Archaeologists Discover Italian Red Pottery, First Doric Capital in Looted Ancient Roman City Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria

Red pottery and architectural fragments discovered during the 2016 excavations in the Roman city of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

Red pottery and architectural fragments discovered during the 2016 excavations in the Roman city of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

Red pottery (terra sigillata) imported from the Italian Peninsula and for the first time a Doric capital have been discovered by archaeologists during the brief and underfunded 2016 excavations of the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, 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-level local diggers. Few of those ever get sentenced.

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, and since 2013, the archaeological excavations there have been resumed by a team led to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology.

Unfortunately, the 2016 digs lasted for only 2 weeks and included a total of three archaeologists and only nine workers since the government funding allocated by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture was only BGN 10,000 (app. EUR 5,000).

“We have found terra sigillata, pottery imported directly from the Italian Peninsula, as well as some marble artifacts such as a marble mortar. Also, for the first time we found evidence of a Doric order [in the city’s architecture] – a small capital which was part of the buildings located north of the residence [of the provincial governor],” Dimitrov has announced at a news conference in the city of Vidin, as cited by Radio Vidin.

Other finds include a stone projectile considered a piece of evidence of the barbarian attacks on the Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city; a fibula; decoration beads; as well as coins from the entire period of Ratiaria’s existence.  The artifacts are to be made part of the collection of the Regional Museum of History in the Danube city of Vidin.

In his words, the archaeological team has continued to expose the ruins of well preserved Late Antiquity buildings from the height of the Roman colony, the 3rd-5th century AD, when it was the capital of the Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis.

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Other finds from the 2016 excavations in Ratiaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

Other finds from the 2016 excavations in Ratiaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

The researchers have continued their excavations from last year of an insula (a Roman city block) between the residence of the provincial governor and Late Antiquity thermae (public baths). They exposed a small residential quarter between these two buildings, as well as a previously unknown public building.

“The city of Ratiaria was established in the 2nd century AD as a Roman colony, i.e. a city equal in status to the capital of the Empire, Rome. It was one of the strongholds of the Roman authority on the Danube, and in the Late Antiquity it even became the capital of one of the Roman provinces. It had an armory and a mint,” the archaeologist has reminded stressing the importance of the city.

Dimitrov has also pointed out that the local authorities and the police have recently been taking measures to deal with the treasure hunting menace, and that the archaeological structures revealed by his team can be restored as part of a long-anticipated cultural tourism project by the authorities of Dimivo Municipality.

As in previous statements, he has made clear his optimism that despite the decades of rampant looting, there is a lot left of the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria that can be saved.

“It is possible to rescue Ratiaria, there is a lot to be found… The large architectural complexes that we are finding on the ground are a priceless resource for the entire Vidin region, and once they get restored, Ratiaria can take its place as one of the largest, or even the largest tourist site of the Vidin District, Dimitrov elaborates.

He also reminds that in today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed the status of colonies of the city of Rome: Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria) near the Danube town of Archar in Northwest Bulgaria; Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, also near the Danube, and also in Northwest Bulgaria; and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near the Black Sea city of Burgas in Southeast Bulgaria.

“In 2014, we worked for two months on the ground in Ratiaria but this year our opportunities were limited because the sum we received for the excavations was only BGN 10,000. For next year, we have undertaken a campaign in all directions, and I expect the digs to be longer. In Vidin, a trans-border cooperation project with Serbia is being drafted [for EU funding], which will provide opportunities for extended research of ancient Ratiaria,” adds the archaeologist, as cited by BTA.

“This year we managed to trace all possibly [historical] periods within the researched location. They demonstrate a very intensive urban development of Ratiaria with at least four periods, four shifts in the main components of the buildings, with a total reconstruction of the urban planning during the reign of [Byzantine Emperor] Anastasius (r. 491-518 AD),says Assoc. Prof. Ivo Topalilov from Shumen University “Bishop Konstantin Preslavski”, who is one of the two deputy heads of the digs.

“In the Roman cities in Bulgaria, it is very rare to see construction of new streets after the middle of the 5th century AD. The street that we found in Ratiaria, and its dating, testify to a serious urban reconstruction of the city which has not been found even in the province of Thrace,” Topalilov explains.

“Next year we are planning to continue the excavation of this building located north of the residence of the provincial governor, and also in the western direction… that way we will be able to expose this quarter which is located between two streets near the residence. After that, the restoration and conservation of this section will be possible,” explains in turn archaeologist Ilko Tsvetkov from the Vidin Regional Museum of History, the other deputy head of the excavations of Ratiaria.

Archaeologists (L-R) Ivo Topalilov, Zdravko Dimitrov, and Ilko Tsvetkov during their news conference presenting the finds from the 2016 excavations of ancient Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

Archaeologists (L-R) Ivo Topalilov, Zdravko Dimitrov, and Ilko Tsvetkov during their news conference presenting the finds from the 2016 excavations of ancient Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria. Photo: Radio Vidin

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 all of 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.

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Aerial shots of the ruins of ancient Ratiaria showing the tiny section of the Roman city to have been excavated by archaeologists. The entire field surrounding the exposed ruins actually was still the Roman city, and consists of thousands of man-made hill, craters, and pits resulting from the brutal looting by treasure hunters in the past 25 years. Photos: Radio Vidin

Aerial shots of the ruins of ancient Ratiaria showing the tiny section of the Roman city to have been excavated by archaeologists. The entire field surrounding the exposed ruins actually was still the Roman city, and consists of thousands of man-made hill, craters, and pits resulting from the brutal looting by treasure hunters in the past 25 years, with whatever archaeological structures that may be surviving at a greater depth underneath. Photos: Radio Vidin

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The 2015 archaeological excavations in Ratiaria led to the discovery of a building’s portico and finding the hypocaust of the governor’s 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 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.

A 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.

Background Infonotes:

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 today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed the status of colonies of the city of Rome: Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria) near the Danube town of Archar in Northwest Bulgaria; Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, also near the Danube, and also in Northwest Bulgaria; and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near the Black Sea city of Burgas in Southeast Bulgaria.

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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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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