Archaeology and Archaeologists in Bulgaria at the Beginning of the 3rd Millennium AD

Tsoni Tsonev (Junior Representative, Central/Eastern Europe, Central Asia – Institute of Archaeology and Museum, Sofia, Bulgaria)


During the last decade Bulgaria has gone through dramatic changes in many domains of social life. The typical figure of the Bulgarian archaeologist, however, remains lonely, confined within his old debates and excavation practices, isolated like never before from the general public he meant to serve. In most cases he turns a blind eye to European and worldwide debates that go on among the European and world archaeological communities.

Yet this concise definition is valid only to a certain degree and changes took place even in that area of our knowledge of the past held tightly by the previous communist regime. For example, a new generation of archaeologists stepped into territories exclusively preserved for the old archaeological establishment that disappeared amidst the complex changes of post-communist realities. This makes it difficult to chose an appropriate approach to my presentation of Bulgarian archaeology. There are three possibilities: how archaeology was founded and developed in Bulgaria; a more theoretical approach that concerns the development of the discipline after WWII; or to give only the technical details of archaeological practice in the country that is relevant to the protection of cultural and archaeological heritage.

I chose to start with a short questionnaire distributed in May 2000 among archaeologists employed in Bulgaria’s 70 archaeological and historical museums. The questionnaire was done in agreement of the “Conflict Situations and Destruction of Cultural Heritage” task group of the WAC Executive, taken during the Athens meeting in November 1999. I managed to do this survey with the kind permission and help of the-then head of the Centre of Museums and Fine Art Galleries, Tsonia Drajeva. The answers to this short questionnaire of 15 questions give the best presentation of present-day archaeology in Bulgaria. It is not enough by far for more detailed study but from the point of view of the purpose for which it was made and the short time in which it was done, the results of the questionnaire form a highly representative sample.

There were 69 responses out of 70 sent out to museums, an exceptional rate of return. It is noteworthy that eight answers come from the Institute of Archaeology and Museum, Sofia, where there are about 100 employees, and two answers from the National History Museum, which employs about 15 archaeologists. The rest come from the regional museums, none with more than 3 archaeologists actually employed. The responses thus constitute a highly representative sample of archaeologists working throughout the country, with a focus on regional museums.

The rule was that respondents would remain anonymous and had the right not to answer any question(s) about which they felt incompetent or uneasy. Whatever comments they had on the questions or on any other issue they thought relevant to this problematic they had to send in a separate letter signed by the author or authors. The result was that two additional personal letters arrived, one of which (written by Ivan Ivanov, Varna Archaeological Museum – Varna is the third biggest city in Bulgaria) addresses the wider educational program of the Museum with the secondary schools of the town.


1. Was there (is there?) a permanent exhibition in the local museum with materials from your archaeological site?

Yes No

51 16

2. Was there (is there?) a temporary exhibition in the local museum with materials from your archaeological site?

Yes No

59 8

3. Do you think that part of the archaeological finds uncovered by you can be included in international exhibitions?

Yes No Cannot Decide

65 3

4. Is it possible now (was it possible in the past when you finished off your excavations) to set up a small museum at the archaeological site (to build up a small building in which to preserve in situ part of the site or the whole site)?

Yes No Possible but not done Built up a museum

31 19 11 7
5. Is your archaeological site in good condition now?

Good Bad Left demolished.

18 25 14

6. Are the sites you investigate included into:

the map of the village-planning?

the cadastre of agricultural lands?

the cadastre of wood lands?

Yes No

59 6

7. Did you receive (do you receive now?) regular funding from the local government budgets or any other material support – free work force, etc.?

Yes No Before Yes Before No

13 13 40 1

8. Are the sites you investigate included into the electronic ‘Archaeological Map of Bulgaria’

Yes No Do not know

55 4 8

9. Is there any interest (to your knowledge) from the business sector about your site as attractive means for the organization of business meetings, advertising, museum, local community festivals and for attraction of tourists?

