Real-life vampires, giant rock vaginas, ancient sites to rival those of Greece and Rome – Bulgaria’s archaeologists are putting their country on the map of world history, but first they have to stop the mafia stealing its treasures.
The illegal diggers come at night with shovels and sacks, hunting through the places where they know the professionals have been. They’re looking for the tonnes of ancient artefacts that lie hidden in Bulgaria’s soil.
In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a €30m-a-year industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artefacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.
“You cannot put a value on what is lost because the real loss is information,” says Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who has spearheaded efforts to reclaim lost relics. “Even if we recover them, we don’t know where they were originally found, so our understanding of the history is gone.”
Police say there are 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs in Bulgaria at present, but as many as 50,000 people are thought to be involved in illegal digging in some form. Entire villages have been known to take part in some impoverished corners of Bulgaria.
Belatedly waking up to the scale of the problem, Bulgarian authorities are trying to claw back some of their lost history from around the world.
“The record so far belongs to the Canadians,” said Prof Dimitrov. “A couple of years back, they returned 21,000 artefacts in one go.
“The Italians had so much to return that the minister of culture became worried about the cost of the shipment, so he ordered his entire delegation to carry two extra bags of luggage when they came here. He himself showed up at my office with two huge suitcases full of priceless artefacts.”
Prof Dimitrov’s huge office looks more like a Bond villain’s than that of a historian: wood-panelled walls and a long window staring up at the Vitosha mountains. “It was designed to intimidate guests”, he says between chain-smoked cigarettes – the museum was formerly the residence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years up to 1989.
The Communist legacy is part of the reason why only a quarter of Bulgaria’s treasures are thought to have been discovered so far. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, Bulgaria had few tourists, which meant minimal investment in archaeology and preservation.
This was followed by a decade of political confusion and economic crisis after the fall of Communism, when organised crime groups had almost completely free rein.
“In the Nineties, the police could stop only about 10 per cent of the stuff leaving the country,” estimates Prof Dimitrov. “Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 per cent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”
As if to prove the point, the professor cuts the meeting short to receive the deputy director of the police, who says he has 2,000 artefacts to hand over, discovered in the basement of a local antiques store.
Historical discoveries have been one of the few bright spots for Bulgaria’s beleaguered economy in recent years, helping to convince the authorities of the need to protect their heritage.
Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov – nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” – has just started the final excavations at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site deep in the Rhodope mountains whose highlight is a walk-in vagina.
First discovered in the 1980s when ethnographers interviewed local villagers, Perperikon was in ancient times as famous as the oracle at Delphi in Greece, a place of wild bacchanalian rituals to the god Dionysus, and, according to legend, the birthplace of the Greek prophet Orpheus, which counted Alexander the Great among its visitors.
“It rivals Machu Picchu,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Bulgarian archaeology has enormous potential. It can change the way people think about this country. It can give us national pride as well as bringing in a lot of wealth.”
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Perperikon is a nearby fertility shrine – a 10-metre vulva carved in the rock, leading into a womb-like cave. Around midday at the right time of year, a phallus-shaped ray of sunlight reaches an altar deep in the cave.
“It felt very unusual standing in a vagina,” says Prof Ovcharov, remembering the moment he first saw the cave in 2002. “It was so unique. It still makes my hair stand on end.”
The big surprise for Bulgaria’s historians has been the global interest in its vampires.
A grave unearthed in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol last year turned up a skeleton with an iron stake through its rib cage. It belonged to a famous 14th-century pirate named Kirov, whose job was to attack the ships of illegal Venetian traders. He was later made governor of the town.
Locals believed the souls of evil men did not ascend to heaven and instead left their graves at night to drink the blood of the living. Although Kirov was given an aristocrat’s burial, locals evidently thought him a nasty piece of work, and snuck in after the funeral to drive a stake through the body in order to keep his soul from escaping. They pulled out his teeth, too, just to be safe.
The discovery reached the press almost by accident. Prof Dimitrov was sneaking a cigarette outside Sozopol’s town hall just after the grave was found and some journalists came up to tease him about his heavy smoking. He only mentioned the vampire to deflect attention.
“Suddenly, it became a huge international sensation,” he says at his office, lighting another cigarette. “Vampires are very common here – we’ve already found more than a hundred – so we hadn’t thought to publicise it. I didn’t know there was a vampire movie with Brad Pitt and that they were so popular. It was featured in over 1,200 publications. That’s more than covered the fall of our Communist dictator.”
