Treasure hunters find £150 million booty

A British steam ship, sunk during World War II, has been found in the Atlantic, along with a huge cargo of silver bullion. It's one of the biggest treasure hauls of all time.

The SS Gairsoppa was only two days from the Irish coast and safety when the Nazi U-boat intercepted her. Torpedoed in the starboard side, the aging steamer sank within minutes. Only one of the ship's 85 crewmen survived, washing up half starved on the coast of Cornwall some days later. Meanwhile, the Gairsoppa herself plunged nearly five kilometres down into the inky depths of the North Atlantic, never to be seen again.

Or so it was thought. According to an announcement this week, however, the Gairsoppa has been found after more than seventy years on the sea floor, along with her cargo of around £150 million worth of silver bullion.

If confirmed, the discovery would be the single largest haul of precious metal ever discovered in the Atlantic. For the treasure hunters who located the wreck, it represents a truly stunning success.

This wouldn't be the first time that lost treasure has made someone's fortune. The shallow waters of the Caribbean have long been a hunting ground for adventurers, searching for Spanish treasure galleons or pirate hoards. Meanwhile, on land, metal detector enthusiasts spend hours combing ancient sites and ploughed fields looking for buried gold.

Sometimes, these efforts even pay off. A retired gardener in Britain made his fortune when he detected a trove of £1.75 million worth of Roman coins. Workers at a Bulgarian tile factory in the Forties once found £85 million worth of solid gold drinking horns in a pile of clay.

And there are still some legendary treasures left to find. King John of England's royal treasury still lies buried somewhere under the East Anglian fens. Somewhere in the Pacific lie the remains of the Japanese ship Awa Maru, and a reputed $5 billion worth of diamonds and gold.

But amateur treasure hunters shouldn't get their hopes too high. Finding a prize like the Gairsoppa takes a modern and highly organised operation. To locate the ship's half buried hull, in pitch darkness, under 4,700 metres of seawater, professional salvagers used high tech scanning equipment and even a remote control submarine.

Different values

Are the achievements of treasure hunters worth celebrating? There's certainly something exciting about the idea of all that hidden loot: secret hoards of diamonds or shining metal, waiting to propel some lucky finder to a world of riches and luxury.

But in their desperate hunt for worldly wealth, are the professional treasure seekers overlooking – or even damaging – artefacts of far greater value? For archaeologists, the real treasures are not silver bars, but everyday historical items that can illuminate the secrets of the past. When treasure hunters find a wreck first, the demands of history often take second place.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important – archaeological evidence or precious metal?
  2. More than fifty men died on the Gairsoppa. Is it wrong to disturb their final resting place? What about Egyptian mummies in pyramids and desert tombs? When does treasure hunting become grave-robbing?

Activities

  1. Not all treasure is obvious. Write about something that you treasure. How much value would it have to future treasure hunters? What about future archaeologists?
  2. Do some further research into one of the world's legendary missing treasures. Give a presentation explaining the story of the treasure and how you might plan to find it.

Some People Say...

“Historical remains are worthless if they aren't silver and gold.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what sort of thing would an archaeologist value?
Fragments of pottery, old shoes, ancient rubbish tips; anything that adds to our picture of historical life.
Really anything?
There was excitement among archaeologists examining one wreck when they discovered a pile of turtle bones. Another excavation of a well in Tahiti revealed the rotted teeth of the artist Paul Gauguin – diggers celebrated.
But do treasure hunters do any harm?
It's a little controversial. They do find amazing artefacts, but they are often accused of not taking enough care to safeguard historical remains. Now, big treasure hunting companies include archaeologists on staff.

Word Watch

U-boat
A German submarine, or unterseeboot. During World War II, hundreds of U-boats preyed on British and Allied shipping in the Atlantic.
Her
By ancient convention, ships in English are referred to as 'her' rather than 'it'.
Starboard
A nautical term for the right-hand side of a ship. The left is the 'port' or 'larboard' side.
King John
One of England's less successful monarchs, John lost his treasure after taking an ill-advised shortcut across a tidal swamp.