Yes No

31 37

10. Do you know if your sites are included in the curriculum of the secondary schools of the village?

Yes I know No I don’t know Not included

35 29 1

11. Do secondary students attend your sites?

Yes No

53 14

12. Do you know that your sites are included in the curriculum of university courses?

Yes, I know No, I don’t know

38 30

13. Do university students have access to or do they work with materials from your sites for preparation of their course or Master papers?

Yes No Don’t know

62 5 1

14. Have you prepared part of your finds to serve as didactic materials for education of undergraduate, graduate students or secondary students?

Yes No

54 13

15. Have you ever been invited to attend (officially or unofficially) the community council on tourism of the respective municipality?

Yes No

16 52

I shall comment on these results. The first three questions concerning exhibitions were introduced by the-then representative of the Centre of Museums and Fine Art Galleries (CMFAG), architect Malvina Ruseva. The interest of CMFAG, a structure within the Ministry of Culture, is understandable, since it organizes and gives permission for archaeological exhibitions abroad and issues export permits for cultural heritage objects. As can be seen from the answers to the first two questions, there is a high involvement of actual archaeological materials into temporary or permanent museum exhibitions. The answer to the third question reveals the high expectations and the high self-evaluation of archaeologists about their field work. Compared with the actual number of the Bulgarian archaeological exhibitions abroad, however, which number no more than one at the present moment (Thracian Gold), it shows that the archaeologists who conduct archaeological excavations cannot, despite their desire, organize exhibitions abroad. The problem is a complex one. The negative result stems in part from the existing bureaucracy. More important, though, is the lack of experience in local museum administrations and the lack of interest amongst local governments and central institutions. It also shows the lack of experience of archaeologists in proposing regional or thematic exhibitions with less spectacular but interesting science- and education- oriented problems that can attract foreign museums and institutions. Part of the exhibitions abroad were organized with the direct involvement of the Minister of Culture and they seemed to serve more as an attribute of political power rather than to have much scientific and educational value (they involve the most spectacular objects, such as the Thracian Gold, for example). Few exhibitions have better subject- and object-oriented presentations combined with editions in foreign languages that concern wider topics of archaeological studies in Bulgaria than the 1997 exhibition in Florence, Italy organized by Institute of Archaeology and Museum, Sofia.

The fourth question may be considered as a certain measure of the attitude the local administrations have towards the cultural and archaeological heritage. Archaeologists are positive and consider that their sites are worth preservation by museums built up in situ. The administrations, however, do not meet the expectations of the archaeologists and only seven such museums were built up during the communist past when the main drive was to produce political propaganda. This attitude at present reveals that local and central administrations are quite restricted and even hostile towards the archaeological and cultural heritage or they do not see its potential for stimulation of enhanced identification of local ethnically-mixed, or divided in other aspects communities, for raising their educational standards or for business development on the basis of information technologies.

The sixth question is a correction to the previous one and concerns the assessment given by the actual excavators of the state of preservation of their archaeological sites. The assessment is strongly negative, which is additional evidence of the hostile attitude of the administrations in Bulgaria towards the cultural and archaeological heritage. One fifth of the sites are left demolished, one third are left in bad condition and the rest have a positive score. The requirement of the administration that archaeologists should register the sites in various planning and cadastral registers is fulfilled almost 90% by the archaeologists. That is to say that local administrations should know the presence of archaeological sites within the villages and in the agricultural and wooded lands because they are already registered on village planning maps or on cadastral maps.

The seventh question reveals the actual response of the administration to the financial demands of archaeologists. The question whether there was regular funding from local administrations “before” means during the communist regime. Fifty percent of the interviewees give a positive answer, while at present only about 20% receive regular funding. This result confirms the conclusion that archaeological heritage is far from a priority amongst present local administrations.

The next question shows that almost all archaeological sites are included into the national Archaeological Map and that this project of the Ministry of Culture works effectively nationwide. As a certain compensation for the lack of interest of the administration, private business shows some interest towards archaeological heritage; almost 50% of those interviewed confirm in question 9 that there is some interest shown from the business sector.

