Published: December 2006
Gold Rush
The race is on to uncover the golden splendors of its Thracian past before sites are looted and developers move in.
By A. R. Williams
National Geographic Staff

For looters, Bulgaria is El Dorado, a vast trove of buried treasure where some graves have harbored gold since at least 4000 B.C. Through the sweep of many centuries, this strategic bridge between Asia and western Europe saw a long succession of invaders, conquerors, soldiers, travelers, traders, and settlers. Thracians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Slavs, Bulgars, Byzantines, and Turks all made their mark—and left artifacts that now mean money in the bank for anyone who succeeds in digging them up.

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.

Small pieces often land in the street bazaar in downtown Sofia, displayed on folding tables beside old typewriters, World War II medals, and Beatles albums. "It's just 50 meters from parliament," says Ovcharov in exasperation. "I've seen pieces of a Thracian chariot for sale, coins, clasps. They're not forgeries. They're all original."

Valuable pieces—the precious metals and carved stones and decorated ceramics that rise to the level of art—sometimes move quietly to the wealthy few, Bulgarian collectors who can afford to buy such things in cash, no questions asked. Rumor has it that the collectors commission looters to find things, and the looters have connections to organized crime. But these are illegal transactions involving men who are armed and dangerous, and no one has details—or is willing to share them. At least the artifacts stay in the country, and if amnesty is ever declared for collections acquired on the sly, they could be displayed in museums here for everyone to enjoy.

The darkest part of this shadowy business is the international smuggling. "The best artifacts leave Bulgaria," says Ovcharov. "Vienna. London. Zürich. Everybody knows the connections. I recently visited an antique store in Berlin that was full of Thracian artifacts.” How much plunder is leaving the country is anyone's guess, but by most estimates Bulgaria has become Europe's top exporter of illegal antiquities.

That's devastating news to a people who feel intimately connected to their ancient past. History surrounds them everywhere, since modern homogenized architecture hasn't yet slicked up their country. Under everything, everywhere, lie deep layers of history that have built up through thousands of years, and any digging hits something old. A tunnel for Sofia's subway, for instance, uncovered a section of a Roman brick wall. Now it's a mini-museum in an underground mezzanine. In this part of the world—in the Balkan States, where countries have been carved up and borders disputed so often—such visible evidence of history is important. It establishes roots, a claim to the land. Every city, every town in Bulgaria has a museum filled with artifacts excavated right there, not imported from elsewhere. And every weekend Bulgarians of every age, gender, and economic level turn out to have a look.

"Even in the poorest years, when we were starving after the 'democratic changes' in 1989, this museum had visitors," says Bojidar Dimitrov, who heads the National Museum of History in Sofia. Today, he works the gate like a business. "I want gold and silver artifacts here to attract the crowds," he says. Part Soviet dictator, part free-market capitalist with a dash of P. T. Barnum, he funds archaeologists, they find artifacts, and more people come. In August 2004, a normal vacation month, the museum had 7,000 visitors. One year later, with newly discovered gold from a Thracian tomb on display, it had 68,000. That, multiplied by an average ticket price of five leva, or a bit more than three dollars, brings in a nice sum of money. It's much needed. "After 1989 the state had no money for excavations,” Dimitrov explains. "But after several years in shock, we began to find our way through this new system.”

On the other side of the balance sheet are the archaeologists, who now have to find support for their work. Most deal with unglamorous things—stones and bones and plain pottery—and for that they might cobble together a year's funding of $10,000 or so. But someone who makes dazzling discoveries again and again can do much better. Kitov, for example. In a good year, he might get the equivalent of $65,000 from a foreign foundation, $30,000 from a Bulgarian business, and $20,000 from Dimitrov—totaling $115,000. In this new equation, eager sponsors plus the problem of looters add up to a double load of pressure. Which is why he works so fast.

