Thracian Gold Fever

Thracian Gold Fever

published in Archaeology Magazine Vol 58 Issue 2

Archaeologist and showman Georgi Kitov’s spectacular discoveries raise questions about managing Bulgaria’s past.

On a soft, gray fall afternoon, a crowd of several hundred waited patiently outside the Iskra History Museum in Kazanluk, the unprepossessing main town in central Bulgaria’s rose-growing region. The blank concrete facade of the museum, like that of most Communist-era cultural institutions, created a notably joyless impression.

But inside, the 15 visitors allowed at a time into the small exhibition hall were awed by fantastic Thracian gold, silver, bronze, and ceramic objects, 28 in all, recently discovered only eight miles away and on public display for the first time. An ancient amphora housed on a wobbly metal stand rocked ominously as a woman brushed by. The excitement of the visitors washed over the tiny provincial museum as they carefully studied the objects that have been heralded across the world.

“We are filled with history from the land to the sky,” remarked Albena Mileva, who is 24 and unemployed. She hitchhiked 20 miles from the neighboring city of Stara Zagora with two friends to see the exhibit. “So long ago the Thracians were so developed in so many ways. You can touch their spirit and their way of life.”

“I have no words,” sighed Nadka Nenkova, a 66-year-old retired economist who had just seen the exhibit. “All this time it’s been underground, and we didn’t even know it was there.”

While the sensational finds from a 2,500year-old necropolis dubbed the “Valley of the Thracian Kings” have fired the imagination of the Bulgarian public and the world beyond (“Fit for a King?”, page 20), the story behind the discoveries, centered around the controversial methods of the archaeologist who made them–unorthodox excavation practices, shady business deals, allegations of collaborations with looters–raises questions about how this poor former Eastern Bloc nation will manage the future of its past.

It all started on August 19 of last year, when Georgi Kitov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences discovered a gold mask in a late fifth-century B.C. burial mound outside the town of Shipka, eight miles from Kazanluk.

The discovery made headlines worldwide (“Putting a New Face on Thrace,” November/December 2004), and the 61-year-old Kitov, an archaeologist specializing in Thracian tomb studies who has been in the field for more than 30 years, became a household name in Bulgaria. Photographs of the robust man with the bushy Abraham Lincoln beard cradling the exquisite mask were splashed across national and international newspapers. In different press statements he attributed the mask to two different Thracian kings who lived more than a century apart, although it was later determined to be the death mask of a warrior, and proudly pointed out to journalists that, at 1.5 pounds, the mask was much more impressive than the Mycenaean Mask of Agamemnon, which, he said, was made of only a paltry 2.5 oz. of gold leaf (in fact, it weighs in at 6 oz. of gold).

Although it may seem amusing to outsiders, Kitov’s game of artifact one-upmanship played right to the hearts of his countrymen. Today’s Bulgarians are not considered direct descendants of the Thracians, powerful but illiterate Indo-European tribes who were commonly described by their Greek neighbors as “barbarians.” Rather, Bulgarians are descended from Central Asian proto-Bulgars who came to the area in the seventh century A.D. and mixed with the remains of local Thracian tribes and Slavs. Nonetheless, the Thracians offer an unusually strong common identity of which all Bulgarians can feel proud–not just because they share the same real estate, but because they offer a comforting association in Bulgaria’s current period of post-Communist social dislocation. “Bulgarians need to go back before the divisive historical memories of the Turks and the Russians to find an identity they can agree on,” says anthropologist Margarita Karamihova of the Bulgarian Ethnological Institute. “We can’t even agree on who to hate anymore. We love to have bigger and better things which increase our self-confidence in comparison with our neighbor countries. And we are so proud that our gold mask is bigger than their gold mask!”

Adding to the wellspring of national pride that the discovery engendered, Kitov allowed himself to speculate generously on an elegant gold ring with a depiction of a seated, spear-wielding athlete that was also found in the tomb along with Greek pottery and bronze and iron weapons. Six days into the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and the day after he opened the tomb, the archaeologist was quoted telling Reuters that he believed the ring featured an Olympic rower. “We are dedicating this find to our rowers in Athens,” said Kitov. “It’s a sign that they should win a gold medal.” What he failed to mention was that the ancient games had never hosted the sport of rowing.