The next questions concern the educational effect of the archaeological excavations. The actual secondary school history curriculum includes little or nothing about archaeology, while the job descriptions of museum employees requires only 2 hours per year to be spent on lecturing pupils! This unsatisfactory official framework, however, is compensated for by archaeologists themselves, though they are not paid for the additional hours occupied with school children either in the field or in the museum exhibitions. The current practice in Bulgaria is that archaeologists do employ children during their excavation campaigns. This fact, however, cannot be considered as pure relations between an employer and its employees; it is rather a continuation of the educational school programs and school children receive in summer not only additional knowledge, skills, etc., but through their own experience develop a sense of place and new points of reference to the community they live in.

This ‘pedagogic’ side and community-value-laden vocation of archaeologists’ work has never received any official attention. There is no consistent policy of the Ministry of Education that links the education of secondary school pupils with the wider background of natural and humanitarian studies encompassed by archaeological investigations and museum work. So far there is only one positive exception, the Varna archaeological museum, where more than 4000 pupils per year go through organized visiting and training programs.

Almost similar are the results of the involvement of archaeology into higher education. Archaeologists from museums throughout the country employ students during their fieldwork, provide them with materials for their university papers from their own excavations or from the museums’ depots and even have ready made teaching collections that facilitate students in their work. Again this additional occupation of the museum archaeologists is not recognized officially. Most of the universities that teach archaeology maintain only restricted (mostly for financial reasons) archaeological excavations that cannot meet the requirements of the curriculum. The latter states that students have to do certain practice in archaeological excavations. Most students have to look by themselves for excavations that can assure the required number of practices and more importantly to secure enough archaeological materials for their semester works or master papers. This practice worked smoothly during the communist regime, when the education was formally free. In the present situation, however, in which students pay for their education even at state universities, museum archaeologists feel released from that kind of obligation because universities do not pay them any money for their additional work. To a certain extent this gap is bridged by a special program started recently by ‘Open Society’ in Sofia that provides limited funding for students in order to be able to attend the archaeological practices required by the universities’ curricula. Again the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture remain passive observers of the changes that go on and there is a lack of any long-term vision or policy regarding these issues. The high scores of involvement of both pupils and students in the archaeological investigations (visible from the questionnaire) and museum work is due, in my view, not to the actual system of education and Cultural Heritage Management but to the great traditions in education established in Bulgaria in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.

The last question may also be considered as another measure of involvement of archaeologists in community planning. The score is low but common sense suggests that archaeologists can be included more seriously in the activities of community councils on tourism. These local advisory bodies to local administrations are meant to propose ideas and initiatives that will stimulate tourism in their local regions. In many places such councils have never been formed but even in municipalities where they were constituted few archaeologists are invited to join their work.

The overall result of this questionnaire can be assessed as positive in two directions. First it is spread nationwide on behalf of the CMFAG, Ministry of Culture, and WAC. My purpose was to make the name of WAC as popular as it can be in Bulgaria. The second objective was to send a positive message concerning the thorny issues of archaeological investigations and cultural heritage management, which as far as museum archaeologists are concerned are widely neglected. The high score of responses makes the results not only significant from a statistical point of view but shows that these questions are close to the hearts of the audience. Yet, there is a negative side of this questionnaire. This high score of responses is also due to the fact that it was spread throughout the Ministerial subordination network. That is to say that since museums are subordinated to the Centre of Museums…(CMFAG), Ministry of Culture, they were obliged to respond to the inquiry, though in the instructions that accompanied the questionnaire it was pointed out that a response was not obligatory. My initial intention was to distribute the questionnaire independently, by receiving some funding from ‘Open Society’ or another institution. If it was done independently of the Ministry of Culture in this way, my expectations were to receive no more than 20-30 answers, if any. Whatever speculations on these results can be made, the general outcome seems to be incontestable in that a kind of a base is established for future cooperation between WAC and CMFAG, the National Institute of Cultural Heritage (NICH), the Institute of Archaeology and Museum (IAM), Sofia and a number of regional museums.