The vampire has proved a great pull for tourists, and drawn further attention to the astounding discoveries being made in Sozopol.
In 2010, a marble box containing a tooth and bits of skull were found on an adjacent island which are said to be relics of St John the Baptist. Foreign experts dated them to the first century AD and said the DNA belonged to a Middle Eastern man, making the claims plausible enough to attract coach-loads of pilgrims.
Another site in the town has uncovered the ruins of Roman baths alongside a Greek temple to the God Poseidon and a medieval church – a rare chance to see the evolution of worship in a single spot.
This is not so surprising for Bulgaria, a country whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has made it one of the world’s most sought-after territories throughout the ages. Greeks, Romans, Thracians, Byzantines and Ottomans all fought countless wars to gain control of its fertile lands – a bitter irony given the controversial emigration of young Bulgarians over the past two decades.
Not all are happy with the government’s efforts to control the trade in historical artefacts, however. Bulgaria’s small shopkeepers complain about restrictions on selling any pre-twentieth century objects.
“The police can shut me down for having just one old coin,” says Constantine Georgiev, owner of a small bric-a-brac store in Sofia. “But this just means the trade in antiques is controlled by around 10 very rich guys with political connections. No one goes after the big mafia bosses because they can afford the bribes.”
Efforts to increase sentences for illicit smugglers have started to change attitudes towards a crime that was not taken too seriously in the past.
“Many used to see it as a fun adventure,” says Prof Dimitrov. “The men dig while the women do a barbecue. You had police and even priests taking part.”
Indeed, a 41-year-old priest from the northern city of Vratsa was busted in 2010 after conducting over 1,000 illegal sales of ancient coins and jewellery over the internet.
But despite these efforts, experts say that widespread corruption and the high demand from overseas means Bulgaria’s treasures will continue to disappear into private collections, while authorities face a relentless challenge trying to protect over 40,000 known archaeological sites across the country.
“We lobbied for an amnesty a few years back so that private owners could declare what they had on the condition it was not sold or exported. That was one of the first laws that was overturned when GERB [a right-wing Bulgarian political party] took power in 2009,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Rich collectors are a powerful lobby.”
Babylon was one of the glories of the ancient world, its walls and mythic hanging gardens listed among the Seven Wonders.
Founded about 4,000 years ago, the ancient city was the capital of 10 dynasties in Mesopotamia, considered one of the earliest cradles of civilization and the birthplace of writing and literature.
But following years of plunder, neglect and conflict, the Babylon of today scarcely conjures that illustrious history.
In recent years, the Iraqi authorities have reopened Babylon to tourists, hoping that one day the site will draw visitors from all over the globe. But despite the site’s remarkable archaeological value and impressive views, it is drawing only a smattering of tourists, drawn by a curious mix of ancient and more recent history.
The city — just 85km (52 miles) south of Baghdad, about a two hour drive, dependent on checkpoints — still bears the marks of ham-fisted attempts at restoration by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and a subsequent occupation by U.S. forces in 2003.
“They occupied Babylon. They wouldn’t let anyone in,” says Hussein Saheb, a guard at the historical sites at Babylon, recalling the day U.S. tanks rolled into view, before forces set up camp.
Following excavations in the early 20th century, European archaeologists claimed key features such as the remains of the famous Ishtar Gate — the glazed brick gate decorated with images of dragons and aurochs, built in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city.
The original now stands as part of a reconstruction of the gate in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, whereas in Babylon itself, visitors enter through a replica. Yet remnants of Babylon’s former glory remain, with sections of the city’s walls still intact.
Later excavations and conservation work carried out under Saddam’s rule greatly despoiled the site, say archaeologists.
Iraqi archaeologist Hai Katth Moussa said that during a massive reconstruction project in the early 1980s, Saddam began building a replica of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on top of the ruins of the ancient palace.
Like Nebuchadnezzar, he wrote his name on many of the bricks, with inscriptions such as: “This was built by Saddam, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.”
After the Gulf War, Saddam began building a modern palace for himself on top of ruins in the style of a Sumerian ziggurat.
When U.S. forces arrived in 2003, they occupied the palace, which lies adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and overlooks the Euphrates River, and left their own mark. Today, a basketball hoop remains in Babylon, while concertina wire left behind by the military is used to prevent visitors from climbing over a 2,500-year-old lion statue — an ancient symbol of the city.
Even in the new Iraq, Babylon faces ongoing threats. Only 2% of the ancient city has been excavated, but those buried historical treasures are threatened by encroaching development.
