Raiders of the lost art
By Gabriel Ronay
The spirit of Indiana Jones is alive and well in the Carpathians. Twenty centuries after the invading Roman legions robbed all the gold they could
find in the ancient kingdom of Dacia, treasure hunters using state-of-the art technologies are hot on the trail of the fabulous treasure trove King
Decebalus hid in 106 AD and the Romans never found.
The French archaeologist Jerome Carcopino, a world-renowned Dacian expert, has estimated that Decebalus’s hidden treasure amounted to 165,000kg of
gold and 350,000kg of silver. The value of the treasure has made it worth the risk for some to undertake illegal digs near Sarmizegetusa, the ancient
Dacian capital in Romania’s Orastiei Mountains. The quest has resulted in a flood of illegally dug-up Dacian gold onto the international art
smugglers’ market. In recent years, 33 illegal excavations of archaeological sites, commissioned by international robbers, have been uncovered by
the authorities in Hunedoara county.
Archaeological researcher Mihai Castaian has drawn up a map of recent illegal digs by raiders in search of the gold King Decebalus hid somewhere in
the Orastiei Mountains. These furtive excavations appear to have centred on Cucuis, with the ancient Transylvanian castle of Colnic as the focal
point. Other Dacian gold-yielding places include Glajarie, Golu, and the castle of Sibisel.
But Castaian told the Bucharest daily, Ziua, he has proof that the “archaeologist gangs” are now concentrating on the village of Cetatuia,
Hunedoara county, believing that the mysterious gold treasure of King Decebalus was definitely hidden in the vicinity.
Meanwhile, a trial in the Transylvanian town of Deva of six local men, allegedly employed by international art smuggler gangs, has shed some light on
the scale of the plundering of the Dacian heritage sites.
Decebalus’s hidden treasure has, over the years, yielded stunning amounts of gold. Since 1990, more than 20,000 Dacian gold coins dug up have been
smuggled out of Romania and sold on the Western coin black market for more than €20 million. A further 7845 ancient gold coins, 190 gold works of
art and plates smuggled out of the country have been recovered, the court has been told.
In view of this haemorrhaging of the country’s heritage, it has been ruefully recalled that, when the region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, the Treasures Protection Act of 1802 successfully protected Decebalus’s gold for two centuries. Now there is no effective protection.
Bucharest sources say that police have proof that the accused, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had had links to international dealers in
plundered art. One of them, an Austrian art dealer in Linz, codenamed “Mozart”, is under investigation for handling hundreds of illegally
excavated gold objects.
The secret diggers have until now been virtually untouchable because they have allegedly been protected, the court heard, by top politicians and
officers of the secret services.
The Deva court has let it be known that Adrian Nastase, Romania’s former Socialist prime minister, and Ioan Talpes, former head of the secret
services, are to be subpoenaed. They are to be questioned about the apparent immunity of international smuggling rings under their administration.
The horror story of how Dacia, the source of all this gold, had been repeatedly invaded, and eventually subjugated, by Rome’s legions is carved in
marble. Emperor Trajan’s 98ft column, which celebrates his victory over Decebalus, is still standing in Trajan’s Forum in Rome. It was paid for by
a grateful Senate and completed in 113 AD.
A 656ft bas-relief frieze winding around the column tells in grisly detail about the two Roman wars against Dacia, the final despoliation of the
capital of Sarmizegetusa, the “ethnic cleansing” of its population and the destruction of its culture.
To avoid a horrible and demeaning death in Roman hands, Decebalus committed suicide – but not before having had his vast treasure hidden in the
Orastiei Mountains in the high Carpathians surrounding his shattered capital.
Now the latter-day Indiana Joneses, armed with state-of-the-art technologies, are trying to achieve what the Romans had failed to – locate
Decebalus’s ghostly treasure chamber.
25 June 2006