From advanced deep-sea expeditions to your schlubby neighbor armed with only a metal detector he got on sale at Walmart, treasure hunters all share a common goal of someday striking it rich. So dust off that old fedora and get ready to channel your inner Indiana Jones as we take a look at some of the greatest discoveries of all time
10. Monumental Discovery
Situated near the alpine village of Altaussee, Austria, an abandoned salt mine provided an ideal hideaway for priceless artwork poached by the Nazis during World War Two. The plunder, which included Michelangelo’s “Madonna of Bruges” and eight panels of “The Adoration of the Lamb” by Jan van Eyck, was intended for the Fuhrermuseum — an unrealized tribute to the failed artist-turned-dictator. Instead, while Hitler cowered in his bunker, members of an obscure American military unit became unlikely heroes after locating the stolen loot in the spring of 1945.
A program called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) had been established by the Allies to help protect (and ultimately return) cultural property affected by the war. The volunteer group consisted of men and women, lending their expertise as art historians, museum curators, professors, and architects.
After the war, several MFAA members went on to prestigious careers at leading universities and art institutions throughout the world. And in 2014, some were portrayed in the film, The Monuments Men, starring and directed by George Clooney.
9. Saqqara Tombs
The necropolis at Saqqara dates back more than 4000 years, having serviced the former Egyptian capital of Memphis. Over the past decade, archeologists have discovered numerous astonishing discoveries, including hundreds of elaborately decorated sarcophagi and dozens of mummified cats.
Located on the west bank of the Nile River about 15 miles south of modern Cairo, the sacred burial ground is known as the “Cemetery of Ancient Animals” — a sprawling temple complex associated with the popular feline goddess Bastet, the protector of home and family. A recent dig unearthed a large bronze statue of the deity and more than 100 wooden cat figures gilded with gold.
Additionally, a team of Egyptologists found a 13-foot-long scroll was found inside a burial shaft. The papyrus text contains excerpts from the Book of the Dead, a guidebook used by believers to navigate the afterlife.
Scuba diving is a popular activity enjoyed by underwater enthusiasts across the globe. Although exploring the ocean’s depths isn’t without peril (like drowning or getting munched by a shark), sometimes a casual outing with friends can lead to an unexpected bounty.
In 2015, members of a local diving club near Tel Aviv spotted something sparkling on the bottom of a derelict harbor in the Caesarea National Park. Further examination revealed a stockpile of 24-karat gold coins from the Fatimid Caliphate, a Shiite Arab dynasty that ruled along the Mediterranean coast from 909 to 1171 CE.
The divers quickly alerted the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who eventually uncovered more than 2000 coins — Israel’s largest-ever gold horde. The discovery had been made possible due to a recent heavy storm that stirred up the ocean floor, altering the underwater topography.
According to IAA numismatic expert Robert Cole, “The coins are in an excellent state of preservation, and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory.”
7. Cuerdale Hoard
In 1840, workers repairing a river embankment at Cuerdale in northern England unearthed the largest Viking silver treasure trove ever found in western Europe. The haul dated back to the early 10th century CE and had been buried in a heavy lead chest containing silver coins and bullion worth $3.2 million in modern currency.
The Scandinavians were known to have traveled along an established route in the Ribble Valley between Viking-controlled York and the Irish Sea. Some archeologists believe the invaders may have intentionally hidden the chest for reasons related to Pagan beliefs.
Norse mythology suggests that burial items, such as spoils won in battle, could be used in the afterlife. As the story goes, fallen warriors were escorted by the Valkyries (alluring war-goddesses) and taken to Odin’s mythical hall of Valhalla, where they’d party like it was 1099 before heading to the final battle of Ragnarök (the end of the world). In other words, you can actually take it with you to Viking heaven.
6. Hoxne Hoard
Searching for misplaced household items can be tediously exhausting, often accompanied by self-deprecating outbursts of, “I’m an idiot!” However, sometimes these mental lapses are rewarded with other things far more valuable than that loose change under your sofa cushions.
In 1992, Peter Whatling, a tenant farmer from the English village of Hoxne, lost his hammer in a muddy field. After failing to locate it by himself, he enlisted the help of his neighbor, Eric Lawes, who owned a metal detector. The WWII veteran (Royal Marines) soon stumbled upon an oaken chest containing the richest Roman discovery ever found in Great Britain.
The Suffolk Archaeological Unit later carried out an emergency investigation at the site, eventually yielding nearly 15,000 gold and silver coins as well as other historically significant pieces. The excavation also dug up the missing tool. Eureka! Most of the coins are from to the early 5th century CE, a period that saw the Roman Empire’s 400-year rule over Britannia finally come to an end.
For his efforts, Lawes received £1.75 million pounds from the British government, which he split with Whatling. Today, the Hoxne Hoard is on display at the British Museum in London, including the now infamous hammer.