A month later, on September 21, together with his team of 12 specialists, a crew of workers, and the ever-present crowd of onlookers, Kitov found what many say is the most exquisite object of his career, a 26-pound bronze head that appears to have been crudely severed at the neck from a life-size statue. As if acting as a sentry, it was found buried deep in a stonelined pit some 15 feet in front of the entrance to Golyamata Kosmatka, “The Big Shaggy One,” a burial mound more than 60 feet high and 10 times as long, located less than a mile from the tomb of the gold mask. Due to the size of the mound and its location some seven miles from Seuthopolis, a city built by the late-fourth-century B.C. king Seuthes III, the tomb is believed to be the burial site of the ruler.

Using three large earthmoving machines, Kitov located the entrance to the Golyamata Kosmatka tomb three days after the discovery of the bronze head. Miners on his team spent approximately a week removing dirt from the 40-foot corridor that lay beyond the entrance; scorch marks on stones indicated that a fire had caused the wooden infrastructure of the corridor to collapse, protecting it from looters for millennia. Ninety-nine percent of Thracian tombs were looted during antiquity, and Kitov and other experts say the fire was likely to have been set deliberately to protect the tomb.

While the crowds of locals and reporters buzzed around, limited air and cramped space kept outsiders from entering the tomb. Finally, in the early afternoon of October 4, Kitov stood at the head of his assembled team at the end of the corridor, facing an enormous marble door beyond which, most likely, was something every archaeologist dreams organ unlooted tomb. Could this enormous burial mound be in fact the very resting place of Seuthes III?

The narrow first room, about five feet wide and twice as long, contained the intact skeleton of a sacrificed horse. A blocked-up doorway lay on the opposite side of the chamber. The doorway was cleared to reveal a second room, empty but much larger, with stone walls and a graceful domed ceiling 15 feet high. The “perfect acoustics” led Kitov to believe it had a ritual purpose. And there across the room was yet another doorway, again packed with rocks and dirt.

That night, Kitov and his team entered the third and final chamber, the centerpiece of which was a sarcophagus tall enough to stand in, carved from a single piece of granite and weighing more than 60 tons. Amid thick dust, exactly as they were laid out 2,300 years ago on the bed and the floor, were more than 70 gold, silver, bronze, and ceramic objects fit for a king, including armor, a gold kylix (drinking cup) and wreath, bronze coins depicting Seuthes III, and three human teeth (see sidebar).

But then, as often happens in Bulgarian life, the story of this amazing archaeological discovery took a sharp turn for the absurd. According to Kitov’s account in later press reports–as no journalists were present in the tomb–the archaeologist called the Kazanluk police chief and requested a few policemen to help escort the treasure back to expedition headquarters at a Shipka hotel. Kitov reportedly did not consider the private security firm he used to guard the entrance of the tomb up for the job. Witnesses say more than 50 Bulgarian law enforcement officers, ordered by the Interior Ministry, showed up outside the tomb: regular uniformed police, masked special forces armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, and even a local prosecutor.

Adding to the circus was the presence of Ivan Juchnovski, president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Vassil Nikolov, director of the National Archaeological institute and Museum. The police frisked them, as well as everybody else present, for artifacts each time they exited the tomb. Tempers flared all around.

The cops insisted that they would have to take the priceless objects to a Kazanluk police station. Kitov refused, insisting that they be taken to his hotel headquarters. At a standoff, the archaeologist, his team, and his guests instead decided to sit it out in the tomb, where they stayed up all night drinking wine in celebration of their discovery and in defiance of the masked and armed authorities outside. Kitov refused to let any outsiders enter, so the police spent a chilly night camped out in their cars parked outside the tomb. The next morning, team members packed the artifacts into expedition cars and authorities escorted them to the hotel.

When Kitov’s latest bonanza made news across the country that day, the government’s storm-trooper reaction to the discovery elicited boundless amusement among the press and public. The police justified their response by saying it was suspicious that the team needed to remove precious artifacts in the middle of the night, and that one of Kitov’s private security guards had a criminal record. The archaeologist fired back by demanding, in the country’s biggest national daily, Trud Daily, the resignation of the Interior Minister.

After the team went home and got some sleep, the anger evaporated. There had never been a better time to be an archaeologist in Bulgaria. A photograph of Kitov smiled from the front page of Trud Daily, sipping from the gold kylix while 39-year-old Diana Dimitrova, his deputy expedition leader and mother of his child, held the gold wreath over his head like a halo. The huge headline announced KITOV wanes IN GOLD. Other papers showed masked policemen guarding the tomb with automatic rifles. Political cartoons ridiculed the Interior Ministry.

