Should You Drop Everything and Hunt for Treasure in Europe?
Yet another discovery of a horde of treasure makes us wonder why it seems ancient riches are constantly being found in Europe.
Archaeologists excavating on a farm in the village of Újlengyel, in the Pest County of Central Hungary, have unearthed a hoard of roughly 7,000 Roman and medieval coins. The coins, which date from the second century Antonine emperor Lucius Verus to a sequence of 16th-century Hungarian monarchs, include some rare gold coins and a rare Vatican coin issued by Pope Paul II. To those interested in archaeology it feels as if you can’t dig anywhere in Europe without stumbling across a lost trove of treasure.
In the case of this particular hoard, which was excavated by the Ferenczy Múzemi Centrum in conjunction with volunteers from a local archaeology group, archaeologists believe that the coins were hidden as a response to the defeat of King Louis II of Hungary (and his allies) by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1526. Facing the prospect of advancing armies who would loot and pillage, the owner(s) hid their wealth in the hopes of one day returning to retrieve it. The coins were found close to the find site of another small hoard of 150 coins, excavated in 2019. Those involved have called the recent discovery the “most valuable” cache of coins from this period and region.
In certain parts of the world, the stories of people hiding their gold to keep it from the invading armies of the Ottomans, or of the Ottomans themselves hiding gold as their empire collapsed, are part of what drives the looting. In the same way, the discovery of high-value objects often inspires others to go on their own modern treasure hunts. After the striking 2015 discovery of ancient coins by amateur divers off the coast of the ancient port of Caesarea in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Association estimated that a single Roman gold coin could be worth up to $300,000. Dr. Morag Kersel, an associate professor of archaeology at DePaul university who specializes in the preservation and protection of cultural heritage, told me that it’s stories like this that lead to modern day gold rushes, increases in looting, and the irreversible destruction of ancient artifacts.
In her work on this, Kersel has shown how the mistaken assumption that archaeologists themselves are looking for gold affects looting practices in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Locals will often approach excavation teams and ask them how much gold they have found. It’s difficult for some people to believe, she explains, that anyone would fly thousands of miles to dig up animal bones and broken pottery.
Following, as this announcement does, on the recent discovery of valuable treasure troves in France and elsewhere it might seem as if Europe is the aspiring treasure hunter-looter’s playground. The media coverage, however, is somewhat misleading. Dr. Irene Soto Marín, a coin expert and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, told The Daily Beast that “coin hoards are found everywhere.” A Google search, she added, would show discoveries in Japan, China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Palestine, the Near East, and Central Asia to name but a few. “We also find coin hoards,” she said, “in shipwreck sites around the Caribbean and even Gold-Rush era USA (like the famous Saddle-Ridge Hoard, valued at $10 million), so it is not necessarily an ‘Old World’ phenomenon.”
The seeming over-representation of European finds in the media isn’t just because of the cultural biases that privilege European history and archeology, but also because of the legislation that governs these discoveries. In the U.K., Marín told me, there are laws in place that “incentivize people to tell the authorities” about their finds. The Treasure Act of 1996, for example, makes provisions for the treasure finder or landowner to receive a reward up to the monetary value of the “treasure” they unearth. Legislation like this, which is not uncontroversial, has been a boon for historians of coins of all periods in England. As a result, Marín notes, we should expect finds in the UK and countries like it to be overrepresented in the news.
The fact that each European country has different laws governing the discovery of coins can sometimes make it difficult to identify the origins of any particular “treasure.” In Belgium, for example, would-be treasure hunters can keep what they find; in France the coins are the property of the state. Marín pointed to an example from last month in which a 27,400-item hoard that was alleged to have come from Belgium actually turned out to have been unearthed in France.
If you are thinking of relocating to Belgium with visions of an easy retirement in your sights, you will want to rethink this plan. Most hoards aren’t full of gold and silver booty. The discovery off the coast of Israel, for example, was the kind of thing that happens once every 50 years. Marín told me that the “large majority of coins found in hoards are dinky bronzes that have very little monetary value, but tremendous historical value.” As a monetary historian, she says, any hoard found in its archaeological context is more valuable to her than coins circulating on the black market. This is because there is more that coins found in situ can tell us about the past.
Moreover, most countries, even those like the U.K. that incentivize people to report discoveries, have legislation that prohibits treasure hunting. “Why put yourself in a precarious legal position over something that is perhaps not that valuable monetarily?” asked Marín.
Any time a discovery of intrinsically valuable materials (gold, silver, or precious gems) takes place, there’s always a risk of theft. When coins are discovered—even in legitimate excavations—there is always the risk of small objects adhering to sticky fingers. The risk is much higher, however, when they are found accidentally as part of irrigation projects or construction work. In the best cases, Marín said, these items end up in local or state museums in their nation of origin. In the worst outcomes, they end up on the black market and in private hands.
Perhaps the better question to ask here is why people want to be treasure hunters in the first place? What motivates people to want to own items that they could visit in a museum? For some it’s the prospect of wealth, for others the allure of the Indiana Jones mythology, maybe some even nurture hopes of fame. But the truth is that most people will end up unearthing rusty soda cans, destroying cultural heritage, and prosecuted for trespassing or worse.