The current practice of field archaeology and issuing permissions for excavations is fairly simple in Bulgaria. It was established at the beginning of 20th century and differs from that in most European countries.

But I shall start the consideration of this problem with my personal opinion that there is a lack of any coordination between planning authorities at local or government levels and rescue or research fieldwork done by archaeologists. Thus the archaeologists and architects and building engineers who represent investors remain separated into two different domains. The former in most cases dig in a hazardous way, where they find something worth digging and the latter build up according to the planning committees at local or central government levels. There is a lack of any regional or nationwide planning for archaeological survey and excavation, but such planning could form a base for cooperation with the formalized regional and nationwide plans for development and construction. The institutions occupied with archaeological heritage in Sofia and the museums in the country have never made any attempt whatsoever to create a kind of a formal, predictive assessment of the occurrence of archaeological sites within the limits of villages and various types of land system. Such information would be of special use to planning and development departments of the central and local administrations. The current practice is that the existing system of central, regional and local museums only provide rescue excavations and consultations when the building works are seriously hampered by spectacular remains that cannot be overlooked and become visible to the public by the media.

Formally, permission for excavations is issued by a commission for field work (terrain surveys and excavations) constituted by members of IAM, Sofia and NICH. There are written, official guidelines published by the Ministry of Culture, 1997 (State Newspaper, issue 12, pp 14-20) that regulate the conduct of archaeological survey and excavations. As a general statement (made by specialists of the IAM) these rules may be considered as satisfying the current needs of the country. They strictly define the matter of the archaeological studies, including their interdisciplinary character. They may serve as a guidelines for wider, planned archaeological investigations. The statement defines the ways in which foreign researchers may participate in archaeological studies and the ways of registration and documentation of archaeological sites. Though this is a positive step, the whole process of planning and conducting excavations is placed on the wrong side of the administrative structure of the country. It works only within the Ministry of Culture and is supremely ‘controlled’ by the Prime Minister in the case of foreign archaeological expeditions. In my view, archaeological planning and excavation should go into the Ministry of Regional Development and the planning commissions of local administrations. This is the only way the big private investors and central and local governmental planning bodies will be able to preview proper budgets for archaeological fieldwork and museum needs for storage and exhibition of artefacts unearthed during various construction works. The same is true for the system of registration of archaeological sites and monuments – the Archaeological Map of Bulgaria (AMB). The idea dates back as early as 1914 but its real start was in 1992. It was officially published as Regulation No 26 of the Ministry of Culture from April, 10 1996 (State Newsletter, issue 34, 1996). This is a simple computer system for the registration of archaeological sites. It was created and is run by IAM, Sofia, NICH and CMFAG, Ministry of Culture. Each of the regional museums runs its share of the AMB and must constantly fill in its content. Potential developers are meant to use this system but the truth is that little interest is shown. Probably, this is due to the fact that AMB is entirely controlled by the Ministry of Culture, IAM, Sofia and the regional museums, which do not have direct access to the planning authorities either at national and at local levels. Developers do not need to apply for permission to work in areas covered by the AMB (except for very limited areas in some city centres that are protected by law as Cultural Heritage Zones) or from the institutions that maintain it, which often leaves the planning departments free to ignore the AMB data. The overall result is that planning authorities tend to overlook the map as a management tool.

This unsatisfactory state of administrative services leaves the cultural and archaeological heritage to its own faith and to the good will (rarely expressed) of planning authorities and investors. It not only creates a hostile administrative environment but it fuels constant chaos, which helps only the illegal trade of antiques. The lack of planned funding of fieldwork, high-standard research, conservation and restoration gradually leads to deterioration and destruction of cultural and archaeological heritage, which can be seen from the results of the questionnaire presented above. Some regional museums are better in view of subsidies from local budgets (only richer municipalities can afford better funding) that allow conduct of limited excavations or other surveys. Recently, they lost some of the funding (increasing restrictions imposed on public expenditures) and so museums cannot afford fieldwork and previously planned, long-term excavations were stopped. Regional and smaller museums face the problem of severe cuts of staff members. As a consequence even the positions of experienced archaeologists with long practice have been threatened or some untimely retired.