A few days later, Kitov, dressed casually in a white T-shirt, welcomed the Foreign Minister at Golyamata Kosmatka and was awarded the Gold Honorary Badge of the Foreign “of Ministry. The minister said the finds were exceptional significance for the future of cultural tourism and tourism in Bulgaria in general” and announced that the government would give Kitov’s expedition 50,000 levs (about $35,000) to continue its work. The Construction Minister even promised to fix the roads in the depressed region around the tombs. “I will be the Bulgarian Schliemann,” Kitov had once boasted to colleagues years ago. His lifetime of talk had become reality.

Among his colleagues, however, Kitov does not receive nearly the same respect as he does from the local media, public, and politicians. The archaeological community in Bulgaria is very small, perhaps only 250 professionals in all, so most agreed to talk only anonymously. Kitov clearly prefers to dig, focusing his energy on discovering objects, and appears to have little interest in documenting or scientifically analyzing his finds. Several specialists noted that he rarely published his discoveries until several years ago, when he was publicly criticized by colleagues. A former colleague, who recalled that Kitov once bragged that he hadn’t been to the library of the Bulgarian Archaeological Institute “since 1977,” characterizes him as “a typical villager, the worst example of those who succeeded in the late Communist system, not academic at all.” Nonetheless, he has recently excavated some of the country’s most significant Thracian sites, including the Alexandrovo tomb, which contains elaborate painted depictions of Thracians, and Starosel, perhaps the largest Thracian sanctuary yet discovered.

A maestro of heavy earthmoving equipment–even orchestrating four machines at the same time–Kitov has pioneered what his detractors say is its overuse on archaeological sites in Bulgaria. Many archaeologists are bewildered by his hastiness. While established Bulgarian archaeologists have spent 20 years investigating one site, he excavated six sites this summer alone, and had permission for at least 10. “Ninety percent of us reject his methods,” says a colleague.

Kitov is unapologetic. “The looters were one step away from the town where the ring and mask were found,” said Kitov in a recent telephone conversation (granted only grudgingly on the condition that it be quick). “If we didn’t hurry, if we were a week late, for example, they would’ve entered the grave, and taken out everything that was inside and no one would have ever known what was there in Shipka. That’s why we hurry and that’s why we work very hard, and that’s why we use machines without damaging the archaeological site. We once found 27 beads from a gold necklace in a huge mound, which means that the machines don’t stop us from finding objects. Nothing is destroyed, nothing is damaged.”

Kitov was censured in February 2001 by the Council for Scientific Field Studies at the National Archaeological Institute and Museum (AIM), to which he belonged. The other 13 members voted unanimously to take away his permission to lead expeditions for a year, based on violations that included excavating three sites without permission; “nonprofessional digging” and “covering a site without consideration of conservation”; working 10 sites in one season, including two at the same time; the uncontrolled use of earthmoving equipment and metal detectors despite complex geological deposits; working with a team lacking any sufficiently qualified or experienced members; and not leaving any unstudied sites for future generations. Kitov defended himself by saying he was morally obligated to work the sites without permission because he had seen looters nearby and needed to save them.

Then in September the same year, the institute’s Scientific Council voted unanimously to expel Kitov from his leadership post of the Thracian Section of AIM, which he had held for 11 years, as well as to form a commission to investigate all his expedition documentation for the previous five years. Among an even longer series of professional issues such as those featured at the February meeting, Kitov was accused of acting like a “spoiled child,” and the council chair protested at his accusing her in the media of “filling orders for the looter’s Mafia” and calling her a “moron.”

But Kitov still has one very well-placed ally. Vassil Nikolov, who was present for the opening of the Golyamata Kosmatka tomb and as director of AIM is responsible for approving excavation licenses in the country, says he has no concerns about control over archaeological activity in Bulgaria, or about Kitov, although he could not say how many dig permissions Kitov holds. The archaeologist himself believes he had “12 or 15 [permissions in 2004], somewhere around there.” Nikolov said the high number is the result of a new and improved system whereby a separate permit is given for each mound, instead of one permission for a whole complex of mounds. And because Nikolov was working in the area and visited Kitov every day, he says, he personally saw that the archaeologist never worked more than one site at a time.

