Throughout the centuries, people have long been captivated by the prospect of finding a long lost treasure. While many have dedicated their entire lives to the search for gold before ‘striking it lucky’, others have stumbled across ancient treasures quite by chance. Many of these stories have happy endings, with priceless treasures now conserved and protected within museums, while others reveal the tragedy of grave robbing, tomb destruction, and the dark trade of antiquities on the black market. Here we explore ten of the most spectacular discoveries of golden treasures from the ancient world.
The Tierra Firme flota, which was made up of twenty ships, left the Havana port of Cuba on their way for Spain on September 4th, 1622. These ships carried the wealth of an empire along with crew, soldiers and passengers. The next day, the fleet was hit by a hurricane as it entered into the Florida straits. By the next morning eight of the ships were on the ocean floor scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas.
The Nuestra Senora de Atocha (“Our Lady of Atocha”), was among them. It was a heavily armed galleon that sailed as Almirante (rear guard). The Atocha was carrying a vast treasure from Columbia, Peru, and other regions of South America – likely to have been acquired through dubious means – consisting of 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,00 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannons and 1,200 pounds of worked silverware. Spanish salvagers searched for the Nuestra Senora de Atocha for 60 years, however they never found it.
The mission to find the Atocha and her treasure became the fixation of a chicken farmer turned deep-sea diver named Mel Fisher, who searched doggedly for the treasure for 16 years from 1969. It was in July of 1985, when the Fisher family struck gold – they had found the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and its treasure hoard. Artifacts worth around half a billion dollars were brought to the surface, making it among the most valuable shipwrecks ever discovered. The artifacts from Atocha are now part of the Mel Fisher maritime Heritage society Museum’s collection in Florida.
Bronze Age Treasures from the Bush Barrow Burial near Stonehenge – England
In 1808, William Cunnington, one of Britain’s earliest professional archaeologists, discovered what has become known as the crown jewels of the ‘King of Stonehenge’. They were found within a large Bronze Age burial mound just ½ mile from Stonehenge, known today as Bush Barrow. Within the 4,000-year-old barrow, Cunnington found ornate jewellery, a gold lozenge that fastened his cloak, and an intricately decorated dagger.
The process involved in creating the handle of just one dagger, adorned with up to 140,000 tiny gold studs just a third of a millimetre wide, involved manufacturing extremely fine gold wire, just a little thicker than a human hair. The end of the wire was then flattened to create a stud-head, and was then cut with a very sharp flint or obsidian razor, just a millimetre below the head. This delicate procedure was then repeated literarily tens of thousands of times. Tiny holes were then made in the dagger handle in which to position the studs, and tree resin coated the surface to hold the studs in place. It is estimated that the entire process to create the dagger handle would have taken around 2,500 hours to complete.
In 1992 a sugarcane farm employee was working with a tractor in the fields at the Hacienda Malagana located in Colombia‘s Cauca Valley, when the ground gave way and both man and machine tumbled in. As the worker tried to solve his predicament, he noticed shiny, golden objects in the dirt. Upon closer inspection he realized he’d found an immense treasure. The worker immediately set about retrieving the treasure, including golden masks, arm bands, jewelry and other precious relics. He was soon joined by other employees and locals, who learned there was treasure buried in the fields, and a looting frenzy began. Between October and December 1992, approximately 5000 people are said to have descended upon Hacienda Malagana in what was described as the “Malagana Gold Rush”.
Almost four tons of pre-Columbian artifacts were removed from the site and were tragically melted down or sold to collectors. Hundreds of tombs were destroyed in the process. Bogotá’s Museo del Oro reportedly obtained some of the looted gold objects from Malagana as early as late 1992. Some 150 pieces of Malagana gold were eventually acquired, with nearly 500 million pesos ($300,000 USD) paid to looters by the museum in an attempt to preserve the artifacts. Unfortunately, looting at Hacienda Malagana has continued since the initial rush in 1992 (albeit in reduced numbers), and incidences of digging have been reported as recently as 2012.
