Police have smashed an international crime gang that ransacked ancient sites in Bulgaria before smuggling millions of pounds of archaeological treasures into the UK.

Some 4,600 items have been seized including ceramics, glass funeral earns, lamps, arrowheads, spears and ancient coins, and eight people have been arrested.

Five were held in Bulgaria and two men, aged 19 and 55, and a 67-year-old woman were arrested on suspicion of handling stolen goods as they entered the UK via Dover from France.

Europol said the artefacts mostly date from the Roman period when military camps were located in northern Bulgaria, while others were from the Bronze Age, early Iron Age, Middle Ages and Ottoman period.

One of the items found among the stolen goods
One of the items found among the stolen goods (Europol/PA)

The illegally excavated items were brought out of Bulgaria and smuggled into the UK by private transport operators, often via Germany.

Europol said: “This case confirms that the most common way to dispose of archaeological goods illegally excavated is by entering the legitimate art market.

“This modus operandi takes advantage of the fact that the existence of these goods is not officially known, therefore their illicit origin can be hidden by providing them with a false back story (fake documents of provenance).”

The probe was launched in March 2018 after British police contacted the Bulgarian authorities.

Europol said details of the operation, in October last year, have only now been released due to “operational reasons”.

The Metropolitan Police said the trio arrested as they entered the UK have been released under investigation.

“The arrests were made as part of an ongoing investigation into the theft of cultural artefacts in Europe which is being led by detectives from the Met’s art and antiques unit,” the force said.