The devastating effects of illegal excavations in Bulgaria

Statue seized at Bulgarian border
Customs Service
Statue seized at Bulgarian border

As the media reports makes clear, looting in Bulgaria now takes place on a massive scale. This was not always the case. Before the 1990’s, while Bulgaria was a part of the Eastern Bloc, looting was harshly punished and therefore limited. At the same time, there were only  a limited number of archaeological investigations in Bulgaria and nearly all were published in Russian or Bulgarian which severely restricted international knowledge of them. However, with the opening of Bulgaria to the West in the late 1990’s looting began and far outpaced scientific excavation. An important synthetic study of organized crime in Bulgaria, conducted in 2007 by the Center for the Study of Democracy, found that  in the late 1990s mafia-like gangs began to pillage archaeological sites systematically and sell finds on the illicit antiquities market. The effect of this has been that over the past twenty years undiscovered archaeological remains in Bulgaria have seldom been carefully studied but rather destroyed in the hunt for loot. Precious information about the ancient cultures of Bulgaria is being destroyed.

What can be learned when Bulgaria’s cultural heritage is carefully studied and preserved? This question might be asked about the material culture of the Thracians, whose ancient kingdom is largely encompassed by the modern borders of modern Bulgaria. Little is know about the Thracians despite their fame in antiquity for being such a fiercely fighting and wealthy people. One thing that we do know about the Thracians is the very fine quality of  their metal work, especially in gold and silver, the raw materials for which were mined from the foothills of the Balkan mountain ranges. It was only in 2009 that a largely unplundered Thracian settlement site, dating to the 6-5th century BC was discovered. Because of the widespread destruction of Thracian sites, this one excavation is our only evidence for how a whole people lived, worked, worshiped, and made and used metal. Imagine how rich our knowledge of the Thracians would be if all of their settlement and tombs sites could be carefully excavated.

Or, one can look to the case of the Karanovo Settlement Mound located in the Maritsa valley in south central Bulgaria [Vasil Mikov, “Selishtinata Mogila do s. Karanovo (ova Zagora ok). The Settlement Mound Near Village Karanovo, Zagora District].  Discovered in 1936, it is the largest settlement mound in Europe. [Izvestija na. Bulgarskoto Geographsko Druzhestvo,. No. V (1938):157-173.] The scientific excavations there established the Karanovo chronological system which is used as the standard in the dating of prehistoric Balkan cultures. We will never know what other destroyed settlement mounds might have told us about the development of European prehistory.