Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tomb Raiders Strike Gold in Macedonia

Experts voice alarm at the brisk trade in looted archaeological finds, which flourishes because of lack of funds and protection.
By Vlado Apostolov

Macedonian archaeologists are voicing growing fears that much of the country’s buried treasure is being smuggled out of the country owing to poor protection of sites and limited resources.

Customs officers recently seized more than 50 coins dating from the second century BC on the Tabanovce border crossing with Serbia.

But most analysts believe customs and police are failing to halt the illegal removal of significant volumes of artefacts.

Ilce Bojcevski, of the Directorate for Protection of Cultural Heritage, says illegal excavation has reached alarming proportions.

He illustrates that by recalling the recovery between 1995 and 2003 of some 2,500 artefacts stolen from the site of Isar Marvinci, an Iron-Age town and necropolis in southeast Macedonia.

“What is truly terrifying is that we have no idea about the number of artefacts that were stolen and never found from this site,” said Bojcevski.

Dragi Mitrevski, an archaeology professor at Skopje University, shares his concern.

“An optimistic estimate would be that the ratio of artefacts that are found to those that leave the country is one to ten,” he said.

Another archaeologist, Viktor Lilcic, said. “I think that of the 5,000 sites in the country there isn’t one that illegal excavators haven’t attacked.”

The thieves target sites containing jewellery and coins from the seventh to the first century BC. Iron-Age objects known as Macedonian bronze are the most sought after.

“Macedonian bronze is quite famous in the world and can reach high prices on the black market,” said police inspector Dragi Nestorovski. “Even the smallest piece can get 1,000 euro.”

Professor Mitrevski says the illegal excavation and smuggling of cultural treasures is undermining Macedonia`s history, as many experts say the Iron Age provides proof of cultural continuity between ancient and modern Macedonia.

“The Iron Age is the key page of Macedonia’s history,” he said.

Nestorovski agrees. “Destroying and stealing artefacts works in favour of those who deny the existence of the Macedonian people and culture,” he said.

The policeman added that people from many countries were involved in this activity and that the interior ministry had filed charges against Greeks, Serbs and citizens of other states.

At the same time, Nestorovski said the state was limited in the action it could take to halt this illegal trade.

“Even if we find illegal excavators digging on a site we can do nothing unless we find them with a stolen artefact in their hands,” he told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR.

The lack of funds to properly protect archaeological sites has undoubtedly lured would-be smugglers to Macedonia.

Boban Husenovski, of the Archaeological Museum in Gevgelija, in southern Macedonia, said the relevant institutions were understaffed and lack technical equipment.

“The illegal excavators have electronic equipment and metal detectors,” he said. “With the equipment they have – we are six steps behind them.”

Husenovski told BCR that his museum had only two archaeologists on its staff and one car. “Physically we can’t be present at all the sites that thieves might target,” he said.

In fact, professional archaeologists serve as unwitting guides for the thieves, alerting them to the existence of new sites.

“Basically we pave the way for the excavators,” lamented one archaeologist. “Once we start our research at a particular site, they know where to go.”

Milan Ivanovski, of the State Bureau for Protection of Cultural Monuments, says illegal excavation has been a serious problem in Macedonia since independence in 1991.

Ivanovski says the excavators are often locals hired by the museums for official research. They sell their finds through intermediaries to collectors.

“The artefacts reach high prices in Europe but once out of the country there is little we can do,” said Bojcevski, whose bureau has no funds to monitor auctions where these artefacts are usually sold.

Nor can they rely on help from foreign museums, where these objects often end up.

“Cases of museums abroad informing us that they have come into possession of Macedonian artefacts are extremely rare,” continued Bojcevski.

Nikos Causidis, archaeology professor at Skopje University, points out that Macedonia’s neighbours have helped themselves to the country’s treasures for generations.

“Sofia museum still displays two gold masks and other objects dating from the sixth to fifth century BC that were taken during the First World War,” he remarked.

“Belgrade museum has gold objects from the same site.”

Causidis said the government has done too little to ensure the return of these treasures, even though it has every right to take action under international conventions.

“The way we treat our cultural treasure is a sign of the maturity of the state,” he said. “Macedonia must stop treating this problem as marginal.”

Vlado Apostolov and Kristina Nikolovska are IWPR/BIRN trainees.

More IWPR's Global Voices