David O'Shea travels to Bulgaria and finds a country devastated by an illegal hunt for buried treasure.
Airdate: 
Sunday, September 13, 2009 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS

This week we report on a modern day European tragedy.

David O'Shea travels to Bulgaria, and discovers that the country's rich archaeological history is severely under threat.

Ratsiaria was one of the richest and most important centres in the Roman empire, but has now been turned into a wasteland by illegal treasure hunters who devastate the landscape digging for priceless artefacts.

The buried Roman settlement in the north-western Vidin province could have been a tourist attraction to rival those in Italy and Greece, but David finds there's not a tourist in sight where holes scar the countryside.

The looters, often backed by powerful mafia, are fuelling a black market trade, where artefacts are sold to museums and private collections for huge sums.

But most of the treasure hunters have been unemployed since the fall of communism in 1989, and many claim that digging for artefacts is their only option.

Find out more this Sunday, 8:30pm on SBS ONE.


Transcript

Now, an intriguing story about past riches and modern-day greed. When the ancient Romans abandoned a once-thriving part of their empire known as Thrace, a treasure trove of antiquities was left in what's now become the nation of Bulgaria. In other countries, great care has been taken to uncover and preserve antiquities from the old Roman Empire but apparently not in Bulgaria's case. David O'Shea reports on a modern-day European tragedy.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

2,000 years ago, this hill was one of the richest and most important centres of the Roman Empire. A town built around a weapons arsenal on the Danube River in north-west Bulgaria.

DIANA GERGOVA, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ARCHAEOLOGISTS: It was one of the biggest towns along the Danubian limes, I mean the boundary of the Roman Empire, in the Roman period.

Today, Ratsiaria, could have been a tourist attraction to rival those in Italy and Greece but there is not a tourist in site. Instead with the authorities standing by, illegal treasure hunters backed by powerful Mafias, have turned Ratsiaria into a wasteland.

The treasure hunters don't care about the history that they are destroying when they plunder these areas. We've only been here a little while and in that time we have found part of a tombstone and some human bones, including part of a skull and some teeth.

The Romans sent their dead to the afterlife prepared - carrying coins in their mouths. So whoever found these teeth - found coins and probably much more.

DIANA GERGOVA: I think that Ratsiaria is one of the best examples of the horrible situation with archaeological heritage in Bulgaria and the weakness of the government and the system for preservation of archaeological heritage. Can you imagine one of the very, very big towns from the Roman period has been destroyed in the last 20 years by machines. We will never know the history of one of the biggest times in Thrace in the Roman period.

At one time, 17 bulldozers were counted here ripping through the earth. The black market trade in antiquities is the only line of work at the bottom of the hill in the neighbouring village of Archar. I was offered a range of items as soon as I arrived from pieces of pottery to coins, jewellery and stone and bronze figurines.

MAN (Translation): It's very easy. Anyone can get it, everyone knows about it. Treasure hunting goes on everywhere. Right here in this village you were offered things. From here on, it's clear.

This local man freely admits to being one of up to 600 people in this village who dig for a living.

REPORTER: So many?

MAN (Translation): Yes, that many. Everyone digs, by hand or with a pick. Most of the people involved make very little money. A few people make big money and it's not us, the diggers.

A joint Bulgarian-Italian archaeological expedition in the 1980s excavated a small part of Ratsiaria, and uncovered these amazing artefacts - now displayed at a nearby museum. But since the fall of communism, most of the riches have disappeared into private collections in Europe and beyond. Treasures worth hundreds of millions of dollars that Bulgaria has lost forever. Ventsislav Gergov has been an archaeologist for 30 years. He is a specialist in the Neolithic Period, or late Stone Age, and his best-known discoveries are some 7,000-year-old ceramics and one of the earliest gold artefacts in the world. To get a sense of the scale of the illegal treasure hunt, Gergov takes me on a tour. You don't have to go far to find incredibly significant historical sites - like this windswept field - just off the main road behind a petrol station. But it's the same old story - there are signs of fresh digging all over the place.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV (Translation): Here, there and over there, everywhere. Here is a piece of another vessel and a ceramic dish. Here is a larger vessel and an amphora handle. There are lots of ceramics here. It's sad to see this but it's hardly the first time. I am always saddened and I'm glad to be leaving.

