Georgi Kitov's hands trembled as he cradled the glittering visage of an ancient king unearthed from a tomb in southern Bulgaria.
"This is the face of an evil ruler!" cried the archaeologist, marveling at the cruel gaze from the mask of solid gold, the size of a dinner plate.
The mask dates back to the 5th century BC -- the golden age of the little-known Thracians -- and has been hailed as an unrivalled find in the study of classical antiquity.
If Kitov and other archaeologists from Bulgaria have their way, it is just a glimpse of what is to come.
The fall of communism 15 years ago halted the exploration of thousands of tombs and settlements, some said to be older than ancient Troy, as the impoverished Balkan state turned its attention to rebuilding its weak economy.
As new funding begins to trickle in, Kitov and scores of others are working furiously to thwart modern-day tomb raiders and find out more about the mysterious Thracians, who experts say founded one of Europe's earliest refined cultures.
"These are the biggest excavation works in 15 years," said Bozhidar Dimitrov, curator at the Bulgarian History Museum. "And it is no surprise that the findings are amazing."
"BLOOD THIRSTY WARRIORS"
Not much history has survived of the Thracians, who some experts say lived in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, northern Greece and Turkey's European territory from as early as 4000 B.C. until being absorbed by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.
The historian Herodotus described them as "savage, blood-thirsty warriors" who worshiped only the gods of war and wine, engaging in plunder and wild orgies on the fringes of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.
The Thracians left no written accounts, and archaeologists complain that sources from other cultures are biased -- the Greeks considered them barbarians.
But a look at the hundreds of finely wrought pieces of jewelry and other artifacts excavated from burial mounds in Bulgaria's "Valley of Thracian Kings" tells a different story.
A current exhibition of the treasures at Germany's Kunst und Ausstellungshalle museum describes the Thracians as "one of the most influential civilisations of the antique world."
"We've excavated seven tombs this year and their design, along with decorated ceramics, bronze, gold and silver jewels, shows we are dealing with a developed civilisation," Kitov said.
Living on the edge of Asia, the Thracians came into contact with great civilisations who passed through their homelands: the Persians, Scythians, Greeks, Celts, Romans and even the Egyptian empire.
"Bulgaria indeed is one of the cradles of culture on the old continent. The first well-developed human civilisation dwelt here 6,000 years ago," Dimitrov said.
RACE AGAINST LOOTERS
For thousands of years, Thracians rulers have lain in their tombs, accompanied in the afterlife by the most important of their wives and gold and silver vessels full of rich treasures.
But now the troves face a new danger, as grave robbers grow bolder and more sophisticated and smugglers take advantage of weak laws, widespread corruption and lack of government funding.
Experts complain that all of the 1,500 mounds in the Valley of Thracian Kings in southern Bulgaria have been disturbed by looters who are better equipped than the toiling archaeologists.
Just a day after discovering the 690-gramme gold mask, Kitov returned to the tomb only to find that treasure hunters had ransacked it in search of other precious objects.
"Looters do not care about anything else but the gold. They destroy everything else that is not worth exporting -- ceramics, frescos, and the chambers themselves," he said.
"It is a disaster. We are just picking up the crumbs."
Kitov and his team hope to investigate all of the mounds in the Valley, backed with private funding from the local museum and a private western European foundation.
But further plans to open the sites to tourists are in doubt, as the struggling economy -- average wages are among the lowest in Europe at 150 euros a month -- makes funding scarce.
"We are planning to start a guided tour at the five most attractive Thracian tombs," said Kossio Zhelev, curator at the history museum in Kazanlak. "Hopefully the recent finds will open the tight purse strings of the state."