Ten Spectacular Golden Treasures of the Ancient World
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.
Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Treasure Under the Sea – Florida, USA
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.
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.