Archaeologists Surprisingly Find Western Fortress Wall of Roman Colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria Has Survived Treasure Hunters' Bulldozers

Archaeologists Surprisingly Find Western Fortress Wall of Roman Colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria Has Survived Treasure Hunters’ Bulldozers

The western fortress wall of the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria near Bulgaria’s Danube town of Archar, first found in the 1980s, has now been rediscovered almost intact. The archaeologists had thought it had been destroyed during treasure hunting raids with tractors and bulldozers in the 1990s and 2000s. Photo: TV grab from the Bulgarian National Television

Archaeologists excavating the Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, which has been brutally looted and destroyed by treasure hunters in the 1990s and 2000s, have surprisingly discovered that the Roman colony’s western fortress wall has survived almost intact the monstrous treasure hunting raids which used to involve bulldozers and tractors.

Ratiaria was one of the largest Roman cities outside the Italian Peninsula, and had been very well preserved until 1990-1991 when treasure hunters started ripping it apart.

In the 3rd-5th century AD, Ratiaria was the capital of the Late Roman province of Dacia Ripensis. 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.

Because of the scale of the rampant destruction by treasure hunters in the recent decades, the name of Ratiaria has become synonymous with the surrender and alleged complicity of the Bulgarian law enforcement authorities to the plight of treasure hunting which plagues archaeological sites all over the country.

The archaeologists who excavated the ruins of Ratiaria during the 2017 digs in September and October have now announced they have rediscovered the western fortress wall of the Roman city which they had thought to have been long gone. It had been believed to have been destroyed during the bulldozing of the ruins by treasure hunting gangs in the 1990s and 2000s.

A team of archaeologists including Assoc. Prof. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, Assoc. Prof. Ivo Topalilov from Shumen University “Bishop Konstantin Preslavski", and Ilko Tsvetkov from the Vidin Regional Museum of History resumed the archaeological research of Ratiaria in 2013 with the hope of saving as much as possible of the Roman city from the modern-day looting.

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The western fortress wall of the Roman colony of Ratiaria is up to 3.5 meters wide. Photo: TV grab from the Bulgarian National Television

“[We have been excavating] things that had been studied in the 1980s by the Regional Museum of History in Vidin but after that were buried by the treasure hunting digs," lead archaeologist Dimitrov says, as cited by the Bulgarian National Television.

“We have now managed to clear those mounds formed by the treasure hunters in order to inspect the condition of the western fortress wall," he adds.

The archaeologists have unexpectedly discovered that the fortress wall, which was up to 3.5 meters wide, has largely survived the treasure hunting raids.

These are not natural hills but man-made mounds resulting from the looting of the Roman city of Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria by treasure hunting mobsters who used bulldozers and tractors to plow through the ruins. Photo: TV grab from the Bulgarian National Television

“To our surprise, the wall has been almost fully preserved. Of course, there are spots where it was damaged by the [treasure hunters’] digs but most of it has been preserved, and is suitable for exhibiting," explains Topalilov, the other lead archaeologist.

“That is, not everything in Ratiaria has been irrevocably destroyed and lost," he emphasizes.

The archaeological team and the local authorities have drafted projects for partial restoration and exhibition in situ of the ruins of the Roman provincial capital of Ratiaria, which are to be executed once the research of the specific sections is completed.

“We are planning to include five large structures in restoration and exhibition projects. But this is just the start of our research. The campaign for the research of a Roman city lasts decades," Dimitrov states.

The 2017 archaeological excavations are focused on a section north of the residence of the provincial governor of the Roman province of Dacia Ripensis where the researchers have unearthed Late Antiquity thermae (public baths) and a large residential building, which is still being excavated.

“So far, the building [has been revealed to have] an area of over 200 square meters but it continues north, and most probably, as a normal residential building in a Roman city, it probably was an entire insula, i.e. a building covering a city block," the archaeologist reveals.

Coins and pottery that the archaeological team discovered in Ratiaria a year ago have corroborated the hypothesis that the city emerged around a Roman military camp in the 1st century AD.

“Our goal is to clean up Ratiaria from the horrendous mounds left behind by the treasure hunting raids, and to restore and exhibit the architectural structures in order to turn the [Roman city] into a tourist attraction," Dimitrov concludes.

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.

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Surviving archaeological structures from Ratiaria that have been exposed by the original archaeological digs in the 1980s and the current excavations restarted in 2013. Photos: TV grabs from the Bulgarian National Television

Last year, an Italian archaeologist, Assoc. Prof. Livio Zerbini from the University of Ferrara, expressed interest in the excavation of Ratiaria giving hopes that international collaboration may help save and research further the Roman city.

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.

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 (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:

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. 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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