Authorities Seek to Reassure Archaeologists of Policing of Utterly Looted Ancient Roman City Ratiaria

Archaeologists Zdravko Dimitrov (second on the right) and Fionera Filipova (first on the right) showing Vidin Police chief Yanko Yankov (second on the left) around their excavation site in the Roman city of Ratiaria. Photo: Vidin Police Directorate

Archaeologists Zdravko Dimitrov (second on the right) and Fionera Filipova (first on the right) showing Vidin Police chief Yanko Yankov (second on the left) around their excavation site in the Roman city of Ratiaria. Photo: Vidin Police Directorate

Local authorities and the police in the Vidin District in Northwest Bulgaria have sought to reassure of their policing efforts the archaeologists working on the excavation of the huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria, an archaeological site which has been brutally looted and destroyed by thousands of treasure hunters over the past couple of decades.

The huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria, whose structures survived barbarian invasions in the Late Antiquity only to be shattered by the modern-day barbarians of post-communist Bulgaria, has been targeted by treasure hunters on a daily basis since the early 1990s by both organized crime and low-chain local diggers. Few of those ever get arrested and catch the public’s attention.

Because of the scale of the rampant destruction, the name of Ratiaria has become synonymous with the surrender (and possibly even complicity) of the Bulgarian law enforcement authorities to the plight of treasure hunting which plagues archaeological sites all over the country.

Yet, in spite of the decades of looting, much of the structures of the Ancient Roman city are still preserved underground, according to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, lead archaeologist of the Ratiaria digs since their resumption in 2013.

This has recently led the local authorities from Bulgaria’s Dimovo Municipality, which includes the modern-day successor of Ratiaria, the Danube town of Archar, to finally support a project for setting up an in-situ open-air museum of Ratiaria. The Municipality plans to seek EU funding for the future Ratiaria museum from the Interreg Cross-border Cooperation Program for Bulgaria and Serbia.

Now ahead of the start of the 2016 summer excavations of the huge Ancient Roman colony, the fourth season in a row since the digs were resumed there, the local authorities and the local police have held a meeting with the archaeologists from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and the Vidin Regional Museum of History who are working on the site.

The lead archaeologists, Zdravko Dimitrov, and Fionera Filipova, Director of the Vidin Museum, have met with Commissar Yanko Yankov, head of the Regional Policy Directorate in Vidin, and inspector Martin Markov, in the police department in Archar, to “discuss the opportunities for cooperation against the treasure hunting raids" in the Roman city, the press service of the Vidin police has announced.

Dimovo Mayor Lozan Lozanov and Archar Mayor Venelin Atanasov were also present at the meeting. Subsequently, the senior police officers, the mayors, and the archaeologists visited together the site of the excavations inside the ancient city.

While the policing of Ratiaria seems to have done very little to protect the savagely destroyed site from treasure hunters, and, looking at the big picture, hardly has much to offer in terms of future efforts, the Vidin police have released some recent information from their data about the site.

It is noted that the police department in the town of Archar has 10 officers on staff and is tasked with the security of a total of 16 towns and villages, including the site of the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria.

According to the head of the department, Deyan Tsolov, the treasure hunting raids in Ratiaria have been “sporadic", with the police staging seven special operations and a number of inspections there in the past five months.

During these operations, they have arrested five local residents at the time of digging illegally in the Roman city using metal detectors, shovels, and pickaxes.

Between February and July 2016, a total of four pre-trial investigations have been started against treasure hunters busted in Ratiaria.

Even if any present police efforts against treasure hunting in the Roman city could be efficient in any way, they seem to be “too little, too late" to make any real difference on the ground.

In modern-day Bulgaria, Ratiaria is known as the place of extremely barbaric destruction since its ruins, which had been almost perfectly preserved until the 1980s when the site was excavated by Bulgarian and Italian archaeologists, have been ripped apart by treasure hunters in the years since 1990-1991.

While almost all of Bulgaria’s numerous archaeological sites keep getting pillaged by ruthless treasure hunters, and the Bulgarian institutions fail in (or abstain from) the effort to crack down on them, the fate of Ratiaria has been an especially outrageous case.

