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Lost treasures and how to find them

X rarely marks the spot, but that doesn’t mean treasure hunters should lose hope. www.shutterstock.com

Lost treasures and how to find them

A lost Nazi gold train was discovered in Poland. At least, that’s what a couple of treasure hunters told the world last year. Like all lost treasures, the search for this one had been going on for many years, usually without success. But many still believe in these far-fetched yarns and some even search for them.

Every now and then a lost treasure is really found, providing just enough stimulus to keep all the other legends living on. In March this year, divers recovered sunken treasure from a 500 year old shipwreck off the coast of Oman, giving hope to all the other hunters out there.

Armed with the latest techno gadgets and a map, the raiders of the lost Nazi treasure claimed to have found their prize. They were prepared to reveal its location in return for a modest percentage of the booty. Local officials apparently fell in with this nonsense and the Deputy Polish Culture Minister was widely quoted saying that they were 99% sure the train was there.

Enter the spoilsport scientists from the Kracow Mining Academy. Their techno gadgets confirmed that not only was there no hidden Nazi train of gold but there were not even any real railway tracks in this region of the Lower Silesia. Just empty tunnels.

Still, even if that one was dispelled by science, people love a lost treasure story.

Colonel Percy Fawcett – co-produced by Brad Pitt and starring Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller – is currently in production and will appear in our cinemas 91 years after Fawcett disappeared.

Lost treasure tales have a number of common elements that provide them with apparent credibility.

Firstly, they are in remote or otherwise difficult to access locations. Lasseter’s Reef is said to lie somewhere in some of Australia’s most desolate emptiness. South American jungles have harboured any number of fabulous Aztec, Incan or Mayan troves. Islands are excellent, especially for pirate treasure chests

Harold Lasseter’s grave. Wikimedia Commons.

Then there will be a map. Or sometimes another document, like a letter, giving the hazy location of the loot. Harold (originally Hubert) Lasseter left a diary and a map of his fabled reef as he lay dying in 1931. Many have since used these documents in futile attempts to find the gold.

The map or document will have a murky provenance. It may come from a previous seeker of a particular rumoured treasure. It might be serendipitously “found”, preferably in an atmospheric location. Tombs are good.

Usually the person who provides the document to the treasure seeker will be conveniently dead, as in the Beale ciphers. The Beale ciphers are three papers written in code, one of which will reveal the location of treasure buried in Bedford County, Virginia. No one has yet cracked the code, although claims of success have been made.

Then there will be guardians of the lost treasure. Often these are benighted savages who will stop at nothing to prevent intrepid (white) treasure hunters getting to their fabled horde. One explanation for the disappearance of Colonel Percy Fawcett in the Amazon is that he was killed by indigenous people. Indiana Jones is often said to be based on the British explorer’s exploits, though a version of the trope appears in other lost treasure tales.

Often the guardians are long departed, as in the lost Nazi gold train legend of Poland’s Lower Silesia region. This is a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme of missing millions. It springs from the same deluded human hopes for untold riches that produced the El Dorado myth and its many variations around the world.

Polish treasure hunter Piotr Koper (L) and German treasure hunter Andreas Richter pose during a Reuters interview in Walbrzych. Reuters/Piotr Hawalej

It was believed locally that possibly three such trains stuffed with stolen gold, jewels and art were buried in a complex of tunnels under construction by the Third Reich for still-unknown purposes. The train, or trains, were then sealed in, awaiting only intrepid treasure seekers to unearth their riches. People have been looking for years but no one has succeeded in the quest.

But wait! A map was found!! Even better, the map was obtained from a man on his deathbed!!! Must be real. Let’s go. And so they did.

Even after their claims were disproved by scientists, the Polish believers clung to their story, “because the methodological approach [of the scientists] was not the same as ours.”

The final feature of lost treasure yarns is the unsuccessful but tantalisingly promising attempts of earlier searchers to reach the horde.

The notion that something must be there because so many have tried before is a mainspring of the mythology that supports these persistent folk beliefs. Fawcett’s quest for the city of “Z’ feeds an ongoing interest in the mystery derived from the 2009 book on which the movie is based.

Believers still risk their lives in search of Lasseter’s Reef. The lost gold of Sacambaya still attracts optimists more than 150 years after a charlatan injected it into Bolivian fantasy. Others are still burrowing for Templar, or maybe pirate, treasures on Oak Island off Nova Scotia and any number of sunken galleons and other wrecks are still the object of fervent searches in all of the seven seas.

Every now and then one of these expeditions actually strikes gold, as in the recent rediscovery of a Spanish treasure ship off Columbia. The rarity of these finds and the sensations they produce are sufficient to stoke the fires of hope that glitter in the hearts of all treasure hunters.

It might just be that the legend is true…