Nov 23rd 2006 | MARVINCI AND BUTRINT
From The Economist print edition
A Balkan battle is on to save the past
THE crime scene is a hole in the ground at Marvinci, in a remote corner of south-western Macedonia. Last month looters dug up a bronze figurine of Apollo and sold it for €20,000 ($26,000) to a Greek dealer. “I know everything, but even the police and customs are involved, so there is nothing I can do,” says Goran Karapetkov, a local archaeologist. “It rips my heart in two.”
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia's rich archaeological sites have been plundered wholesale. A burly dealer-digger in Marvinci says that poverty has turned looting, chiefly of jewellery, from ancient Greek and Roman tombs into a “fight for survival”. Aided by fake certificates of origin, his finds go to collectors in America, Germany, Greece and Japan. Ill-paid local archaeologists are involved too, he says. A police source in Skopje readily lists the names of some ardent but untouchable collectors, including that of a former senior ambassador.
Ilce Bojcevski, an official trying to stop the looting, hopes that a new law will help. Another good sign was a recent conference in Macedonia that brought officials from ex-Yugoslav countries and Albania together with experts from UNESCO and Interpol. A haul of looted ancient Macedonian treasures was recently seized on the Slovene-Croatian border. Yet, although political will is vital, hard cash is also needed.
Some 300km (190 miles) from Marvinci, at the southern tip of Albania, lies Butrint (Bouthroton in ancient times), which has a theatre and the remains of an early Christian basilica. It used to be a wretched place, submerged by undergrowth and with a looted, derelict museum. Now local schoolchildren, Austrian holidaymakers, Dutch bikers and day-trippers from Corfu all mingle happily in the cleaned-up site. Butrint's revival owes much to two British lords, Jacob Rothschild and John Sainsbury.
Their foundation has raised millions of dollars, mainly from America, to restore the site and pay for new digging. Some locals find its style a bit colonial. But topping up the salaries of Albanian archaeologists means they are paid three times as much as their Macedonian counterparts—and so are keener to protect their country's heritage.
Many looted items have been returned, including a sculpture found in the possession of Robert Hecht, a dealer now on trial in Rome for allegedly dealing in stolen antiquities. Butrint's good fortune is that Lord Rothschild's holiday home is on Corfu. Sadly, landlocked Macedonia is less likely to attract such a benevolent patron.
Fair Use: Economist.