Treasure Hunters Rob Albania in Broad Daylight

Ancient tomb is only the latest site to be ravaged by looters on the hunt for gold and artifacts - who are devastating Albania’s archeological sites under the noses of the authorities.

Besar Likmeta

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Stone blocks of ancient tomb damaged by looter | Photo courtesey of Auron Tare

Grave robbers came well prepared last week when they moved on a monumental tomb of large stone blocks located by the road that once connected the ancient city of Finiq with the hinterland.

With the help of a heavy construction digger the looters cut a trench through the hillside several metres deep, scattering stone blocks of the tomb with a power shovel. 

The monumental tomb, believed to date from the Hellenistic period, from between the Second and Third Century BC, situated in the Palasa valley in the Delvina region of southern Albania, is only metres from an important late-Bronze Age archeological site known as Bajkaj tumulus.  

“This monument was destroyed in broad daylight with an excavator under the watch of the all cultural institutions and the state, which has a duty to protect our national heritage,” says historian Auron Tare, who first raised the alarm about the looting of the monument.  

The destruction of the monumental tomb is unfortunately not a singular incident in Albania.

Archeologists and activists alike say Albanian sites are regularly targeted by looters, who in the past two decades have wrought terrific damage to the country’s historical patrimony. 

The theft of antiques became rampant in Albania in the 1990s, as the country struggled through a period of anarchy and lawlessness following the collapse of the authoritarian Communist regime.


Crater left by looters who used an excavator to dig the tomb |Photo courtesy of Auron Tare

Though the situation has since improved, experts say theft from archaeological sites continues to be a problem.

This plunder often goes on under the nose of local authorities, who experts say should be held accountable when heritage sites are looted. 

“Cases like this are widespread across Albania,” says Lorenc Bejko, professor of archeology in the University of Tirana. 

According to Bjeko, looting is ongoing in the Shkumbin valley in central Albania, in the region of Korca in the south and in Shkodra in the north. 

“We have indications that there is looting even in protected areas like the necropolis of the [archeological park] of Apollonia,” Bejko said. 

“Everywhere, from north to south and east to west, looters are hunting for buried treasure and artifacts, and the damage they cause is immense,” he added.  

According to Bejko, 75 per cent of the archeological sites that he has visited in recent years have experienced looting from treasure hunters, although the exact scale of this problem is almost impossible to measure. 

Situated between two major ancient civilizations, Greek and Roman, in a land once occupied by Illyrian tribes, Albania is dotted with hundreds archeological sites starting from prehistoric times. 

Impressive former Hellenistic and Roman colonies, such as Butrint and Apollonia, are rich in extant temples and villas, which offer precious insight into the ancient Mediterranean world.


Human remains unearthed by looters in the looted tomb near the village of Bajkaj, in Southern Albania | Photo courtesy of Auron Tare

These sites have enthused the interest of treasure hunters, who experts say are getting increasingly sophisticated in their illegal trade, while the authorities remain one step behind. 

According to Heritage Without Borders, a consortium of 12 groups engaged in the preservation of cultural patrimony in the Balkans, Albania needs to strengthen its laws in order to combat the growing contraband in artifacts. 

At a conference in Tirana in August 2011, the organization urged the authorities to amend the cultural heritage law to provide for better monitoring and enhanced security of cultural sites. 

The organization also called for the improved division of competencies among public institutions, which often fail to cooperate to the desired level. 

Bejko explains that Albania’s archeological sites are monitored by local agencies divided by administrative divisions and the local municipalities concerning the sites that fall in their jurisdiction. 

However, regional agencies tasked at protecting monuments and municipalities fail to cooperate properly, while officials are not held accountable when sites are damaged or destroyed by looters. 

“If we hold mayors accountable for cannabis grown in their territory, why shouldn’t we charge them when cultural sites are destroyed with heavy machinery for all to see?” Bejko asked. 

Tare, former director of the Butrint Archeological Park agrees, arguing that although looting is also a problem elsewhere, foreign governments do a better job at investigating and bringing those responsible to justice. 

“Albania’s cultural monuments are facing an unprecedented wave of destruction from people digging for artifacts,” Tare said. 

“Cultural institutions seem totally inept in taking legal action in order to stop the looting and these monuments seemed to have been abandoned to their fate,” he added. 

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.