Stolen Ancient Roman-Thracian Silver Mask Helmet Returned to Archaeology Museum in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv 20 Years Later

This iron helmet with a silver mask and silver laurel wreath decoration was stolen from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology in 1995, and has now been returned by the Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office. Photo: Bulgaria's Prosecutor's Office

This iron helmet with a silver mask and silver laurel wreath decoration was stolen from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology in 1995, and has now been returned by the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office. Photo: Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office

An Ancient Roman and Ancient Thracian mask helmet, which was stolen from the Museum of Archaeology in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv back in 1995, has now been returned, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office has announced.

The mask helmet, which is dated to the 1st century AD, was discovered in 1905 during archaeological excavations in a burial mound in the Kamenitsa Quarter in the city of Plovdiv.

It consists of a helmet made of iron, and decorated with a silver laurel wreath, and of a mask covering the face and the ears which is made of a thin sheet of silver.

The mask helmet can be considered both an Ancient Roman and Ancient Thracian artifact. It was made in Rome, and was worn at celebrations and parades. However, it was owned by a Thracian aristocrat from ancient Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) in whose burial mound it was discovered in 1905.

After the Roman Empire conquered all of Ancient Thrace (at least south of the Danube) in 46 AD, Thrace became a province that was well integrated into the life of Ancient Rome; many Thracian aristocrats retained their status, and many Thracian soldiers served in the Roman armed forces.

The mask helmet has now been found and recovered by the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office in Bulgaria as part of an investigation of illegal trafficking of archaeological artifacts.

A later report of the Bulgarian daily 24 Chasa explains that the silver mask has in fact been discovered by agents of Bulgaria’s State National Security Agency (DANS).

The Ancient Roman – Thracian mask helmet is said to be worth about EUR 2 million, and to be one of just three of its kind in the entire world.

The extremely rare artifact was stolen in an armed robbery of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology exactly 20 years ago – in April 1995. Back then, two armed men attacked the museum shooting and wounding a security guard.

They stole only the Ancient Roman – Thracian mask helmet even though at that time it was exhibited together with other archaeological treasures: two gold laurel wreaths, silver and bronze vessels, and two gold rings.

On this case Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office is prosecuting an organized crime group of four persons smuggling archaeological items.

The Director of the Regional Museum of Archaeology in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, Kostadin Kisyov, has sent a letter to Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov thanking the institution for the recovery of the stolen item.

The mask helmet, which is listed under No. 19 in the inventory book of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, was partly restored by specialists in the 1970s.

This iron helmet with a silver mask and silver laurel wreath decoration was stolen from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology in 1995, and has now been returned by the Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office. Photo: Bulgaria's Prosecutor's Office

This iron helmet with a silver mask and silver laurel wreath decoration was stolen from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology in 1995, and has now been returned by the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office. Photo: Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office

The Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office does not reveal where exactly the archaeological artifact was found after it had been missing for 20 years. After it was stolen, the silver mask helmet vanished with no trace; there had been rumors, however, that it had ended in the antique collection of a collector from Switzerland.

Most probably, the Ancient Roman and Thracian artifact has now been returned from abroad since a huge number of Bulgarian archaeological artifacts discovered by treasure hunters end up exported illegally, and sold to rich collectors in Western Europe, North America, Japan, or the Arab World.

Background Infonotes:

Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

The history of today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv began on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkish word for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where it was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times. The hills, or “tepeta”, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi. During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire. In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills. Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis. Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD. In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.

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