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Treasure hunting in Bulgaria

Real-life vampires, giant rock vaginas, ancient sites to rival those of Greece and Rome – Bulgaria’s archaeologists are putting their country on the map of world history, but first they have to stop the mafia stealing its treasures.

The illegal diggers come at night with shovels and sacks, hunting through the places where they know the professionals have been. They’re looking for the tonnes of ancient artefacts that lie hidden in Bulgaria’s soil.

In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a €30m-a-year industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artefacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.

“You cannot put a value on what is lost because the real loss is information,” says Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who has spearheaded efforts to reclaim lost relics. “Even if we recover them, we don’t know where they were originally found, so our understanding of the history is gone.”

Police say there are 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs in Bulgaria at present, but as many as 50,000 people are thought to be involved in illegal digging in some form. Entire villages have been known to take part in some impoverished corners of Bulgaria.

Belatedly waking up to the scale of the problem, Bulgarian authorities are trying to claw back some of their lost history from around the world.

“The record so far belongs to the Canadians,” said Prof Dimitrov. “A couple of years back, they returned 21,000 artefacts in one go.

A miniature golden chariot with the goddess of Nike, probably dating back to the 3rd Century BC, on display at the National History Museum in Sofia.

“The Italians had so much to return that the minister of culture became worried about the cost of the shipment, so he ordered his entire delegation to carry two extra bags of luggage when they came here. He himself showed up at my office with two huge suitcases full of priceless artefacts.”

Prof Dimitrov’s huge office looks more like a Bond villain’s than that of a historian: wood-panelled walls and a long window staring up at the Vitosha mountains. “It was designed to intimidate guests”, he says between chain-smoked cigarettes – the museum was formerly the residence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years up to 1989.

The Communist legacy is part of the reason why only a quarter of Bulgaria’s treasures are thought to have been discovered so far. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, Bulgaria had few tourists, which meant minimal investment in archaeology and preservation.

This was followed by a decade of political confusion and economic crisis after the fall of Communism, when organised crime groups had almost completely free rein.

“In the Nineties, the police could stop only about 10 per cent of the stuff leaving the country,” estimates Prof Dimitrov. “Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 per cent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”

As if to prove the point, the professor cuts the meeting short to receive the deputy director of the police, who says he has 2,000 artefacts to hand over, discovered in the basement of a local antiques store.

Historical discoveries have been one of the few bright spots for Bulgaria’s beleaguered economy in recent years, helping to convince the authorities of the need to protect their heritage.

Nikolay Ovcharov

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov – nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” – has just started the final excavations at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site deep in the Rhodope mountains whose highlight is a walk-in vagina.

First discovered in the 1980s when ethnographers interviewed local villagers, Perperikon was in ancient times as famous as the oracle at Delphi in Greece, a place of wild bacchanalian rituals to the god Dionysus, and, according to legend, the birthplace of the Greek prophet Orpheus, which counted Alexander the Great among its visitors.

“It rivals Machu Picchu,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Bulgarian archaeology has enormous potential. It can change the way people think about this country. It can give us national pride as well as bringing in a lot of wealth.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Perperikon is a nearby fertility shrine – a 10-metre vulva carved in the rock, leading into a womb-like cave. Around midday at the right time of year, a phallus-shaped ray of sunlight reaches an altar deep in the cave.

“It felt very unusual standing in a vagina,” says Prof Ovcharov, remembering the moment he first saw the cave in 2002. “It was so unique. It still makes my hair stand on end.”

Perperikon

The big surprise for Bulgaria’s historians has been the global interest in its vampires.

A grave unearthed in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol last year turned up a skeleton with an iron stake through its rib cage. It belonged to a famous 14th-century pirate named Kirov, whose job was to attack the ships of illegal Venetian traders. He was later made governor of the town.

Locals believed the souls of evil men did not ascend to heaven and instead left their graves at night to drink the blood of the living. Although Kirov was given an aristocrat’s burial, locals evidently thought him a nasty piece of work, and snuck in after the funeral to drive a stake through the body in order to keep his soul from escaping. They pulled out his teeth, too, just to be safe.

The discovery reached the press almost by accident. Prof Dimitrov was sneaking a cigarette outside Sozopol’s town hall just after the grave was found and some journalists came up to tease him about his heavy smoking. He only mentioned the vampire to deflect attention.

“Suddenly, it became a huge international sensation,” he says at his office, lighting another cigarette. “Vampires are very common here – we’ve already found more than a hundred – so we hadn’t thought to publicise it. I didn’t know there was a vampire movie with Brad Pitt and that they were so popular. It was featured in over 1,200 publications. That’s more than covered the fall of our Communist dictator.”

The vampire has proved a great pull for tourists, and drawn further attention to the astounding discoveries being made in Sozopol.

The skeleton of a man at Sozopol in Bulgaria, with an iron stake driven through his chest.

In 2010, a marble box containing a tooth and bits of skull were found on an adjacent island which are said to be relics of St John the Baptist. Foreign experts dated them to the first century AD and said the DNA belonged to a Middle Eastern man, making the claims plausible enough to attract coach-loads of pilgrims.

Another site in the town has uncovered the ruins of Roman baths alongside a Greek temple to the God Poseidon and a medieval church – a rare chance to see the evolution of worship in a single spot.

This is not so surprising for Bulgaria, a country whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has made it one of the world’s most sought-after territories throughout the ages. Greeks, Romans, Thracians, Byzantines and Ottomans all fought countless wars to gain control of its fertile lands – a bitter irony given the controversial emigration of young Bulgarians over the past two decades.

