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“Digging everywhere”: looters hunt Albanian antiquities

#Digging #looters #hunt #Albanian #antiquities

Shards of pottery are scattered in the fields of an ancient city in southeastern Albania, where looters have raided the region’s highlands in search of antiquities to sell to international traffickers.

Illegal treasure hunters operate in the country with near impunity, sparking outrage among archaeologists over the theft of priceless national heritage that feeds a global black market.

The government says it is working on measures to protect and preserve the sites where looters loot, but so far to no avail – although removing archaeological artifacts is a crime, as in most countries.

The region near modern-day Korce, now covered in wild vegetation, was once home to the town of Hija e Korbit, or the “Shadow of the Raven”.

The hillside site has been ravaged in recent years by scavengers armed with shovels and backhoes looking for rare metals and artifacts.

“There are people from all regions rushing to these places,” says Axhem Lageshtari, 60, a local resident.

“Everywhere they dig. They search in the hope of finding gold, silver or other valuables.”

The area rose to fame after more than 600 silver coins were discovered in the 1980s – including some dating back centuries to the reign of Alexander the Great.

Experts tell AFP illegal excavations have been uncovered at almost every major archaeological site in the region, which houses historic necropolises, forts and other remains dating from the Bronze Age to the early Middle Ages.

“The problem is of particular concern in Hija e Korbit, an important archaeological city that has not yet been explored by archaeologists,” said Rovena Kurti, the head of the Department of Prehistory at the Tirana Institute of Archaeology.

“They damage the site and loot the cultural heritage,” adds Kurti.

– ‘Powerless’ –

The scavengers often destroy scientific data and remove objects from their surrounding context that experts need to understand the site’s history, explains Cecile Oberweiler, the former director of the Franco-Albanian mission in Korce.

Northeast of the capital, Tirana, the remains of an 11th- or 12th-century church have been left gaping with holes by looters.

The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary was to be protected as a recognized cultural monument, but that didn’t stop the invaders from looting the area.

“We can give it any name, but the truth is it is currently a ruin being looted by looters,” says archaeologist Skender Mucaj.

The looting of the site was particularly painful for local resident Nora Braia.

“I come every Tuesday to pray to the Virgin Mary. She saved my sick son’s life, but I was powerless to save this shelter,” says Braia, 80, through tears, hoping the attackers will be “chased out”. Bad luck”.

Experts say not enough is being done legally to stop the looting.

Albania’s culture ministry told AFP that efforts to combat “illegal trade in cultural property” are underway, including a national action plan presented in 2018 and initiatives to improve coordination with international organizations.

– ‘Turned a blind eye’ –

There are no official estimates of the market value of the objects kidnapped from Albania.

However, researchers are certain that some of the artifacts ended up in the hands of international smugglers and were then sold at auction to museums and private collections abroad.

“It is a fight that Albania cannot fight alone, the responsibility also lies with the authorities of other countries, who turn a blind eye when these objects are exhibited in their museums,” said Neritan Ceka, archaeologist and art historian.

The recent indictment of Jean-Luc Martinez – the former head of the Louvre in Paris who was charged with conspiring to conceal the provenance of archaeological treasures – has highlighted the scale of the illicit trade in antiquities.

French archaeologist Pascal Darcque said the problem is widespread and museums often don’t take the process of verifying objects for sale and their provenance seriously.

“Their sale must be blocked and if their geographic origin can be determined, the object must be returned,” Darcque said.

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#Digging #looters #hunt #Albanian #antiquities

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