Gold Looted From Ancient Empire Returned to Romania

Treasure hunters' coins and bracelets shed light on ancient Romanian culture.

The first of what archaeologist Barbara Deppert-Lippitz calls the "most sensational finds of the last century" surfaced not in a museum but at Christie's in New York. Among more than a hundred pieces of ancient jewelry for sale on December 8, 1999, was Lot 26, a spiraling, snake-shaped gold bracelet that the auction house identified as a "massive Greek or Thracian gold armband."

Christie's estimated it would sell for as much as $100,000. When the bidding stalled at $65,000, the sale was called off—and the bracelet and its owner disappeared back into the shadowy underworld of ancient artifacts.

It took years for archaeologists and law enforcement officials in Romania to connect the armband to reports of looting in the country's central mountains. Though it has never been recovered, Lot 26 set off an international search to recover the lost heirlooms of Dacia, an empire that was once a mighty rival to ancient Rome. 

The Treasure Hunt

After nearly a decade of sleuthing by everyone from FBI agents to Interpol investigators and Romanian prosecutors, more than a dozen similar bracelets have been found, along with hundreds of gold and silver coins. Their discovery has led to new insights into Dacian society and religion.  

Half a world away, reports of the auction—and a photo of the bracelet in the glossy auction catalog—caught the attention of Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu. Now head of the National History Museum of Romania, he had been tracking rumors of treasure hunting in and around an ancient city called Sarmizegetusa for nearly a decade. To him, Lot 26 called to mind rumors that the site had yielded rich returns for looters.

Sarmizegetusa, high in the central mountains, was once the capital and sacred center of the Dacians, a civilization crushed by the Roman Emperor Trajan in two bloody wars more than 1,900 years ago. The victory, Roman chroniclers boasted, yielded one of the largest treasures the ancient world had ever known: half a million pounds of gold and a million pounds of silver.

After his victory, Trajan took the spoils to Rome, where they paid for his famous forum. In that same complex, the Roman Senate erected a column dedicated to Trajan and illustrating the story of the wars. Sarmizegetusa was leveled and forgotten for centuries. But stories of Dacia's gold lived on, inspiring generations of peasants who lived nearby to dig in the steep valleys.

It wasn't until Romania's communist dictatorship collapsed in 1989 that their dreams of striking it rich came true. Groups of local treasure hunters started using metal detectors (unavailable in communist times) to hunt for artifacts in the thick forests at the rugged site.

Romanian authorities say there was nothing secretive about their plundering: All through the 1990s, thieves bought timber-clearing permits from corrupt officials as a cover, then used metal detectors to search the Dacian capital at their leisure.

The looters brought motorcycles, off-road vehicles, and small backhoes up the winding dirt road leading to the ancient settlement to claw their finds out of the rocky, root-laced soil. "It was a gold rush," says Oberländer-Târnoveanu. "They worked quite undisturbed."

The full extent of the looting became clear years later, when some of the illegal excavators were arrested and confessed to police. The Lot 26 bracelet, they told police, was found in 1998, on top of a hoard of a thousand gold coins. To celebrate, the looters carved "Eureka" in the bark of a nearby tree—and kept digging. They showed no concern that they'd be caught: Another tree trunk bore an arrow and helpful directions: "Pits, 40 meters."

A small team of treasure hunters hit the mother lode in May 2000, according to Romanian police. Their metal detector pinged over a stone slab about two feet wide, embedded in a steep hillside. Underneath, in a small chamber made of flat stones propped against each other, they found ten spiraling, elaborately decorated Dacian bracelets—all solid gold. One weighed a hefty two and a half pounds (1.2 kilograms).

Over the next two years, Romanian police say, looters found at least 14 more bracelets at Sarmizegetusa. "They had unconventional thinking, and they were rewarded," says Oberländer-Târnoveanu. "No archaeologist is looking for something on a slope of 75 degrees sharpness."

Bringing It Home

Sarmizegetusa's stolen gold was nearly lost. Recovering it involved authorities in Europe and the United States and a decade of dogged sleuthing by Romanian prosecutors and museum curators.

In all, Romanian authorities have recovered 13 hammered gold bracelets, more than 27.5 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of gleaming reddish gold. The recovered bracelets—now on display in Bucharest, the capital—are the only ones of their kind discovered in Romania. At least another dozen, including the one still known as Lot 26, remain missing.

The gold found at Sarmizegetusa has led archaeologists to reassess the religion and culture of the vanished Dacians. For one, the finds make Rome's boasts about the vast quantities of Dacian gold far more credible. If such treasures are still to be found after 1,900 years, what riches might Sarmizegetusa have contained on the eve of its destruction?

"They're some of the most sensational finds of the last century," says Deppert-Lippitz, an independent expert in ancient gold who is licensed to assess antiquities by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Frankfurt. "We didn't know anything about Dacian religion, and now we have a whole new interpretation."

