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North Ossetia Plundered of its Golden Age


10 June 2006




LONDON, (CAIS) -- By Victor Buividas in Vladikavkaz - The authorities stand accused of inaction as grave-robbers raid ancient sites for gold treasures.

Archaeologists in 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 IWPR.

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 excavations.

“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 Eighties.

“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 vandalism.”

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 public again





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Source/Extracted From: IWPR



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