Legendary treasures that haven’t been discovered...yet
"And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge."
- J.R.R Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Of all the tales of mystery and intrigue that history has delivered, none capture the imagination more than the stories of real life treasures which were lost to the ages. Today, the various destinations of this vanished loot present a wealth of treasure seeking opportunities for the adventurous; from the American Old West and the castles of England, to the Aztec temples and the sacred kingdoms of Asia. Even as you cross the Atlantic Ocean in your private plane charter, you could be flying above the spot where a post-colonial shipwreck worth millions lies hidden on the seabed.
The recent discovery of Viking Gold in Denmark proves that real life can get just as exciting as any of the Indiana Jones movies. With centuries' worth of hidden fortunes still waiting to be uncovered, ACS invited two travel bloggers and a bestselling historical fiction author to nominate a lost treasure that fascinates them the most.
The Spanish Treasure Fleet
Estimated value: $100 million USD (today’s value)
Number of years lost: 301
If you ever visit Vero Beach in Florida and spot a cluster of shimmering dots on the shoreline, do not be too quick to dismiss them as shells reflecting sunlight. You just might be receiving a generous gift from the ocean in the form of lost artifacts from a 1715 Treasure Fleet.
This region is known as the Treasure Coast, so named for the precious relics from eleven sunken ships that continue to wash ashore. In fact, $175 million of the treasure has been found to date. The most recent discovery happened last year when divers found 350 gold coins worth $4.5 million in the Atlantic waters.
The story of this calamity goes all the way back to the mid-16th to the mid-18th century – a time of sea fare, piracy and Spain's dominance in the New World. Fleets loaded with treasure often traversed the seas between Spain and America, and on July 1715, twelve such ships sailed from Havana, Cuba, to Spain, carrying silver, gold, and gemstones valued at about 14 million pesos.
Their voyage took them into the heart of a fierce hurricane, where the immense waves pulled eleven ships to the depths of the ocean, including the Nuestra Senora de la Regla and Santa Cristo de San Ramon. Nearly a thousand lives were lost, as well as a considerable amount of the cargo. Even though Spain was able to re-claim 80% of the lost treasure, the rest is still up for grabs as four of the ships are yet to be discovered.
The Gold train of Walbrzych
Estimated value: Over $1 million USD (today’s value)
Number of years lost: 70
Of all the castles to visit in Poland, there is one in particular which is shrouded in more mystery than the rest. The majestic 13th century Ksiaz castle in Walbrzych, Lower Silesia, is rumored to contain underground tunnels that hide a train laden with Nazi gold from the Second World War. It has become known as the gold train of Walbrzych.
Ksiaz Castle is the third largest castle in Poland, located on a majestic rock cliff by the side of the Pelcznica River. Over the centuries it has changed hands many times. In 1943, Nazi Germany started Project Riese, which entailed the construction of seven underground structures below the castle and the Owl Mountains as a secure headquarters for Hitler and his officials. The system comprises several tunnels and railway shafts, but none were completed due to the Red Army occupation of Ksiaz in 1945.
Rumors about a train laden with 300 tons of gold, works of art, jewels and even parts of the Amber Chamber of Saint Petersburg (see below) started to circulate in the 1970’s. It was said to be hidden in an underground shaft close to the castle.
This first wave of rumor had already sparked the interest of amateur gold diggers, but it wasn’t until August of that year that two individuals by the names of Andreas Richter and Piotr Koper approached the Polish government with a view to negotiate a finder’s fee of 10% in exchange for revealing the exact location of the train which they claimed to have identified. They supported their claim with radar images showing a railway shaft and, indeed, what could be a train.
Since then, the gold train treasure hunt has gathered momentum. Thousands of tourists and treasure hunters flock to the region each year in the hopes of finding the load. At present, the densely wooded area is being cleared and carefully searched for landmines before the Polish Army can begin excavations in earnest."
The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang
Estimated value: Unknown
Number of years lost: over 3000
What started as an ordinary day in the life of a peasant turned into one of the most astonishing discoveries when Yang Zhifa, digging for water, stumbled upon a terracotta statue on a hilltop near the the city of Xi’an, China. Further digging by archeologists revealed a mausoleum that contained a vast army of more clay warriors guarding an even more surprising locale: the tomb of China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
It may sound like the start of a monster movie, but that is as far as this story goes. Although there are no fears that the archaeologists would accidentally raise an enraged emperor from the dead if they keep digging, some treasures within may remain lost. Only three-chambers within the structure have been discovered thus far, and it's unlikely that the pick axes will reach the central section of the mausoleum where the emperor lays buried.
The Chinese government may not give permission to excavate the tomb out of respect, besides the fact that technology is not advanced enough to go that deep without causing damage. What's more, it is said that poisonous rivers of mercury encircle the emperor's tomb. Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of a lavish tomb compound that resembles an underground city. When he died, his body was laid to rest with his endless riches by his side – both sets of treasure remain confined within the unexplored depths of the earth.
The Amber Room - The Lost “Eighth Wonder of the World”
Estimated value: Between $142 million and $500 million USD (today’s value)
Number of years lost: 71
The Amber Room began construction in 1701, when Prussian King Frederick I commissioned a room in the Charlottenberg Palace in Prussia to be exquisitely gilded. The mysterious demise of this Imperial room began in 1941, where it ended up in the hands of the German forces during the Soviet Union invasion known as ‘Operation Barbarossa’.
