Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Archaeology Magazine's "Under Threat" list includes Bulgaria

Kimberly Alderman's post, "2008 Archaeological Sites Under Threat," brought this to my attention. In conjunction with a list of important archaeological discoveries in 2008 the popular Archaeology Magazine has made a list of sites and regions that are at particular risk for looting and destruction.

Sabu - Near the village of Sabu, in the northern Sudanese Nile Valley, hundreds of rock-art panels dating as far back as the Neolithic period will be inundated by the Kajbar Dam, now being built downstream. No archaeologists have made a systematic study of Sabu, meaning its depictions of giraffes, New Kingdom ships, and Christian churches will be lost forever.

Bulgaria - Like its neighbors, Bulgaria is rich in archaeological remains—ancient Greek, Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. But rather than draw millions of visitors each year to its ancient sites, this poor Balkan country mainly exports its cultural heritage. The transition from Communism to a free market economy has left Bulgaria exposed to the swirling forces of the global illicit antiquities trade. Desperate poverty means huge numbers of Bulgarians—up to 4 percent of the entire population—are involved in the trade.

Nine Mile Canyon - More than 10,000 prehistoric images of hunting scenes, bighorn sheep, and abstract designs adorn the cliffs of Utah's Nine Mile Canyon. Created by the Fremont people, who lived in the region from A.D. 300 to 1300, the images have been under threat since natural gas deposits were discovered nearby in 2004. Thick clouds of dust raised by energy-related trucking in the canyon adheres to the images, obscuring them and causing long-term damage. A mud-brick wall in the lower town of the Indus center Mohenjo-daro shows signs of severe salt damage.

Mohenjo-daro - Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan was one of the largest cities´of the Indus Valley civilization, which thrived between 2600 and 1900 B.C. Today, the square-mile mud-brick city is threatened by high groundwater and salt deposits that are destroying the site's ancient bricks.

Isin - Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, looting has resulted in the
industrial-scale destruction of some of the world's first cities. One of the most important is Isin, the capital of southern Mesopotamia beginning in 1953 B.C. For roughly 100 years Isin ruled important cites such as Ur, Uruk, and Nippur. About 25 percent of the site has been looted.

Mirador Basin - Guatemala's north-central Petén region contains the largest concentration of Preclassic Maya cities in Mesoamerica and features the grandest architecture in the Maya world. But the sites are threatened by massive deforestation, looting, and destruction caused by equipment used in logging road construction, which itself facilitates intrusive settlements.

Of all areas listed above, the destruction of Bulgarian cultural heritage and archaeological resources for the indiscriminate ancient coin and minor antiquities trade has been discussed most often on this blog. Rich archaeological heritage coupled with poverty and corruption allows Bulgarian cultural heritage to be exploited and destroyed by those seeking profit and larger inventories in the USA and Western Europe.

There are countless examples of how the indiscriminate trade profits from the wholesale destruction of Bulgaria's archaeological heritage. One of the most famous examples comes from 1999, when one dealer/supplier - who is still active selling and supplying in the United States - was implicated in spiriting approximately one metric ton of ancient coins (literally - i.e. c. 350,000 coins) from Bulgaria to the U.S. via Frankfurt airport. Months after this he was selling the booty by weight to other dealers and collectors at a coin show in America. In addition to legal, ethical, and intellectual issues, collectors ought to be concerned about the indiscriminate sourcing of fresh supplies of ancient coins since it has been demonstrated time and again that suppliers in source countries also introduce forgeries to the market. One of the latest example comes from 2008 in which a smuggler in Bulgaria was arrested with 2,800 authentic ancient coins, dies for making fake ancient coins, and an entire bronze chariot which was probably looted from a tomb.

Some relevant postings/articles of mine include:

The Illicit Antiquities Trade in Bulgaria

Der Handel mit antiken Münzen. Ausmaß und Netzwerke (The Ancient Coin Trade: Scale and Networks)

It's All the Same: The Looting of the 'High Arts' vs. the Looting of the Minor Arts (Cultural Heritage in Danger)

Good Faith, Due Diligence, and Market Activities

Elkins, N.T. 2008. A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: a Case Study on the North American Trade. Frankfurter elektronsiche Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 7: 1-13.

See also:
Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends (pp. 177ff), by the Center for the Study of Democracy

I have been invited to give a lecture on the relationship between looting in Balkan countries and indiscriminate market demand which will focus on wholesaling of antiquities and coins to other dealers in the United States and systematic looting:
"Balkan Metal Detector Finds: Feeding the Coin Trade in the USA," Kolloquium Archäologie zwischen Römern und Barbaren. Römisch-Germanische Kommission/Goethe Universität Frankfurt. 19-22 March 2009. Frankfurt am Main.

With all of the press surrounding the large-scale looting in Iraq and Afghanistan following periods of destabilization, which is no doubt very important and of great concern, I am glad to see that the problems faced by Balkan nations are still receiving attention from popular venues such as Archaeology Magazine.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nathan. I have put up an update link in my post for people interested in the cultural heritage situation in Bulgaria.

Take care,



A relevant discussion about systematic looting in the Balkans (esp. Bulgaria) and Ancient Coins for Education has appeared on the Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues weblog. See:
Archaeology for All? Portable Antiquity Collectors' School Outreach