Bulgarian Archaeologist Discouraged over Meager Funding for Excavations of Looted Ancient Roman City Ratiaria

Only a small part of the originally well preserved ruins of the Ancient Roman Danube colony of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria is left standing as a result of the rampant treasure hunting and looting there since 1991. Photo: Radio Vidin

Only a small part of the originally well preserved ruins of the Ancient Roman Danube colony of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria is left standing as a result of the rampant treasure hunting and looting there since 1991. Photo: Radio Vidin

Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has allocated only BGN 12,000 (app. EUR 6,100) for the 2015 summer archaeological excavations of the Ancient Roman Danube city of Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, which is located near today’s town of Archar in Northwest Bulgaria.

In contrast, in the government funding for the archaeological exploration of Ratiaria amounted to BGN 80,000 (app. EUR 40,900), points out lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, who has been in charge of the resumed excavations of the Roman colony since 2013, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio.

Dimitrov has appeared discouraged by the lack of funding and the constant looting by treasure hunters of Ratiaria, which has come to symbolize the plight of large-scale treasure hunting in Bulgaria, and the total failure and/or unwillingness of the Bulgarian government to crack down on this outrageous criminal activity.

“If things keep going the way they do, there will be no point in dealing with Ratiaria,” the Bulgarian archaeologist has stated commenting on the latest reported case of treasure hunting excavations at Ratiaria, which was one of the largest Ancient Roman cities outside the Italian Peninsula during the Late Antiquity.

Dimitrov points out that the funding allocated by the Bulgarian Culture Ministry “will not be sufficient for anything”.

“[Excavations] of Roman cities are very labor intensive, they require a lot of workers and equipment, which is why BGN 12,000 won’t suffice for anything. If the Bulgarian government has no means or policies, and desire to provide state funding for regular archaeological excavations, let it at least provide security for the site so that it can be preserved for better times in the future. BGN 12,000 will only allow us to do some archaeological research but that won’t produce any results whatsoever,” says the archaeologist.

He adds that because of the meager funding and the lack of social programs for temporary employment, which are often used by research institutes to hire workers for archaeological excavations in Bulgaria’s provinces, his team will rely on high school and university students, and other volunteers in order to carry out at least some excavations.

Dimitrov believes that the last reported treasure hunting assault on Ratiaria is a “demonstration” on part of the looters that they practically own the Ancient Roman city.

“It became clear long ago that there has to be 24/7 security on the site. The [latest] assault occurred at night, and was completely purposeful because it deliberately targeted the sections where we work. This is a demonstration by the treasure hunters that this is site belong to them, the lawlessness goes on, and this region there is the Wild West, or the Wild Northwest. It will be like that until the institutions start working,” the archaeologist stresses regarding the region of Archar in Northwest Bulgaria.

Lozan Lozanov, the Mayor of Dimovo Municipality where Ratiaria is located, argues that his administration has no means to pay for 24/7 security of the Ancient Roman city.

“We have appointed two people as security guards working during the day. This is what we can afford. It is hard to provide security at night. When you go there in the morning, you can easily find a dead body… This comes at the expense of the municipality. I can’t think of other measures. There is the government, the police, let them intervene, we can’t do it,” Lozanov says.

The Police Directorate in the District of Vidin, however, states that the police department in Dimovo Municipality cannot boost the security of Ratiaria because it has to patrol in 16 towns. All it does is carry out occasional police raids on the site of the Ancient Roman city; the last case of an arrested treasure hunter there was on March 9, 2015.

While almost all of Bulgaria’s numerous archaeological sites keep getting pillaged by ruthless treasure hunters, and the Bulgarian institutions fail in (or abstain from) the effort to crack down on them, the fate of Ratiaria has been an especially outrageous case.

The archaeological excavations at Ratiaria were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex 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 Roma clans 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”. This film pretty much makes it clear that the looting of Ratiaria keeps taking place on an hourly basis so announcements about new damages are no news. The overall damage sustained by the Roman city from modern day treasure hunters can hardly be calculated.

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.

Ratiaria, formally 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 Roman inscription from 125 AD. Other inscriptions discovered by the Bulgarian and Italian archaeologists 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 Eastern origin. One of the finds is a rare inscription dedicated to the Roman deity Pales, a patron of shepherds, flocks, and livestock.

Judging by the excavated graves 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 commercial center was underlined by the major Roman roads passing through it: the road from the Roman city 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 archaeological excavations were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex 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 Roma clans 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.