Treasure Hunters in Bulgaria Get Away with Crimes Because of Undesignated Archaeological Sites, Archaeologist Says

The ruins of the Momina Krepost (Maiden's Fortress), also known as Devingrad (Virgins' Town), in Tarnovgrad (today's Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD). Photo: MyVelikoTarnovo.com

The ruins of the Momina Krepost (Maiden’s Fortress), also known as Devingrad (Virgins’ Town), in Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD). Photo: MyVelikoTarnovo.com

Many treasure hunters in Bulgaria get away with punishments because of what appears to be a legislative loopholecharges against them fail in court if the archaeological sites where they had been caught digging are not designated as such, explains archaeologist  Assoc. Prof. Dr. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

These undesignated archaeological sites are usually listed in Bulgaria’s archaeological map but have no signs or information billboards on the ground, Dochev has told Radio Focus – Veliko Tarnovo.

“This way in case of an arrest the charges connected with illegal digging to acquire artifacts or destroy cultural properties get dropped. The charges cannot stick because the defense immediate pleads that there is no designation. No-one is obliged to comply with the law when the respective archaeological site has not been designated,” he elaborates.

Dochev has reminded a case in which the police in the northern Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo arrested a group of about 20 treasure hunters several years ago seizing artifacts worth about BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000). The court proceedings on this case are still in progress.

The archaeologists says that in the recent years the intensity of treasure hunting crimes in Northern Bulgaria has declined while in Southern Bulgaria it is on the rise.

Only about 1 in 20 treasure hunting cases get resolved by the Bulgarian police, and while Bulgaria’s Penal Code and Cultural Heritage Act obliges all local authorities to inform the police about treasure hunting and looting crimes, oftentimes mayors in rural Bulgaria are themselves “obsessed with the treasure hunting craze”, explains the Veliko Tarnovo archaeologist.

Assoc. Prof. Dochev has also announced that a growing number of treasure hunting raids have been observed in on the Hill of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”) also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), which is one of the historic hills of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) (today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo), as well as around the nearby towns of Shemshevo and Vetrintsi.

Other recent reports have also indicated an increase of the treasure hunting raids in Vetrintsi, and have exposed the “sale” of an archaeological site to a private firm by the local authorities.

The archaeologist emphasizes that in the recent spring before the foliating of the trees treasure hunters were seen “at work” on the Maiden’s Fortress Hill from the opposite quarter Sveta Gora (“Holy Mount”).

Dochev points out that the Hill of Momina Krepost (Maiden’s Fortress), or Devingrad (Virgins’ Town), was one of the largest and richest residential and commercial quarters of Veliko Tarnovo during the Late Middle Ages.

The quarter was ravaged in 1388 AD during the first campaign of Ottoman Turkish commander Ali Pasha sent by Ottoman Sultan Murad I (r. 1362-1389 AD) against his vassal, Bulgaria’s Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395 AD, a Turkish vassal since 1373 AD), who refused to dispatch troops to participate in the Sultan’s campaign against Serbia which culminated in the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389 AD.

The Veliko Tarnovo archaeologist stresses that during their conquest of the Balkans in the 14th-15th century AD, the Ottoman Turks employed very often the tactics of using troops of their Christian vassals against other Christian rulers.

Unlike the Momina Krepost (Devingrad) Hill, another of Veliko Tarnovo’s historic hills, Trapesitsa, has not seen fresh treasure hunting raids, largely because of the 24/7 security put in place there a few years ago, testifies Dochev, who visited Trapesitsa on May 24, 2015, and found no traces of treasure hunting digs.

A map of Tarnovgrad (today's Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), showing the Tsarevets Hil, the Trapesitsa Hill, and the Devingrad (Virgins' Town) or Momina Kreport (Maiden's Fortress) Hill. Map: Martyr, Wikipedia

A map of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), showing the Tsarevets Hil, the Trapesitsa Hill, and the Devingrad (Virgins’ Town) or Momina Kreport (Maiden’s Fortress) Hill. Map: Martyr, Wikipedia

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 majority of whom appear to be impoverished low-level diggers.

The Trapesitsa Hill is one of two main fortified historic hills in the medieval city of Tarnovgrad, today’s Veliko Tarnovo, in Central Northern Bulgaria, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1396 AD. Together with the Tsarevets Hill, Trapesitsa was one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo). The Trapesitsa Hill is a natural fortress on the right bank of the Yantra River, and is surrounded by it on three sides. It is located northwest of the Tsarevets Hill. The Trapesitsa Fortress had four gates, the main one being its southern gate, which was also connected with the Tsarevets Fortress with a bridge across the Yantra River. There are two hypotheses about Trapesitsa’s name. The first one is that it comes from the Bulgarian word “trapeza” meaning a “table” or “repast”, possibly referring to the receptions of the medieval Bulgarian Tsars; the second hypothesis is that the word comes from “trapezium” because the hill is in fact is a trapezoidal plateau.

The first archaeological excavations on the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo between 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 medieval Bulgarian churches with fragments of rich murals, colorful mosaics, and beautiful floor tiles. The documented artifacts discovered there include crosses, necklaces, coins, rings, earrings, vessels. The churches on Trapesitsa were richly decorated with various architectural forms such as pilasters, niches, blind arches, colored slabs, among others.

