Bulgaria's Treasure Hunters and the Lost Rome
Bulgarian scholars of archaeology consider Bulgaria to be the third richest country in Europe in terms of archaeological heritage after Italy and Greece. The Bulgarian archaeological richness is proven to span form the prehistory to the modern era, including Ancient Thrace, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome.
The major difference between Italy, for example, and Bulgaria, however, is that the former has preserved its Roman monuments for the world to marvel at, while the latter has allowed their destruction, which has resulted in the simultaneous wiping out of valuable pieces of the global cultural heritage and the loss of crucial sources of tourism revenue.
While Rome was sacked in 410 AD by the Visigoths, and in 455 AD by the vandals, many of the Roman sites in Bulgaria happened to be almost fully preserved till the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century only to be ravaged by Bulgarian treasure hunters whose vandalism far outstrips that of the vandals 1 500 years ago.
There are many absolutely invaluable archaeological sites all across Bulgaria that have been affected by treasure hunting raids. But there is one that is the ultimate example of the treasure hunting carnage that has been going on in the last 20 years: Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria.
Ratiaria is located on the Danube River, near today's village of Archar, in the Vidin District, Northwest Bulgaria, or Severozapaden Region, which is currently the poorest region in the EU (!).
During the reign of Emperor Trajan (98 AD - 117 AD), when the Roman Empire was at the pinnacle of its might, Ratiaria was one of its six arsenal cities supplying arms to the legions that conquered the lands north of the Danube.
Written sources and epigraphical data present Ratiaria as one of the most important Roman and Early Byzantine centers in the lower Danube area.
According to the account of the Bulgarian Archaeological Society, it was established in the 1st century A.D. as a military encampment and a civilian settlement which grew around it. After 106 Trajan withdrew the legions and raised its status to a colony called Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria.
In the 2nd and 3rd century Ratiaria flourished with a romanized polulation. Towards the end of the 3rd century Ratiatria was already the main town of the new province Dacia Mediterranea and once again had a considerable garrison. In the 4th century it became an important bishopric seat.
In the first half of the 5th century Ratiaria was still a major center with a large population. However in the 40ties of the 5th century it was sacked by the Huns, who, needless to say were like naughty schoolchildren on a warm summer afternoon compared to the Bulgarian treasure hunters in terms of the damage they did to the city of Ratiaria.
Under Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (491-518) restoration operations were carried out and the town received a new name Anastasiana Ratiaria. It seems the overrunning of the town in 586 by the Avars led to the end of its existence.
The first excavations in Ratiaria were carried out by Bulgarian archaeologist Velisar Velkov between 1958 and 1962, who also wrote the first summarized publication about Ratiaria. Excavations were renewed in 1976-1991, including work with Italian specialists, with Italian archaeologist L. Georgetti offering the most exhaustive review of the results of excavations.
Ratiaria was situated on a raised river terrace along the Danube. The analysis of an aerial photograph by L. Giorgetti allows the conclusion that the fortifications of Ratiaria originally were in the form of a square and later was extended to a rectangular shape with dimensions 426 m by 284 m. However this photograph only allows the location of the southwestern sector of the original fortifications. Chance discoveries show that towards the 3rd and early 4th century a considerably larger wall was built, including new ground in an eastern direction. The protected area amounted to approximately 30 ha - 35 ha. It is not clear whether it was maintained in the 6th century.
Only part of the western wall of Ratiatria with its towers and the western gate, probably the principal gates, has been studied. Three main construction periods have been established: from the end of the 1st and early 2nd century; from the end of the 3rd and early 4th century; from the end of the 5th and the early 6th century.
Remains from various buildings have been found off the western wall, including that of a late-Roman bath. A large building, which functioned until the end of the 6th century was established to the northeast, close to the western gate. Buildings from the 4th-6th century have been partially studied earlier in the central town section and the northeastern urban zone - the so called building with the treasure.
The central northern city zone has been studied with a representative complex with a large one apse hall. The hall is considered to fall within the early 4th century building and to have been the residence of the ruler of the province of Dacia Mediterranea. One of the arguments for building work on a large scale was the rebuilding of the complex at the end of the 5th and early 6th century. The aerial photograph shows the outlines of an enormous bath structure with an area of approx. 0.9 ha.