5. SS Gairsoppa
During the early stages of WWII, German U-boats wreaked havoc on Allied ships in the North Atlantic. One of those casualties, the British merchant vessel, SS Gairsoppa, sank approximately 300 miles southwest of Ireland’s Galway Bay after being torpedoed. The watery grave sat undisturbed for 70 years before an American treasure-hunting firm found it, resulting in the heaviest quantity of pure silver ever recovered from the sea.
The steam-powered freighter had been tasked with transporting a large consignment of silver bullion from Calcutta to Liverpool, a harrowing journey covering 5,000 miles in treacherous, Nazi-infested seas. The slow-moving freighter was later forced to break away from its convoy to refuel, allowing U-101 to pounce on the easy target.
Seven decades later, the Odyssey Marine Exploration located the wreck of the Gairsoppa at a depth of over 15,000 feet while conducting ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) operations. The deep-water specialists recovered 2,792 silver bars from the wreck, estimated at $210 million. The Royal Mint later issued a limited number of silver coins from the .999 pure bullion. It’s also worth noting that 25 of the original silver bars remain at large.
4. King Tut
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Although the young ruler wasn’t an especially important king, his immaculately preserved royal burial chamber provided an invaluable understanding of ancient Egyptian culture.
Tutankhamun’s tomb, unlike those belonging to other pharaohs, had avoided being poached by grave robbers and remained sealed for over 3,000 years. After spending five years exploring the Valley of the Kings, British archaeologist Howard Carter located the tomb on November 26, 1922. He eventually found some 5,000 items, including chariots, ornate jewelry, and a gold death mask. The tomb also showcased the well-preserved mummified body of the boy king, who ascended to the throne at the age of nine and ruled until his death ten years later, around 1323 BCE.
The artifacts were later exhibited at museums worldwide and even inspired the hit song “King Tut” performed by comedian Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons (actually, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).
3. Atocha Motherlode
The adage “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, and try again” certainly applies to the next entry on our list. Legendary deep-sea explorer Mel Fisher spent nearly two decades searching for a fabled Spanish galleon laden with silver, gold, and rare emeralds valued at a whopping $400 million.
The voyage of the ill-fated Nuestra Senora de Atocha, named for the holiest shrine in Madrid, commenced in the early spring of 1622. The heavily armed ship set sail as part of a large fleet from Spain to the New World colonies. After spending five months gathering tons of goods from various ports, the bloated vessel arrived at Havana several weeks behind schedule. Now facing storm season, neither skilled seamanship nor God’s providence could protect the convoy from Mother Nature’s wrath.
On September 5, 1622, the mahogany-hulled galleon ran into a hurricane and eventually crashed into jagged coral reefs off the coast of Key West. All 265 passengers and crew drowned except three sailors and two slaves, who managed to cling to the mizzenmast until being rescued the following day. The scattered remains of the Atocha, along with several other smaller boats, plummeted to the seafloor. Over time, all traces of the ships would vanish with subsequent violent storms.
Flash forward to 1969, when Fisher embarked on his lengthy odyssey, gleefully telling people that “today was the day” he would hit the jackpot. The adventure, however, would involve tragedy. Fisher’s son, daughter-in-law, and another crew member all perished when their boat capsized in rough seas.
But through it all, the intrepid treasure hunter never gave up. A smattering of items from the Atocha, including bronze cannons and gold bars, ultimately led to finding the motherlode in 1985.
2. Antikythera Treasures
At the turn of the 20th century, Greek divers located an ancient Roman cargo vessel near the island of Antikythera along the edge of the Aegean Sea. The ship, dating from the mid-first century CE, contained an impressive collection of priceless jewelry, classical life-size statues, and an otherworldly piece of technology that came to be known as the Antikythera mechanism.
The bronze, hand-powered device is often described as the oldest example of an analog computer and features a sophisticated set of interlocking gears capable of predicting the movement of the sun, moon, and several planets. The ‘mechanism’ is believed to have been used to plan religious rituals, agricultural activities, and possibly early Olympic Games. Because it predates all similar tools by more than one thousand years, its historical significance cannot be overstated, and is currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
1. The San José
It’s been hailed as the ‘Holy Grail of Treasure’ — although ‘Holy Greed’ might be a more fitting description. On June 8, 1708, a three-masted Spanish galleon carrying an enormous shipment of gold and silver coins sank off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. More than 300 years later, a fierce legal fight is being waged over the rights of an estimated 17 billion sunken booty.
The San José was the largest warship of a Spanish treasure fleet operating along the Carrera de las Indias, a commercial sea route linking Spain to its vast colonial empire in the Americas. But before the vessel could return home, it came under attack by the British Royal Navy during the War of Spanish Succession. At the time, the protracted conflict involved most western European powers, triggered by the death of heir-less King Charles II of Spain.
In November 2015, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the same company which helped locate the Titanic, found the lost galleon using a robot submarine. The discovery soon led to a contentious dispute over the messy business of international law, national sovereignty, and the blight of colonialism.
Claimants for the staggering sum include Colombia, Spain, WHOI, and descendants of the Indigenous people from whom the cargo was originally pilfered. Meanwhile, the treasure remains at the bottom of the sea in a secretly held location (psst: it’s near Baru Island).