email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBulgaria's Gold Rush
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The royal tombs of the Thracians, built between the fifth and third centuries B.C., are easy marks for looters. The great overgrown beehive mounds of the tombs rise several stories high along roads and in tilled fields. In the 50-mile-long (80 kilometers) Kazanluk Valley, where Kitov works, a thousand such mounds interrupt the rose farms that bloom beneath the peaks of the Sredna Gora and Balkan Mountains. Some 25,000 more mounds are scattered throughout the rest of the country. Many show the fresh scars of illegal excavations—jagged trenches of rusty earth that cut through their tangled cover of grass and brush. Sometimes the looters break into a tomb that was already robbed in antiquity. And sometimes, instead of gold or silver, they find painted vases or bronze sculptures or fragments of murals—any of those things will earn a handsome profit on the antiquities market.

Ancient treasures are property of the state in Bulgaria, and that was once taken very seriously. In 1949 three brothers digging clay for tiles near the town of Panagyurishte uncovered nine ornate vessels of solid gold, buried for more than 2,000 years. The country had fallen under the Soviet heel only a few years before, and the new totalitarian state dealt brutally with anyone who broke the law, so the brothers dutifully turned their find over to the authorities. Back then, no one needed to run the risk of trying to sell such a windfall. Factories that produced everything from canned fruit to Kalashnikovs guaranteed full employment, and the government took care of everything else. So in 1985, when a villager in Rogozen hit a cache of 165 silver and gold vessels while working in his vegetable garden, he too handed the priceless hoard over. Both of these treasures now rest safely in museums.

Would that happen today? Probably not. When the Soviet system began to crash in 1989, it took Bulgaria down, too. Factories were forced to close, and to this day many remain empty. Hundreds of thousands of people are still unemployed, and those who have jobs earn an average of just $200 a month. With the former middle class flat broke, many have taken up looting to earn a living. They call it black archaeology. "The business of artifacts is more lucrative than drug trafficking," says Nikolai Ovcharov, a charismatic archaeologist known as Bulgaria's Indiana Jones. An exaggeration? Perhaps. But there's a lot to gain, and the authorities are in on it. Everyone knows a story. A mayor, picnicking with friends and family in the countryside, pokes around to see what he can find. Looters, arrested while digging, include policemen who parked their cruiser right beside the trench. Ancient coins and jewelry worth several million dollars disappear from a museum, almost certainly an inside job.

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