It is a poignant tale, put together from two pieces of archaeological evidence.

One is a black-and-white mosaic portrait. The second is the grave of a young woman buried in a tomb beneath a grassy mound.

Archaeologists found the mosaic portrait, dating from the 2nd century AD, in the master bedroom of Villa Armira – a showpiece Roman-era mansion that straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. It shows the head of a bearded man, flanked by two infants – a girl and a boy.

The woman’s scanty remains indicated she died in her early 30s. She was buried in the style of the Thracian, not Roman, nobility, in a built stone chamber covered with earth. Finds from the tomb are contemporary with the mosaic, says Gergana Kabakchieva, the chief archaeologist at the site who suggests the woman was the daughter of a wealthy Thracian who built the villa in Roman style to underscore his loyalty to the region’s new rulers after Thrace became a Roman province.

The man has the features of a Palestinian or Syrian in Roman portraiture. “I would say he was a Roman citizen who married into the Thracian aristocracy and that his wife died giving birth to twins,” Mrs Kabakchieva says.

Today, the one-time residents of Villa Armira are part of a project to create a successful tourist attraction at the ancient site. The villa is being refurbished with €290,000 of funding from the EU’s Phare programme. The Thrace Foundation, a private Bulgarian institution, is providing another €25,000 to finance further excavations. A visitor centre will be built near a new border crossing that is set to open next year.

The villa, with a large swimming pool and more than 20 ground-floor rooms, overlooks woodland and a river near the modern town of Ivaylovgrad. Although Armira appears remote to modern visitors, the mansion was strategically located in ancient times – near a road linking two parallel Roman highways that connected the Adriatic with the Black Sea. With its stylish architecture and elegant mosaics, Armira resembles the grand imperial homes excavated at Ostia, the ancient port of Rome. “It’s unique in Thrace to find such a sophisticated building,” Mrs Kabakchieva says.

Discovered more than 40 years ago by workers digging a dam for a hydro-electric plant, the villa was off-limits to most visitors because of its location in the border zone.

After the demise of communism, Armira, like other ancient sites in Bulgaria, fell prey to looters. One piece of marble statuary was listed by Sotheby’s, the auction house, in a sale catalogue in 1994.

“Plenty of important Bulgarian artefacts were sold through dealers in central Europe. Some, we’ve been able to recover, others, like the Armira piece, not yet,” says Kiril Christoskov, director of the Thrace Foundation, which tracks down Bulgarian artefacts on the international market in order to bring them home.

The main target of looters are the thousands of Thracian burial mounds, which contain valuable artefacts, dotted across plains and valleys throughout Bulgaria.

Rulers of the Thracian kingdoms that flourished in the classical era employed Greek architects and craftsmen to build and decorate their monumental tombs, mixing Greek and Egyptian styles. The highest prices are paid for a gold-decorated warrior’s helmet or sword.

Gold and silver jugs, bowls and plates, along with jewellery, which were included in Thracian burials, are comparatively easy to smuggle abroad, Mr Christoskov says.

Since Bulgaria joined the EU last year, efforts to pursue looters and local middlemen have intensified.

But a lack of legislation to protect cultural monuments impedes efforts to stop trafficking in antiquities, says Volodya Velkov, a senior official in the interior ministry service for combating organised crime.

“We recently busted two groups that were probably responsible for about 40 per cent of the trade in artefacts. But unless sites are specifically protected everything moveable will continue to be at risk,” Mr Velkov says.

The Armira project will be a test of Bulgaria’s commitment both to looking after its rich archaeological heritage and to making it accessible to visitors.

Rumen Draganov, director of the Sofia-based Institute of Tourism Analysis, says: “Cultural tourism is something that we must focus on. We have monuments and finds of a quality that matches the other ancient European civilisations, and they deserve to be better known.”

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