An ancient Roman inscription coves a tombstone found at Ratiaria, an ancient Roman settlement located on the banks of the Danube in the northwest corner of Bulgaria. Located on the crossroads of many ancient civilizations, Bulgarian scholars rank their country behind only Italy and Greece in Europe for the numbers of antiquities lying in its soil. But Bulgaria has been powerless to prevent the rape of its ancient sites, depriving the world of part of its cultural legacy and also costing this impoverished Balkan nation much-needed tourism revenue.
Archaeologist Krasmira Luka, who heads a team excavating part of the 200 acre site, says the area has been repeatedly raided by thieves who dig pits looking for ancient coins and jewelry. Everything else, including precious ceramic vessels and other historically significant artifacts, is smashed to pieces.
"Destroying the items is not just a crime, it's an irreparable tragedy," Luka said, looking out at a moonscape littered with shards of ceramics or glassware destroyed by the diggers. "The day after our team leaves the site, the diggers are in place. It's an uneven battle."
A house damaged by treasure hunters in Ratiaria, as Luka and prof. Rumen Ivanov look through the windows. Police reports indicate that every day up to 50,000 people are engaged in treasure hunting raids across Bulgaria, a country of 7.3 million. According to Angel Papalezov, a senior police officer, hundreds of thousands of artifacts are smuggled out of the country every year, with dealers hauling in up to $40 million.
Holes up to three meters deep have been dug by looters under the floor of one house in Ratiaria -- the most drastic example of the looting that has been going on over the last 20 years, since the fall of communism. The first excavations here were carried out by Bulgarian archaeologists between 1958 and 1962. They were renewed in 1976 by an Italian team, but lack of funding forced them to leave the site in 1991.
Western experts call Ratiaria a world-class archaeological site that is under grave threat. "Ratiaria has a great archaeological and historical significance not just of regional and national importance to Bulgaria but internationally for the study of the Roman Empire," said Jamie Burrows, an archaeologist at the Nottingham University, who has spent several years working at Ratiaria.
Rumen Ivanov, Roman History professor at the National Institute of Archaeology shows ancient Roman artifacts, found on the site of Ratiaria and placed in Archar village. Ancient sites were protected during communist times by a strong fear of the omnipresent police and harsh punishments for any law-breaking activity. Since the collapse of the totalitarian system, many have taken up looting to earn a living. Organized by local mafia, looting squads that have mushroomed all over the country are well equipped with metal detectors, bulldozers, tractors and even decommisioned army vehicles.
Bulgaria hosts some of the most unique and vulnerable cultural resources in Europe. In addition to the numerous Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlement mounds, there are significant remains of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine urban centers. Perhaps most notable among Bulgarian antiquities are the remains of the Thracians, a powerful warrior kingdom conquered only by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. The best known Thracian remains in Bulgaria are tombs and burial mounds which contain stunning gold and silver work.
Prof. Ivanov points at ancient Roman inscription on a column. In early October, some 5,000 Roman items were put at the disposal at the National History Museum in Sofia. They were seized at a border crossing with Serbia, just few miles west of Ratiaria.
A general view of Archar village with three ancient capitals found on the site in Ratiaria placed on the sidewalk. Coins and other treasures found by looters are sold to people who smuggle them abroad. Roman items from Ratiaria can be found in auction houses and antiquity collections around the world. For the looters in a part of Bulgaria declared by Eurostat as "the European Union's poorest region," the site represents an almost irresistible temptation.
Luka told the story of three men from the nearby village or Archar, who had found a golden coin and sold it to smugglers for 1,500 euro, which equals the amount of four monthly average salaries in Bulgaria. "Months later the same coin was sold in Germany at a price many times higher," Luka said.
"There are hundreds of tombstones and statues in local museums, but what we don't know exactly is how many more such relics were smuggled out of the country and are now in Italy, Munich or Vienna," said Rumen Ivanov, Roman History professor at the National Institute of Archaeology.
On the banks of the Danube, in the northwest corner of Bulgaria, lie the remnants of an ancient Roman settlement called Ratiaria, host to a priceless cultural heritage. Craters pockmark the huge site, evidence of a scourge threatening one of the world's great troves of antiquities: looters.