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Smugglers and Legends Complicate Fight against Antiquities Theft (Part 2)

November 17, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Yesterday appeared the first part of this article. As we said, since the following interview was conducted back in June, there have been various developments in the area of the topic under consideration. However, the reader will find here a detailed and fascinating discussion of the general topic as it applies to the case of Macedonia.

Archaeology: Benefits and Dangers

The archaeologists, however, view their work as vital – to get to the treasures before the thieves can. But they too are strapped for cash, and have had to be creative in order to get results. One Macedonian archaeologist privately discussed a program held during the late 1990’s, in which retired American couples seeking to fulfill their own ‘Indiana Jones’ fantasies would visit the country for two weeks and, under the direction of professionals, help excavate sites in south-central Macedonia. “They didn’t get to keep their finds,” he says. “The thrill of it was enough for them. And they pumped money into the local economy. But unfortunately the program was cancelled.”

Yet such zeal is not always beneficial, argues Bojcevski. He affixes some of the blame on the well-meaning archaeologists themselves. “Because these scholars are impatient to write their studies, they want to discover more things and faster. But in their rush they don’t see that they end up losing in the end. They make our work harder.”

In the other cases, where a theft has occurred, “we can only try to document the theft and hope to trace the items with the help of the police and INTERPOL.”

The problem with money is not only a general lack, but also a failure to allocate it realistically, he contends. The CHPO may be given 1,500 euros to monitor up to 30 known sites, with the result that “we can’t check up on any one of them properly- it would be much better to concentrate on fewer sites, but follow the discovery process from beginning to end.”

A Rare Victory

These setbacks paint a depressing picture indeed. But the news is not always bad. Sometimes the good guys win, Bojcevski reminds. In recent months there have been two major smuggling busts, one involving a huge amount of ancient Macedonian jewelry from a burial tomb, another also involving treasures from a 7th century BC necropolis. In his office, Bojcevski showed photos and a summary of the police report on the latter bust, and told the story of how the criminals were stopped.

“The items, mostly jewelry, were put on a bus in the northwestern city of Tetovo, bound for Leverkusen,” he says. “But luckily during a routine check on the Croatian-Slovenian border, the authorities discovered them and sent the whole collection back to us. We were very grateful for this. It was an example of successful international cooperation.”

The items taken were very valuable, Bojcevski says. “Macedonian Iron Age, 6th and 7th century BC treasures are currently very popular on the European market. Something you could sell here for 5,000 euros will be worth 30,000 euros in the West.”

The Lure of Legend…

But not all of the collectors are motivated by financial reward. Since the country is littered with countless antiquities, not a few Macedonian households boast one or two centerpiece items from the remote past. Aesthetic fondness and even patriotism are the most common motivations for such private collectors, who inevitably have a story behind every discovery.

For example, a local man in the southwestern village of Vevchani proudly shows off a second century AD Roman statue of a horse sitting in his living room. “I stumbled on it by accident,” he says. “I enjoy reading about the ancient history of our region, and I was following the ancient road that re-connected with the Via Egnatia – and there it was!”

This thrill of the hunt motivates many. Because of its long and complex history, Macedonia abounds with tales and legends about not only great cultures- but also what they left behind.

The appeal of such stories seems to lie in their vagueness; percolating in the popular consciousness for generations, the legends are typically awash with the blood, plunder and magic of long-dead kings, armies and priests. But nobody can ever say exactly where the fortress stood, where the battle took place, where the temple was overtaken by vines. Such tales always seem to originate ‘from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend…’

Legends of ancient treasure appeal to many Macedonians. Stole, a 28 year-old man from Skopje, enjoys wandering the mountains on weekends with a metal detector in search of buried treasure. “I’ve only found one iron horseshoe,” he says. “But that’s okay- I just do it for the fun of it.”

…And the Curse of Discovery

However, other Macedonians are superstitious about such adventuring and strongly oppose it, believing that it can only bring on bad luck. The story recounted by a young woman from Skopje fits the mold exactly.

“Many years, ago my uncle’s friend’s grandfather was adding on to his house south of Kratovo, and they discovered a bag of Turkish gold buried in the yard,” she says. “When he died, he left it to the friend’s father. But every time he touched it, he got sick. There are many stories like this. So many of us think it’s better not to look for these things.”

Picturesque Kratovo, surrounded by the Osogovski Mountains and traversed by a winding river, was the local center of silver mining under the Ottomans. It remains one of Macedonia’s most unique towns, connected by 6 bridges, punctuated by watchtowers, and crisscrossed by a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

Because of its distinguished history, the Osogovski region has been explored by several foreign mining companies. Locals tell tales of wilderness areas secretly fenced off, of unknown helicopters hovering in the distance, of armed guards protecting isolated terrain. But all of these stories remain unverifiable. What many believe, however, is that the companies were not after silver or gold- but ancient antiquities.

Suspicions and Lamentation

The Macedonian government had such a suspicion about a decade ago, recalls Ilce Bojcevski. “In the mountains between Kratovo and Probistip, an American mining company was given a license to operate. They said they were looking for gold, but we suspected they were really looking for antiquities. But we couldn’t do anything because we couldn’t prove this.”

Some Macedonians have even claimed that NATO soldiers engaged in organized theft over the past few years. “After they came as peacekeepers in 2001,” says one former policeman who did not want to be named, “they were found in certain areas digging in a very systematic way – we believe they were looking for ancient treasures. But what can we do? NATO is very big and powerful, and we are very small and weak.”

While Bojcevski cannot corroborate this claim, he does allege that the wealthy “internationals” – the NATO peacekeepers, UN employees, OSCE and others – have individually taken illegal antiquities out of the country by buying them from the ‘back room’ collections of unscrupulous Skopje dealers. “These people have a lot of money, and they don’t particularly care about our national heritage,” he says. “They just want ancient souvenirs to take home.”

In the end, the market value for Macedonian antiquities abroad, as well as the allure of treasure hunting for locals, makes a hard job for the country’s cash-strapped police. “There are many things we miss,” concedes Ilce Bojcevski. “But we are doing our best. The job is very important for the country.

“Macedonia is supposed to protect its cultural heritage- God knows we have so much of it. We can’t say we’re great at other things, but in this we are one of the best in the world.”

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