Bulgarian Archaeologists Tracking Treasure Hunters’ Raids Using Google Maps, Google Earth

Pits and craters dug by treasure hunters on the site of the huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria which has been utterly devastated by modern-day Bulgarian treasure hunters over the past 30 years. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

Some Bulgarian archaeologists have found a novel way of tackling the damage done to the country’s tremendous archaeological heritage on a daily basis by ruthless treasure hunters by using Google Maps and Google Earth, an archaeologist reveals.

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!)

Because of the Bulgarian law enforcement’s failure to crack down on treasure hunting, some archaeologists have resorted to Google applications such as Google Maps and Google Earth to keep track of the looters’ raids, according to Valeri Stoichkov, an archaeologist in the Museum of History in the Danube town of Lom in Northwest Bulgaria.

Stoichkov believes that keeping in mind the scale of treasure hunting in present-day Bulgaria, it is more important to preserve the country’s archaeological heritage than to explore and discover it.

“The most severe treasure hunting raids are in areas which are distant from the towns and cities, where security cannot be enforced directly," the archaeologist has told the Trud daily.

He has explained that he and other archaeologists from the region use satellite images from Google Maps and Google Earth to observe whether a certain more distant archaeological site has been looted.

More specifically, the satellite images of the Google applications reveal whether a known archaeological site, which is not actively researched at the moment, remains covered with vegetation, or whether it has just been plowed and turned upside down using heavy machinery such as tractors, bulldozers, and excavators.

Stoichkov’s home town Lom, a successor of the Ancient Roman city of Almus, is located in Northwest Bulgaria, the poorest region in the country and the entire European Union where archaeological sites get looted in savage ways, often repeatedly.

The most notorious case in hand has been that of the major Roman city and Roman colony on the Danube, Ratiaria, whose ruins remained very well preserved until the late 1980s but were almost utterly destroyed by Bulgaria’s treasure hunting and antique trafficking mafia in the 1990s and 2000s, after the fall of the communist regime in 1989 ushered in a period of greater lawlessness.

Stoichkov points out that because of its archaeological riches, the region of the so called Limes Moesiae, the system of frontier fortifications that the Roman Empire built along the Lower Danube as a defensive measure against barbarian invasions, is prime target for frequent treasure hunting raids.

“We have committed internationally to try to preserve the limes, alongside 29 archaeological sites, but some of them have been abandoned to fate," the archaeologists says.

He emphasizes that the illegal mining and buying of archaeological artifacts has been going on for years at some locations but the perpetrators remain at large, and continue to do what they do.

He has called for the establishment of a new institution in Bulgaria to be in charge of the protection of the country’s cultural, historical, and archaeological heritage.

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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