Bulgarian scholars are deeply concerned not only about Kitov and his methods, or the respectability he commands, but also about the broader repercussions for archaeology in their country. The attention he receives risks shifting public and financial focus onto “treasure” and Thracians at the expense of all other archaeological investigations. There is a wealth of heritage in Bulgaria from other cultures as well, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Byzantine, and ancient Bulgarian. “Colleagues say it is offensive that the government awards Kitov because he finds gold,” says one archaeologist, “but others who don’t live with their families for six years because of their work get nothing.”

Such attitudes are most likely a result of jealousy, Kitov says. “It’s not a matter of finding gold, it’s a matter of gathering a lot of facts about the Thracians. We only work four, five months a year like other colleagues and we get results. We work 10, 12 hours a day. While some of the other colleagues might work four, five, six hours and want to have our results, they won’t have them.”

IT WAS TWO DAYS after the Golyamata Kosmatka finds were put on display for the first time in Kazanluk that I met Kitov. Bulgaria was still buzzing about the Thracians. When I arrived, he was sitting alone at a folding table near the tomb entrance, doing a newspaper crossword puzzle–the stereotypical pursuit of the bored Communist-era worker. He was wearing a mobile phone promo T-shirt, cheap plastic sunglasses, and a black Speedo. “Should I grab a chair?” I asked. “No,” he said, “we’ll stand.” He clearly did not welcome scrutiny of his work, but perhaps he was fatigued by the insatiable press interest.

The conversation was very strained, but Kitov became animated when the topic steered into what is clearly favorite territory: state neglect and incompetence in archaeological affairs, in particular with regard to the Valley of the Thracian Kings. He complained that the area was awash with looters and that the authorities did nothing to stop them or preserve the sites. “We want to turn this into a tourist site,” he said. “Little by little, we hope to have a person stay here, sell tickets, another to take people inside. You need very little money; fortunately, most of these mounds are near the road.” Kitov described how, because of tourism at Starosel, more than 20 people “have bread and work thanks to our work.” If tourism were to come to Shipka, he argued, he could put more than 50 people to work. “We simply want the local government to not stop us, to look favorably on our work, and turn the tombs into tourist sites.”

Bulgaria’s infatuation with its self-styled Schliemann got its first dose of reality a few weeks later on October 30, when the cover of the weekly Politika featured a picture of Kitov wearing a T-shirt with the bronze head, shrugging his shoulders with his arms upraised. The two-inch headline exclaimed: GEORGI KITOV–THE CASHIER OF THE THRACIAN GOLD. The accompanying story accused Kitov of illegally trying to develop the concessions for the tomb area, and showed images of an admitted looter in the tomb at the moment he entered the third chamber of Golyamata Kosmatka.

A contract had been signed by Kitov, the director of the Kazanluk Museum, which financed the expedition, and a third party known as the Bulgarian Investment Fund to develop the Golyamata Kosmatka site for tourism. It was not yet a legal contract because the mayor of Kazanluk had not signed (the Kazanluk municipality owns the land beneath the site). But even if he had, the contract would not have been valid because the Culture Ministry is required by law to develop any archaeological site anywhere in the country.

Still, an initiative in developing sites where the state does nothing is somewhat difficult to fault. All Bulgarian archaeologists work for local, regional, or national museums or institutes and all artifacts are property of the state, but the state has little money available for fieldwork, let alone for protection or maintenance of monuments after they are opened. “State administration has no relationship to science,” laments one archaeologist. The Culture Ministry also recommended that prosecutors investigate Kitov’s nonprofit association TEMP (the Bulgarian acronym for “Thracian Expedition for Tomb Studies”) because of clauses in its association’s registration that allow for activities which under law only licensed archaeologists or the state can perform.

Of particular concern to the archaeological community was Kitov’s association with the Bulgarian. Investment Fund, which provided private security guards for Golyamata Kosmatka and also claims to have supplied a $90,000 “scanner” used to locate sites during Kitov’s expeditions. The fund employee who operated the equipment, Mario Shopov, also freely admitted a grave-robbing background. Asked by Politika whether he dealt with looting or archaeological expeditions, Shopov replied, “Both. I’m interested in history, and separately I work with the equipment of Mr. Dinov,” [co-owner of the Bulgarian Investment Fund]. Shopov is a signatory for the finds in Golyamata Kosmatka, and a Kitov-produced DVD about the excavations confirms his presence in the third chamber just after it was opened–shaking hands with Kitov. Shopov also says he was a responsible party for the finds in the gold-mask burial and another Kitov tomb. Shopov declined to tell ARCHAEOLOGY anything about the scanner used in Kitov’s discoveries, citing “commercial secrets.” A police source is quoted in the Politika story saying Shopov is “operationally interesting.”

