Bulldozers, Treasure Hunters Destroying Ancient Thracian Archaeological Sites in Bulgaria’s Satovcha Municipality
Construction bulldozers and treasure hunters have been destroying and raiding a large area of Ancient Thracian archaeological sites dating back as early as the 8th century BC in Satovcha Municipality, Blagoevgrad District, in Southwest Bulgaria.
The destruction is caused by construction firms working with bulldozers and excavators at stone quarries, which, however, are damaging not only the natural environment but also priceless historical heritage from archaeological sites found just beneath the surface, reports private Bulgarian TV channel bTV.
The report says that 2 years ago the destruction to the archaeological and historical heritage in the Satovcha Municipality was reported by two inspectors from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture, Atanas Koychev and Vasil Mutafov, to their supervisors.
“The bulldozers are destroying the thin soil layer, and unearthing mostly graves, necropolises with very rich graves. We have just seen some ancient graves that had been busted only recently, and there are still pieces from the buried man’s war helmet and bronze greaves as well as his broken bones,” Mutafov is quoted as saying.
In his words, the damaged necropolises and their archaeological inventory date back to the 8th century BC; at the same time, the area where bulldozers have been used to dig up ancient finds is really huge, reaching 125 square kilometers.
“Enormous abuses and damages have been done there [to the archaeological heritage],” adds Mutafov who suggested that the Ministry of Culture stage an emergency inspection of the area in Satovcha Municipality, and to organize rescue archaeological excavations immediately.
However, no inspection was ever started, and the only result from Mutafov’s suggestion was that he got himself fired. What is more, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture has denied to have ever been alerted about any damages caused to archaeological sites in Satovcha Municipality.
The team of Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia is fully aware that the place in Satovcha where there are stone quarries, which are said to be actually illegal, also harbors major archaeological remains.
“Apparently, there used to be [civilized] life there since the earliest times; it can be expected that there are other sites there as well, for example, settlements, and not just necropolises,” explains Dr. Lyubava Georgieva, chief curator of the Archaeology Department of the National Museum of History in Sofia.
The Museum itself has in its collection unique archaeological artifacts such as Thracian war helmets and greaves, bracelets, necklaces, and fibulas which originated from the said sites in Satovcha Municipality.
Those, however, have not been discovered through proper archaeological excavations but have been brought to the Museum by the Bulgarian police, namely, the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP).
“The [Thracian helmet] is one of the most beautiful war helmets among the helmets owned by all museums in Bulgaria. It was brought to the Museum in 1996 after a special operation of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. The town was blockaded by the police for 4 days. They knew that the helmet had been hidden there by [treasure hunters], and finally, on the 4th day, two men brought it to the police,” explains Elka Penkova from the National Museum of History in Sofia.
“The greaves are also from the region of Satovcha and Pletena. However, they had been sold [by treasure hunters], and were caught in another part of Bulgaria,” she adds.
According to the cited experts, such valuable archaeological finds are probably being discovered by the treasure hunters in Satovcha Municipality at the present moment. They add that if Bulgaria’s historical and cultural heritage does not get destroyed on the spot by the looters, it gets smuggled abroad almost without any problems.
Todor Uzunov, chairperson of SATO, a Bulgarian NGO specializing in the protection of cultural monuments, has told bTV that the area of Satovcha was the home of the Ancient Thracian tribe Satrae, which is one of the Thracian tribes that are most often mentioned in historical sources, and whose troops used to accompany Macedon Emperor Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC).
Uzunov says that all locations where the Satrae, who lived between the rivers Struma and Mesta, buried their dead in necropolises have been affected by the illegal stone quarries which also appear to be used as a cover-up for treasure hunting.
In his words, the secretary of Satovcha Mayor Arben Mimenov, who is from Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party DPS, is Maria Samardzhieva, whose father is a well-known treasure hunter. Mimenov in his turn claims that Samardzhieva’s father gave up treasure hunting for 12 years ago.
Mimenov further claims that back in 1976 a team of archaeologists from the Institute of Thracology (today’s Center for Tracology at the Institute of Balkan Studies) of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences explored the territory of Satovcha Municipality and discovered no major finds.
He has gone further by accusing the fired inspector from Bulgaria’s Culture Ministry Vasil Mutafov of being a treasure hunter himself.
The investigative report of bTV has revealed a number of other alleged abuses with real estate properties, construction, and EU funding involving the Mayor of Satovcha Municipality Arben Mimenov and the Mayor of the town of Pletena Rumen Arnaudov as well as local construction firm, Agromah, which, however, has rejected the claims that it operates the illegal stone quarries which also seem to be used by treasure hunters pillaging the Ancient Thracian necropolises in Savotcha.
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.