Kitov doesn't have much time, or patience, for interviews. "I only agreed to talk to you because of the Thracians," he says. "I want the world to know that there were such a people, and that they were great." What he and his colleagues are discovering about this little-known culture is changing the history of the ancient world. Classical Greek authors described their neighbors to the north as barbarians. But Dionysus, worshipped by the Greeks as the god of wine and good times, was originally Thracian. And Orpheus, a hero and musician in Greek legend, came from Thrace too. Clearly the barbarians had traditions worth borrowing, and as the archaeological record is revealing, they had wealth and power and art as well.

"We're seeing that our culture was just as good as the Greeks' and the Italians'," says Ovcharov. And in that fact lies a golden opportunity: Ancient ruins and artifacts help attract tourists. Add the sun and sand of the Black Sea coast and Bulgaria's upcoming entry into the European Union, and suddenly this largely underrated land of antiquity is becoming a hot destination. In every town from Varna to Sozopol, new condos, townhomes, and villas painted in candy pastels stand shoulder to shoulder and blocks deep along the shore. Steel cranes perch over the growing frames of sprawling luxury complexes. Billboards advertise properties in English and German, selling sybaritic dreams. A two-bedroom apartment can be had for $170,000. A remodeled house on a historic cobblestone street might cost $700,000. With much of the coast still pristine, and fortunes to be made, the real estate boom is just beginning.

That's mixed news for archaeologists. By law, sites with any artifacts have to be studied before building can start, so there's lots of work. But with so much construction going on, the archaeologists are overwhelmed. Suntanned and tired, Dimitar Nedev, director of the archaeological museum in Sozopol, works with a team trying to keep up with the permits that have been issued for building along the beach. With a month, maybe six weeks, to finish each site, they're in a hurry, and like Kitov they use a bulldozer along with the usual shovels, trowels, and soft brushes. Their goal is the same as Kitov's as well, Nedev says. "We're all trying to save what we can."

Grave by grave along Sozopol's coast, the archaeologists are uncovering the three-mile-long cemetery of a Greek trading colony founded in Thracian territory in 610 b.c. In an area where simple rectangular graves were dug into the sandy soil, they find a skeleton with a bronze pin at the shoulder and a few pieces of pottery clustered above the head. No great treasure, but it adds its unique details to the emerging history of the colony—a key element in the future of Sozopol. "The only way we can sustain tourism here is through our cultural heritage," says Nedev. And so he collects each artifact, building the story of Greek colonists surrounded by a tribe of fierce Thracian horsemen—a story that will help bolster the region's economy for generations to come.

This modest part of the cemetery is doomed. Once the contents of the graves have been removed, construction will start. "Another beautiful building," jokes an archaeologist with a grand sweep of her hand. To one side, on a plot where the team worked last season, stands a mansion, now occupied. Behind the cemetery lie a turquoise swimming pool and townhomes draped with for-sale banners. In front, brick walls rise amid the fitful din of hammers and buzz saws. But a mile down the beach an excavated section of the cemetery was left for tourists to see on their walks along the crescent bay. Freed of the tan sand, two low walls of stone mark the parallel sides of the ancient Greek coastal road. Neat stone borders of graves rest on each side, and part of the ancient water main—large clay pipes clamped together with lead—runs nearby.

Overlooking this vignette of early engineering stand the bare bones of a building: two floors of rough concrete, bark-covered poles supporting the roof, steel rebar bristling from the top. The owner is a retired soldier named Lubomir Jenov, who is building a guesthouse little by little as his daughter brings money home from her job on a cruise ship. Two years ago archaeologists excavated here and found only simple graves, so Jenov was free to begin his project. "I'm doing this for my grandchildren," he says, "so they'll have a small business when Sozopol is a big tourist town." He says he hopes that entry into the EU will bring more visitors. But he shrugs, as if he can't quite believe things will turn out well after the hardships his country has struggled with in recent decades. He's got grandchildren, though, and a stake in the future, so he has to hope—and keep building.