Some 500,000 Treasure Hunters Destroying Bulgaria’s Archaeological Heritage on Daily Basis, Archaeologist Estimates

A pit freshly dug by looting treasure hunters. Pits like that one dot the landscape all over rural Bulgaria. Photo: Trud daily

A pit freshly dug by looting treasure hunters. Pits like that one dot the landscape all over rural Bulgaria. Photo: Trud daily

About 500,000 people in Bulgaria are dealing with treasure hunting and thus destroying the country’s archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage, an archaeologist estimates.

The staggering figure of the treasure hunters in the country has been growing, according to Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov from the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, a body of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, as cited by the Trud daily.

“I have recently come back from a tour in the Pleven region. There are fresh [treasure hunting] digs everywhere. Wherever you go, you will see the same,” Torbatov is quoted as saying.

In his words, at least two more zeroes need to be added to the figure of the official estimate of 5,000 active treasure hunters in Bulgaria, with some 500,000 treasure hunters being a more plausible figure.

He points out that treasure hunting is most common in Northwest Bulgaria where the locals have no other means of making a living. This is also the poorest region in the entire European Union.

The archaeologist says that there is hardly a place in Bulgaria which has remained intact from the raids of the treasure hunters.

Even the places that have been thoroughly searched are revisited, with new digs going as deep as 7 meters since all finds from the surface layers have been snatched.

The report notes that police operations have made it clear that almost all archaeological artifacts discovered by the treasure hunters in Bulgaria are “exported”, including ceramic vessels, bone items, and architectural fragments which are cut and sold in pieces if they are larger.

Even if the Bulgarian authorities manage to identify abroad artifacts originating in Bulgaria, and bring them back (there have been case of large quantities of artifacts returned from Canada, Italy, and the USA), their historical value is lost because the archaeologists and historians have no way of figuring out their exact places of origin.

Another archaeologist, Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, recently estimated that the archaeological artifacts extracted and exported from Bulgaria through treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques are worth about USD 1 billion annually.

Dochev’s estimate of the USD 1 billion annual turnover of the archaeological contraband out of Bulgaria is even higher than the estimate of BGN 500 million (app. EUR 250 million) made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO.

One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past” (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com team participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction has been occurring all over the country on a daily basis.

Whenever treasure hunters and/or traffickers of antiques do get sentenced in Bulgaria, even in high profile trials, they usually get away with suspended sentences.

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.

An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, 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.

According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.

According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.

One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past” (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.

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