This book is about the quest for lost riches. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of finding lost treasure. My favourite books when I was growing up were Treasure Island and King Solomon's Mines, which I read and then reread repeatedly. I would spend endless hours imagining where and how I might discover some hidden treasure horde, and how golden coins would feel running through my fingers. My friends and I would roam around the neighbourhood where we lived, imagining ourselves on quests for fabulous lost art, treasure hordes or buried and forgotten riches. Playgrounds would become the ruins of ancient civilizations; hills would transform into the tombs of the Pharaohs and nearby parks would play the part of the deepest jungles of Africa. When inclement weather didn't permit our treasure-seeking, I would entertain myself by making maps all day. They would always be maps to some hidden stash of gold or pirate booty that I had imagined, and I would recklessly scrunch them up when finished to produce deep creases and folds, and then add stains of cold tea before carefully baking them to create what seemed to me as a pretty fair representation of an antiquated parchment. It could get pretty dull always to seek and never find, so from time to time I would raid my father's coin box and pluck spare quarters, nickels and dimes to make a personal little treasure horde. Gathering all the coins together, I would pick a spot somewhere in the neighbourhood and either bury or hide them, and then create a new map giving directions and clues to where to locate this unique and secret cache of hidden wealth. On hot summer days, I would gather some local kids together present them with the opportunity to "find" enough money for a cold drink or candy and then watch them as they tried to decipher the treasure map and retrieve my hidden coin stash. All these years later I still wonder if all the hiding spots were eventually discovered or if we missed some, possibly leaving them to future generations of children to find. All of this is to say that dreams of discovering lost ancient treasures have been with me all my life, and followed me into adulthood. Some might call it a healthy obsession. I call it a fascination.
I am not alone with my daydreams of hidden gold and instant wealth. In fact, throughout our popular culture (and indeed our mythology) similar desires are well-represented. Look at our movies - how many revolve around a quest for a lost artifact, a search for hidden riches or a secret that would bring great personal power to the finder? Disney, in particular, has made a successful franchise from tales of the pirates who roamed the Caribbean seas, raiding the gold carried out of the New World by sailing ships and hoarding it in hidden treasure troves. It was the swashbuckling pirate captain I was always trying to imitate with my tea-stained treasure maps on which "X" forever marked the spot.
Movies are just the medium of modern mythology, and they are reflections of our ancient myths. Think of the quest for the Golden Fleece by Jason and his Argonauts, or the 2000-year-old story of the search for the Holy Grail. Myth and legends give us countless examples of the desire to find what has been hidden, and permeates our culture from some of the earliest accounts of human history and storytelling. From El Dorado to Excalibur, we are obsessed with the finding of long-lost treasure, if not for the wealth then for the completion of the search itself.
I decided to write this book to explore some of the lost treasures that fascinate me the most. There is no shortage of material out there, and as I began to research my list, I realized there was a particular kind of treasure that intrigued me more than the rest. While mythology is radiant with great stories of exotic artifacts and enormous piles of gold, they somehow can't quite capture the imagination like historical treasures do. Perhaps some of them may have existed in one form or another, but there is something more compelling about the possibility that a treasure is real and could be discovered and taken into our hands – touched, felt and taken. I decided to apply two criteria to the treasures I would explore in this book and their stories. First, I will not delve into anything that is purely based on myth. For example, the Golden Fleece may have been strictly allegorical, or the tale of this artifact may have had its origins in the rather mundane ancient practice of straining mountain streams for gold nuggets and flecks using the fleece of sheep to catch them. It is probably safe to assume that it wasn't a magical sheep skin belonging to a god and that in this capacity, it never existed. This book is concerned solely with those treasures we know to have existed, either through documentary or archaeological evidence. The magic of the stories I will explore is that they are all human-made; their value comes from the skill involved in their making - skills which in many cases are now lost to us. Also, they are unique in the historical context to which they belong; the role played in past events or the symbology of the objects themselves to the culture to which they belonged. My second condition for inclusion in my list is that all of the treasures described here are gone. Through the ravages of war, accident, an act of gods or men or for reasons wholly unknown, each of these treasures has been lost to the world and remain missing. What remains are the stories, descriptions and accounts of them – just enough to tease us about what we once had and have no longer. Most of them are likely never going to be found or seen again, but maybe – just maybe there might come a day when in some old, dusty attic or a box at a rummage sale one of them might come back into the world and be rediscovered again. Any loss must always be paired with the promise of hope, what has gone missing might be returned and no longer lost but found instead. I hope that this comes true for the treasures detailed here and that they pique some interest as well in the reader.
As I was compiling my research, my list swelled to grow much larger than I had anticipated it would be; history is resplendent with missing valuables of one type or another that have continued to remain compelling long after they disappeared. I have tried to present some of the fascinating here for you, their stories and what we know and sometimes don't know about what happened to them. While not all are artifacts of gold and precious stones or necessarily have any monetary value to them, they are all lost treasures. Some have their origins rooted in the ancient world, while others have more modern stories. All are of great significance; cultural, religious and artistic. Most importantly, while we may know a great deal about the items themselves, the whereabouts and continued existence of all of them is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. I hope one day you find one of them.
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Mark Rodger and Steven Lazaroff live in Canada.