Friday, August 7, 2009

The scale of looting in Bulgaria

I have earlier commented on looting in Bulgaria. More information is coming to light thanks to David O'Shea, an Australian journalist, who has been making a programme for Dateline (sbs tv) about the topic ("33 000 Treasure Hunters Sack Bulgaria's Archaeology Heritage", July 31, 2009).

The programme has been made in collaboration with Volodya Velkov who is in charge of a team tasked with addressing the trade in cultural property. Velkov claims "Between 30000 and 33000 people are involved in treasure hunting in Bulgaria".

Protection for archaeological material is now provided by the Cultural Heritage Act (April 2009).

A detailed survey of the issue is provided by Ivan Dikov, who provided material for O'Shea ("Bulgaria: an Archaeology and Treasure Hunting Paradise. Or Hell", July 31, 2009).
The story of Bulgaria's treasure hunting issue is simultaneously simple and complex, and hard to tell. But here is a start: thousands of people with pickaxes, shovels, metal detectors, and bulldozers (!!!) have been destroying the global cultural heritage located on Bulgarian territory for the last twenty years, indiscriminately, at a breakneck speed, searching for coins, necklaces, rings, statues, vessels; gold, silver, bronze; weapons, books, artifacts...
There is a description of recent looting at the Roman city Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria.
... about 11 am, broad daylight, when we saw a group of 4-5 treasure hunters digging amidst the hills and craters at the southern part of Ratiaria, and rushed to catch up with them in order to try to talk to them, fearing that they might escape as they become aware of our presence.

It turned out that they had not seen us, and that our archaeologist friend and I surprised them on the spot. We were just as surprised, however, when it turned out that they had dug holes that were some 2-3 meters deep, that and about twice as many people climbed out of the holes as their accomplices on the surface raised alarm.

I counted at least 12 people, including one woman, clearly local people from the village, and clearly aware of what they were doing. We managed to calm them down for a minute as we quickly said we were not the police, and that we wanted to make no trouble.
The discussion highlights the way that the site of the Roman settlement has not been seen as a potential attraction for tourists:
The scale of the theft and the destruction, and the loss of Bulgaria's cultural heritage, and the potential loss of what could be millions of dollars of tourist revenue that's really striking...
Dikov also has an interview with O'Shea ("Australian Journalist David O'Shea: Treasure Hunting Is National Tragedy for Bulgaria", July 31, 2009). O'Shea comments:
The real tragedy in a place like Ratiaria is that the people searching for treasure are looking for a couple of bucks here and there, where what they could be doing is sitting in a thriving tourist center. There could be hotels, and bars, and restaurants, and tourists everywhere just like there are in Rome, or Athens. That's the real tragedy. Instead, those people are sitting around, complaining that they've got no money, and that they are forced to go hunting for treasure, and the state appears to be doing very little about it, and the police are clearly not serious about it. It is a tragedy.
Such a programme is timely. Some numismatists have drawn attention to the problems of destruction at Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria and trade in coins from Bulgaria. Nathan Elkins commented:
In 1999, Frankfurt customs officials intercepted a shipment of 60kg of ancient coins from Bulgaria, bound for a New York airport and ultimately to a New Jersey address, which had been falsely declared. Scholarly numismatists were called in to examine the shipment which contained about 20,000 coins. Some of the coins had been partially cleaned already and had been divided up according to their relative market value, with smaller and more common coins left dirtier. Research by these numismatists indicated that only a small fraction of this particular shipment would have sold for over €100,000 in the auction market. Investigation by Frankfurt customs officials showed that in the previous weeks and months the individual in question shipped approximately one metric ton (literally) of material through Frankfurt airport to the United States before this parcel was inspected. The individual in question is a known supplier and dealer of ancient coins in the United States.

One metric ton would be about 350,000 ancient coins. To put this in perspective the largest scholarly archive of ancient coin finds, Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland, only inventories around 300,000 to 350,000 coins. These inventories have been published regularly since 1960 and represents the full time work of several scholars who inventory finds from old and new excavations, casual finds, hoards, and local collections. Essentially the individual in question smuggled as much in a very short amount of time as nearly 50 years of full time work cataloguing hundreds of archaeological and historically significant sites in Germany. But of course, gangs of metal detectorists move much more quickly than archaeologists. Even the largest public collections of ancient coins in the world (e.g. the British Museum and the American Numismatic Society) contain around c. 350,000 coins. The level of destruction represented by this one wholesaler is ghastly.
Let us hope that the Dateline programme can encourage the greater protection of Bulgaria's rich archaeological heritage.

For further information about the protection of Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria see here.

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