The largest preserved church on the Trapesitsa Hill known as “Church No. 8” is named after the 10th century AD Bulgarian saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila) (876-946 AD); it was surrounded with other buildings which are believed to have been part of a monastery complex. It is known that in 1195 AD, Bulgaria’s Tsar Asen I (r. 1189-1196 AD) transported the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from the city of Sredets (today’s Sofia) to Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), and had them placed in the specially constructed church on the Trapesitsa Hill. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that a room in the southern part of Church No. 8 was the reliquary for St. Ivan Rilski’s relics. The relics of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila), who is Bulgaria’s patron saint, were kept in Veliko Tarnovo until 1469 AD when they were transported to the Rila Monastery where they are kept to this day in what became a major event for the Bulgarians during the early period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912), as the Second Bulgarian Empire had been conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396 AD. The numerous and richly decorated small churches indicate that the Trapesitsa Hill harbored the homes of the medieval Bulgarian nobility, the boyars, and the supreme clergy. More recent excavations, however, also indicate that the imperial palace of the early Bulgarian Tsars from the House of Asen (the Asen Dynasty, r. 1185-1257 AD) was in fact located on the Trapesitsa Hill, and the imperial seat was possibly moved to the nearby Tsarevets Hill only later, during the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD). In the recent years, the Trapesitsa Hill has been excavated by Prof. Konstantin Totev from the Veliko Tarnovo Branch of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and by Prof. Hitko Vachev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.

The Hill of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), is one of the historic hills of Tarnovgrad, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), today’s city of Veliko Tarnovo. It is a Late Antiquity Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located about 600 meters to the east of the Tsarevets Hill, one of the two fortresses of the inner city acropolis of Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), on the right bank of the Yantra River. In the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period, the fortress of Momina Krepost (“Maiden’s Fortress”), also known as Devingrad (“Virgins’ Town”), was established to protect the connection of the Early Byzantine town on the Tsarevets Hill to the road between Nicopolis ad Istrum (north of Veliko Tarnovo) and Kabile (near today’s southeastern Bulgarian city of Yambol). The Maiden’s Fortress is located on a triangular hill with three terraces.

The Maiden’s Fortress in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo was first explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil who together with his brother Hermann Skorpil founded modern-day Bulgarian archaeology at the end of the 19th century. Later excavations and observations were carried out there in 1942-1943 by Dr. Ivan Velkov, in 1963 by Bogdan Sultov from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, and more recently by Assist. Prof. Evgeni Dermendzhiev from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. The citadel of the Maiden Fortress is about 300 meters long and 30-40 meters wide, and has a total area of 9 decares (app. 2.2 acres). The Maiden Fortress was built at the end of the 5th century AD by Byzantium, and was used the Byzantines in the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD. During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) it was part of the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo).

The medieval name of the Maiden Fortress or Virgins’ Town is known from a marble slab inscription discovered on the Tsarevets Hill during archaeological excavations which mentions Devingrad. It was published by Nikola Angelov, and was construed by Ivan Galabov who believes it refers to the Maiden’s Fortress. According to Prof. Velizar Velkov (1928-1993), the name might stem from the Thracian name of the city. The Thracians used the word “deva” to mean a city (dava in Greek, and deva in Latin) meaning a fortified place. The Slavs, however, translated the word as “deva” meaning a virgin. The Ottoman conquerors after them called it kuzhisar (kuz meaning a girl, and hisar – a fortress). After Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the name became Momina Krepost, Maiden’s Fortress.

There are also numerous legends which claim that the fortress was named after young girls who committed suicide there out of their desperate love, or found a heroic death. One of the legends has it that Velislava, the beautiful daughter of Strashimir, a rich and powerful Bulgarian boyar (a medieval Bulgarian title for a noble second in rank only to the Tsar, i.e. Emperor) was in love with a brave and beautiful but poor young man named Borimir. Instead, Strashimir wanted to marry Velislava to the rich but cowardly Svetoslav. Borimir was summoned to the Bulgarian army during a Byzantine invasion, with the war putting off the wedding between Velislava and Svetoslav. When the Bulgarians fended off the attack and peace was restored, the wedding was supposed to take place but the night of the wedding celebrated with a feast in the imperial palace in Tarnovgrad, Velislava disappeared and was found in her wedding dress near the Yantra River, after she had jumped off the tower of the fortress across from the Tsarevets Hill. After her death, Borimir left a flower on her grave, and nobody ever saw him again, and the locals called the fortress where the young woman committed suicide the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

Another legend tells about a young woman named Malina who decided to rebel against the hated Bulgarian Tsar Boril (r. 1207-1218 AD) who was an usurper of the throne in Tarnovgrad taking it after his predecessor Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) was murdered. Malina and her beloved man Valkan gathered a band of rebels to march against the Tsar. As they raised their flag, Malina’s red scarf, as a banner on the high hill opposite the Tsarevets Fortress to summon the rebels, however, two arrows suddenly killed them. Despite that Malina held onto the banner, and the rebellion was launched. Malina’s banner is said to have been seen on the high hill at moonlight, and that’s why the locals called it the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

According to a third legend, one of the daughters of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD) refused to marry a rich boyar. As she disobeyed her father’s will, she founded a monastery on the hill across from Tsarevets where one day out of sorrow she jumped off the cliff into the Yantra River – hence the name the “Maiden’s Fortress”.

Still another legend refers to a later period after the Second Bulgarian Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It tells of two Bulgarian girls who jumped off the cliff into the Yantra River to their deaths in order to avoid being forced into a Turkish Muslim harem.