Bulgaria Struggles to Protect Ancient Artifacts
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Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered tombs filled with priceless golden artifacts. That could bring a lot of tourist dollars to this eastern European country. Now one of the poorest nations in Europe is trying to find the money and political will to manage ancient treasures. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
The Valley of the Thracian Kings lies in the southeast of Bulgaria near the town of Kazanlak. On an open plain under a pink hazy sky, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered nine Thracian mounds. These ancient people built a huge empire in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, southern Greece and Turkey around 4000 BC until they were conquered by the Romans.
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MARTIN: Kozul Zarif(ph) leads visitors through the narrow corridor of one of the most important Thracian tombs, called Golya Mata Kozmatka(ph). He's the director of the local archaeological museum, where most of the Thracian treasures are held. Deep in the tomb, the air is rich with the smell of damp earth. He meanders through one domed chamber into a small granite room.
Mr. KOZUL ZARIF: (Through Translator) Right here we found piles of little golden leaves and right here was part of a marble door with a little golden cup. In here were all the silver treasures, and over in this corner was a pile of ancient swords and daggers and other weapons.
MARTIN: The tomb is thought to be a burial memorial to King Seuth III, one of the Thracians' most powerful leaders and a rival to Alexander the Great. Zarif says the treasures are an international draw that will put Bulgaria on the map.
Mr. ZARIF: (Through Translator) Now we Bulgarians can take pride in the fact that we have something important that we found and gave to the world.
MARTIN: The Bulgarian government has given millions of dollars to develop the area and the mayor of Kazanlak wants international investors to help turn the valley of the Thracian tombs into an international tourism attraction. After meeting with some Egyptian businessmen one afternoon, Mayor Stefan Domunov(ph) flips through the pages of a glossy colored brochure highlighting the new parking lots and roads that have already been built.
Mayor STEFAN DOMUNOV: (Through Translator) I think more and more people are learning about our recent discoveries. Of course, on the other hand, this means we are obliged to make these places more accessible for visitors, to make it easier to get to the tombs.
MARTIN: But some experts say before this happens, Bulgaria has to do a better job of protecting its treasures. Bulgaria's black market in antiquities has been thriving since the fall of communism, and Georgi Kitov, the country's most renowned archaeologist, says looters are ruining the Thracian tombs.
Mr. GEORGI KITOV (Archaeologist): (Through Translator) The looters dig day and night. They damage everything. They work without permission and damage cultural heritage sites, especially the Thracian sites. And because these monuments are of such great significance, the looters do not only damage the cultural heritage of Bulgaria but of the entire world.
MARTIN: The government says it's doing its best to combat the looting and last year it toughened up the criminal code, making it illegal to buy antiquities from looters. But Kitov claims the state hasn't adequately funded security or preservation of the sites because top officials often benefit from the antiquities trade.
Mr. KITOV: (Through Translator) If there wasn't a direct connection between the looters, high state officials and influential people in this country, it would be easy to destroy these networks.
MARTIN: Jaren Valichkoff(ph) is with the Ministry of Culture. He says there's still not enough money to protect and preserve all of Bulgaria's 70,000 cultural monuments.
Mr. JAREN VALICHKOFF: (Through Translator) The government actually limits the amount of work archaeologists can do, so they don't have to spend money on protecting the treasures that are discovered. So if the government is serious about creating culture tourism in Bulgaria, then they'll have to pay more attention to preserving cultural sites.
MARTIN: But in a country where the average monthly income is less than $200 a month, experts say it will be difficult to curb the looting and find the money to turn Bulgaria into the Athens of eastern Europe. But archaeologist Georgi Kitov says if the discoveries are managed correctly, they do have the potential to change Bulgaria's international reputation.
Mr. KITOV: (Through Translator) It means Bulgaria will be known not just for its drug trade or illegal arms, but instead as a place with connections to ancient civilizations.
MARTIN: A Japanese foundation has recently donated $2 million to help develop the Thracian tombs and Kitov says there are plans to build an archaeological museum for the treasures, set to open in 2007.
Rachel Martin, NPR News.