Up to the mid 5th century Ratiaria had considerable suburbs in a southern and eastern direction. The quarter on the left bank of the Archaritsa river appears to have been occupied by dwellings, while artisan's workshops were on the right bank of the river. In excavations in the Yaliata locality, to the north of the fortifications a representative dwelling was partially uncovered (probably the residence of the harbour master). A modest Christian basilica was built here towards the end of the 4th century
L. Giorgetti believes that a specific camp was made with dimensions 100 m by 60 m beyond the town walls and sees this in connection with the stay of Legio 13 Gemina after the end of the 4th century in Ratiaria. However, in the respective sector only burials have been found. Considering the tendencies of the stationing of military units at the time, the headquarters and the barracks of the legion should be expected to have been in the protected part of Ratiaria, including its late Roman extension, not beyond them.
Sadly, because of its enormity, the Bulgarian-Italian expedition that studied Ratiaria, whose finds can be seen today at one of the halls of the Vidin History Museum, in the 1980s managed to explore only a small section of the city.
Ratiaria must have been a very spectacular place – one of the largest Roman cities in the Balkans, a major military encampment, the capital of a Roman province, and all of that situated on hills overlooking the spot of a Danube curve.
In fact Ratiaria was a very spectacular place until the late 1980s when it suffered a more terrible fate than the Roman cities overrun by barbarians in the late Antiquity.
The only part left standing of the Roman arsenal city of Ratiaria in the 21st century is the tiny portion that was researched by the Bulgarian-Italian expedition in the 1980s; the remaining 20 hectares of the site were destroyed by treasure hunters after 1990.
Today Ratiaria, once a symbol of the glory and might of Rome, has been reduced to a huge field of 20 hectares covered with craters and hills. The sight is unbelievable: the land has been overturned again and again, by machines and by hand. According to local witnesses, at one point at the end of 1990s, the local people including the village mayor, the police, some higher ranking people from Sofia just split the Roman city into sections where each had the "right" to dig. At one particular time there were 17 bulldozers plowing Ratiaria at the same time!!...
Back in 2009, I helped Australian journalist David O'Shea from the Dateline program of the SBS TV with a documentary on treasure hunting in Bulgaria, and Ratiaria – or what is left of it – was one of the places that we visited to explore the damage that this illegal but widely practiced activity is causing to the global cultural heritage on Bulgarian territory.
A few minutes after we arrived to the village of Archar together with David, and our archaeologist friend, local people who were just aimlessly hanging out in the center of the village offered us some of their "goods". They were very direct and open about it; little hiding, no fear. We went to a nearby house, and the first thing we were shown in order to get our attention was a bronze bird that apparently used to belong to a Roman legionnaire...
We left the village without buying anything much to the disappointment of the welcoming local treasure traders. After spending in the night in Vidin, we set off to film the actual destruction at Ratiaria the next morning. This is where Australian journalist David O'Shea had perhaps his most interesting episode of his Bulgarian treasure hunting project.
It 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.
Then, however, David, who was standing on a higher hill some 20 meters away, raised his camera; this immediately caused several of the treasure hunters to become aggressive, and attack us with shovels and rocks. What saved our archaeologist friend, David, and me was the fact that we were standing at a higher stop... That probably would not have been enough, however, if that very minute in a really surprising instance of luck, we heard noise - some 50 people showed up along the path that we had come!
Those turned out to be tourists from the southern Bulgarian city of Kyustendil traveling by bus who stopped on their way to Vidin to see Ratiaria. (The poor people really believed that the craters they saw were what Ratiaria was supposed to look like; they had no idea that 20 years ago it had standing walls and everything else).
These people saw our driver back on the road who told them about our project, and followed the path to find us showing up, as it turned out, right on time. The treasure hunters quickly gathered their stuff and started leaving after our little skirmish but the dozens of people who showed up at that point took them by surprise and really scared them away... If it hadn't been for those nice tourists, we probably would have had a lot of trouble leaving the Ratiaria and the nearby village or Archar.
Once the treasure hunters were gone, we called the police; about half an hour later no policemen had shown up. As we were driving out of the village, we saw some of the treasure hunters entering their homes with their shovels, and a police car that was moving at a speed of 10 km/h... One probably should not be too picky about the work of certain public institutions in a country like Bulgaria. But as we nearly got killed with shovels by ravaging treasure hunters, we probably could afford a little irritation at what we saw....
"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." This is what David told me in an interview for Novinite.com, and there is probably no better way to sum it all up.
Police reports indicate that up to 300 000 people are engaged in treasure hunting across Bulgaria in one form or another. The lessons of Ratiaria are so obvious and yet so powerful and so important that they need to be stated clear again and again: allowing the destruction of cultural heritage by a destitute and ignorant population – and by organized crime, of course, because Roman items from places like Ratiaria can be found in auction houses and antiques collections around the world – not only kills it for the entire world but it also disposes those same locals of a great source of development and revenues to the local economy.