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27 May 2007
Bosnia archaeologists fight looters

Archaeologist Snjezana Vasilj has won her battle with the forms that go with Bosnian bureaucracy, securing the research grant needed to continue her own treasure hunt. Vasilj and her small team of volunteers used the 7 000 euros in funding to help make an extraordinary discovery at the Hutovo Blato marshlands in southern Bosnia. The archaeologist said she cried when divers she could only afford to pay in 'sandwiches' surfaced from a small lake in the nature reserve to confirm what lay on the bottom - Illyrian ships dating back some 2 200 years.
     "I'd spent three years trying to secure financial backing for the research. Throughout that time, the site was being looted," Vasilj said. "The underwater photography I made when I was preparing the project proved presence of many more artefacts, but they are now gone," she added. Illyrian ships are mentioned in Greek and Roman historic records, but this was the first time they have been found. The wooden relics of the two ships, located some eight metres under water, are believed to have been trading or pirate ships that sank in the marshlands.
     Illyrians, who frequently engaged in piracy on the Adriatic Sea, were the earliest known inhabitants of the western Balkans, including Bosnia, long before the Roman Empire took control of the region. At the site, archaeologists also found seven graves believed to date from the Bronze or Iron Age.
     The owner of the property where the research is taking place said how he has spent years trying to rouse the interest of authorities in the site and to fight off looters. It all started in 1976 when he went net fishing with his father, and, instead of fish, pulled up the amphoras. Some modest research had been carried out at the site after they alerted authorities and gave them 22 whole amphoras found there. However, after Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, the site only drew thieves who were diving for amphoras to "use them to decorate their homes or to sell them".
     Hutovo Blato is not the only example of neglect for cultural heritage in Bosnia. The purported find of the pyramids north of the Bosnian capital last year by self-styled explorer Semir Osmanagic drew outrage from experts who questioned the authenticity of the discovery. They were angered about what they said was the wrongful redirection of public and financial support towards Osmanagic's so-called 'Pyramids of the Sun' ahead of more important archaeological projects. "The popular support for the research of the pyramids bordered on hysteria," Zilka Kujundzic Vejzagic, a specialist in prehistoric archaeology, said. "One day we might be held to account for the neglect of cultural heritage which is not Bosnian, but European," she warned.
     Bosnia first began attracting interest among archaeologists around the world in the 19th century. In 1894, Sarajevo hosted the International Congress of Archaeology and Anthropology. The remains of one of the best researched Neolithic settlements were discovered in Butmir, also near the capital, in 1893 and excavation work in the area continued until 1896. What has become known as Butimir Culture is distinguished by unique pottery with some characteristics suggesting connections to the Minoans of Crete.

Sources: AFP, Iol.co.za (21 May 2007)

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