This lack of funding and resources led to another serious consequence – annual, regional symposia and regular meetings between archaeologists disappeared as a practice. It disturbed effective communication between archaeologists and collegial interaction declined considerably. The only act of unification that still works are the annual meetings of archaeologists at the IAM, Sofia, where the excavators are obliged to present in 20 minutes their fieldwork results during the season. These meetings, however, reflect the ever- decreasing scope of planned excavations. The lack of funding leads to a gradual decrease of the standards of archaeological practices and research. They were never high but the present fragmented, small-scale studies are destroying the country’s archaeological community. Most colleagues fulfil only immediate problems and neglect a broad, research-based approach that involves many different specialists. There is a lack of vision of the wider implications of archaeology for a town or a region. Modern management methods, which emphasise presentation that aims to provoke wider community attention are simply neglected. With few exceptions the staff employed in museums has little or no motivation for doing this, which stems from its low morale and nihilistic attitudes. In that connection, it should be mentioned that employees within the system of Ministry of Culture, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Education have the smallest salaries compared with the police, army and other governmental organizations.

One of the most serious problems that Bulgarian archaeology faces is the lack of any research opportunities. The major difficulty here is the lack of research funding. It is meant to be done through the National Science Foundation, which sponsors most of the research of the various institutes of the Academy of Sciences and other research units and universities. The amount of money, however, is ridiculous – approximately the price of a personal computer! Universities have more research funds though they are of the same order of magnitude. Municipalities also used to fund archaeological excavations but with few exceptions they are unable to do so in the present financial situation. Current administrations both at national and local level generally do not understand that excavations inevitably entail wide-ranging interdisciplinary practice. Artefact and various ecofact-based analyses are critical to make sense of the results of archaeological intervention. More importantly, they do not see its potential to increase educational standards and the benefits for local communities of such excavations. That research funds can be augmented by financial support from the local authorities and archaeologists widely helped “in kind” by the police, army, etc. is understandable. Unfortunately, archaeology remains in the far corner of administrative concerns and is entirely overlooked.

The current crisis in archaeological investigation is coupled with a lack of training and career development. State and municipal museums do not have any funds out of short term commissions for archaeologists and other staff members within the region they operate. They do not maintain programs for additional education of their staff – computer skills, various specialist courses that increase their knowledge with the latest development of pottery, chipped stone analyses, or interdisciplinary analyses; the present state of affairs mean many colleagues are unaware of the latest advance of 14C dating and do not know anything about current prices, laboratories worldwide and even the activities of the Sofia laboratory (presently out of work owing to a lack of money). The interdisciplinary analyses that can serve archaeological investigations are conducted mostly in research units and universities in Sofia and other towns are not known by the archaeological community and thus their potential remains hidden from archaeologists and their wider public. Not only are there no training budgets but budgets for books and journals are entirely cut off. The supply of literature is done mainly through exchange programs but this scheme does not provide enough literature because money for editing new books is very limited and what archaeological writing appears in Bulgaria is the result of personal initiative in attracting sponsors, or private publishers. The only edition kept up regularly in these hard times is the traditional journal Archaeology, written in Bulgarian, which most museums subscribe to. This journal is also widely distributed throughout Europe and can be found in the specialist libraries of archaeological institutions. Yet the problems with maintenance of higher research standards and proper publication of the materials found do not start with the ‘poor’ years of transformation to a market economy. During the communist past, the state provided considerable amount of money for excavations. Excavations became the main and a good source of additional income of archaeologists, some of whom lived on commissions most time of the year. Intentionally or not, this run for easy money for excavations put a greater emphasis on digging at any cost, while proper publication of materials remained highly unpopular. An additional reason for this ‘golden’ rush is that the communist regime was interested only in mass propaganda, and not in conducting well-planned scientific investigations and consequent dissemination of the results. The colossal plans for expensive editions like the Lovec Encyclopaedia (after the administrative centre in northern Bulgaria) that was meant to include all the information from various scientific expeditions: geology, archaeology, etc. in that region and sponsored by the local communist authorities, never appeared. Almost the same can be said about the well- illustrated History of Bulgaria and other regional or national editions.