Only a replica of what was once dubbed an “Eighth Wonder of the World” stands in its place today.
A masterpiece of craftsmanship that took over six years to construct, The Amber Room’s shimmering brilliance of glistening panels, mirrors, gold leaf and jewelled mosaics was seen as one of the greatest architectural wonders of its time. The Amber Room became a part of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1716 when gifted to Peter the Great, and later transferred to Catherine Palace in nearby Tsarskove Selo in 1755 at the request of his daughter, Empress Elizabeth. Here it was expanded and rebuilt for over 10 years, becoming a 55 square metre ornament filled with over six tonnes of amber.
Its cultural significance and prized beauty never went unnoticed, even with the arrival of the Nazi forces in the Soviet Union in 1941. Since it was found too delicate and brittle to dismantle, the curators of the Palace hid the panels under various materials and wallpaper coverings, yet did not succeed in saving it. In less than two days, the Nazis had looted the Amber Room, boxed up the panels and had it moved to Königsberg Castle (now Kaliningrad), and put on display.
In January of 1943, Hitler gave orders for the Amber Room to be dismantled and sent back to Germany. By August of the same year, Allied bombs destroyed Königsberg Castle. Whether the Amber Room was destroyed in the bombing or successfully relocated in time by German forces is unknown to this day.
Speculation is that sections are hidden in boxes somewhere in the city of Kaliningard; that the Amber Room panels made their way back to Berlin by secret train or were lost at sea. Another theory is that pieces of it exist all over the world having been sold by German soldiers, following a claim in 1997 when an ‘original’ panel was put up for sale. Then there’s the idea that Stalin’s ‘replica’ Amber Room was the one looted and the real one (stolen and hidden by Soviet forces) is boxed up, somewhere in Russia.
It is unlikely we will ever see this original gilded treasure reinstated to its full glory ever again; its shimmering panels perhaps resting in the darkness. For now, a replica stands in the Catherine Palace in St.Petersburg, Russia, built in 2003 for its 300th year anniversary.
It is a legacy of a treasure that was once a gift, but lost to the fate and gluttony of war.
The Lost Treasure of the Beale Ciphers
Estimated value: $66 million USD (today’s value)
Number of years lost: 194
One of the most intriguing lost treasures involves Thomas J. Beale, an American who actually left instructions to a real treasure hunt. But, the clues are so intricate that nobody has been able to locate the site where Beale and his companion hid their loot.
According to a pamphlet that circulated in 1885, Beale and a few other men found a large amount of gold and silver while mining in the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. They took the treasure to Bedford County where they entrusted Mother Earth with the safekeeping of their newfound riches. The men wanted to ensure their families got a good life insurance policy when they passed away, so Beale wrote three encrypted notes that gave clues to the location of the treasure, its contents and the names of the 30 partners.
He put them in a box, which he left with a trusted friend, the local innkeeper Robert Morriss. He instructed Morriss to open the box if he had not returned from an excursion in ten years, but Beale never showed up again. Twenty-three years later, Morriss opened the box and immediately attempted to decipher the letters – to no avail. To this day, only the second cryptogram that describes the content of the treasure, has been solved.
King John’s Lost Treasure
Estimated value: $70 million USD (today’s value)
Number of years lost: 800
It is October 1216, the weather in England is stormy, there is sickness and famine, the barons are in revolt against King John and the country has been laid waste by his mercenary soldiers. In the southeast the French Prince Louis has invaded and controls all but the castles at Dover, Lincoln and Windsor. In the north the Scots King Alexander II promises fealty to Louis.
An ageing and ailing King John marches on the city of Lincoln to reinforce his garrison and punish those who support Prince Louis. “No one could remember that so great a conflagration had ever before been made in this part of the world in so short a space of time,” one contemporary chronicler wrote of the death, torture and mayhem that ensued. Clearly, however, vengeance gave King John an appetite. On the night of 9th October he feasted royally on “peaches and new cider” and was almost immediately struck down with a bout of severe dysentery. On October 11th he set out once more for Lincoln, crossing The Wash, an area of salt marsh, deep creeks, quicksand and unpredictable tides where paths could appear and disappear beneath the water with frightening speed. Whilst John crossed safely, his baggage train, two miles long and loaded with riches, was not so fortunate.
The monk Ralph of Coggeshall wrote of the disaster: “Packhorses and members of the King’s household were sucked into quicksand where the Wellstream meets the sea because they had set out in too much of a hurry and careless of the fact that the tide had not fully receded.” The King’s baggage train had succumbed to the treacherous depths of The Wash and was lost. It had reputedly been carrying the crown jewels, gold coin to pay John’s soldiers, silver and gold plate, holy relics and the sword of Tristram, one of the Arthurian knights.
John died on the 18th October in Newark and though a search was mounted for the lost treasure, it has never been found. The nature of the landscape, with silt deposits and peat swamps suggests that it could be buried beneath 20 feet of mud. In the intervening 700 years the Village of Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire has been drained but no treasure has ever been found.