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Ossetia Plundered of its Golden Age
10 June 2006
(CAIS) -- By Victor Buividas in
Vladikavkaz - The authorities stand
accused of inaction as grave-robbers raid ancient sites
for gold treasures.
North Ossetia say an ancient and unique heritage is slipping away because of
systematic plunder, while the authorities stand by and do nothing.
“Each year our institute rescues around one million US dollars' worth of
historical relics from being stolen or destroyed,” Mark Bliev, director of the
institute of history and archaeology at North Ossetia’s State University, told
Bliev and his colleagues regularly go out on excavation trips to try to preempt
the grave robbers who dig up valuable items.
They have saved an impressive amount, he said,“There are over 200,000 pieces.
For example, a set of golden harness fittings found near a dig in the small town
of Zilginsk [on the outskirts of Beslan] is worth over two million US dollars on
the world market. It dates from the Sarmatian period of the third century BC.”
But sometimes Bliev and his colleagues are not quick enough to stop the thieves
– termed “black market archaeologists” - who make a living from illegal
“Yes, unfortunately they exist,” he said. “But if people inform us that
the storm clouds are gathering over a particular burial mound – that there are
thieves there – we’ll send out an expedition. We usually get this sort of
information by chance. A great many valuable ancient artifacts are found by
workmen with bulldozers in clay quarries.”
Bliev cited one recent case where a group of miners found a large gold artifact,
“Instead of handing it in to us, they took it and divided it up by cutting it
into four pieces. But there turned out to be one honest person among them, and
as a result, they were forced to hand over the relic, albeit in fragments.”
Khasan Chshiev, senior scientific expert at the republic’s Institute of
History and Archaeology recounts an incident last September when his colleagues
rushed to a grave site at the village of Nikolaevskaya after receiving a tip-off
that it had been plundered.
But they were too late. “The thieves had been over the whole site in a big
way, using a powerful mechanical digger,” said Chshiev.
Over the last 15 years, valuable items have been taken illegally from 50 large
burial grounds, some dating back 3,000 years. As of 2001, the number of burial
sites recorded as having been plundered stood at 30, and an average of five a
year have been dug up by robbers since then.
Archaeological sites in North Ossetia mainly belong to the cultures of the
Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans - ancient Iranian peoples from the Eurasian
steppes who are regarded as the ancestors of the modern Ossetians - as well as
the Koban culture relating to an Iron Age people of the North Caucasus.
Unfortunately, the gold artifacts often buried along with the dead prove all too
enticing for grave robbers.
Nazim Gijrati, deputy director of North Ossetia’s Institute of History and
Archaeology, is famous for finding the burial mound of a Sarmatian priestess in
“The burial dates back to the beginning of the first century AD, so the woman
was alive at the time of Christ, and was probably like Him a preacher. Over
1,000 gold items have been found at this one site,” he said.
This treasure at least has been saved for the nation, held in a vault at
Sberbank, the savings bank
Gijrati says that the situation in North Ossetia is bad enough, but he believes
that there has been even worse plundering in neighbouring regions to the north
and west of the republic.
Yet despite the damage the criminals are doing to the heritage of North Ossetia,
the police seem barely interested in doing anything about it.
North Ossetia's interior ministry told IWPR that it had no information about
illegal excavations going on at ancient burial sites, and that no one at the
ministry was specifically responsible for dealing with the problem.
Russian criminal legislation sets out stiff fines or a two year prison sentence
for destroying or damaging historical artifacts, but the law evidently is no
deterrent when such huge profits are possible.
Lyudmila Gaboyeva, director of North Ossetia’s centre for the protection of
historical and cultural relics, said that in her five years in the job, not a
single person has been prosecuted for illegal excavation.
Chshiev is concerned about the lack of help from local people. “I am amazed at
people's indifference in such cases,” he said. 'Black market archaeologists'
spent several days excavating one burial ground with a mechanical digger – it
was all clearly visible, and is only three kilometres from the nearest town -
but no one bothered to inform the police in good time about this act of
In some cases, there may even be collusion by law enforcement officers. Igor
Lyanov, a correspondent for the newspaper North Ossetia, describes a case he
reported on several years ago when a local man from the village of Kost near
Beslan caught two grave-robbers with a jewel-encrusted cup and dagger, and
handed them over to the local police.
After the police received a visit from an unidentified man, they drove the
grave-robbers back to where they had arrested them and let them go. Another car
drew up and took the men away – and they still had the cup and dagger with
them, according to Lyanov.
Lyanov says historical treasures plundered from North Ossetia find their way
into private collections, where it is unlikely they will ever be seen by the
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