First, though, the gold had to be tracked down. The bracelets, and thousands of crudely minted silver and gold coins found with them, began surfacing on the international market almost immediately after they were found in Sarmizegetusa's soil in the late 1990s, offered to collectors privately and at auctions in New York, Paris, and Zurich.

Chicago numismatist and coin dealer Harlan Berk remembers being baffled initially by the coins. "When they first came out, people were asking $10,000 a coin," he says. "I thought they were fake. Then they started coming out in greater numbers, and the price dropped to about $300 a coin." Berk says he bought a few dozen, selling them to clients through his catalog.

Because coins are hard to trace and often stay in private collections for decades or even centuries, Berk didn't look into their provenance (their origins or history of ownership). "Groups of coins come on the market all the time, and it's very rare that there's a problem," Berk says. "The sellers never told us anything about the coins' origin."

And because Romanian authorities hadn't yet identified Lot 26 and other Sarmizegetusa artifacts as stolen—or even from Sarmizegetusa—dealers and auction houses took the sellers' word that the bracelets and coins were legitimate. "At the time there was no claim from Romania for this item, so we were not aware of any cultural property issue," Christie's spokeswoman Sung-Hee Kim wrote in an email.

Artifacts Linked to Dacia

Meanwhile, authorities in Romania were searching for evidence to tie the artifacts and coins to Sarmizegetusa. Because almost no Dacian gold had ever been found, some experts argued that the bracelets must be fakes. (Deppert-Lippitz never doubted they were genuine —a forger would be crazy to make a fake bracelet out of two pounds (1 kilogram) of gold, she points out.)

As archaeologists in Romania debated, a man who lived near Sarmizegetusa offered a stash of coins directly to Oberländer-Târnoveanu, claiming he'd found hundreds in a relative's chimney. "I was sure something was happening in the area. There was no clear data about details," he says. "But it was obvious the coins had fresh soil deposits."

In 2001, curators got their first big break: A young Romanian man contacted Deppert-Lippitz hoping to have two spiral bracelets authenticated and appraised. As soon as she saw the gleam of gold in her Frankfurt office, she remembered reports from Romanian colleagues about looting at Dacia's holy city—and the mysterious Lot 26.

Like the bracelet in Lot 26, these too were massive—more than two pounds of solid gold apiece. And the craftsmanship was unusual: The techniques used to shape and decorate them were unlike those of typical ancient goldsmiths. Whoever made the bracelets was more used to working with iron, a Dacian specialty.

Deppert-Lippitz played along, hoping to get more information. The man said his brother in Romania found the bracelets at an excavation. As soon as he left, she notified prosecutors and museum officials she knew in Romania. Over the next five years, Deppert-Lippitz quietly brokered a series of deals that allowed the Romanian government to buy the bracelets back from owners in Europe. Part of the buyback arrangement meant revealing the identities of the sellers, which helped authorities build cases against the looters.

Coins were also recovered in the United States after the FBI contacted Berk for help tracing buyers. Once again, Romania bought the coins back. In the end, a number of looters were convicted in Romanian courts and ordered to repay close to a million dollars in damages.

Because the gold was looted, archaeologists are missing vital information that could provide clues to how and why the Dacians buried it. Still, the treasure is helping researchers understand aspects of Dacian society and religion.

Dacian Culture Reassessed

Hoards of coins and jewelry are often hidden in times of conflict; if the owners are killed, they're lost. The Dacian gold deposits are different. Take the dozens of coins that have surfaced: They're crude copies of Greek and Roman designs, and Deppert-Lippitz says they stand out for their uniformity. Look at a handful of change from your pocket. Each coin is different, worn and scratched from circulation—unless it's new, then it's bright and shiny.

The Dacian coins are all freshly minted. Even the heavy gold bracelets, now under glass at the National History Museum of Romania, show no sign that they were ever worn. "That doesn't happen in real life," says Deppert-Lippitz. "They were manufactured just to put in the ground." Chemical tests on the bracelets show they're made from local gold, probably panned from rivers running through the mountains around Sarmizegetusa.

Based on the pristine condition of so many Dacian coins and artifacts, Deppert-Lippitz argues that the Dacians had no concept of money. Instead, the gold objects were religious tokens, intended solely for sacrifice. "Gold was holy," she says. "It belonged to the gods, or spirits."

The Romans, Deppert-Lippitz says, simply couldn't wrap their minds around Dacian customs. In Cassius Dio's account of the wars, he describes the Dacian king, Decebalus, diverting a river and hiding "much silver and gold and other artifacts that can survive moisture" in the riverbed. After Decebalus's defeat, a Dacian prisoner revealed the treasure's location.

Cassius Dio probably had his facts right, but his interpretation wrong. Deppert-Lippitz has no doubt that Decebalus buried a great treasure near a river. But he wasn't hiding the gold from the Romans, she insists, but sacrificing it to the gods, calling on their divine help for his life-and-death struggle against Trajan. "Water and caves were portals to another world," she says. "These aren't hoards, they're sacrificial deposits."

Andrew Curry is based in Berlin and writes about science and archaeology. Follow him on Twitter and  

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