If adventure video games and movies like Indiana Jones are accurate, there are artifacts and stashes of valuables from ancient times just waiting to be discovered around the world, but is that really the case? While ‘treasure hunter’ is still not categorized as a worthwhile occupation by most career experts, some of those treasures do turn up in various circumstances, mostly by accident.
10. Ophel Treasure
In 2013, archaeologists digging at the Ophel site near Temple Mount in Jerusalem discovered a Byzantine-era cache of gold and silver artifacts dating back to the early seventh century. The find – made at a ruined Byzantine building 165 feet away from the temple’s southern wall – included a four inch gold medallion depicting a seven-branched menorah, a ram’s horn, and a Torah scroll.
The expedition was led by an archeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and further studies on the items indicate that they were abandoned due to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614. The cache included a second, smaller gold medallion, pendants, a gold coil, and a silver clasp, likely all intended for the ornamentation of the Torah scroll. The arrangement of the items suggests that one bundle was deliberately hidden underground, while the second one was abandoned and left scattered on the floor, possibly due to haste.
9. Gold-Laced Egyptian Mummy
In early 2023, a team of archeologists and researchers working in the tombs of Saqqara near Memphis, Egypt announced one of the most elaborate sets of treasures ever found in the region. Among other things, it included a 4,300-year-old mummy completely encased in layers of gold, housed in a sealed stone sarcophagus within a 33-foot shaft. It’s named Hekashepes, who might have been a particularly rich member of the ancient-Egyptian society, according to its lavish appearance and unusual set of accompanying accessories, including a headband and a chest bracelet.
The find is easily the oldest gold-covered mummy ever discovered. Unlike other mummies from the region, Hekashepes was mummified using artificial techniques and dressed in clothes at the time of its death, compared to the usual bandages we find in other tombs. Additionally, the dig also uncovered the tombs of other people from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, like a judge and writer named Fetek, a priest named Khnumdjedef, and another priest who might have been called Messi.
8. Ancient Roman Silver
Archaeologists working near the city of Livorno in Tuscany, Italy recently discovered a total of 175 silver coins dating back to the ancient Roman republic. The hoard, likely buried between 157 to 82 BC during a tumultuous time in Rome’s history, could have been concealed for safekeeping during a civil war.
The coins were first spotted by a member of an archaeological group, though the information was initially kept secret from the public to complete the excavation of the area for other similar finds. Sadly, nothing else from that era was found in the region, although a Roman farm was discovered about half a mile away in a previous expedition.
According to experts, the silver could have belonged to a soldier caught in conflict or a merchant safeguarding their wealth, as stashing treasure underground for later retrieval was a common practice around that time. If we go by the dates, the find may date back to the civil war that resulted in the rise of Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 82 BC.
7. San Jose Shipwreck
The San Jose was a Spanish warship laden with treasures that was lost in Colombian waters during a battle with an English fleet back in 1708. It would take more than three centuries to know its location, when a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute used a robot submarine and advanced mapping techniques to find it near the city of Cartagena in 2015. The ship, often referred to as the ‘holy grail of shipwrecks’, carried a huge treasure, including gold ingots, coins, cannons, and Chinese porcelain.
While the discovery should have settled the case, it actually led to a renewed legal and political struggle over the real ownership of the treasure. It’s claimed in full by Colombia’s government, which first agreed to a split with the treasure hunters but later altered the terms, leading to lawsuits that held out for decades. It’s also claimed by the Spanish government, along with a few other private players that were involved with the fleet at the time.
The wreck was officially announced to the world by Colombia’s President in 2015, along with images and videos that revealed the true scale of the treasure lying on the seafloor.
6. Early Renaissance Painting
Back in 2019, a painting called Christ Mocked by the 13th-century Florentine artist Cimabue was discovered in a house in northern France. It belonged to an elderly woman in her 90s, who – along with most of her family – never paid too much attention to the artwork, assuming that it was some old religious artwork from Russia. As it turned out, it was a historical masterpiece made by an artist many call the forefather of the Italian Renaissance.
Unaware of its importance, the woman decided to sell her house in June, 2023 and contacted experts to assess its contents. The painting was actually spotted and valued by an auctioneer, Philomène Wolf. Further studies showed the unsigned painting was a part of a larger diptych from 1280, portraying scenes of Christ’s passion and crucifixion. While it was expected to fetch around €6 million at auction, the painting ultimately sold for over €24 million, making it the most expensive medieval painting ever sold.
5. Civil War Treasure
The Great Kentucky Hoard refers to the nearly 700 gold coins dating back to the Civil War era recently unearthed in a Kentucky cornfield. Found by an anonymous individual, the collection includes $1, $10, and $20 gold coins minted before and during the Civil War, with a total value of roughly $1 million in today’s money.
The collection features many rare gold coins, including 1863 Liberty Double Eagles, which can each be valued up to $381,875 depending on their condition and minting date. According to Ryan McNutt, a conflict archaeologist at Georgia Southern University, the treasure was likely hidden before Morgan’s Raid during the civil war in 1863.
4. Panagyurishte Treasure
Discovered on December 8, 1949, by three brothers in Panagyurishte, Central Bulgaria, the Panagyurishte treasure refers to a collection of nine Thracian-era gold vessels weighing around 6 kilograms. It includes ancient-Greek drinking vessels shaped like animal heads, and the designs depict scenes from various myths and stories from that time.
Experts believe that the treasure belonged to an unknown Thracian ruler from the Odryssian tribe, dating to the late fourth and early third century BC. The gold artifacts are a blend of Hellenic, Persian, and Scythian-Sarmatian influences, though their purpose and origins remain a mystery. Some theories suggest that the vessels were used in various rituals due to the complexity of their imagery.
The Panagyurishte treasure has since been displayed in various museums worldwide, as it marks an important period in the history of both ancient Thrace and Greece.
3. Biblical Royal Purple Dye
In January 2021, archaeologists in Israel uncovered textile fragments colored with the biblical ‘argaman’ royal purple dye, dating back to the era of King David around 1,000 BC. Discovered in the Timna Valley near Eilat, these scraps provide tangible evidence of the dye’s use during the Iron Age, along with some legitimacy to the idea that an Edomite kingdom existed in the region around that time.
The purple hue was considered one of the most precious dyes in the ancient world, often associated with royalty, priesthood, and textiles used in sacred spaces like the Tabernacle and Jewish Temple. The textile pieces, believed to have traveled hundreds of kilometers to reach the Timna Valley’s Copper Mines, were found to contain unique molecules associated with the purple dye produced by murex sea snails.
2. Staffordshire Hoard
Discovered in 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard was a collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalworks made up of more than 4,000 objects and fragments. Most of it was war-gear items like swords and helmets, and according to archeologists, it’s easily the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered anywhere.
Found in a field near Hammerwich village, Staffordshire, the hoard was likely hidden during the seventh century AD, and is believed to have belonged to the richer members of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia that flourished around that time. The discovery could be credited to a local metal-detectorist, Terry Herbert, and the objects were found surprisingly close to the surface, possibly due to erosion caused by ploughing.
Till now, the purpose behind its burial remains a mystery, though some experts theorize that it might have been loot acquired in battles, an offering meant for the gods, or even a means of hiding wealth from attackers.
1. Hoxne Hoard
In 1992, a retired British gardener and amateur metal-detectorist Eric Lawes discovered what is now known as the largest cache of Roman gold ever found. The Hoxne Hoard was accidentally found, as Lawes only intended to look for a lost hammer with his metal detector. As it turned out, he had stumbled upon an elaborate ancient treasure comprising 14,865 Roman gold, silver, and bronze coins, along with 200 pieces of silver tableware and gold jewelry. The hoard’s value is estimated at around $4.3 million in today’s value.
Dating back to the early-fifth century, the hoard provides some historical context into a time when Roman rule was coming to an end in Britain. According to researchers, it may have been buried there by Romano-British citizens to protect it against the societal upheavals of that time, especially raiding groups. Apart from the coins, the hoard – found within wooden boxes and an oak chest – included diverse items like silver spoons, gold jewelry, and decorative objects, among others.