August 11, 2000

Organised crime in the former Soviet Union has moved into archaeology - excavating sites in Crimea. Gold looted from Scythian graves is being sold illicitly to antique dealers in the local capital, Simferopol, and other Crimean towns. The Ukrainian security service is reported to be on high alert.

Crimea remains a major area of interest for Russian archaeologists. A team from the Urals State University is digging there. One of its student members, Anna Lamash, told reporters how "men with metal detectorsI go over our digs and surrounding areas, looking for gold".

Sometimes the robbers start digging almost alongside the scholars - sometimes they adopt a more violent approach. Aleksandr Voloshinov, a researcher at the Bakhchisaray archaeological reserve, said teams have been robbed at gunpoint. Expeditions are having to turn into "military field groups", he said, with many of the scholars carrying weapons.

Crimea has been divided into mafia spheres of influence. Gold-seekers who stray into rival territory may never leave it. One unidentified "digger" reported having unearthed a plastic bag enclosing a fresh skull and jawbone at one site.

The treasures being marketed via dealers in Crimea include drinking vessels, ornaments and ornate weapons. There is a ready market for other Scythian grave goods.

Jim Dingley, senior lecturer in Ukrainian studies at London University's School of East European and Slavonic Studies, called for the sites to be put under immediate Unesco protection. "As anyone who saw the exhibition at the British Museum some years back will surely agree, the Scythian gold is of unique historic importance."

According to the Ukrainian security service, six groups of "archaeological mafiosi" have been arrested during the current digging season.

In the past two years, the service has managed to recover about 1,000 looted Scythian artefacts. Nevertheless, it is estimated that millions of dollars worth of archaeological treasures are being smuggled out of Crimea each year.

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