Bulgaria’s Police Seize 95 Archaeological Artifacts from ‘Organized Crime’ Treasure Hunters

A cross, one of the artifacts seized from the treasure hunters in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Interior Ministry press center

Bulgaria’s police have announced they have cracked down on an organized crime group dealing with treasure hunting and trafficking of antiques, and have seized a total of 95 archaeological artifacts dug up illegally.

Treasure hunting targetting archaeological sites is a rampant crime in Bulgaria and takes its toll on the country’s enormous cultural and historical heritage on a daily basis. (Learn more in the Background Infonotes below!)

In November 2017, Bulgaria’s police seized a medieval gold treasure from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) after it was found by accident in the trunk of a jeep owned by treasure hunters.

One of Bulgaria’s countless archaeological sites that have been destroyed with bulldozers by ruthless modern-day looters is the huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria on the Danube, in the country’s Northwest.

The newly announced special operation against the treasure hunters and traffickers has been carried out by the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime of Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry involving units from across the southern part of the country, namely in the cities of Plovdiv, Pazardzhik, Smolyan, and Stara Zagora.

The crackdown against the organized crime group, which was carried out on March 15, 2018, has been led by Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry press center has announced.

A ring seized from the treasure hunters. Photos: Interior Ministry press center

“It has been established that the criminal group is part of an international channel for the trafficking of cultural heritage artifacts illegally acquired through treasure hunting excavations in the country," the Bulgarian police say.

“The illegally traded artifacts have been added to unregistered private collections, and other dealers of cultural heritage artifacts have been supplied with them, who then exported them abroad,” the police add.

The release of the Interior Ministry refers to unregistered collections as opposed to legalized registered collections.

Even registered collections of archaeological artifacts remain a controversial matter in Bulgaria against the backdrop of the rampant treasure hunting and looting of archaeological sites from all historical periods.

Nonetheless, an exhibition on the Golden Fleece and the quest of Jason and the Argonauts at the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia has just showcased fabulous artifacts from Ancient Thrace and Ancient Greece, many of them for the first time.

These include, among others, a silver kantharos (ancient cup) showing Theseus, the hero king deemed the mythical founder of Athens, on the island of Crete, dating from 440-435 BC; a silver rhyton (ancient conical fluid container) with a depiction of Silenus, a satyr, i.e. a companion to wine god Dionysus who was also his tutor), dated to the end of the 3rd – beginning of the 2nd century BC; and a silver kantharos (ancient cup) showing the sacrifice of the sacred golden fleece ram that transferred Helle and Phrixus to Colchis.

In the newly announced police crackdown in Southern Bulgaria, a total of four people are suspected of participating in the organized crime group, and the police have raided six homes and five cars used by them.

The police officers have seized from them a total of 95 archaeological artifacts, including 85 ancient coins, and 10 decorations, including a ring and a cross.

The investigators have also discovered 11 numismatics catalogs with an official personal registration and other documents for archaeological items sold to auctions houses in Germany, Austria, and the UK.

The investigation of the treasure hunting organized crime group is said to continue further under the observation of the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office.

Ancient coins seized from the treasure hunters. Photos: Interior Ministry press center

Meanwhile, in Regional Prosecutor’s Office in the northern Bulgarian city of Pleven has charged three men with illegal treasure hunting digs at the large Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus near the town of Gigen.

According to the prosecution, the three men Nikolay S. Tihomir V, and Kalin N. were involved in illegal digs in the Ulpia Oescus Archaeological Preserve sometime between May 20, 2017, and November 28, 2017, using shovels and a metal detector.

In Nikolay S.’s home, the police have found a number of archaeological artifacts mined illegally from the Ancient Roman city, including bronze coins from the 2nd – 3rd century AD, a billon (copper alloy) coin of Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 270 – 275 AD), copper coins of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306 – 337 AD) and Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 337 – 361 AD), six copper coins of Roman Emperor Valentian I (364 – 378 AD), three unspecified cooper coins, an azure bronze horse harness applique, and an applique from a wooden chest.

Even though part of the ruins of Ulpia Oescus, a colony of Ancient Rome and one of the most important Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria, have been fenced off, they are still being constantly targeted by treasure hunters.

In September 2016, the Roman city near Gigen, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, was badly damaged by two fires, apparently caused by arson by treasure hunters.

The ancient city of Ulpia Oescus (today the Ulpia Oescus Archaeological Preserve) was one of only three Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria to enjoy the status of a colony of Rome (the other two being Ratiaria and Deultum), and had around 100,000 inhabitants at its height.

Today its location is in a distant and depopulated region, and the ancient city has thus been largely neglected by Bulgarian and international tourists.

Learn more about Ulpia Oescus in the Background Infonotes below!

Note: When considering this and other reports based on formal announcements by the authorities, keep in mind that Bulgarian cultural heritage preservation activists often vehemently criticize the authorities for only going after low level treasure hunters and antique traffickers, and, deliberately or not, not going after the “big fish".

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

Jason and the Argonauts: The First Great Quest in Greek Mythology

Jason and the Argonauts (Myths and Legends)

Theseus and the Minotaur (Myths and Legends)

Dionysus in Thrace: Ancient Entheogenic Themes in the Mythology and Archeology of Northern Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey

A Companion to Ancient Thrace (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World)

Thrace: The History of the Ancient World’s Link Between East and West

Orpheus and Greek Religion (Mythos Books)

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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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The Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city and fortress of Ulpia Oescus (also known as Palatiolon or Palatiolum) is located near the town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, about 5 km south of the point where the Iskar River (whose Roman name was Oescus) flows into the Danube. It was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement from the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age.

