August 10, 2016

Scatering of archeological objects

Scattered heritage


Artefact thefts happen almost continuously in Macedonia, and even from sites that are cultural monuments or from institutions whose responsibility is to protect the movable heritage. Just in the last decade of the 20th century, around five thousand stolen archaeological objects were repossessed, and it's presumed that there are many more items that have been taken out of the country unbeknownst to the authorities.

There isn't any person or institution that would know even the approximate number of the Macedonian cultural heritage items taken to other countries, since over the centuries many precious relics were being systematically, and in large quantities, taken out of the country—and the thieves' traces were erased. Most of the stolen treasures are kept today, unofficially, in many foreign libraries, museums, archives, churches, monasteries or private collections. That's why information on Macedonian relics is so hard to come by.

Macedonia didn't take appropriate care of its cultural heritage even after World War II, and even less attention was paid to decorations and relics in sacred buildings. The newly established Macedonian state didn’t take a timely inventory of buildings and items of cultural and historical value, which is why many monuments ended up in Belgrade libraries, museums and archives even at a time when the Macedonian people had a state and institutions of their own.

From 1946, when the care of cultural heritage was officialised, until 1952, when the cataloguing of valuable items began, an enormous amount of movable cultural heritage was taken out of Macedonian churches, monasteries, museums and other places.

Not until 1990 did the Republic Council of Cultural Monument Protection systematically begin to collect information on the displaced cultural heritage and to prepare a revealing list of such items. (That responsibility is now assigned to the Management for Cultural Heritage Protection.)

The list was being prepared in an unassuming manner – by monitoring catalogues, collecting literature and collaborating with experts. As a result of this work, the Council created around eight thousand inventory entries. According to that revealing list, which is far from being complete in any way, there are more than ten thousand valuable archaeological items in foreign public or private collections, especially in the neighbouring countries and in other European countries. Archaeological heritage is the most prominent type of cultural heritage in our country (there are more than 4,300 catalogued sites alone) and it's highly likely that these types of items were carried out most often, being the easiest to smuggle.

Yet the estimates based on scholarly research show that in Macedonia there are around 500,000 catalogued museum pieces. More than 150,000 of them are archaeological items, 100,000 of which are in the Macedonian museums – and not fewer than 50,000 are in foreign museums!

Because of the advanced illegal trade with antiques, mostly with archaeological items, Macedonian archaeological sites—most commonly, the ancient necropolises—are very often exposed to illicit digging. These illegal activities were most intense in the 1990s, when from 1993 to 1997 alone, 52 such cases were discovered in 30 sites, 12 of which were protected as cultural monuments. (Some of them were massively destroyed.) Accordingly, there is reason to assume that during that period many archaeological items were carried out of Macedonia, and can today be found in private collections as well as in museums in some countries that are particularly interested in ancient objects. 

To be continued...

Nove Cvetanoski

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