Bulgaria’s Archaeology Faces Grave Danger of ‘Privatization’, National Museum Director Raises Alarm

Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, has raised alarm over proposed legislative amendments which might deal a fatal blow to Bulgaria’s archaeological research and heritage. Photo: BGNES

Bulgaria’s archaeology and archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage faces a potential collapse if proposed amendments to the Cultural Heritage Act are adopted, Assoc. Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, has warned.

The most egregious of the proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s embattled Cultural Heritage Act provide for allowing NGOs and other private structures to carry out archaeological excavations, and for changing the structure of the Field Research Council which issues permits for digs, Vagalinski has told the Bulgarian National Radio in an interview.

Voicing the position of the overwhelming majority of Bulgaria’s archaeologists and other cultural heritage experts, he has warned that those and other proposed legislation changes would amount to an all-out “privatization” of the country’s enormous archaeological heritage.

While these developments would be very detrimental in their own right, their end effect would be catastrophic against the backdrop of the rampant treasure hunting which keeps ripping apart and plundering priceless archaeological, historical, and cultural sites across Bulgaria on a daily basis.

(Learn more about treasure hunting in Bulgaria in the Background Infonotes below!)

Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act itself has been amended 18 times since 2009. In addition to the massive treasure hunting crisis which has been especially severe since the end of the communist regime in 1989, in recent years, Bulgaria has seen a number of the so called botched archaeological restorations, that is, cultural tourism promotion projects such as fortress restorations which end up unauthentic or even plain kitschy.

Yet, according to Vagalinski, at present the most important system of Bulgaria’s archaeology and cultural heritage protection functions rather well because in essence it is “state-owned” and allows for protecting the public interest in the field, rather than letting various nation-wide or local lobbies and interest groups take advantage of it for their own commercial interests.

“I hope these proposals for allowing NGOs to carry out archaeological research, and for changing the structure of the Field Research Council, won’t materialize,” Vagalinski says, stressing that the proposed amendments are opposed by museums and universities across the country.

“[The frequent changes in the Cultural Heritage Act] certainly are not engineered by people who care for Bulgaria’s archaeology and cultural heritage. Things usually boil down to money – apparently, many people don’t like the present situation in which, by law, investors [in property developments] are obliged to pay for archaeological excavations, and to do so according to a price list specified in Bulgaria’s State Gazette. By the way, the publishing of this price list was at the initiative of the Bulgarian government,” elaborates the Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

He has cited numerous bad examples from a wide range of other European countries where private entrepreneurship has been allowed to reign supreme in the field of archaeology, which is, by default, a domain of overwhelming public interest.

In his words, the situation in Bulgaria most probably will become exactly the same if the proposed legal amendments are adopted.

“I am convinced that the idea is to privatize Bulgaria’s archaeology – because it is [technically] state-owned at the moment… And for us, the consequences will be even more catastrophic [than in other European countries] because Bulgaria stands out with its very high intensity of treasure hunting activity. There is no other country in Europe which has so many treasure hunters who are so active, and, unfortunately, so successful,” Vagalinski explains.

“So this combination of a treasure hunting hysteria and the potential privatization of archaeology will definitely destroy our archaeological heritage,” he emphasizes.

The archaeologist further points out the wide range of dreadful practices that have come into being in other European countries as a result of deciding to allow private enterprises to dominate in their archaeology.

“I have provided a number of specific examples of what’s happening in Europe thanks to allowing private initiative in archaeology. The examples are brutal, nobody knows where the finds go, private archaeological firms using dumping prices, archaeological heritage gets destroyed, nobody dares say anything, oftentimes the young girls and boys who were hired to work as archaeologists don’t get paid,” Vagalinski enumerates.

He says that his examples are fresh, from a meeting in Prague, Czechia, held last year. He also points out that from March 21 until March 24, Bulgaria and its National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia are set to host the annual meeting of the European Archaeological Council. The symposium is going to focus precisely on the topic of private investors, archaeology, and defending the public interest.

(Update as of March 25, 2018: Bulgaria has been admitted as a full-fledged member of the EAC during the symposium in Sofia.)

“[Across Europe] the pendulum has swung too far, and not in favor of the public interest, this balance has been upset. We [Bulgaria] are one of the few countries together with Denmark and Romania to some extent, Greece has already been broken, which keep this balance in favor of the public interest,” the archaeologist adds.

He is certain that the proposed legislation amendments and the rampant treasure hunting in Bulgaria will open a wide range of new opportunities for corruption with respect to the fields of archaeology and cultural heritage.

“In a certain way, we [the Field Research Council, the archaeologists as a whole, and the National Institute and Museum in Sofia] are a hurdle [to evil minded factors] under the present system, and the model with which we work, hindering such corruption practices because we follow strictly the regulations, being the experts that is our job,” Vagalinski points out.

“Quite a few people from various institutions participate [in the Field Research Council] and apparently we are not very convenient. I have specific examples of attempts to circumvent the law during the years since 2009,” he adds.

In his words, factors wishing to destroy the present model of state-owned archaeology in Bulgaria attempt every few years to do so by changing the legislation causing periodic crises. So far those crises have been overcome but there is no guarantee every next one will be.

“The last big crisis was in 2012 – 2013 when we resisted [changes] that had been planned, we surmounted it, but now this is happening once again,” the expert says.

In his words, the Field Research Council which issues permits for archaeological excavations in Bulgaria on behalf of the Ministry of Culture presently manages to do a great deal of work in defense of the public interest, and to do so with very modest resources.

The Council is charged by the Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology but its members come from several institutions, and most are not archaeologists.

“We are the work mules who with our modest office manage to cope with all permits, all that paperwork, helping both the entire archaeological class, and the Ministry [of Culture]. When there’s all that talk about unloading the license regimes from the state – we are doing exactly that with our own resources, without burdening the state,” Vagalinski states.

He reminds that in 2012 and 2013, the archaeologists had to defend their legislation in trails before Bulgaria’s Competition Protection Commission and Supreme Administrative Court both of which ultimately ruled in their favor.

“Back then the Interior Ministry also supported us by explaining that the proposed amendments would have led to corruption practices. This was a big surprise for the other two or three government ministries which were trying to get the amendments passed,” the archaeologist recalls.

“Periodically, there are certain problems but we’ve been resolving them by balancing, and, I repeat, the system works well. We are worried, though, because we’re not being heard, and we don’t understand why all of this is done. We wouldn’t want to end up in some kinds of collisions again because that is bad for the state,” Vagalinski elaborates.

“What is going to happen depends on which model of behavior will be chosen such as drafting proposals secretly. I am not surprised. I don’t know what is going to happen, things are unpredictable but if the “privatization” attempt succeeds, I can promise you that [Bulgaria’s] archaeological heritage will be destroyed,” he forecasts.

“And it will collapse completely. In the European countries, with clear regulations and a very small scope of treasure hunting, things are very bad [under this model]. We here are barely standing our ground at the moment because law enforcement institutions are trying but aren’t succeeding in suppressing the treasure hunting hysteria. We know from them that there are [at least] 30,000 active treasure hunters [throughout Bulgaria]. This is as many as the number of the Bulgarian armed forces, and in certain years the [treasure hunters’] number is even several times greater. This is a huge business. So if against this backdrop we allow the privatization of archaeology, we wouldn’t even have to talk about any archaeological cultural heritage [in Bulgaria] anymore!” concludes the Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

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.