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    ‘Everywhere they dig’

    KORCE, ALBANIA (AFP) – Shards of ceramics litter the fields of an ancient city in southeastern Albania, where looters have raided the area’s highlands in search of antiquities to sell to international traffickers.

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

    The government said it is working on measures to protect and preserve the sites looters prey on, but so far to little avail – even though removing archaeological artefacts is a crime, as in most countries.

    Now covered in wild vegetation, the region near present-day Korce was once home to the city of Hija e Korbit, or the “Shadow of the Raven”.

    The site, nestled against a hillside, has been ravaged in recent years by looters armed with shovels and backhoes searching for rare metals and artefacts.

    “There are people from all regions who rush to these places,” said Axhem Lageshtari, 60, a local resident. “Everywhere they dig. They search in the hope of finding gold, silver or other valuables.”

    Silver coins found in 1982 at Hija e Korbit, an area near the city of Korca exhibited at the Bank of Albania Museum in Tirana. This find has inspired many amateur ‘treasure hunters’ to dig illegally in this area; and Archaeologist, Skender Mucaj inspects holes dug by illegal treasure hunters at the ruins of the Church of St Mary in Brrar. PHOTOS: AFP

    Mucaj shows a shell that he found in a hole dug by illegal treasure hunters at the ruins of the Church of St Mary

    The area gained notoriety after the 1980s discovery of more than 600 silver coins – including some dating back centuries to the rule of Alexander the Great.

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

    “The problem is particularly worrying in Hija e Korbit, an important archaeological city that has not yet been explored by archaeologists,” lamented the head of the department of prehistory at the Tirana Institute of Archaeology Rovena Kurti.

    “They damage the site and plunder the heritage,” added Kurti.

    ‘POWERLESS’

    The scavengers often destroy scientific data and remove objects from their environmental context which is needed for experts to understand the site’s history, explained the former director of the Franco-Albanian mission in Korce Cecile Oberweiler.

    Northeast of the capital Tirana, the remains of a church from the 11th or 12th Century have been disfigured with gaping holes left by looters.

    The church of St Mary was supposed to be protected as a recognised cultural monument, but that failed to stop the trespassers from ransacking the area.

    “We can give it any name but in truth, it is currently a ruin preyed upon by looters,” said archaeologist Skender Mucaj.

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

    Albania’s ministry of culture told AFP that efforts are under way to fight the “illicit trafficking of cultural property”, including a national action plan unveiled in 2018 along with initiatives to improve coordination with international organisations.

    ‘A BLIND EYE’

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

    But researchers are certain that some of the artefacts have fallen into the hands of international traffickers and then been sold in auctions to museums and private collections abroad.

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

    The recent indictment of Jean-Luc Martinez – the former head of the Louvre in Paris who was charged with conspiring to hide the origin of archaeological treasures – highlighted the extent of the illegal trade in antiquities.

    French archaeologist Pascal Darcque said the problem was widespread and that museums often do not take seriously the process of vetting objects for sale and their origins.

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

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