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Archaeologist Georgi Kitov works really fast. Using bulldozers and other such machinery to unearth the tombs of ancient Thracian rulers, he can accomplish in a week what a more careful, conventional archaeologist would spend many months doing by hand. *Looters or illegal excavators are everywhere in Bulgaria and are ever ready to steal from these graves. "They have more money than I do and they also have better machines," Kitov says. "I'm trying to save what they want to destroy, and I think I've been successful. I've stopped a lot of them from robbing Bulgaria of its national treasures." This makes Kitov a national hero to some, but a villain to others. The latter accuse him of being just a treasure hunter. They call him a media archaeologist, a showman who boasts about his discoveries to the press. But his defenders point out that almost half of the excavated gold and silver artefacts in Bulgaria's biggest museums have come from Kitov's sites. If Kitov had not found them, looters surely would have.


For looters, Bulgaria is a vast trove of buried treasure. Over the centuries, this strategic bridge between Asia and western Europe has seen a long succession of invaders, conquerors, soldiers, travellers, traders and settlers. Thracians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Slavs and Turks have all left behind artefacts that now mean money in the bank for anyone who succeeds in finding them. The royal tombs of the Thracians rulers, for example, are easy targets for looters because about 25,000 tombs are scattered throughout the country. Many of these tombs have already been illegally excavated. Sometimes looters break into a tomb that has already been robbed of valuables. Instead of gold or silver, they find painted vases, bronze sculptures or fragments of murals. Any of these things will earn a handsome profit if sold to antique collectors.


Looting was not always a serious problem in Bulgaria. For many years, Bulgaria was under Soviet rule. The Soviet administration was very dictatorial and dealt with all manner of crimes swiftly and harshly. Looting was strictly prohibited. Looters, if caught, faced capital punishment or long prison terms. Moreover, Bulgarians did not really need to risk trying to sell illegally excavated artefacts. Factories that produced everything guaranteed full employment, and the Soviet government took care of everything else. For example, in 1949, three brothers found nine solid gold containers which had been buried for more than 2,000 years. The brothers dutifully handed the containers over to the Soviet authorities. Again, in 1985, a farmer discovered 165 silver and gold vessels in his vegetable garden. He, too, handed the vessels over to the authorities. Now, all these treasures rest safely in museums.


However, in 1989, when Bulgaria was no longer under Soviet rule, the country began to face serious economic problems. Factories were forced to close, leaving hundreds of thousands of people unemployed. This situation has not changed much since. As many Bulgarians are jobless, they have taken up looting to earn a living. They call it black archaeology. In fact, looting and selling the ancient treasures of Bulgaria is a more lucrative business than other illegal activities like drug trafficking and smuggling. Valuable pieces such as precious metals, carved stones and decorated ceramics that can be considered pieces of art are sometimes sold quietly to rich Bulgarian collectors. Many believe that these collectors hire looters to find artefacts. The only good thing is that the artefacts stay in the country. If amnesty is ever declared for collections acquired illegally, they could be displayed in museums in Bulgaria for everyone to enjoy.



Adapted from National Geographic, December 2006