The archaeological excavations at Ratiaria were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex has been brutally looted and excavated by scores of treasure hunters – from poor local diggers to well-organized antique trafficking mobsters. It is alleged that in the 1990s the Roman city was bulldozed by the local mafia with the alleged participation of some government officials, while local Roma clans have been picking at the archaeological site by hand for decades.

The treasure hunting plight of Ratiaria (and Bulgaria, for that matter) was documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past". This film pretty much makes it clear that the looting of Ratiaria keeps taking place on an hourly basis so announcements about new damages are no news. The overall damage sustained by the Roman city from modern day treasure hunters can hardly be calculated.

The latest archaeological excavations in Ratiaria, which took place in the fall of 2015, led to the discovery of a building’s portico and finding the hypocaust of the residence of the Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis. The residence of the provincial governor of Ratiaria was excavated in full in 2014.

At the end of 2015, local treasure hunters viciously destroyed archaeological structures that had been newly discovered by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Ilko Tsvetkov from the Vidin Regional Museum of History.

The buildings that the archaeologists have been focusing since the excavations of Ratiaria were resumed in 2013 (for the first time since 1991), date back to the height of the Roman colony, the 3rd-5th century AD, when it was the capital of the Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis.

The Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria is located on a high terrace with an area of 600 hectares (app. 148 acres), overlooking the Danube River, towering about 30-40 meters above the river.

The future open-air museum is designed to cover a territory of about 5 decares to the northwest of today’s town of Archar; it will stand about 50 meters from the main roads Sofia-Dimovo-Archar-Vidin and Lom-Archar-Vidin in order to be more easily accessible for Bulgarian and foreign tourists.

The project for the “Open-Air Museum of Ratiaria" has been developed by a team led by Prof. Rumen Ivanov (find more information about him on the site of the Ulpia Serdica Foundation here) from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

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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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Ratiaria, formally known as Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, is an Ancient Roman arsenal city located on the right bank of the Lower Danube, near today’s Bulgarian town of Archar, in the Vidin District. Some scholars believe that the city of Ratiaria was first founded by the Thracian tribe Moesi in the 4th century BC, near a gold mine. In 29 BC, the Moesi were defeated by Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus sealing the Roman conquest of today’s Northwest Bulgaria. All of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD, and in 87 AD, Roman Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD) organized the region of Moesia into the Roman provinces of Moesia Superior (in today’s Northwest Bulgaria and Eastern Serbia) and Moesia Inferior (in today’s Northern Central and Northeast Bulgaria, and the Romanian part of the region of Dobrudzha).

It is assumed that the Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria was set up during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD). After the Roman conquest of the Dacians, the Thracian tribes north of the Danube, in 107 AD, Ratiaria became a colony in Moesia Superior under the name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, taking the names of its founder, Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD). 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).

Throughout its entire existence in the Roman Empire, and later the Early Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), Ratiaria was a key Roman outpost defending the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the frontier area of the Roman Empire on the Lower Danube. It was one of a total of six Roman arsenal cities, i.e. producers of arms, along the Limes Moesiae. The Roman Legion Legio IV Flavia Felix (“Lucky Flavian 4th Legion) was based at Ratiaria at least until the Roman conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD). During the reign of Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), it was the headquarters of Classis Moesica, the Lower Danube fleet of the Roman Empire established between 20 BC and 10 AD, which controlled the Danube from the Iron Gates to the Northwest Black Sea as far as the Crimean (Taurica) Peninsula. At different points in time, it was headquartered at Noviodunum (near Isaccea, today’s Romania), Ratiaria, Sexaginta Prista (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse), and with secondary bases at Novae (near Bulgaria’s Svishtov) and Ulpia Oescus (near Bulgaria’s Gigen), and Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania).

The name of Ratiaria is derived from the Latin word “ratis" (raft) or from “ratiaria", a type of vessel, signifying its significance for the Roman Navy, especially since only two of all Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae have names connected with sailing – Ratiaria and Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships", today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse). As the capital of Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis, Ratiaria served as the seat of the military governor and the base for Legio XIII Gemina (the 13th Twin Legion). Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria was the home of many Roman patricians (aristocrats). According to 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, the city of Ratiaria existed until 586 AD when it was destroyed in a barbarian invasion of the Avars.

The Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria is located on a high terrace with an area of 60 hectares (app. 148 acres), overlooking the Danube River, about 30-40 meters above the river; from the east and south it is surrounded by the Archaritsa River. It was mentioned by Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) in his work “Geography" in the 2nd century AD, and was marked in the 4th century AD Tabula Peutingeriana (the Peutinger Map showing cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire, covering Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia), and was mentioned in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus"), an Ancient Roman register of road stations. The name Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria is first mentioned in a Roman inscription from 125 AD. Other inscriptions discovered by the Bulgarian and Italian archaeologists excavating the site in the 1980s indicate that the city of Ratiaria had a lot of resident settlers from the Italian Peninsula as well as aristocrats of Eastern origin. One of the finds is a rare inscription dedicated to the Roman deity Pales, a patron of shepherds, flocks, and livestock.

Judging by the excavated graves and numerous discovered artifacts, slabs, statues (for example, a marble statue of the resting Hercules (Heracles)), and sarcophagi, Ratiaria was a key center of arts, agriculture and crafts, and there are indications that many of the landed estates around the city were cultivated with slave labor. In the 2nd-3rd century AD, it likely emerged as the most important Ancient Roman urban center not just in the province of Moesia Superior but also in the entire northern part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its importance as a commercial center was underlined by the major Roman roads passing through it: the road from the Roman city of Singidunum (today’s Belgrade in Serbia) to the delta of the Danube, and from there down the Western Black Sea coast to the city of Byzantium, which later became Constantinople; the Roman roads from the province of Dacia to the Italian Peninsula.

Some of the most interesting Late Antiquity structures excavated at Ratiaria include a building with agricultural tools, clay lamps, household items, and Byzantine coins from the middle of the 6th century AD, a building with a mosaic floor which likely was an Early Christian basilica, and pipes from the main aqueduct of Ratiaria. Bones of a total of 18 species of wild and domestic animals have been found there. According to Bulgarian paleo-ornithologist Prof. Zlatozar Boev, the most interesting of those are the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus colchicus), and the now nearly extinct in Bulgaria griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus).

Modern-day archaeological interest in the Ancient Roman city of Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria first started in the 1860s when it was visited by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz. In the 1890s, it was explored by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vaclav Dobrusky, and in 1900 – by Bulgarian archaeologist Boris Dyakovich. The first paper on the history of Ratiaria was published in 1911 by Nikifor Nedelev, and in the first half of the 20th century his word was built upon by archaeologists Ivan Velkov, Georti Katsarov, and Bogdan Filov. In the 1960s, Ratiaria’s history was explored by archaeologists Velizar Velkov and Boris Gerov. In 1958-1968, Ratiaria was partly excavated by archaeologists from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, including its then Director Yordanka Atanasova. In the 1980s, Ratiaria was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-Italian archaeological expedition led by Prof. Dario Giorgetti and Prof. Maria Bollini from the University of Bologna, which led to the publication of a the four-volume collection book Ratiariensia. Also in the 1980s, Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kuzmanov excavated the residence of the governor of the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis.

Unfortunately, the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria affected negatively the research and security of the Ancient Roman city. The archaeological excavations were terminated for lack of funding in 1991, and in the following years the once well preserved archaeological complex has been brutally looted and excavated by scores of treasure hunters – from poor local diggers to well-organized antique trafficking mobsters. It is alleged that in the 1990s the Roman city was bulldozed by the local mafia with the alleged participation of some government officials, while local Roma clans have been picking at the archaeological site by hand for decades.

The treasure hunting plight of Ratiaria (and Bulgaria, for that matter) was documented in a 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past". The damage done to one of the largest Roman cities outside Italy can hardly be calculated. The archaeological excavations of Ratiaria were resumed in 2011 by archaeologist Krasimira Luka from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski", and in 2013 by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

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