The petrol station attendant has more bad news.

GAS STATION MAN (Translation): They also dig over there.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV (Translation): Where? Over there?

GAS STATION MAN, (Translation): No over there, in the woods. They used a bulldozer.

Next on Gergov's depressing tour is a 5th-century fortress. First excavated in the 1930s, Gergov worked here on another section in the '70s.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): This is the entrance to the fortress. Most of it has been destroyed by our good friends the treasure hunters.

Even the parts that had previously been excavated have now been upturned.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): You could say it is almost catastrophic because much of what had already been properly researched and properly preserved has been destroyed and damaged, especially by digging underneath the foundations of the buildings.

A young man appears and tells us he often sees men digging here - including some very recently.

SHEPHERD, (Translation): There were four of them. They were carrying pick axes and a large sack. I heard them making noises like they were hitting stones, like they were digging.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): People need to make a living, but not by destroying our national heritage. We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg. That is the reality of treasure hunting.

Even so, Gergov says he doesn't blame the hunters as much as he does the authorities.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): We won't blame them. We'll blame the government which is not doing its job. The lawmakers, the courts and the police aren't doing their jobs.

Below the fort is a picture-perfect valley where people and this river have been meandering for thousands of years. At the end of the path, directly below the fortress is a monastery. Gergov is disappointed to see that since his last visit, there are signs of fresh digging here too.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): I was recently in Romania, Macedonia, Turkey and Greece. They are all way ahead of us. It could be preserved and protected, attract tourists and benefit our small town. We are not preserving our cultural heritage. We're doing nothing. A nice Roman tile.

When I return to the Roman arsenal town, Ratsiaria, with Gergov - he shows me the only part of the 20-hectare site that's partially intact. The only reason it's survived is that treasure hunters know archaeologists meticulously excavated here in the 1930s.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): The whole thing would have looked like this, but all we see is ruins. This is just 1,000th of the whole site. The whole site would have looked like this.

We follow a well-worn path looking for evidence of recent digging, and find plenty.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV, (Translation): There is no-one to stop them. Not the police, not the authorities. As you see, there are no police, nor anyone else guarding the site.

Then we spot some treasure hunters at work. I am going to go up this hill and see if I can get a shot of them digging but they are not going to be happy seeing me here so I've got to be a little bit careful and quiet.

I make my way up a small hill to get a vantage point without being seen. I can make out several diggers and one man with a metal detector. Then I realise Gergov has marched in to speak to them. But when I reveal myself, things get quickly out of hand. One of the men lunges at Gergov with a shovel and another grabs rocks to throw at me. I quickly put my camera down. It was only then that we realise there are many more of them than we had thought. They hurl abuse then a death threat.

MAN (Translation): Get out of here! Or we'll beat you death you f-----g faggot.

But then luckily for us, they decide to run away.

VENTSISLAV GERGOV (Translation): Their threats must be taken seriously. They had no idea who we are. The situation was very tense. There were a dozen of them and only three of us. Those guys are poor, but sometimes they carry guns and they might shoot. It could have been ugly.

After years of inaction, some say collusion, the state says it is now getting serious. At police headquarters I meet Velodia Velkov in charge of combating the plunder of Bulgaria's cultural heritage. He blames the local population's apathy.

VOLODIA VELKOV, (Translation): For many other crimes we have their cooperation. But in this area it's lacking.

But Diana Gergova blames the legal system and despite stricter anti-trafficking laws introduced in April she fears nothing much will change.

DIANA GERGOVA: There are more than 200 different cases sent to the court. Nobody has been sentenced and as you have seen they continue to destroy.

REPORTER: Can you give me an idea of how many people are arrested for treasure hunting in an average month or an average year or even a comment about how many have been arrested since these new stricter laws?

VOLODIA VELKOV, (Translation): I don't know how many people, I don't have the recent figures.

Gergov wants me to meet a colleague of his currently excavating a Neolithic Stone Age site in this valley. Georgi Ganetsovski found the only way to deal with the treasure hunters was to let them work alongside him.

GEORGI GANETSOVSKI (Translation): Experience tells us that the authorities are unable to deal with this problem.

