An aerial shot showing only the exposed ruins – a small fraction of all – of the ancient and medieval city of Missionis / Krum’s Fortress near Bulgaria’s Targovishte. The region has lots of rocky hills interspersed with forests. Photo: Targovishte Regional Museum of History
A treasure hunter who was part of a group of three looters has died of suffocation after descending into a 12-meter-deep makeshift shaft while searching for a mythical gold treasure near the town of Prolaz, Targovishte Municipality, in Northeast Bulgaria.
The fatal incident has occurred near the Late Roman / Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine city of Missionis, which was also a major fortress during the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire and is also known as Krum’s Fortress.
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!)
A small portion of the estimated hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian treasure hunters, however, might not be explicitly after looting archaeological artifacts to sell them to antique dealers, traffickers, and smugglers, but seem to be searching explicitly for gold hoards, most often supposedly buried or hidden during the Ottoman period (15th – 19th century) by either Ottoman Turkish leaders or by Bulgarian rebel leaders who had seized riches from the Turks.
Bulgarian treasure hunters have also even made forays in the region of Western Thrace in today’s Northern Greece, which is south of the Rhodope Mountains, to search for an alleged treasure of another Bulgarian rebel leader, Kapital Petko Voivoda.
Voivode (“war leader" or “warlord") was a medieval title for a military commander from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) which during the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) was assumed by the leaders of Bulgarian haiduti, Robin Hood-style rebel bands robbing rich people and employing guerilla warfare against the Ottoman forces (for more detailed explanations see the Background Infonotes below).
The fatal incident near Prolaz in Northeast Bulgaria included a group of three treasure hunters: a 46-year-old man from Sofia, a 50-year-old man who is a native of Targovishte District, and a 58-year-old man from the town Kukorevo, Yambol District, in Southern Bulgaria, the Trud daily reports.
Several reports on the incident defer as to whether the three men came to the respective site as a single organized treasure hunting party, or met at the spot frequently targeted by many other looters as well, and decided to join forces.
The 46-year-old man from Sofia perished after he decided to descend into a 12-meter-deep narrow makeshift shaft dug up by other treasure hunters beforehand, Darik Shumen reports. The shaft in question was only about 1.2-1.5 meters (3-4 feet) in diameter.
While there are persisting legends of hidden gold hoards in the region, there has also been no information that the alleged gold treasure has ever been discovered by anybody so the three men decided it was a good idea to work down the shaft dug up by others before them in search of the gold, local police sources say.
The two other men were descending the youngest of the group, who was also the only one to have climbing experience, down the shaft when he suddenly began shouting for help, and that he was out of air.
The two other treasure hunters tried to pull out the man but he had gotten stuck, and their pulley malfunctioned.
The 58-year-old man then rushed to the local police to tell them what had happened but the time the police officers and the fire brigade first managed to pull out the treasure hunter from Sofia, he had suffocated.
The police and the fire fighters had to walk a long time to reach the makeshift treasure hunting shaft in a torrential rain.
The autopsy has revealed no traces of foul play, and has confirmed the conclusion about a suffocation, probably from inhaling poisonous gases inside the shaft.
The fatal incident with the treasure hunter near Prolaz is under the investigation of the Targovishte District Prosecutor’s Office.
The treasure hunters who came to the police told that the three of them had come after a gold treasure legend – although it remains unclear what exactly the legend is.
It is also unknown if it is somehow connected with the most famous archaeological site nearby, the Ancient Roman, Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian city of Missionis, also known as Krum’s Fortress. Numerous other archaeological and historical sites are also dotting the entire landscape of the Targovishte region.
Last spring, two treasure hunters who had dug up an entire underground gallery in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains in the south barely survived after they had suffocated while using underground a gas-powered digging machine.
In another fatal incident with a treasure hunter back in 2014, a 41-year-old treasure hunter from the Black Sea city of Varna drowned while diving in search of treasure in underground caves behind a waterfall near Medven, Kotel Municipality, in the Balkan Mountains, a place which is said to have claimed the lives of at least 10 treasure hunters over the years.
Unfortunately, the public tolerance for the treasure hunting crimes in Bulgaria remains rather high, law enforcement fails to crack down on them sufficiently and is often suspected of collaborating with the respective organized crime groups, and many people in the countryside see treasure hunting as a form of decent full or part time employment.
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.