Museum Workers Urge Special Permits for Metal Detectors to Combat Bulgaria’s Rampant Treasure Hunting

A metal detector seized recently from treasure hunters by the Bulgarian police near the town of Peternitsa, Pleven District. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

A metal detector seized recently from treasure hunters by the Bulgarian police near the town of Peternitsa, Pleven District. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

Special permits for the ownership and usage of metal detectors must be introduced in Bulgaria as a measure designed to crack down on the rampant treasure hunting destroying thousands of archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments, museum workers have urged.

There are various estimates as to how many treasure hunters are looting Bulgaria’s archaeological sites ranging from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand.

In a report on the proposal to introduce special permits for the usage of metal detectors, the private Bulgarian channel bTV notes that “according to unofficial data, tens of thousands of people are involved in treasure hunting” in Bulgaria.

It cites museum workers and archaeologists as arguing in favor of special regulations for metal detectors because in Bulgaria “metal detectors are sold openly and control over their usage is impossible at the present stage”.

As an example, the report points out the Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city of Zaldapa, a very large Late Antiquity fortress in Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District, in Northeast Bulgaria.

It is pointed out that Zaldapa, which has been excavated by Bulgarian, French, and Canadian archaeologists in the past couple of years, is just one of the numerous sites which have been looted by treasure hunters.

Learn more about the Late Antiquity city and fortress of Zaldapa in Northeast Bulgaria in the Background Infonotes below!

“The [treasure hunters] are the modern-day Huns. They are destroying and obliterating any kind of trace of cultural and historical heritage and the presence of ancient civilizations [in Bulgaria],” Kostadin Kostadinov, Director of the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, is quoted as saying.

He argues that one of the ways to crack down on the looting and trafficking of archaeological artifacts from the sites all over the country is to introduce a regulatory regime over the usage of metal detectors similar to the regulations for the use of firearms.

At the same time, however, a lot of people in Bulgaria own metal detectors with the argument that their hobby is to seek out and discover metal items. The National Association for Metal Detecting in Bulgaria, a NGO, claims that its members always turn in archaeological artifacts that they stumble upon to the respective museums, as required by law.

“It is paradoxical that in four museum already, the Directors have declined to accept the items that are being turned in, and have referred their finders to the police,” says Georgi Georgiev, lawyer for the National Association for Metal Detecting.

The proposal to introduce special permits for the sale of metal detectors is to be tabled to the Committee on Culture in the Bulgarian Parliament which is supposed to consider respective amendments to the anyway controversial Cultural Heritage Act.

At present, as per this law, a person who has been found guilty of treasure hunting in Bulgaria may receive a prison sentence of up to 6 years, and a fine of up to BGN 20,000 (app. EUR 10,000).

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A metal detector seized recently from treasure hunters by the Bulgarian police near the town of Peternitsa, Pleven District. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

A metal detector seized recently from treasure hunters by the Bulgarian police near the town of Peternitsa, Pleven District. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center

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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The Ancient Thracian, Ancient Roman, and Early Byzantine fortress Zaldapa located between the towns of Abrit and Dobrin, Dobrich District, Northeast Bulgaria, is said to be the largest fortified settlement in the geographic region of Dobrudzha (covering much of Northeast Bulgaria). Because of the name of the town of Abrit, for a long time, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Bulgarian archaeologists and historians thought the Zaldapa Fortress was in fact the legendary ancient city of Abritus – until the ruins of Abritus were discovered some 100 km to the southwest, near the city of Razgrad, in 1953.

Zaldapa (meaning “yellow water”) was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement founded in the 8th century BC. It is located on a large peninsula-shaped plateau with a length of 1.2 km and a width of 500 meters (totaling 0.6 square km). Archaeological observations indicate that Zaldapa was densely built-up and populated. The entire settlement covered an area of 35 hectares (app. 86 acres). Zaldapa’s fortress wall appears homogenous meaning it was probably constructed in a single campaign, without major reconstructions in subsequent periods. It has a lot of straight sections as well as a total of 32 fortress towers of various shape and size, as well as 3 main and 2 smaller gates. The type of the fortification indicates that it was built in the Late Antiquity, i.e. the Late Roman period, most probably in the second half of the 4th century AD.

Zaldapa was first explored in 1906-1910 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil, one of the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Later archaeological exploration has been reduced to terrain observations. Between World War I and World War II, when the region of Southern Dobrudzha was part of Romania, Zaldapa was also researched by Romanian archaeologists any findings they might have had have not made it to the Bulgarian archaeologists. Proper archaeological excavations at Zaldapa were carried out for the first time in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History). Unfortunately, since the end of the 19th century the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Zaldapa has been targeted by looters and treasure hunters. All archaeological explorations there to date have studied part of the fortifications, a Roman civic basilica, an Early Christian basilica, and a huge water reservoir.

The so called Roman civic basilica was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil in the first decade of the 20th century. It is located in the center of Zaldapa, and has dimensions of 101 by 18 meters. Its walls are constructed according to the Roman style opus implectum, and its floor is tiled with bricks. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, the basilica was probably an entire architectural complex consisting of two basilicas with a common entryway; it was a Roman public building with judicial and commercial functions.

In 1906, Karel Skorpil also explored an Early Christian church, a three-nave, one-apse basilica with dimensions 27 meters by 16 meters, situation in the east-west direction. It was built in the same style as the fortress wall and the civic basilica, most probably at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century AD, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (r. 491-518 AD). A bishop’s basilica was discovered at Zaldapa in the first regular excavations in 2014 by archaeologists from the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the Dobrich Regional Museum of History, and the Varna Museum of Archaeology (Varna Regional Museum of History) led by Prof. Georgi Atanasov and Prof. Valeri Yotov.

The water reservoir of the Zaldapa fortress was discovered in 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. It is located northwest of the fortress itself. It was a rather complex engineering facility consisting of two spaces. The water reservoir was connected with the fortress with a secret passage, a rock tunnel which is 3 meters wide and 3 meters tall. The Bulgarian archaeologists believed that because of its vulnerable location outside the fortress wall and the secret passage, it was covered with earth immediately after its construction to hide it from the enemy forces. The water reservoir was likely constructed in the second quarter of the 4th century AD together with other Late Roman urban infrastructure in the city of Zaldapa.

According to the works of 7th century AD Byzantine chronicler John of Antioch, the city of Zaldapa was the birthplace of Byzantine general Vitalian (d. 520) who led a rebellion against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius which grew into a 5-year civil war. The city of Zaldapa is also found in the list of fortifications renovated during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD) where it was also mentioned as the seat of a Christian bishop under the diocese of the metropolitan in Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania). The fortress of Zaldapa was in use by the Later Roman Empire and Early Byzantine Empire (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire) for about 250 years – between the second half of the 4th century AD, and the end of the 6th century AD when the city of Zaldapa was depopulated as a result of the great barbarian invasion of the Avars in 585 AD.

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