Bulgarian Police Bust Antique Trafficking Ring, Seize Roman Decurion’s Gravestone, 800 Invaluable Artifacts
Bulgaria’s Unit for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP) has shattered a ring for antiques trafficking, and has confiscated over 800 archaeological artifacts and coins, including a very valuable marble gravestone of a Roman Decurion.
The Bulgarian police have staged two police operations in the northwestern city of Montana, and in the southern cities of Haskovo and Plovdiv, the press center of the Interior Ministry has announced.
They have busted a total of six men and have searched their homes. One of the detainees is described as “one of the leading dealers and traffickers”.
Two of the men were caught red handed while transporting some of the archaeological artifacts for their negotiated sale.
The police say the organized criminal group in question had been in charge of a trafficking channel for the smuggling of antiques abroad.
The police operations and the seizures of the archaeological artifacts were carried out on October 7-8, 2015, but have been reported only now.
Metal detectors and other equipment for the searching of archaeological sites have also been seized.
The over 800 artifacts confiscated the by police officers are mostly items and coins from different periods of the Antiquity – from the Hellenistic Age and from the period of the Roman Empire.
Some of them, though, are from the Middle Ages – two medieval seals and a cross, which is an engolpion (encolpion), i.e. a (religious) item, for example in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, worn upon the bosom.
The most interesting “archaeological discovery” made by the Bulgarian police during the busting of the antique trafficking ring is a well-preserved Roman marble gravestone.
The Roman gravestone has a perfectly preserved inscription in Latin making it clear it belonged to a Decurion, a Roman cavalry officer.
The Decurion in question lived in the Roman stronghold Castra ad Montanesium, today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana.
When he died, the Roman military officer was 40 years, 5 months, and 28 days old, according to the inscription.
Experts who have examined the gravestone emphasize that this is only the second monument from the Ancient Roman city of Montanesium which provides information about a Roman Decurion.
What is more, the newly found monument seized from the traffickers is in a much better condition than the already known one.
Learn more about the Roman city of Montanesium in today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana in the Background Infonotes below.
The police are continuing their investigation of the antique trafficking ring, and the detainees are to face charges under Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act.
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.
The early history of today’s northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana is primarily associated with the Ancient Roman military camp and later city and Fortress of Montanesium, initially known as Castra ad Montanesium (“castra” meaning “camp” in Latin) from the Roman Antiquity period (1st-4th century AD). However, the earliest traces of civilized life on the territory of Bulgaria’s Montana date to the Chalcolithic Age (Aeneolithic, Copper Age), from the 5th-4th millennium BC, and have been discovered in the lower archaeological layers on the site of the Montanesium Fortress. During the 1st millennium BC the place was inhabited by the independent Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi, which was allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful Ancient Thracian state. From this period, the Montanesium Fortress features preserved sections of the pre-Roman, Ancient Thracian fortress wall, over 1 meter thick, which is located under the Roman fortress’s large fortress tower.
The Roman Empire conquered the region of Montana in today’s Northwest Bulgaria around 29 BC (all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by Ancient Rome in 46 AD) setting up a military camp, Castra ad Montanesium, on top of the existing Ancient Thracian settlement. The archaeological sources about the history of the Roman city of Montanesium come largely from Roman epigraphic monuments. The Romans were interested in the region of Montana because of its ore deposits and the opportunities for mining gold, silver, lead, and iron, especially along the Ogosta River and the Zlatitsa River. The region was one of the major gold mining centers in the Balkan Peninsula in the 1st-3rd century AD. The earliest known Roman military detachment to set up camp at Montanesium in the 1st century AD was Cohors Sugambrorum. The epigraphic monuments indicate the intensified presence of Roman servicemen from Legio I Italica (Italian First Legion) and Legio XI Claudia (Claudius’ 11th Legion) from the first half of the 2nd century AD until the middle of the 3rd century AD; Numerus Civium Romanorum was stationed there in the first half of the 3rd century AD, and Cohors III Collecta – in the middle of the 3rd century AD.
The Roman military camp Castra ad Montanesium is mentioned in an inscription from 134 AD; as a result of its development as a settlement, in 160-161 AD, it received the status of a Roman city – municipium – with its own territory (Regio Montanesium) likely corresponding to today’s Bulgarian District of Montana located between the Danube River to the north, and the Balkan Mountains to the south. It was part of the Roman province Moesia Superior where it was the second most important city after the arsenal city on the Danube, Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria), whose ruins pillaged by modern-day treasure hunters can be found today near Bulgaria’s Archar. 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), and Montanesium as its second most important city. The name of Montanesium is known from several epigraphic monuments from the 2nd-3rd century AD. Its etymology probably stems from the Latin words “mons” (mountain) and “montani” (mountaineers). Specific hypotheses about its origin range from the name of a Roman military detachment called Cohors Montanorum, which was stationed there in the second half of the 1st century AD (whose presence, however, is only indirectly implied in the sources), to the city’s location at the foot of the Balkan Mountains, and to a cult shrine in the pre-Roman settlement.
The Fortress of Montanesium also had a large water spring. It was the site of an ancient rock shrine which was an important cult center during the Roman Age when pilgrims worshipped there a number of Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman deities, including Diana and Apollo, who were the city’s Hellenistic Age patrons, as well as Jupiter, Dionysus, Roman god of woods and fields Silvanus, medicine god Asclepius, also known as Aesculapius, and his daughter Hygieia, Thracian supreme god Heros, also known as the Thracian Horseman, Hermes, Heracles (also known as Hercules), Mars, Persian deity Mithra (Mitra), and the spring nymphs. Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the Ancient Roman city of Montanesium have discovered numerous sculptures, votive tablets, and inscriptions left as gifts by a wide range of pilgrims from the military, civilians, aristocrats, and common folk.
Barbarian invasions by the Goths in the middle of the 3rd century AD disrupted the life of the Roman city of Montanesium leading to a reconstruction of its fortress. At the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century AD, around the time of the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD), Montanesium flourished together with the numerous Roman villas in its suburbs. The Antiquity shrine and the Roman villas were destroyed at the end of the 4th century AD in a new wave of Gothic invasions. Between 440 and 490 AD today’s Northwest Bulgaria was overrun by the Huns and the Goths; Montanesium waned until the 6th century AD when it was ultimately destroyed by the barbarian invasions of Avars and Slavs (between 500 and 560 AD), like the rest of the Roman cities in today’s Northern Bulgaria. The Slavs who settled there named the city Kutlovitsa which remained its name during the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages. At the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, in the 12th-14th century AD, Kutlovitsa was the center of a Christian eparchy.