The first of what archaeologists called the "most sensational finds of the last century" surfaced not in a museum but at Christie's New York.
|Among 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.
Lot 26, a "massive Greek or Thracian gold arm band," circa 2nd-1st Century, B. C.
|Lot 26 set off an international search to recover the lost heirlooms of Dacia, an empire that was once a rival to ancient Rome. 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.|
Sarmizegetusa was once the capital 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 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.
|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 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. |
|Sarmizegetusa's stolen gold was nearly lost. Recovering it involved authorities in Europe and the United States and a decade of sleuthing by Romanian prosecutors and museum curators. In all, Romanian authorities have recovered 13 hammered gold bracelets and more than 27.5 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of gold. |
The recovered bracelets—now on display in Bucharest, are the only ones of their kind discovered in Romania. At least another dozen, including the one still known as Lot 26, remain missing.