Tour guide Hussein Al-Ammari says an oil pipeline runs through the eastern part of the ancient city. “It goes through the outer wall of Babylon,” he says.
Yet despite the shortcomings in its preservation, Babylon holds a draw for small numbers of Iraqi visitors — even if only to enter Saddam’s marble-lined palaces, still a novelty 10 years after the dictator’s downfall.
Zained Mohammed, visiting with her family for the first time from Karbala, told CNN: “We were just looking for a change of atmosphere, to have the kids see something different.”
Babylon is certainly that.
Ramesses III was murdered in a palace coup led by his wife and son, archaeologists announced on 17th December.
A number of ancient Egyptian documents, including the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, record an attempt on the 20th Dynasty pharaoh’s life in 1155 BC, the final year of his reign, and that the chief conspirators were Tiye, one of Ramesses’ secondary wives, and her son Pentawere. The coup, known as the ‘harem conspiracy’ failed, with the throne passing to the king’s designated successor, Ramesses IV, but Egyptologists have long debated whether the assassination attempt was successful.
Now researchers, led by Dr Albert Zink from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen in Italy, have carried out CT scans of the pharaoh’s mummified remains, revealing a deep cut across his throat that severed the trachea, oesophagus, and major blood vessels.
‘The extent and depth of the wound indicated that it could have caused the immediate death of Ramesses III,’ the team say, in their paper newly published in the British Medical Journal. ‘This study gives clues to the authenticity of the historically described harem conspiracy and finally reveals its tragic outcome. ’Our CT analysis provides evidence that the conspirators killed Ramesses III by cutting his throat.’
The researchers’ forensic investigations suggest that the damage to Ramesses III’s throat is unlikely to have been caused after his death, while no accounts of ancient Egyptian embalming methods suggest that opening the throat was part of the mummification process.
Further evidence of foul play came with the discovery of a wedjet (Horus eye) amulet which had been carefully placed inside the wound – perhaps by embalmers, hoping that its healing properties would restore the king in the next world, after which they covered the injury with a thick collar of linen layers.
At the same time, the team have announced the identification of a ‘possible candidate’ for the mummy of one of the culprits, Prince Pentawere – who reportedly took his own life after being found guilty of conspiracy against his father. The remains of 18-20-year-old ‘Man E’ were found in the same royal cache as Ramesses III at Deir el Bahari, but it had not previously been established who he was.
Bone samples taken from both mummies were analysed, revealing identical Y chromasomal DNA, and genetic similarities strongly suggesting a father-son relationship between the two individuals. While it is not possible to establish which of Ramesses’ many sons this could be, unusual aspects of his mummification suggest that he was not laid to rest with the honours expected for a 20th Dynasty royal.
There is no evidence that the man’s internal organs or brain were removed, the team say, and his body had been covered with a goatskin – a material considered to be ritually impure by the ancient Egyptians. This could be interpreted as a post-mortem punishment, the team suggest, though his cause of death remains subject to speculation. His inflated thorax and compressed skinfolds around the neck could suggest violent actions such as strangulation preceding his death, though these effects could also be influenced by decomposition.
The first ever Etruscan pyramids have been located underneath a wine cellar in the city of Orvieto in central Italy, according to a team of U.S. and Italian archaeologists.
Carved into the rock of the tufa plateau –a sedimentary area that is a result of volcanic activity — on which the city stands, the subterranean structures were largely filled. Only the top-most modern layer was visible.
“Within this upper section, which had been modified in modern times and was used as a wine cellar, we noticed a series of ancient stairs carved into the wall. They were clearly of Etruscan construction,” David B. George of the Department of Classics at Saint Anselm, told Discovery News.
As they started digging, George and co-director of the excavation Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeologico Ambientale dell’Orvietano noted that the cave’s walls were tapered up in a pyramidal fashion. Intriguingly, a series of tunnels, again of Etruscan construction, ran underneath the wine cellar hinting to the possibility of deeper undiscovered structures below.
After going through a mid-20th century floor, George and Bizzarri reached a medieval floor. Immediately beneath this floor, they found a layer of fill that contained various artifacts such as Attic red figure pottery from the middle of the 5th Century B.C., 6th and 5th century B.C. Etruscan pottery with inscriptions as well as various objects that dated to before 1000 B.C.
Digging through this layer, the archaeologists found 5 feet of gray sterile fill, which was intentionally deposited from a hole in the top of the structure.
