Stolen Thracian-Roman Silver Mask Helmet Restored, Showcased in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv 21 Years after Theft
A very rare Thracian-Roman mask helmet made of iron and silver, which was stolen in a brazen museum robbery back in 1995, and was recovered by the Bulgarian intelligence in 2015, has now been restored and showcased once again at its home, the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology.
The mask helmet, which is dated to the 1st century AD, was discovered in 1905 during archaeological excavations in a burial mound in the Kamenitsa Quarter in the city of Plovdiv.
It consists of a helmet made of iron and decorated with a silver laurel wreath, and of a mask covering the face and the ears which is made of a thin sheet of silver.
The mask helmet can be considered both an Ancient Roman and Ancient Thracian artifact. It was made in Rome, and was worn at celebrations and parades. However, it was owned by a Thracian aristocrat from ancient Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv).
The mask helmet was discovered in 1905 by the then Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology Boris Dyakovich, in the aristocrat’s tomb in an Ancient Thracian burial mound (tumulus) in Plovdiv’s Kamenitsa Quarter (known today as the location of the Kamenitsa Brewery and the Kamenitsa beer brand).
After the Roman Empire conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube) in 46 AD, Thrace became a province that was well integrated into the life of Ancient Rome; many Thracian aristocrats retained their status, and many Thracian soldiers served in the Roman armed forces.
The extremely rare artifact was stolen in an armed robbery of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology in April 1995. In April 2015, 20 years later, the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office announced that the mask has been recovered.
Because it had been somewhat damaged in the 20 years it was missing, for the past year, the mask helmet has been restored by Bulgarian restorer Militsa Ilieva, and has now been showcased once again to the permanent display of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, 21 years after the robbery, reports local news site Plovdiv24.
This is the second restoration of the mask helmet, which is listed under No. 19 in the inventory book of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology. It was also partly restored by specialists in the 1970s.
The Thracian-Roman artifact was stolen on a slow Sunday afternoon when the museum was closed. Two men rang the doorbell, and attacked and wounded the security guard who came to the door by hitting him on the head with a pistol handle and dragging him inside. After that, they used one of the guard’s shoes to break the window where the 1st century AD mask helmet was exhibited.
The entire robbery took three minutes. The police arrived exactly five minutes after the window breaking sounded the alarm but discovered no-one but the wounded security guard.
The robbers stole only the Ancient Roman – Thracian mask helmet even though at that time it was exhibited together with other archaeological treasures found in the same aristocrat’s tomb in the Kamenitsa Mound.
“It is weird that next to it there were two gold laurel wreaths, silver and bronze vessels, and two gold rings but they remained untouched. Only the mask was stolen because it is extremely rare and valuable,” says the Director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology Kostadin Kisyov, as cited by the 24 Chasa daily.
The museum chief adds that some 700 ancient coins in the same window were also ignored by the criminals, and this makes him believe the robbery had been targeted solely at the ancient silver mask.
He also emphasizes that there are only a total of three mask helmets of its kind known in the world, and that the other two are kept in museums in France and Italy. The archaeologist estimates that the Plovdiv mask helmet would be worth EUR 2-3 million if sold at an international auction house.
Kisyov says the mask had been smuggled abroad and resold. However, Bulgaria’s law enforcement authorities, including the State National Security Agency (DANS), have refused to reveal any details about the artifact’s fate after it was stolen, and how and where it has been recovered.
There have been reports that on this case Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office is prosecuting an organized crime group of four persons smuggling archaeological items, and that the Thracian-Roman mask helmet had ended in the antique collection of a collector from Switzerland.
As the artifact is now back in the permanent display of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology so it can be viewed by the visitors, Kisyov has assured the security at the Museum has been improved substantially compared with 21 years ago, with armed security guards, a better alarm system, security cameras, and strengthened display windows.
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.
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.
The history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.
Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).
The hills, or “tepeta”, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.
During the Early Antiquity periodEumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.
In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.
In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).
Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)),Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.
Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.
In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.
Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.