Skopje - Macedonia has vowed to put a halt to illegal excavations at the country's wealth of archaeological sites, many of which have already been ransacked by savvy smugglers digging up the rich treasures.
"The criminals are always a step ahead, they follow our activities and know exactly when to move away," an official from the special department in charge of archaeological crime who requested anonymity told AFP.
When archaeologists arrived at Isar Marvinci in southern Macedonia, the seat of power in ancient times, they had hoped to begin excavations but instead faced an unpleasant surprise.
"They found more than 1 000 open pits, but all the findings were gone, mostly sold to our southern neighbour" Greece, said Pasko Kuzman, head of the state institute for the protection of cultural heritage.
Ancient graves were believed to be full of "golden jewelry, silver, bronze and amber pieces, all very light and easy to transport," Kuzman said.
Isar, which dates back to the Iron Age, flourished under the ancient Greeks, but the Romans levelled the metropolis to the ground.
Kuzman noted a case when 230 archaeological findings - hidden in bags full of beans - were discovered by customs officials at the Croatian-Slovenian border in 2006.
"Slovenian officials established that the findings were from the territory of Macedonia and returned them to us," he said.
In the past two years, police have reported 21 cases of cultural heritage theft, with 16 of them solved, interior ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.
Thieves are mostly interested in smaller pieces like money, silver, copper or ceramic pots, and stone figures, he said.
According to various estimations, most of Macedonia's territory hides archaeological treasures due to the Balkan state's central position in ancient times.
So far, 10 000 different sites have been registered, but at least several more thousand still need to be examined.
The ancient Roman settlement of Stobi, famous for its mosaics, has for years attracted visitors, scientists and tourists, but also thieves.
A large part of the area has yet to be excavated, so officials have introduced 24-hour security at the site.
"Stobi has been protected around the clock as our presence is the best guarantee that there will be no illegal diggers," Silvana Blazevska, the manager of the site, told AFP.
It is quite common in Marvince, in southern Macedonia close to the border with Greece, for a builder to find an ancient plate while putting in foundations for a new home, or for a farmer to dig out a piece of an ancient vase in his field.
"Usually farmers immediately call us to tell us of the findings," said Blazevska.
Police officials are reluctant to estimate whether the amount of archaeological thefts has risen in the past years, but say that such "illegal business can bring several million dollars annually."
A wide-range network is believed to be organised through regional crime gangs, while buyers are easily found in Greece, Austria and Germany, they say.
Some of the findings could be sold for up to €20 000, while less valuable pieces - like an ancient Roman spear top - could be had for only 100 euros.
"One golden coin by itself has no high value, but if it is found together with other objects from a dated time-period, its value increases in relation to scientific, cultural and heritage significance," Kuzman said.
Zlatko Videski from the Museum of Macedonia heads the excavations at Isar, spread across about 80 hectares (xx acres ????) of land. He said the economic crisis has trimmed government funding of the site - "neglected for so many years" - so his team will be able to cover only about 20 acres HECTARES??? this year.
"But the site has been damaged a lot and only when we examine material collected so far will we be able to estimate its real value," Videski told AFP.
In only seven months of excavations at the site, archaeologists have found around 2 500 graves from different time periods, he added.
"There are graves from prehistoric times, Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, but for smugglers, the most interesting are those from ancient and Byzantine times," Kuzman said. - AFP