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Mercurius in danger: notes on the Serbian black market of antiquities

February 8, 2016

Moesia Superior was one of the richest from the Roman provinces from Illyricum. Giving numerous emperors for the Empire, the soil of Serbia still contains a tremendous amount of archaeological heritage from Roman times (but also from other periods).

_j_k_p_5_b(1)Although the country signed numerous international chartas and introduced new laws, the reality shows a tragic situation. While the archaeological heritage of Syria and Libia is destroyed by evil terrorism and human madness, the Roman past of Serbia is slowly, but constantly looted by a new generation of “amateur archaeologists”: the metal detectorists.

After the Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, only in the UK there are more than 11.000 metal detector users. The difference is, that in the UK many of them are organized in various associations and official groups with even a severe deontologic code and law accepted by the members, called themselves as “responsible metal detectorists”. There is no doubt, the biggest threat of field archaeology, as a legitimate discipline of humanities  is represented nowadays by the metal detector users. This conflict between “professionals” and “non-professionals” – which will be even more and more intense in the future – was already highlighted by few articles and conferences (see also: Musteata 2014).

But why this topic on a blog about Roman religion? Because a large amount of the looted material since the 1960’s is represented by votive small finds, such as ex-votos for the so called Danubian riders, small plumb mirrors and bronze statuettes of various divinities. Most recently, a bronze statuette of Mercurius was sold on a Facebook page for 2000 euro. Since the corpus of Dumitru Tudor, the number of the votive plaques dedicated to the Danubian riders rise significantly, now counting hundreds if not thousands (see the Ertl collection and the Manfred Clauss private collection). Most of these finds were looted in Serbia, where numerous Roman sanctuaries, sacralized spaces were destroyed in this way.

The situation is similar in Bulgaria too, which represents now the biggest market of antiquities in Europe.

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