The strong ideological roots of archaeological investigations do not stem from the communist regime but can be traced back as far as the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire. The modern Bulgarian nation began amongst other newly-emerged European national states and had to compete intensely with its neighbours: Greeks, Turks, Serbs, Romanians, etc. It is not a surprise that most Bulgarian archaeologists are occupied with medieval archaeology. In the search for national identity all its varieties started to be explored: history, the main ethnic groups that constitute the Bulgarian nation, regional characteristics, etc. Though most of the arguments proved to be questionable, the construction of the idea of the “Other” always focussed on its exclusion or denigration from the point of view of the national history – the Turks are the most obvious example but all the other neighbouring nations were treated in the same way. The strong traditions of German archaeology – close reflections of G. Kossina’s ideas – created the mainstream doctrines that put a greater accent on the importance of proto-Bulgarians at the expense of Slavs. The origins of proto-Bulgarians were sought not only in the Far East but also in prehistoric cultures. This approach was only augmented and became an official dogma during the communist regime, though the accent was changed – Slavs became the most important ingredient of the Bulgarian nation. The interesting thing is that even during the communist regime the strong presence of proto-Bulgarians was still alive. It is indicative that at the beginning of the 1980s a pompous and expensive movie was made about the Khan Asparuh, founder of the Bulgarian state, that portrays him in a romanticized way. The justification of the communist regime centred on creating substitutes for Bulgaria’s missing royal traditions. This led to a number of comic situations, the most famous of which is that of the communist dictator Todor Zivkov and the sarcophagus of Khan Omurtag. I was told the story by Prof. Velisar Velkov. It seemed to be one of his favourites and he used it to cheer up his students during archaeological excavations. A sarcophagus was unearthed in one of the old medieval capitals of Bulgaria. It was supposed to belong to one of the first Bulgarian rulers – Khan Omurtag. The sarcophagus was left closed, archaeologists were denied access to it and Zivkov personally flew from Sofia to be present at opening the expected royal sarcophagus. To his disappointment the sarcophagus turned out to be empty. The continued search for royal remains did not stop with this attempt. Veliko Tarnovo, another medieval capital, was totally rebuilt, thus destroying all its archaeological remains. The patriarch’s church at the top of the citadel, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1913, was renovated. Instead of proper restoration of its initial Christian paintings, a new wall painting, which had nothing to do with orthodox church of any religion, presented the appearance and the heroic deeds of Bulgarians through the centuries. This new complex of rebuilt citadel and patriarch’s church remains in visual contact with the new residency of Zivkov built on an adjacent hill. The “royalism” of the late communist regime appeared in many forms, thus substituting and falsifying the lost identity of Bulgarians during the communist regime and justifying the power of the communist dictator. It is not clear what motivated the strongly assimilationist policies directed against Bulgarian Turks in the second half of the 1980s but certainly this newly-created, artificial past played a considerable role in motivating the members of Politbureau and Zivkov himself to start overt persecution of Turkish population.

After the fall of the communist regime the past still remained in the grip of politics and preserved its manipulative power. Again proto-Bulgarians became a subject of ‘scientific’ conferences and books written by non-professional writers maintain doubtful theses of their ancient and “noble” origin. This trend continues up to the present day and to my surprise even historians from the Sofia University took part in a kind of a conference organized by the ‘Tangra’ society that again unifies non-professional circles. This conference received moderate media coverage; it appeared several times in the national radio channel but was not shown by the national television.

