ARCHAR, Bulgaria (AP) — On the banks of the Danube, in the northwest corner of Bulgaria, lie the remnants of an ancient Roman settlement called Ratiaria, host to a priceless cultural heritage. Craters pockmark the huge site, evidence of a scourge threatening one of the world's great troves of antiquities: looters digging for ancient treasure to sell on the black market.
Archaeologist Krasmira Luka, who heads a team excavating part of the 80 hectare (200 acre) site, says the area has been repeatedly raided by thieves who dig pits looking for ancient coins and jewelry. Everything else, including precious ceramic vessels and other historically significant artifacts, is smashed to pieces.
"Destroying the items is not just a crime, it's an irreparable tragedy," Luka said, looking out at a moonscape littered with shards of ceramics or glassware destroyed by the diggers. "The day after our team leaves the site, the diggers are in place. It's an uneven battle."
Located on the crossroads of many ancient civilizations, Bulgaria is ranked by its scholars as behind only Italy and Greece in Europe for the numbers of antiquities lying in its soil. But Bulgaria has been powerless to prevent the rape of its ancient sites, depriving the world of part of its cultural legacy and also costing this impoverished Balkan nation much-needed tourism revenue.
Police reports indicate that every day up to 50,000 people are engaged in treasure hunting raids across Bulgaria, a country of 7.3 million. According to Angel Papalezov, a senior police officer, hundreds of thousands of artifacts are smuggled out of the country every year, with dealers hauling in up to $40 million.
But Ratiaria is the most drastic example of the looting that has been going on over the last 20 years, since the fall of communism. The first excavations here were carried out by Bulgarian archaeologists between 1958 and 1962. They were renewed in 1976 by an Italian team, but lack of funding forced them to leave the site in 1991.
Western experts call Ratiaria a world-class archaeological site that is under grave threat.
"Ratiaria has a great archaeological and historical significance not just of regional and national importance to Bulgaria but internationally for the study of the Roman Empire," said Jamie Burrows, an archaeologist at the Nottingham University, who has spent several years working at Ratiaria.
"Such a site could have been North West Bulgaria's 'Pompeii', bringing wealth to a poor region in need of such tourism," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Without quick efficient action this opportunity may sadly be missed."
Ancient sites were protected during communist times by a strong fear of the omnipresent police and harsh punishments for any law-breaking activity. Since the collapse of the totalitarian system, many have taken up looting to earn a living. Organized by local mafia, looting squads that have mushroomed all over the country are well equipped with metal detectors, bulldozers, tractors and even decommissioned army vehicles.
Bulgaria hosts some of the most unique and vulnerable cultural resources in Europe.
In addition to the numerous Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlement mounds, there are significant remains of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine urban centers. Perhaps most notable among Bulgarian antiquities are the remains of the Thracians, a powerful warrior kingdom conquered only by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. The best known Thracian remains in Bulgaria are tombs and burial mounds which contain stunning gold and silver work.