He knows this site contains no metal so he let aggressive treasure hunters search with their metal detectors, when they found nothing they left him alone.

GEORGI GANETSOVSKI (Translation): I am looking for my own way to overcome this problem. Using force, threats or relying on the authorities hasn't worked so far.

On the hill behind him is a Byzantine fort from the early Middle Ages where the treasure hunters literally blast the loot out of the ground.

GEORGI GANETSOVSKI (Translation): We constantly heard powerful booms where they were using explosives up there on this fort. I've never been there and don't want to go there because what I'll see would be too upsetting.

Since the rise of capitalism Bulgaria has been plagued by organised crime.

TODOR CHOBANOV, LAWYER: The Mafia quickly discovered that it could raise huge profits from organising this type of crime from illicitly trafficking goods and selling them to Western markets, so it became one of their favourite businesses.

Lawyer Todor Chobanov prosecutes cases of theft and trafficking of antiquities.

TODOR CHOBANOV: There are very willing buyers that will easily give you huge amounts of money for your artefacts. Those rates of profiting are comparable to the rates of profiting in drugs.

Petar Dimitrov likes to call himself a 'collector'. We meet in a modern sculpture park to discuss his trade. He is required by the new law to register his collection in effect to hold it in trust for the state but he flatly refuses.

PETAR DIMITROV (Translation): Most people think "If I find a jar of coins in the ground, it's mine." They won't go to the museum. I'll only give it to the museum if the government pays me. No collector is crazy enough to register his collection under the new law.

He explains his position by accusing the police of involvement in the organised racket.

PETAR DIMITROV (Translation): If you declare you have a collection worth 100,000 euros, if it's not the police, then it will be bandits tipped off by the police coming to rob you, kidnap you or cut off your head. End of story. No collector is crazy enough to register his collection.

TODOR CHOBANOV: You could imagine that if there is a museum willing to give $1 million for a single vase - for a single Greek vase which they acquire here illegally for $10 or $20 or $50 from illiterate looters - you could imagine that if this situation exists there will always be great temptation.

After much negotiation and when I promise to conceal their identity, and our location, some treasure hunters agree to take me to one of their favourite spots.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): It's a Roman fortress. Around it are settlements from Roman times, Byzantine times. Thrace is predominant, from prehistoric times to Byzantium. There are even relics from the Ottoman period in the uppermost layer.

Many treasure hunters are well informed - they study the catalogues from the auction houses and they know exactly what they are looking for.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): We presume this is the entrance to the fortress.

When the Romans built their fortress on the top of the cliff it offered them protection from attackers but it doesn't help today. They search mainly for gold and other metals. Ancient ceramics don't stand much chance against their picks and shovels.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): This is from a clay dish. Prehistoric.

REPORTER: Is it valuable for you?

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): Not really. If it was whole it would be worth something. But broken like that it's worthless.

REPORTER: Maybe it was the whole thing but it just got broken with the shovel.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): No, we work very carefully. We are looking for good stuff.

These men occupy the lowest rung of the treasure-hunting ladder - unemployed since the fall of communism - they say they have no other choice.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): Before, we didn't have time. There were plants, factories. We worked from dawn to dusk. There was plenty of work, everyone had to work - whether they liked it or not.

REPORTER: Do you have any sympathy for these people - some of them are doing it tough? There is no work in the villages?

DIANA GERGOVA: No, no, I think that there shouldn't be any excuse - poverty is not an excuse. The question is how you use your knowledge - for something which legal, for something which is creative for something which is positive or for illegal and the robbery of your country.

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): No, nothing here, no joy for us.

REPORTER: Say, for example, you find something very valuable, what do you do with that?

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): We give it to the museum. We're regular guys.

REPORTER: Come on, we know you don't give it to the museum. So what do you really do with it?

TREASURE HUNTER (Translation): Let's find it first, then we'll see. Whoever pulls out the most money gets it. You know how it works.

Picking over Bulgaria's past may make these men a few dollars. But the loss to the country's heritage is incalculable.

Reporter/Camera

DAVID O'SHEA

Researcher

VICTORIA STROBL

Fixer

IVAN DIKOV

Editor

NICK O'BRIEN

Producer

ASHLEY SMITH

Translations/Subtitling

GEORGE BURCHETT

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN