Deep in the south of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the looters move in broad daylight, trying to unearth historic treasures from a region that has become a paradise for plunderers.
The brazen diggers in Isar Marvinci, a village of around 900 inhabitants some 170 kilometers (105 miles) from the capital Skopje, scour an ancient settlement in the hope of finding artifacts dating as far back as the Bronze Age.
“What to do with them, take them or leave them? If you leave them, the next digger or visitor will take them,” says one digger who refuses to reveal his identify. The raiders act with little fear of punishment despite knowing that what they are doing is illegal in FYROM, an impoverished Balkan country that doesn’t have the resources to protect its historic heritage. “Police come and go, and there is no local force,” says another.
The role of the diggers is the first link in a smuggling chain that usually sees the items end up on display in the West’s major shopping centers, or even its museums. FYROM is famous for its bronzes, but some of the highest prices currently being paid are for coinage from the era of Alexander the Great and his father Philip II. One such piece recently sold locally for around –3,000 ($3,950), but was expected to fetch more than four times as much in Western Europe.
Among the estimated 1 million artifacts to have been smuggled out of the country since independence in 1991 are jewelry, decorative ornaments, weapons and the armor of ancient foot soldiers, and statues. Some end up on Europe’s black markets, while others are offered for sale on Internet sites, where they are quickly snapped up by buyers in countries such as the UK, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the USA. “We have so far identified artifacts from Macedonia in many museums, among them in the British Museum in London, and museums in Paris, Belgrade, Sofia and Russia,” says Pasko Kuzman, a chief state archaeologist. With a past that includes the Bronze and Iron ages, and the Byzantine and Roman empires, FYROM has been a favorite hunting ground for looters since independence. Archaeological sites number between 5,000 and 11,000, according to varying estimates given by local institutions. Viktor Lilcic, a FYROM archaeologist and university professor, says that only around 10 percent of the country’s 1,500 largest archaeological sites have been secured by authorities.