Large-scale manipulation of the general public was undertaken twice at the beginning of the 1990s. The first one, the so-called ‘Tsaritchina excavations’ was conducted by the general headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. Some clairvoyants predicted that deep in solid rock near the village Tsarichina there lies a pyramid of extra power left by an alien civilization as a legacy to the Bulgarian nation, which will enable it to save the world. Of course the diggers found nothing but the entire campaign was covered by the central media. The participants in this public theatre never consulted the institutes of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, other research units or universities. None of the participants had a scientific degree, a fact indicative of how far police and military institutions remained unaccountable to the society they were meant to serve.

Another large-scale manipulation covered extensively by the central media happened in the mid 1990s. An old copy of Paisj’s ‘History of Bulgarians’ (written in the second half of the 18th century) was stolen from the Hilendarski monastery in Aton, Greece and exhibited in the Bulgarian National History Museum. This was proclaimed as a highly patriotic deed and Bulgarians through the media were invited to visit and see it at the specially organized exhibition. Only when the newly-elected president interceded was the book given back to Greece.

Archaeology in Bulgaria has not only been suppressed by communist propaganda and physically fragmented by economic crises and administrative bias but also lacks fresh ideas and interpretative models that can free it from the domination of the culture-historical approach. The same old debates about chronology and periodization schemes continued during the last decade though with somewhat less intensity. It puts the accent of interpretation exclusively on similarity and differences among archaeological cultures. In the early 1990s this tendency went to an extreme where even prehistoric cultures like the Neolithic ones were interpreted as ethnically definitive and the term “ethnic-cultural” features was coined. Quite a number of articles are titled in the following way: the first part announces that some archaeological problem which mostly compares similarities of certain category of artefacts or culture that cover large regions is taken into consideration and the second part of the title consists of the phrase “…in Bulgarian lands”. This last means that the archaeological category or culture that is considered to be uniform reaches far beyond the present political borders of Bulgaria and underwrites cultural unification of Bulgarians in the territories of neighbouring countries. This practice was sanctioned with a decision of the Prehistoric Department of IAM, Sofia and with somewhat diminished intensity is applied even now. Thus the “royalist” propaganda of the late communist regime that meant continuation of the vanished medieval royal tradition in the-then ruling communist dictatorship turned into extremely nationalistic and manipulative propaganda after the fall of the regime. The sequence: old proletariat internationalism – late communist royalism – nationalism rounds the picture of the ideological and philosophical background in which social sciences and archaeology in particular had to develop in Bulgaria in recent decades.

I would like to mention one more fact, which I consider as a far echo of the above-presented circumstances: the past is quite vivid in the everyday political life of the present. To a certain extent this is justified by the intense debate about the assessment of the communist past and the existence of and the intention to destroy communist monuments like the Mausoleum (destroyed last year), the Monument of the Soviet Army, statues of Lenin, Zivkov (which do not exist any more), etc. While most of the visible traces of the communist regime were not dealt with by going to the sorts of extremes described earlier, as in the previous regime the past remains a favourite theme of present-day politicians. Presidents, prime-ministers, ministers, parliament members, mayors, etc. continue to deliver public speeches and try to gain popularity through interpretation of the ‘heroic’ and romanticized past (mostly concerning the Bulgarian Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries). While the actual cultural monuments from that and other periods gradually decay, the rush for popularity increases and the contested past is present throughout modern political life. Though the overtly nationalistic political parties were marginalised, unlike those in Serbia and Romania, and never gain enough support to enter parliament, this result is due not to the present-day politicians but rather to the greater religious and ethnic tolerance of Bulgarian people.