“Below that material there was a brown layer that we are currently excavating. Intriguingly, the stone carved stairs run down the wall as we continue digging. We still don’t know where they are going to take us,” Bizzarri told Discovery News.
The material from the deepest level reached so far (the archaeologists have pushed down about 10 feet) dates to around the middle of the fifth century B.C.
“At this level we found a tunnel running to another pyramidal structure and dating from before the 5th century B.C. which adds to the mystery,” George said. Indeed, the Etruscans have long been considered one of antiquity’s greatest enigmas.
A fun-loving and eclectic people who among other things taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads, and introduced the art of writing to Europe, the Etruscans began to flourish in Etruria (an area in central Italy area that covered now are Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna and Umbria) around 900 B.C., and then dominated much of the country for five centuries.
Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, they started to decline during the fifth century B.C., as the Romans grew in power. By 300-100 B.C., they eventually became absorbed into the Roman empire.
Their puzzling, non-Indo-European language was virtually extinguished and they left no literature to document their society. Indeed, much of what we know about them comes from their cemeteries: only the richly decorated tombs they left behind have provided clues to fully reconstruct their history.
The subterranean pyramids in Orvieto could offer a unique insight into this civilization as the structures appear to be unique.
“The caves have indeed a shape unknown elsewhere in Etruria,” Larissa Bonfante, professor emerita of classics at New York University and a leading expert on the ancient Etruscans, told Discovery News.
According to Bizzarri, there are at least five Etruscan pyramids under the city. Three of these structures have yet to be excavated.
“Clearly, they are not quarries or cisterns. I would say that there is nothing like these structures on record anywhere in Italy,” Bizzarri said.
According to George, the underground pyramids could represent some sort of a religious structure or a tomb. In both cases, it would be a discovery without precedent.
“Most likely, the answer waits at the bottom. The problem is we don’t really know how much we have to dig to get down there,” Bizzarri said.
At a time when black magic was relatively common, two curses involving snakes were cast, one targeting a senator and the other an animal doctor, says a Spanish researcher who has just deciphered the 1,600-year-old curses.
Both curses feature a depiction of a deity, possibly the Greek goddess Hekate, with serpents coming out of her hair, possibly meant to strike at the victims. Both curses contain Greek invocations similar to examples known to call upon Hekate.
The two curses, mainly written in Latin and inscribed on thin lead tablets, would have been created by two different people late in the life of the Roman Empire. Both tablets were rediscovered in 2009 at the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna, in Italy, and were originally acquired by the museum during the late 19th century. Although scholars aren’t sure where the tablets originated, after examining and deciphering the curses, they know who victims of the curses were.
One of the curses targets a Roman senator named Fistus and appears to be the only known example of a cursed senator. The other curse targets a veterinarian named Porcello. Ironically, Porcello is the Latin word for pig.
Celia Sánchez Natalías, a doctoral student at the University of Zaragoza, explained that Porcello was probably his real name. “In the world of curse tablets, one of the things that you have to do is to try to identify your victim in a very, very, exact way.”
Sánchez Natalías added that it isn’t certain who cursed Porcello or why. It could be for either personal or professional reasons. “Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello’s medicine,” said Sánchez Natalías.
“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …” part of it reads. The iconography on the tablet actually shows a mummified Porcello, his arms crossed (as is the deity) and his name written on both of his arms.
The fact that both the deity and Porcello have their arms crossed is important. Sánchez Natalías believes that the spell forced the deity, and thus Porcello, to become bound. “This comparison may be understood in two ways: either ‘just as the deity is bound, so will Porcello be’ or else ‘until Porcello is bound the deity will stay bound,'” she writes in a recent edition of the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.
The case of Fistus, a Roman senator, is also remarkable. The senate in ancient Rome was a place of great wealth and, earlier in Roman history, was a place of considerable power. By the time this curse was written toward the end of the Roman Empire, the influence of the senate had diminished in favor of the emperor, the army and the imperial bureaucracy.
Fistus would still have been a person of some wealth, however, and whoever wrote the curse had it in for him. The Latin expression for “crush” is used at least four times in the curse. “Crush, kill Fistus the senator,” part of the curse reads, “May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”
Again Sánchez Natalías isn’t sure of the motives behind the curse; but whatever they were, even by the standard of modern-day political attack ads, this was a nasty senatorial blow.
Sánchez Natalías’ translation and study of the senator curse is detailed in two recent articles published in the German journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.