An Ancient Thracian golden breastplate found in the Bashova Mound near Bulgaria’s Duvanlii. Treasure hunters likely find such items quite often. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology
One of the largest hits ever of the numerous treasure hunters active across Bulgaria was the discovery back in 2002 of the burial of an Ancient Thracian King from the 5th century BC whose funeral inventory was sold of USD 60 million, according to a report.
The 5th century BC burial of the Thracian King in question was discovered near the town of Duvanlii, Kaloyanovo Municipality, Plovdiv District, in Central South Bulgaria, according to Plovdiv-based news and culture site Plovdiv Time.
The Thracian funeral inventory include a large number of gold and silver vessels as well as a beautifully made gold necklace, says the report based on local rumors and legends.
Rumors, however, are often the only source of reliable information given the abject failure of the Bulgarian authorities to crack down on the mass scale treasure hunting causing unbelievable damage to the country’s tremendous archaeological heritage.
The area around the town of Duvanlii is well known for its burial mounds from the time of Ancient Thrace, including thanks to the Duvanlii Treasure discovered by accident during agricultural work back in 1925 in a Thracian mound from the 5th century BC.
Subsequent excavations found precious Thracian artifacts in two more burial mounds nearby, while what is deemed to have been an ancient necropolis contains at least 50 burial mounds.
The report points out that the Thracian King buried in the mound unearthed by the treasure hunters in 2002 could even have been that of some of the most important rulers of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom such as Teres I (r. first half of 5th century BC), or Sitalces (r. 431 – 424 BC).
The burial chamber of the Thracian King’s tomb is said to have been intact – which is not that common given that some of the Thracian tombs are looted by modern-day treasure hunters, but some were looted back in the Antiquity.
Quoting people “familiar" with the matter, the Thracian King’s burial near Duvanlii was discovered by Nencho Kostov, a man rumored to be a legendary treasure hunter from the town of Hisarya nicknamed “The Emperor", and another man named Ivan Vrachev.
The burial inventory was reportedly sold to a well-known dealer of antiques nicknamed “The American" for USD 1 million, who then resold them, seemingly abroad, for USD 60 million.
An Ancient Thracian female gold breastplate found by archaeologists in the Mushovitsa Mound near Bulgaria’s Duvanlii. Photo: Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology
The report also says that part of the archaeological artifacts from the 5th century BC Thracian King’s tomb found near Duvanlii by treasure hunters back in 2002 have ended up in the Miho Museum in Japan, near Shigaraki.
According to local people, the entire area around Bulgaria’s Duvanlii is “a gold mine" harboring dozens of buried ancient treasures.
The largest burial mounds there date to the 5th – 4th century BC. The earliest known burial has been found by archaeologists in the Mushovitsa Mound, and dates back to the end of the 6th – beginning of the 5th century.
Thracian burials believed to have been female have also been discovered by archaeologists in the Kukuva Mogila Mound and Arabadzhiyska Mogila Mound. They feature no weaponry but entire sets of sophisticated gold jewelry.
Part of those inventories was exhibited back in 2015 in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, during Bulgaria’s exhibition on Ancient Thrace there.
The Thracian noblewoman’s burial in the Mushovitsa Mound was discovered intact back in 1930 by archaeologist Prof. Bogdan Filov.
The Thracian woman was buried with formal attire and a complex set of gold jewelry including a gold head decoration, a necklace, and a breastplate with chains and fibulas, and a tiara made up of ten earrings.
In addition to the various gold jewels, the Thracian noblewoman’s burial in the Mushovitsa Mound near Duvanlii contained a number of luxury items imported from Ancient Greece.
These include a bronze hydria vessel, a silver phiale, a black-figure pottery amphora, a bronze mirror, a kylix cup, a number of alabastrons and oenochoes (small glass jars) for fragrant oils, and a terracotta figurine of a woman with large disc-shaped earrings.
Inside the grave, there were also a total of 42 miniature items made of clay, glass, amber, and semi-precious stones most which had openings for a string. Such items have been found in other rich Thracian burials as well, and are thought to be evidence of the performance of specific burial rituals.
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.
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 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.