasion of the Avars.
The Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria is located on a high terrace with an area of 60 hectares (app. 148 acres), overlooking the Danube River, about 30-40 above the river; from the east and south it is surrounded by the Archaritsa River. It was mentioned by Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) in his work “Geography" in the 2nd century AD, and was marked in the 4th century AD Tabula Peutingeriana (the Peutinger Map showing cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire, covering Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia), and was mentioned in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus"), an Ancient Roman register of road stations. The name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria is first mentioned in a Romaninscription from 125 AD. Other inscriptions discovered by the Bulgarian and Italianarchaeologists excavating the site in the 1980s indicate that the city of Ratiaria had a lot of resident settlers from the Italian Peninsula as well as aristocrats of Easternorigin. One of the finds is a rare inscription dedicated to the Roman deity Pales, a patron of shepherds, flocks, and livestock.
Judging by the excavatedgraves and numerous discovered artifacts, slabs, statues (for example, a marble statue of the resting Hercules (Heracles)), and sarcophagi, Ratiaria was a key center of arts, agriculture and crafts, and there are indications that many of the landed estates around the city were cultivated with slave labor. In the 2nd-3rd century AD, it likely emerged as the most important Ancient Roman urban center not just in the province of Moesia Superior but also in the entire northern part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its importance as a commercialcenter was underlined by the major Romanroads passing through it: the road from the Romancity of Singidunum (today’s Belgrade in Serbia) to the delta of the Danube, and from there down the Western Black Sea coast to the city of Byzantium, which later became Constantinople; the Roman roads from the province of Dacia to the Italian Peninsula. Some of the most interesting Late Antiquity structures excavated at Ratiaria include a building with agricultural tools, clay lamps, household items, and Byzantine coins from the middle of the 6th century AD, a building with a mosaic floor which likely was an Early Christian basilica, and pipes from the main aqueduct of Ratiaria. Bones of a total of 18 species of wild and domestic animals have been found there. According to Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev, the most interesting of those are the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus colchicus), and the now nearly extinct in Bulgaria griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus).
Modern-day archaeological interest in the Ancient Roman city of Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria first started in the 1860s when it was visited by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz. In the 1890s, it was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vaclav Dobrusky, and in 1900 – by Bulgarian archaeologist Boris Dyakovich. The first paper on the history of Ratiaria was published in 1911 by Nikifor Nedelev, and in the first half of the 20th century his word was built upon by archaeologists Ivan Velkov, Georti Katsarov, and Bogdan Filov. In the 1960s, Ratiaria’s history was explored by archaeologists Velizar Velkov and Boris Gerov. In 1958-1968, Ratiaria was partly excavated by archaeologists from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, including its then Director Yordanka Atanasova. In the 1980s, Ratiaria was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-Italian archaeological expedition led by Prof. Dario Giorgetti and Prof. Maria Bollini from the University of Bologna, which led to the publication of a the four-volume collection book Ratiariensia. Also in the 1980s, Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kuzmanov excavated the residence of the governor of the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis. Unfortunately, the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria affected negatively the research and security of the Ancient Roman city. The archaeologicalexcavations were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeologicalcomplex has been brutally looted and excavated by scores of treasure hunters – from poor local diggers to well-organized antique trafficking mobsters. It is alleged that in the 1990s the Roman city was bulldozed by the local mafia with the alleged participation of some government officials, while local Romaclans have been picking at the archaeological site by hand for decades. The treasure hunting plight of Ratiaria(and Bulgaria, for that matter) was documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past". The damage done to one of the largest Roman cities outside Italy can hardly be calculated. The archaeological excavations of Ratiaria were resumed in 2011 by archaeologist Krasimira Luka from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski", and in 2013 by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences .