Bulgarian Archaeology Chief Grieves Over Looted Necropolis of Ancient Thracian, Greek, Roman City Heraclea Sintica

A view of the ruins of Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica located near Bulgaria's Petrich. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

A view of the ruins of Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica located near Bulgaria’s Petrich. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

The Director of Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, Ass. Prof. Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski, has expressed his grief over the fact that most of the necropolis of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica near the southwestern town of Petrich has been looted by treasure hunters over the years.

Vagalinski, who has been the lead archaeologist of the excavations of Heraclea Sintica, an impressive ancient city located in Bulgaria’s southwestern-most region, near the border with Greece, has spoken about the losses it has suffered from treasure hunting.

“We have been focusing our excavations on the very ancient city of Heraclea Sintica, and not on its rich necropolis because we want to help Petrich Municipality develop cultural tourism, the head of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has told the Focus news agency.

He reminds he has carried out regular annual archaeological excavations of Heraclea Sintica, which was founded around 300 BC and thrived until the Late Antiquity, since 2007 in partnership with his colleague, Sotir Ivanov, the Director of the Petrich Museum of History.

Vagalinski points out that the archaeological excavations and geophysical explorations on the site of Heraclea Sintica have been conducted by Bulgarian, German, and Russian experts. Their goal is to research and conserve fully the ancient buildings so that Petrich Municipality could stimulate cultural tourism with tourist trips to the once marvelous city.

“I would like to share my regret over [the fact that] the necropolis [of Heraclea Sintica] has been largely brutally destroyed by local treasure hunters who sold [their finds] to well-known national collectors who in turn even manifest themselves as patrons and get public awards,” he comments.

Vagalinski explains, however, that not the entire necropolis of Heraclea Sintica has been looted by treasure hunters in the past couple of decades. In the 1990s, archaeologists from the Blagoevgrad Regional Museum of History managed to excavate about 200 graves from it, and to document and preserve their finds from the ancient funerals.

Vagalinski and his colleague Sotir Ivanov are now set to excavate an Early Christian basilica and the Roman forum of Heraclea Sintica.

In January 2015, the Petrich Museum of History installed CCTV cameras at the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica as a measure against treasure hunters, while also announcing a rising number of tourists visiting the site. In March 2015, the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the American Research Center in Sofia published an English-language digest of the excavations there.

Background Infonotes:

Heraclea Sintica is an Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city located near the town of Petrich in Southwest Bulgaria. It was the center of the ancient region of Sintica along the Struma River, which was inhabited by the Thracian tribe of the Sintians. The ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was mentioned by Homer, Herodotos, and Thycudides in their works. It was founded around 300 BC by Cassander, King of the Kingdom of Macedon (r. 305-297 BC), who also founded Thessaloniki. In the not so distant past, the location of the ancient city of Heraclea Sintica was a matter of contention between archaeologists from Bulgaria and Greece.

In 2002, Bulgarian archaeologists managed to identify the city for sure after they found a Latin inscription dated back to 308 AD, in which Roman Emperor Galerius (r. 293-305 AD as Caesar, 305-311 AD as Augustus) addressed the local urban citizens of Heraclea Sintica responding to a plea to restore their lost civil rights. In the late Antiquity, the city of Heraclea Sintica gradualy waned and was replaced by nearby Sveti Vrach (today’s town of Sandanski) as a regional center. In recent years, Heraclea Sintica has been excavated by Ass. Prof. Dr. Lyudmil Vagalinski, director of Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Sotir Ivanov, director of the Petrich Museum of History.

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.

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