As subjects go, buried treasure is a fairly romantic one. It conjures up images of pirates on the high seas looking for shipwrecks and archaeologists digging in the mystical Orient. Here are ten great treasures that were lost and then found, including Islamic gold, Spanish doubloons, Roman hoards and Saxon silver. And at the end, you might be left wondering about what else is out there waiting to be discovered.
Found in northern Afghanistan at a place known as Tillya tepe, or the Golden Hill, the Bactrian Gold is a treasure made up of over 20,000 gold pieces. It was discovered and excavated in 1978 by Soviet and Afghan archaeologists across six burial mounds. Dating to the 1st century BC, the artefacts were likely buried with the rulers of Scythian tribes. Among the items found were jewels of gold and turquoise, crowns and coins from Rome, India, China and Persia. The gold was believed to have been looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan at some point in the ’90s but was found in 2003 in Kabul and has since been exhibited internationally.
Hoxne is a village in Suffolk with particular historical significance. Prehistoric flints were found here in the 18th century, and Saint Edmund of East Anglia hid from the Danes nearby. And in 1992, a metal detectorist was searching for his lost hammer when he came across what has become known as the largest hoard of Roman gold and silver found in Britain. The hoard was originally stored in a wooden chest and was likely buried by a wealthy family who intended digging it up at a later point. The 15,000 coins and hundreds of pieces of jewellery dated to the late 4th and early 5th centuries – a time when Roman control in Britain was collapsing and many wealthy families were storing away their goods.
The San Jose was a Spanish galleon that went down off the coast of Colombia in 1708 in an engagement with a British warship during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying gold and silver worth well over a billion dollars in today’s money – and some reports put it at well over ten billion. An American company known as Sea Search Armada claimed to have found the San Jose in 1981 only to become embroiled in legal wrangling with the Colombian Government without ever bringing the lost treasure to the surface. And in November 2015, the Colombian Navy announced they had found the San Jose in a different location and were starting to recover the treasure.
Another 2015 discovery was a huge collection of gold coins off the Israeli coast, believed to be the largest ever found in the Eastern Mediterranean. At least 2000 gold dinars of the Fatimid Caliphate who ruled in the 10th and 11th centuries from Cairo have been found in the ancient harbour of Caesarea. Before this, the largest hoard of coins ever found in Israel was 376 gold dinars. All of the coins carry the name of the Caliph who ruled when they were minted, and many also carry teeth marks that show a merchant once bit the coin to check on the pureness of the gold. The coins were likely part of a shipwreck carrying tax to Cairo or belonged to a merchant.
The Thracians were tribes who lived in what is now Bulgaria in the centuries before the birth of Christ. They were notable for the skills of their craftsmen when working with gold and silver. Many of their treasures have been found – over 80 – that were probably buried to protect the goods during Macedonian or Celtic invasions of their lands. The most impressive of these recovered hoards is perhaps the Panagyurishte Treasure, discovered in 1949 in the town of Panagyurishte. The treasure consists of golden amphora, libation bowls and rhytons covered in mythical scenes. Dating to the 4th century BC, the items are believed to have been used by the Thracian kings for religious rituals.
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, India was built in the 16th century by the local rulers, the Maharajahs of Travancore. It is the wealthiest place of worship anywhere in the world, and the treasure found in its vaults is worth well over the trillion dollar mark. In 2011, a decision was made to open up the chambers and vaults of the temple. What was found was extraordinary – gold statues, hundreds of rubies, diamonds, gold crowns, emeralds and other jewels, and thousands of precious coins. Not all of the vaults have even been opened yet, though what has so far been revealed is conservatively estimated at over a trillion dollars. The treasures are believed to have been donated by many Indian rulers over the centuries to the Hindu gods and held by the Temple.
A controversial and extraordinary find, this one. Heinrich Schliemann was an inspired amateur, working in the new field of archaeology in the 1870s, digging at a site in Turkey believed to be the location of the historical Troy made famous by Homer’s Iliad. There he did find amazing treasures – silver vases, copper ornaments, golden cups and bottles, silver weapons, gold rings by the hundred, and the golden diadems he called the ‘Jewels of Helen’. Altogether he claimed to have found the treasure of King Priam who defended his city against the Mycenaeans in Homer’s epic poem. What he found, though, was much too early for that. The finds ended up in Berlin after Schliemann smuggled them out of Turkey. And in 1945, they disappeared only to resurface in Moscow in 1993 where they remain.
The Dark Ages are called dark because we have so little documentary evidence about them. In epic poetry like Beowulf, we hear about warriors being buried in great ships with their weapons for the trip to the underworld. And at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, a real ship burial full of wonderful jewels and gems was discovered. The site had long been known as a burial mound before the major excavation of 1939. But what was uncovered was unprecedented – a ship burial of a great warrior or king of East Anglia, bedecked with silver bowls from Byzantium, spears and swords inlaid with gems, shoulder-clasps and ornaments, and a now-iconic helmet inlaid with garnets.
For a long time, mystery surrounded the so-called Black Swan Project. The American company Odyssey Marine Exploration were known to be working on recovering the contents of a wreck somewhere in the Atlantic, but they let on little about it. Rumours suggested it was a British ship lost off the Isles of Scilly. In truth, it was the cargo of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk in battle with the British in 1804 off Portugal carrying gold and silver. When this was revealed in 2007, the Spanish Government went after the company. A court in the USA forced Odyssey Marine Exploration to hand over the recovered treasure, worth $500 million, back to Spain where it’s now on show.
The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver – larger even than the buried treasure at Sutton Hoo – was found in 2009 by the metal detectorist Terry Herbert in a field close to Hammerwich in Staffordshire. It became known as the Staffordshire Hoard and was made up mostly of military items, made by the most skilled craftsmen of the age. What was found were sword hilts, crosses, buckles, pommels, rings – all of gold and silver and inlaid with gems and jewels that would have required the craftsmen to use some form of a magnifying device. When the hoard was deposited in the 7th century, Staffordshire was part of the kingdom of Mercia, and the hoard may have formed death-duties given to the king on the passing of a warrior.