In his work “Geography" in the 2nd century AD, Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) described Ulpia Oescus as a city of the Triballi, the independent Ancient Thracian tribe which inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. In the 1st century AD, Oescus grew out of the military camp of Roman legions Legio IV Scythica (“Scythian Fourth Legion") and Legio V Macedonica (“Macedonian Fifth Legion") set up next to the Thracian settlement.

It was founded as a Roman city in 106 AD by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) in favor of his victory over the Dacians north of the Danube. What is more, it was founded with the status of a colony of Rome, the highest status for a city in the Roman Empire. In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, Colonia Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas.

Ulpia Oescus thrived economically and culturally in the 2nd-3rd century AD as major city in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (r. 96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). However, in the 3rd century AD, this happy state of affairs was put an end to by the barbarian invasions from the north of many barbarian tribes including the Goths. The city recovered during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) when the first permanent bridge on the Lower Danube was constructed near Ulpia Oescus.

The so called Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube was 2.5 km long (1.3 km over the river), 5.7 meters wide, and was the largest river bridge in ancient times. It was opened on July 5, 328 AD, in the presence of the Emperor himself. According to historical sources, it existed from 328 AD till ca. 355 AD when it was destroyed by a barbarian invasion. It connected Ulpia Oescus with Sicudava (today’s Corabia, Romania) on the northern bank of the Danube.

In the first half of the 5th century AD, Ulpia Oescus suffered from the invasions of the Huns. In 444 AD, it was conquered by the Huns under Attila who tried to turn the city into a Hun settlement, the only Hun settlement on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, under the name Hunion (which turned out to be short-lived). Its fortress wall was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565 AD) but the entire city was destroyed in 585 AD by the barbarian invasion of the Avars, not unlike many Late Antiquity cities all over today’s Northern Bulgaria.

At the end of the 6th century AD, it was settled by the Slavs. In the 10th AD, a settlement from the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) was founded on top of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Oescus. It existed until the 14th century, the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) but its name remains unknown. After the cities destruction by the invading Ottoman Turks, its surviving residents were moved to today’s town of Gigen.

The archaeological excavations of Ulpia Oescus have revealed that in the 1st-2nd century AD the city was populated by Thracians and settlers from the Italian Peninsula, the Western Roman provinces, and Asia Minor (judging by the discovered Latin inscriptions, among other things). The initial territory of the city called by the archaeologists “Oescus I" includes the urban center, city square, and public buildings; it covers of an area of 180 decares (app. 44.5 decares), while the eastward expansion of the city called Oescus II has an area of about 100 decares (app. 24.7 acres).

Thus, in the Late Roman Oescus had a total territory of 280 decares (app. 69 decares), which roughly equals the area of other major Roman cities in Central Northern Bulgaria – Novae near the Danube town of Svishtov, and Nicopolis ad Istrum near the town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo District. Ulpia Oescus had typical Roman urban planning – with a rectangular shape and streets oriented east-west and north-south. About one third of the city was occupied by public buildings, and remainder – by workshops and homes, with its population estimated at about 100,000 inhabitants at its height.

During their excavations in the late 1940s, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered a large public building containing one of the most impressive colorful Roman floor mosaics in Bulgaria, dated to the time of Emperor Septimus Severus (r. 193-211 AD) which features a scene from “The Achaeans", a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright from Athens Menander (342-291 AD). The play was identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander". It was unknown until this discovery at Ulpia Oescus in 1948, which was confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt containing an alphabetical list of Menander’s works.

The scene shows three masked man and one without a mask. According to Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov, Menander based this play on Book I of Homer’s Iliad, on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over the damsel Briseis. The other two men are Nestor, King of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men, and Patroclus (unmasked), Achilles‘ friend who accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons after the quarrel. The Achaeans mosaic is kept today at the Pleven Regional Museum of History.

The archaeological excavations have also revealed the city’s forum, the temples of the Roman deities from the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, a large basilica, thermae, and other public buildings. The Ulpia Oescus Fortress had thick and tall stone walls with fortress towers. It was partly destroyed in the 5th century AD by the Huns, and rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.

Probably the most interesting ancient building is the Temple of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck built in 190-192 AD with funding provided by Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 161-192 AD); it was painted in red, and had white columns, and was 22 meters tall. The statue of Fortuna discovered in its middle is kept today at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

The temple of Fortuna was not destroyed after the adoption of Christianity but was walled up; however, it was shattered by an earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD. At least five Roman Emperors are known to have visited Ulpia Oescus, including Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), who even served there as a legatus, a senior officer. Another interesting building found in Ulpia Oescus is the so called civic basilica, a public building with judicial and business functions. It was 105 meters long, and was surrounded with caryatids, sculpted female figures serving as architectural supporting pillars.

The ancient ruins near Bulgaria’s Gigen were first connected with the city of Ulpia Oescus at the end of the 17th century by Italian military engineer Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (Marsigli) who was seeking for the location of Constantine’s Bridge. The first archaeological excavations of the Roman city of Oescus were carried out in 1904-1905 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vroclav Dobruski, Director of the then National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The next excavations were conducted in 1941-1943 by Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova.

In 1947, the archaeological exploration of Ulpia Oescus was continued in 1947 by Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov with a team from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Pleven. Since the 1980s, Ulpia Oescus has been excavated by Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. In 1965, Bulgaria’s government declared Ulpia Oescus a monument of culture of national importance, and in 2011, the Ministry of Culture granted it the status of an archaeological preserve.

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