The tractor used by the arrest treasure hunters for “trenching” near Bulgaria’s Petarnitsa in order to reach the deeper archaeological layers. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center
A group of five treasure hunters has been arrested on the spot while plowing a field where a Late Antiquity and early medieval settlement was located near the town of Petarnitsa, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, in order to extract archaeological artifacts.
The five men were arrested in a police operation on August 4, 2016, at 4 pm, i.e. in broad daylight, while they were using a tractor and metal detectors to seek out archaeological artifacts about 3 km off the nearest road, the press service of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry reported.
Three of the detainees aged 35, 41, and 66 come from the town of Pravets; the others are a 58-year-old man from the town of Cherven Bryag, and a 50-year-old man from the town of Telish.
The police have seized four metal detectors which were used together with the tractor by the treasure hunters.
Inside a car used by the five men, the police have found a total of 33 items which are assumed to be archaeological artifacts as well as an envelope with small gold nuggets.
Ceramic fragments and supposed archaeological artifacts discovered at the arrested treasure hunters. Photos: Interior Ministry Press Center
Sources from the museum authorities in Pleven have told ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com that the police had been following the treasure hunting group for a week before making the arrests.
The local archaeologists have pointed out that the arrest is notable because in this case the treasure hunters were employing a technique from agriculture known as “trenching" (in some variations known as “contour trenching").
Under this technique which is used often by treasure hunters destroying Bulgaria’s archaeological, historical, and cultural sites, the looters employ tractors to reach archaeological layers that are as deep as 1 meter in order to bring to the surface whatever artifacts might be hiding underneath the uppermost layer.
After overturning the layers of the soil by “trenching” it with a tractor, the treasure hunters would typically search each furrow with metal detectors to identify any metal artifacts.
“Trenching” is said to be an especially brutal looting technique because of the extensive and irreparable damage that it does to archaeological layers.
In Bulgarian agriculture, the same technique is usually used for planting orchards or vineyards, for example.
The site which was being “trenched” by the arrested treasure hunters is a settlement dating back to the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages. Volodya Popov, the Director of the Pleven Regional Museum of History, has told the 24 Chasa daily that the settlement is registered as an archaeological site but has never been officially excavated by archaeologists.
Petarnitsa itself is a town which was first settled in the 13th-14th century, i.e. during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), and which also survived during after the Ottoman invasion and conquest of Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century.
The entire Pleven District in Central North Bulgaria is very rich in archaeological monuments from the Roman Antiquity but also from Late Antiquity / Early Byzantine period, and the Middle Ages.
The Interior Ministry Press Center has also released video footage of the arrest and the destruction caused by the treasure hunters near Petarnitsa. The video can be downloaded here or seen on the Interior Ministry website here (click the link in the right-hand column), or, alternatively, on this Bulgarian news site here (scroll down).
Metal detectors and shovels used by the arrested treasure hunters near Bulgaria’s Petarnitsa. Photos: Interior Ministry Press Center
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 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.