Against this background we should not be surprised by the prolonged Bailey case (from 1992 to 1996) that culminated in accusations of espionage and the exclusion of a British-American archaeological team from Bulgaria. The actual forces that led to this state of affairs lay in the-then very left-wing socialist government that adopted a clear policy directed against the West: similar accusations were made against ‘Open Society’ and some journalists. Another actual force was the marked xenophobia shown by the archaeological establishment and especially by some of the former leading communist party members of IAM, Sofia. But my argument is that this eruption of xenophobia is due not that much to the political situation and personal relations than to the other monster that survived the communist past – the culture-historical approach in archaeology. I do not play down the personal responsibility of the main heroes of these events but to me sufficient explanation cannot be given without considering its wider context. The strong presence in contemporary political life of a contested past that remains into the grip of the old communist propaganda makes it quite explicable. The obvious fact is that cases similar to the Bailey case never happened in other scientific disciplines or professional domains in Bulgaria. This only reminds us of the extent to which archaeology remained in the grip of old communist perspectives and it may be considered as a link in the chain of large-scale manipulations of the past that happened in the last decade in Bulgaria. This is also meant to say that the archaeological establishment is not ready to accept other than its own views about the past. In fact the past is actually divided chronologically and colonized personally. It consists of time-space divisions strictly divided among the members of the archaeological establishment. Each of these ever-decreasing chunks of time and space has strictly defined borders and wars between their owners are fought with life-long intensity and often the ‘vendettas’ continue amongst subordinate staff and institutions. As I have witnessed for more than 20 years, the archaeological debate in Bulgaria constantly focuses on chronology and periodization, and results in harsh quarrels and life-long struggles to prove the greater antiquity and the wider perimeters of the various time-space chunks. The competition for characteristic, uniform traits exerts pressure on doing more excavations in a particular region with the hope that they will uncover the artefacts needed to prove particular hypotheses. The past ‘golden rush’ of excavations has turned into a rush to discover hypothetical, formal features. Under this self-sustained pressure the standard of excavations remain very low. The clear rules for excavation practices issued by the Ministry of Culture are respected only by few colleagues. Extensive archaeological excavations, though of smaller scale than before, continue to be led without well-defined scientific goals or reasonable excavation practices. And during these excavations only some of the materials if any are published, while the interdisciplinary side of the study is often just left aside. This practice is highly exclusive, which is the opposite of what should be happening if archaeology means to serve the wider public. This kind of archaeological practice excludes in most cases any participation of the local community. The artificial goals fail to encourage the wider understanding of the local public; for them a few shards cannot justify the amount of money spent on their excavation. Along with such practical reasons often put up by local people, the artificial goals of archaeological excavations mean nothing to the local communities. They do not understand what it is all about and archaeologists and museum employees do not offer programs for popularization of the remote past. People do not recognize the enormous potential of archaeology and its ability to improve education standards in developing, for example, writing skills, increased motivation for learning, community integration, development of a sense of place in ethnically-divided communities, etc. The lack of coordination between the Ministry of Education and its regional inspectorates and the Ministry of Culture and its regional museums, as well as the abstract, artificial world of current archaeological interpretations make impossible joint initiatives aimed at improving the present situation.

In a continuation of the attitudes of the previous regime, national and local administrations see in archaeology and in museum work a mere attribute of political power or a badge to boast about rather than as a vivid and highly valuable social and educational activity. Thus the fictional and highly artificial world of culture-historical archaeology has strong implications in the post-communist realities in Bulgaria. The easy money stopped coming and archaeologists with their artificial goals fail to attract wider public attention and support from national and local institutions. Understandable because of the economic and financial crises in which the nation finds itself, the fact is that municipality councils and central government budgets do not consider archaeology as a priority, and try to avoid putting money in it.

Yet the devil is not as bad as it looks. The high degree of participation and immediate answers sent by museum archaeologists to the questionnaire of WAC and Ministry of Culture suggests that there is no hesitation among them about the current crises of cultural and archaeological heritage and archaeology. At least the name of WAC became known to them, as did the fact that there exists an organization that deals with problems like theirs. This also creates a basis for possible future cooperation between WAC and various institutions like IAM, Sofia, NICH, CMFAG, Ministry of Culture and some local museums and non-governmental organizations like Open Society, Sofia.


I would like to thank Tsonja Drazeva, Malvina Russeva, Maria Staneva, Boris Danailov from the Centre of Museums and Fine Art Galleries, Ministry of Culture, Sofia, as well as Zarin Velikov from National Institute for Cultural Heritage, Sofia, for their help and support to the inquiry I made among Bulgarian archaeologists. I thank all colleagues who responded to the questionnaire and sent their additional comments.