Europe

Treasure Hunting

Holes potter the countryside where treasure-hunting has become a profession. In Archar, in north-western Bulgaria, the 1,500 inhabitants, like many others around the country, earn their living by digging up and selling precious finds. (Photo: Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images)

Treasure hunting has become popular in Macedonia. Driven by lack of economic perspective and adventurism, treasure hunters crusade the country. They collect verbal records of old legends from village elderly, buy dusty maps in Istanbul, and often well equipped, search the countryside.

Everybody knows there is a big treasure hidden somewhere in Macedonia. Nobody has found it yet, or if they did, they haven’t shared the news with others. But there will be the day. Sometimes it can be a problem to decide which of the legends about the hidden treasure is the right one to follow. There are so many.

Treasure hunting has become popular in Macedonia in recent years. Driven both by lack of economic perspective and adventurism, treasure hunters crusade the country. They collect verbal records of old legends from village elderly, buy dusty maps in Istanbul, and often well equipped, search the countryside.

One story for example, says that the grandfather of Malina Nikolova, a real person from Veles, city in the middle of the country, was the chief of the village called Stari Grad (Old Town) in Veles area back in Ottoman times. When the Ottomans were leaving the Balkans they gave him 12 pots full of gold to watch it after for when they return. They of course never did. The gold stayed there, hidden probably in the house which is now abandoned or around it somewhere. To date treasure hunters have dug around the place many times in the past few years. Nobody has yet reported of having found anything.

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Last year the police arrested five men while digging in the yard of an old monastery from the 13th century, St. Atanasij, near the Tetovo village of Lesok. By the time of the arrest they had managed to dig up a human skull and a few bones. The monastery had stayed unknown for centuries - it was buried in the ground - and it was only discovered in 1927 by a Russian monk by the name of Teodorit. Some experts say the treasure hunters were probably looking for the grave of Teodorit, hoping it could contain valuable items.

The hunters for this type of treasure follow the logic that fortune could be hidden nearby old monasteries or churches. They hope that despite the known fact that monks rejected earthly pleasures and were bound to live in poverty, some of them had amassed and buried some gold for rainy days. Thus they search around places named after a church or a monastery, such as Krstovi (Crosses), Crkvishte (Churchtown), Kalugjerishte (Monktown), or Manastirec (Monasterytown).

The legends also warn of dangers. Turkish gold is told to be cursed. Hiding the gold before leaving, the Turks protected it with a spell to befall on whoever touches it. The Romans on the other hand protected the treasures they left behind by installing different traps or drenching it with poisons.

Equipped with old maps with odor of mystery, and often cutting edge equipment, treasure hunters are sprawling across the country in pursuit of the staff dreams are made of. They dig; search the mountains, dive in lakes, crawl through caves, and climb rocks. For some it may be about fun and adventure, but some become consumed by the passion or even obsessed. A few years ago a case of murder was motivated by a treasure map. The victim and the murderer were friends and partners in treasure hunting.

Not all of them look for the hidden treasure. This summer the gold fever inflamed the south of the country, around the mountain of Kozuv. Gold hunters occupied the rivers of Doshnica and Boshavica and spent the summer gold panning. Archeologists agree that there is evidence that these two rivers, and many more on the mountain of Kozuf, were gold bearing in ancient times. Along the river streams there are remains of what archeologists say were rich settlements in the early period of the Roman Empire. “No wonder gold hunters are interested in this part of the country”, says professor of archeology Viktor Lilcic. He says that Kozuv had always been rich with gold and was a magnet for gold seekers also back in Roman times.

Geologists also confirm that some rivers on Kozuv flow through areas which are considered gold bearing. They indicate to the river of Mircevica as possibly gold bearing, but above all to the river of Konjska which, there are serious indications, could hide rich gold deposits.

Sociologists agree that the romantic pursuits for hidden treasures are reflection of the deep economic crisis and the widespread poverty. People strongly desire a way out of the dire economic situation. In absence of other tangible alternatives, some old Turkish or Roman gold could make all problems disappear.

And yet, not all hunting is an elusive pursuit of romantic dreams. Another, less Stivensonian but definitely lucrative treasure hunt has been going on in Macedonia for years. It is called “wild digging”, expression used to describe illegal excavations at archeological sites. The empires that have passed through over millennia have all left a layer of history. People say dig just about anywhere and something will pop up.

It is illegal and in an attempt to fight it, the government has toughened sanctions in recent years. There have been few trials against wild diggers last year alone. In one case, a few boxes of antiquities were found by Slovenian police on a regular bus from Skopje to a destination Germany. The dispatcher of the shipment had simply told the driver he was sending jars of ajvar (popular pepper cream) to his cousin. The items were only discovered after having easily passed several borders, and even then, only by chance.

Poachers of archeological sites are will equipped and organized and they have stable foreign markets for their goods. They are further motivated by the poor rewards the government offers for archeological items which, when found, have to be handed in to proper cultural institutions.

The business of wild digging has literally been booming lately. A lot of the smuggled goods go to Greece, but a lot also goes to Western Europe.

The smuggled items can range from modestly priced artifacts to essentially priceless pieces of cultural heritage. But then, why not sell it for a few hundred Euros when the government will surely not give you even that much. Experts say wild digging slowly but surely depletes the country’s cultural heritage.

It is not a day-job; that much is clear. In fact most digging, the illegal one at least, takes place by night. Alas, somebody has to do it. Treasure is, as always, within reach.

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