3.9.13

LOST PROPERTY

Brian Haughton. Ancient Treasures: The Discovery of Lost Hoards, Sunken Ships, Buried Vaults, and Other Long-Forgotten Artefacts. New Page Books, 2013.

This is an unusual book for these pages in that the subject matter has no ostensible connection with the paranormal or outrĂ©. It is an overview of the main archaeological finds of our time that also consist mainly of valuable and rare material. Treasure has generally had a hypnotic hold over most people’s minds combining, as it does, the romance of the past with the glint of precious metals and rare craftsmanship which is, on the whole, more bewitching than the sight of paper money. The combination of older times and the shine of gold and silver tend to drive many of us into something akin to frenzy. Major finds that inspire such lust are not just desired by individuals but even governments, who become involved in claiming hoards and fighting over ownership. The spell cast by such prizes is overpowering and can drive otherwise calm and rational folk into temporary insanity.
 
The author, Brian Haughton, holds a degree in Archaeology and a master’s in Greek archaeology, therefore providing the probability that the content of his volume will be authoritative and reliable. He has written about more esoteric subjects before. New Page Books alone have published four books of his on subjects such as ghosts, hauntings and hidden history. This book differs in being about something less contentious and, in most people’s minds at least, more straightforward.
 
Although this is a detailed book, complete with footnotes, a bibliography and an index, it can be read by those with a passing interest in history or, indeed, of archaeological finds consisting of rare, valuable materials and enviable craft. Mr Haughton keeps his vocabulary on the uncomplicated side and tells a tale to boot. The author is very careful to involve the reader with the history and context, both ancient and modern, of each discovery. It is one of those rare books that can be valued by both the casual enquirer and the serious scholar. He keeps the reader’s interest with not just the discovery of such treasures but also the intrigues and deviousness entered into by both shady individuals and less-than-scrupulous governments (are there any other kind, I hear you ask) over the guardianship of these beguiling hoards. All manner of trickery is here, be it over custody or forgery. Some of the most infamous discoveries of our time are covered: the contents of the tomb of Tutankhamen, finds from Schliemann’s Troy excavations, valuables from Pompeii, and British finds which are well covered here, as one would expect from a British writer, such as the Staffordshire Hoard.
 
To my personal satisfaction, the final chapter is all about fake treasures or, rather, treasures that are fakes, as some of these are turned into valuable artefacts in their own right despite not being from the era that they were originally supposed to be. To me it is utterly fascinating how some forgeries, once revealed as such, gain value in their own right and the one-time forger becomes an esteemed and recognised artist. Because there was no hoard or uncovered items involving my favourite forger, Shaun Greenhalgh is not covered here. It is a terrible shame, in my view, but completely understandable given the book’s subject matter of treasure trove. My favourite heading is one of the last: 'Nazi Buddhas from Space' – a fine potential B-movie title if ever there was one!
 
Al in all, this is quite a neat and approachable volume encompassing the virtues of being easy to pick up and read informally, plus solid scholarship to back it up. The history is detailed and entertaining, and some of the stories about how these valuables are found and then bickered over can be very absorbing indeed. Certainly it’s a springboard to those interested in archaeology, antiques and history – quite an achievement in a relatively slim paperback. – Trevor Pyne.
 

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