Not all are happy with the government’s efforts to control the trade in historical artefacts, however. Bulgaria’s small shopkeepers complain about restrictions on selling any pre-twentieth century objects.

“The police can shut me down for having just one old coin,” says Constantine Georgiev, owner of a small bric-a-brac store in Sofia. “But this just means the trade in antiques is controlled by around 10 very rich guys with political connections. No one goes after the big mafia bosses because they can afford the bribes.”

Efforts to increase sentences for illicit smugglers have started to change attitudes towards a crime that was not taken too seriously in the past.

An archaeologist cleaning a skeleton during archaeological excavations in the Black Sea town of Sozopol last year

“Many used to see it as a fun adventure,” says Prof Dimitrov. “The men dig while the women do a barbecue. You had police and even priests taking part.”

Indeed, a 41-year-old priest from the northern city of Vratsa was busted in 2010 after conducting over 1,000 illegal sales of ancient coins and jewellery over the internet.

But despite these efforts, experts say that widespread corruption and the high demand from overseas means Bulgaria’s treasures will continue to disappear into private collections, while authorities face a relentless challenge trying to protect over 40,000 known archaeological sites across the country.

“We lobbied for an amnesty a few years back so that private owners could declare what they had on the condition it was not sold or exported. That was one of the first laws that was overturned when GERB [a right-wing Bulgarian political party] took power in 2009,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Rich collectors are a powerful lobby.”

From independent.

Filed under: Archaeology, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , , , ,

Archaeology of politics: Turkey vs. Germany

From DW:

An argument between Germany and Turkey about ancient treasures is escalating. Turkey wants its treasures back, but German archaeologists say Turkish sites are being exploited for tourism.

Archaeology often has a lot to do with politics – the current argument between Germany and Turkey is a prime example. Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, last December accused Turkey of displaying “almost chauvinistic behavior.” In reply, the Turkish culture minister Ömer Celik told German news magazine “Der Spiegel” that he demanded an apology, and he asked for five ancient objects to be returned that are currently shown in museums in Berlin. He claims they were taken out of Turkey illegally. Parzinger rejects any accusations of illegality for three of these objects: In December 2012, he said that the torso of the Fisherman of Aphrodisias, the sarcophagus from the Haci Ibrahim Veli tomb and a 13th-century prayer niche were all acquired legally.

But “legal” is a fluid concept in the world of archaeology. The export of ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire has been prohibited by law since 1884. At the same time though, it wasn’t unusual to share the treasures discovered in excavations with teams from abroad. Special permission was often given to take objects out of the country, and there was a flourishing black market. The issue is often less a matter of legality than of morality.

In this context, the tone that Turkey has recently used in its quest to get ancient treasures back from museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the British Museum in London is surprising. The Turkish culture minister’s announcement that he’s only asking for objects “that are rightfully ours” is a sign of Turkey’s new-found – some might say, excessive – self-confidence. Other countries have already felt the effects: two French excavation sites have been recently shut down.

Fight for the Sphinx

In 2011, then Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay reclaimed the more than 3,000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, which had been shown in a Berlin museum since World War I. If the Sphinx were not returned, said the minister, the German Archaeological Institute would lose its excavation permits in Turkey. The Sphinx was indeed returned, but without recognition of any legal claim: it was a goodwill gesture, according to Parzinger. In return, he was hoping for substantial loans from Turkey for a big Pergamon exhibition in Berlin last year. But the loans never arrived.

The agreement on more intensive cooperation between the two countries’ museums and archaeologists which was signed at the time seems to have been merely for show. Parzinger has complained publicly that Turkey hasn’t kept a single promise. He says there have only been more demands for the return of objects, as well as accusations that German archaeologists left “devastated landscapes” at excavation sites.

According to Ernst Pernicka, long-time head of excavation in Troy, there is no truth in that. He believes Turkey is using archaeologists as hostages to get the objects back that they want. Last year, Pernicka says, he and other top archaeologists were asked by the Turkish authorities to go to German museums to call for the return of a number of ancient objects. Turkish authorities deny this.

Another problem Pernicka sees is that Turkey is keen to conserve the sites and use them for tourism rather than for ongoing research. The government wants “archaeology in action.” But that often gets in the way of research, says Pernicka.

Ancient cities under water

The Turkish historian Edhem Eldem is also unhappy about the expectation that foreign archaeologists are expected to ensure that their sites are suitable for tourists. He puts it down to “growing nationalism” and the victory of economic interests.

“The fact that archaeology is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism shows how ambivalent the situation is,” says Eldem. He also laments the government’s double standards. If it makes economic sense, the authorities have no problem sacrificing important sites like Allianoi or Hasankeyf, which are on a level with Pompeii, for a dam project. Allianoi, an ancient city close to Pergamum, has already been flooded. And despite international protest, the same fate awaits Hasankeyf.

“International archaeology can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” says Felix Pirson, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. He doesn’t approve of the harsh tone that has dominated the German-Turkish debate recently. He sees the excavations in Anatolia, where “decisive developments in the history of man were continued, enriched and accelerated,” as an international task.

Confrontation doesn’t help anybody

Today, there are many teams already working under German leadership but with international membership. It’s not just German archaeologists who believe that dealing with World Cultural Heritage sites should be a common task not restricted by national borders. They also agree that questions need to be asked about the origin of ancient treasures which are taken out of their country. But it is clear that political confrontation and rigid demands don’t help anybody, including Turkey. The habit of reclaiming archaeological finds could come back to haunt Istanbul if Lebanon decides to ask for the return of the famous sarcophagus of Alexander. It was taken to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum in 1887, during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , ,

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