Bulgarian Archaeologist Concludes Roman Artifacts Seized from Smugglers Authentic, Originated in Asia Minor and the Middle East

A fragment from a sarcophagus is one of the 19 Ancient Roman statues and slabs seized from smugglers by the police in Bulgaria's Shumen in March 2015. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

A fragment from a sarcophagus is one of the 19 Ancient Roman statues and slabs seized from smugglers by the police in Bulgaria’s Shumen in March 2015. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

The 19 statues and slabs which were seized from several treasure hunters and antique traffickers, including a citizen of Turkey, by the Bulgarian police in the northeastern city of Shumen back in March 2015 are fine examples of Ancient Roman art from the region of Asia Minor and the Middle East, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology has concluded.

Dimitrov has carried out an examination of the impressive artifacts confiscated from treasure hunters and antique traffickers in Shumen, Novi Pazar, and Ivanovo whose results have been presented at a news conference in the Regional Museum of History in the northeastern Bulgarian city of Shumen.

The archaeologist who is a specialist in Roman architecture is positive that the 19 statues and slabs did not originate in Bulgaria, and that the Roman artifacts are authentic, not fakes.

“It is almost certain that they originated in Asia Minor and the Middle East. This is a collection of items. What unites them is their perfect craftsmanship, and the fact that they were made of high-quality marble," Dimitrov says, as quoted by the local news site Kmeta.

“What makes a strong impression is that these are sculptures and fragments of sculptures of excellent craftsmanship. Especially well made are the fragments of sarcophagi which are typical of the western part of Asia Minor from the Hadrian period, with the heads of the Gorgon Medusa and the garland decoration. Their craftsmanship is of the most supreme form of Roman art," he adds.

In his words, the Ancient Roman statues and slabs confiscated from the treasure hunters and antique traffickers in Bulgaria’s Shumen date to the 2nd century AD even though some of them might be even older.

According to Dimitrov, the archaeological artifacts were collected from different locations so that they can be smuggled and sold, probably in Western Europe or the USA.

One of the really interesting artifacts rescued by the Shumen police is a fragment of a sarcophagus depicting the Gorgon Medusa, one of the three gorgon sisters in Ancient Greek mythology a monster with a hideous human female face and venomous snakes instead of hair.

The initial hypotheses that the items in question might come from the museums and archaeological monuments destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIL) has now been supplanted by the supposition that the artifacts were harvested specially by treasure hunters who smuggled them west to Bulgaria in search of buyers.

The one item among the 19 confiscated ancient slabs and statues (seized together with a huge number of coins and smaller artifacts) which might be seen as the most interesting – the allegedly 5,000-year-old stone relief from Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia whose authenticity has been questioned – has not been mentioned in the report.

Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov believes the Sumerian relief to be authentic, and has even likened it to 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. However, none of the Bulgarian archaeologists is a specialist in the archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Speaking at the news conference, the Director of the Shumen Regional Museum of History Georgi Maystorski has stated that his institution will claim the seized Roman artifacts from Asia Minor as part of its collection when the formal police investigation into the case is completed.

Part of a sarcophagus featuring the image of the Gorgon Medusa (upright in the middle), the Greek mythology monster with female face and snakes instead of hair, is one of the impressive archaeological finds saved from the hands of treasure hunters by the Shumen Police. They have been found in a treasure hunter’s garage in Bulgaria’s Shumen. Photo: Bulgarian Interior Ministry Press Center

Part of a sarcophagus featuring the image of the Gorgon Medusa (upright in the middle), the Greek mythology monster with female face and snakes instead of hair, is one of the impressive archaeological finds saved from the hands of treasure hunters by the Shumen Police. They have been found in a treasure hunter’s garage in Bulgaria’s Shumen. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

You can view photos of all items confiscated from the smugglers in Bulgaria’s Shumen in our articles from March 2015 HERE and HERE.

During the same news conference in the Shumen Regional Museum of History, Bulgarian archaeologists also presented a lead cross reliquary and a lead icon found in the city of Missionis / Krum’s Fortress near today’s city of Targovishte, and an 8th century AD gold coin of Byzantine Emperor Constantine V Copronymus found near the early medieval Bulgarian capital of Pliska.

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.