The Eberswalde Hoard: Golden Treasure Trove of the Bronze Age – Germany
The Eberswalde Hoard is a golden treasure trove that was unearthed during an excavation in an area to the north-east of Berlin, Germany in 1913. It is one of the country’s most priceless treasure troves and is said to be the largest prehistoric collection of gold objects discovered in Germany so far. The hoard consists of 81 ancient gold objects, including 60 wire arm spirals, eight gold bowls, and a gold ingot. The total weight of these objects is reported to be 2.6 kg. It is believed that they are from either the 11th or 10th century BC.
The original purpose or use of the Eberswalde Hoard is unclear, though one scholar has suggested that it was an assemblage of sacred objects. It has been argued, for example, that vases were the most common type of sacred offering during the Bronze Age. The Eberswalde treasure is believed to belong to the goldsmith known as Villena-type, originating in the Iberian Peninsula, for its resemblance to the Treasure of Villena. The treasure currently resides in Russia and Germany is attempting to reclaim it.
The Treasures of Priam: Golden Riches from the Legendary City of Troy – Turkey
During the 19th century, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann embarked on a quest to prove that the legendary city of Troy actually existed. He succeeded in his quest, and Hisarlik in Turkey (the site that Schliemann excavated) is today recognised as the ancient site of Troy. Among the treasures he hoped to find at Hisarlik, was the so-called ‘Treasure of Priam’, which, according to Schliemann, belonged to the Trojan king Priam.
On the 31st of May 1873, Schliemann found the precious treasure he was seeking. In fact, Schliemann stumbled by chance upon the ‘Treasure of Priam’, as he is said to have had a glimpse of gold in a trench-face whilst straightening the side of a trench on the south-western side of the site.
The spectacular treasure includes weapons, a copper cauldron, a shallow bronze pan, a bronze kettle, and many gold and silver objects, including a golden headdress, necklaces, earrings, and golden arm bands. Today, the Treasure of Priam resides in Russia.
The Golden Death Mask of Agamemnon – Greece
Having already discovered the real location of the legendary Troy, Heinrich Schliemann’s next project was to discover the final resting place of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae who led the Greek forces during the Trojan War. Though there is debate if Schliemann ever reached his second goal, he certainly made another impressive find in the process – the ‘Mask of Agamemnon.’
In 1876, Schliemann began excavating at Mycenae on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society. Schliemann’s workmen would soon uncover stelae marking the boundary of a grave circle about 27.5 meters (90 feet) across. It contained five late Bronze Age shaft graves. Schliemann’s excavation of the shaft graves revealed that they contained the remains of several Mycenaean chiefs, five of whom wore gold face masks. In a telegram sent to King George of Greece, Schliemann proudly declared: “With great joy I announce to Your Majesty that I have discovered the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos.”
Schliemann claimed that one of the remains belonged to Agamemnon himself, hence the gold mask on his face was called the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’. The mask was a death mask, and made of a thick sheet of gold hammered against a wooden background. A sharp tool was used later to chisel the finer details. Of the five gold masks, this was the only mask showing a bearded man, hence Schliemann’s conclusion that it had belonged to Agamemnon. Although Schliemann’s discovery was indeed remarkable, whether or not it ever belonged to Agamemnon remains a matter of contention.
The Incredible Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon Gold Hoard – England
On July 5, 2009, amateur treasure hunter Terry Herbert was using a metal detector to search farmland in the village of Hammerwich, in Staffordshire, England, when his metal detector signaled that he had found a metal object. He soon discovered that he literally and figuratively, had struck gold. Over five days, Herbert filled 244 bags with gold objects that had been removed from the soil. At this point, he realized the site must be of great historical significance, and he contacted local authorities. Soon, Birmingham Archaeology was on site to conduct an excavation, covering an area of 30 feet by 43 feet, in hopes of recovering all objects that may have been tossed and scattered by plowing of the field. During this excavation, over 3,500 pieces were discovered, including 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of gold and 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds) of silver. It was the largest known hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal ever found.
The pieces from the hoard were put on display at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until they were declared to be a “treasure,” and therefore property of the Crown, valued at £3.3 million (approximately US $5.4 million). Most researchers agree that the pieces tend to date to the 7th century AD, although it is not yet known when they were actually buried or deposited at their final location, or for what purpose.
Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave of the 5th Millennium BC – Bulgaria
In the 1970s, archaeologists in Bulgaria stumbled upon a vast Copper Age necropolis from the 5th millennium BC containing the oldest golden artifacts ever discovered near the modern-day city of Varna. But it was not until they reached grave 43 that they realized the real significance of the finding. Inside burial 43 were the remains of a high status male and unfathomable riches – more gold was found within this burial than in the entire rest of the world in that period.
The Varna culture, which emerged on the shores of lakes of the Black Sea some 7,000 years ago in Bulgaria, was not a small and inconsequential society that emerged in a little corner of Bulgaria and disappeared quickly into the pages of history. Rather, it was an amazingly advanced civilization, and the first known culture to craft golden artifacts.
The first evidence of Varna’s ancient civilization came in the form of tools, vessels, utensils, and figurines made from stone, flint, bone, and clay. Then an incredible chance discovery came to light, that made headlines around the world. In October, 1972, excavator operator Raycho Marinov stumbled upon a vast Copper Age necropolis containing immense golden riches. More than 300 graves were uncovered in the necropolis, and between them over 22,000 exquisite artifacts were recovered, including 3,000+ items made from gold with a total weight of 6 kilograms. Other precious relics found within the graves included copper, high-quality flint, stone tools, jewellery, shells of Mediterranean mollusks, pottery, obsidian blades, and beads.
Secret Chamber in Scythian Burial Mound Revealed Golden Treasure of Drug-Fuelled Rituals – Russia
In 2013, elaborate golden treasures with traces of cannabis and opium were discovered in a secret chamber hidden in an ancient Scythian burial mound near Strovopol, Russia. Described as a once-in-a-century discovery, the golden artifacts and drugs point to ancient rituals and wars as chronicled by Greek historian Herodotus.
The Scythian kurgan, or burial mound, was uncovered during power-line development in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. It was found the site had at one time been looted and not much was presumed to lie within. However, archaeologists found a hidden chamber containing a golden treasure dating back 2,400 years. Seven pounds worth of solid gold objects were found including: two bucket- or vase-shaped vessels, rings, neck rings, a bracelet, and three gold cups. The vessels are decorated with highly-detailed and dramatic scenes. Animals and humans are depicted fighting and dying. The images have been so intricately wrought that details such as weapons, garments and lifelike haircuts can be easily seen.
Criminologists analyzed a black residue found on the inside of the gold vessels. Results confirmed opium and cannabis, suggesting to the researchers that the Scythians had used the plants and vessels in a drug-fueled ritual, as originally reported by Herodotus.
Treasures from the Tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Mochican Warrior Priest
In 1987, an enormous complex of unplundered Moche culture tombs was unearthed at the Huaca Rajada archaeological site, near Sipán on the North coast of Peru. The most famous of the tombs belonged to El Señor de Sipán (The Lord of Sipán), a Mochican warrior priest who was buried among dazzling treasures, unlike any seen before in the region.
The 5 metre by 5 metre tombs was found with a wooden sarcophagus in the centre – the first of its type to be reported in the Americas. Within the coffin, lay the remains of a man dressed in full royal regalia, surrounded by a plethora of dedicatory offerings that were to accompany him in his afterlife. An analysis of his regalia and iconographic depictions found in his tomb, suggests that this man was a high ranking Moche warrior-priest and a pre-eminent ruler of the Lambayeque valley.
The elite leader was found adorned in gold, silver, and copper jewellery and ornaments, including an enormous crescent headdress with a plume of feathers, a face mask, several pectorals composed of hundreds of shell beads, necklaces, nose rings, ear rings, a gold and silver sceptre, banners of gilded metal sewn onto cotton cloth, and two backflaps, which are trapezoidal sheets of beaten gold that warriors wore attached to the back of their costumes. The necklaces were made with beads of gold and silver in the shape of maní (peanuts), an important food staple for the Moche. There were ten kernels on the right side made of gold, signifying masculinity and the sun god, and ten kernels on the left side made of silver, to represent femininity and the moon god. Also buried with the Lord of Sipán were many ceremonial utensils such as tropical sea shells, silver and gold rattles, knives, golden death-masks, gold bells showing a deity severing human heads, three other headdresses, and hundreds of beads. A total of 451 gold, silver, copper, textile, and feather objects were buried with the Lord of Sipán to accompany him in the afterlife.