Kitov described the admitted looter to ARCHAEOLOGY as someone who was in the tomb “coincidentally” at 2:30 A.M. when the third chamber was opened, although he previously told the magazine that not even the police were allowed to enter the tomb. Nikolov and others confirm the latter version of events.

A police investigator later revealed that the official list of artifacts found at Golyamata Kosmatka was incomplete enough for some objects to have gone unaccounted for–an administrative but not a criminal offense. Konstantin Dimitrov, chief expert of the investigative branch of Crimes Against Cultural Artifacts in the National Police, says the police have never “investigated” Kitov–a formal term for the beginning of a law-enforcement operation on specific charges. He does say that the police were “checking signals” from the Culture Ministry about various possible violations, but would not be more specific.

The press attention given to Kitov has raised flesh debate on how to protect Bulgaria’s cultural heritage. There is currently no law against buying antiquities in Bulgaria, only for digging for them or selling them–and even those laws are rarely enforced, making the country, according to Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National History Museum, the largest exporter of illicit antiquities in Europe. The parliament passed a law that went into effect January 1 giving all private collectors one year to register their collections with local museums, without having to establish origins or ownership.

The gold mask and ring, as well as the bronze head, are on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia, while the Golyamata Kosmatka artifacts are in Kazanluk. Some are being restored but others are on display. There are no plans for any of the artifacts to travel abroad before the summer.

Kitov is currently in Sofia, where he says he is writing up his finds for the Bulgarian journal Archaeologia. At the end of 2004, readers of the country’s second-largest daily named him one of the year’s 55 “Most Honorable Bulgarians.” Next spring he plans to return to the Valley of the Thracian Kings to continue work on other tombs in the same area, some of which he has worked on before, and some of which he hasn’t.

Back in Shipka, people are readying themselves for the tourists they think will come. An unusual example of private initiative is being undertaken by Ali Kachan, a 58-year-old former tractor driver who owns a restaurant 300 yards from the burial mound where the gold mask was found. Within three weeks of the discovery, he had received all the required permissions and already begun building a defensive “house” around the tomb with his own money. “Private people need help,” he says. “They are not used to having initiative. The moment the state gives serious money for the infrastructure of the burial mounds, things will happen as they should.”

Kachan is not the only one thinking about what the finds might mean in concrete terms for Bulgarians. There is serious talk about basing the national tourism strategy on the Valley of the Thracian Kings. “Gold masks, bronze heads, tombs–all this makes me very happy,” says Ivan Kalchev, who rents rooms to tourists in his enormous house in Shipka. He began construction work on a separate hotel just weeks before the first discovery. Most agree the Valley of the Kings is right now more a business strategy than scientific fact, but few fault the idea. “If someone wants to advertise it, that’s great,” says Vassil Nikolov, who is helping Bulgaria’s president develop a strategy for managing the country’s cultural heritage. “But first real money needs to be invested to develop the sites. When the foreign tourists come and there is no road, no electricity, no lights and no water, and nowhere to eat or sleep, they are not going to come back.” As a start, the government recently allotted 1.2 million levs (about $800,000) to build roads and bring water and electricity to a few of the valley’s tombs, including Golyamata Kosmatka.

Driving back toward Kachan’s restaurant, a car cuts across the muddy field passing us in the opposite direction, toward the tomb of the golden mask. Kachan shakes his head and clicks his tongue against his teeth with disappointment. “No one will be there to show them anything,” he tells me. Sometimes the restaurant owner gives tours himself. He feels each visitor who comes to the valley is a precious opportunity to share his pride and help the impoverished local economy. His vision for the future includes hotels, restaurants, and shops rising in the desolate fields where socialist agricultural cooperatives once raised roses. Kachan expects plenty of problems for at least a few years until the area develops enough infrastructure for feeding and housing foreign tourists. “In Bulgaria, people still aren’t adapted to doing things 100 percent privately. When they learn to accept this, things will be different.”

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