2 January 2012


Johannes Dillinger. Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America. Palgrave Macmillan. 2011.

When we think of treasure hunting today, the image that comes to mind is of an individual with a map and a metal detector scanning open farmland or on a beach. We see it in strictly practical terms: someone in the past has lost or hidden money, jewels or valuable artefacts, and the treasure hunter attempts to locate them through scientific equipment or by deciphering clues in maps, documents or the landscape itself.
We tend not to think of it as a magical process. However, in this volume Johannes Dillinger, an expert on folk-belief in Early-Modern Europe, explains that this way of looking at treasure hunting is very recent indeed, largely developing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Historically treasure hunting has been a magical, even religious, pursuit. In medieval times it would often involve hunting for relics of the saints, which had both a commercial and spiritual power, and the treasure hunters would be guided by signs and visions. The locations of these relics would traditionally be guarded by saints and angels.

Secular treasure hunting took the same religious ideas and images and introduced them into popular belief. Treasure hunting became part of folk magic and began to develop its own complex set of beliefs. Many grimoirs included spells and incantations to discover hidden treasure, and individuals with special talents were deemed necessary to find such treasure. The religious and secular authorities were suspicious of the activity - the use of supernatural means to obtain wealth was an ungodly, possibly devilish, practice. And of course the secular authorities were greatly concerned as to whether or not any recovered treasure belonged to the state, the landowner of the location where it was discovered, or to the finder. The legal practice varied greatly across Europe and in different eras - from an almost complete lack of official interest to an assumption that all recovered treasure belonged to the local ruler.

It was generally believed that treasure hunters used supernatural means in their searches, but they were seldom linked with witchcraft, and punishments for unauthorised activities were usually more lenient. Victims of the witch persecutions tended to be people who had already antagonised the local community, which was not generally the case with the treasure seekers. Folk demonology was more concerned with alleged malefic activities against neighbours, crops and livestock, and although the law considered any form of supernatural activity to be the work of the devil, it was believed that treasure hunters, unlike witches, had not learned their craft directly from him. In fact one of the main techniques, dowsing, was in most places considered a perfectly natural activity, being used in an everyday manner by miners to detect new seams of coal and ore.

Among the perils that the hunters had to guard against were the guardians of the treasure, which took the form of ghost, demons, even dragons. However, it would often be ghosts and spirits who would also guide the seekers to their goal, a motif which lasted well into the modern era. An interesting example of this which has recently come to light was a haunting in Sheffield in 1855, described by David Clarke (Fortean Times 284, February 2012) where treasure-seekers attempted to dig up the basement of a house where a ghost had been reported to be guarding treasure.

Dillinger gives accounts of a series of bizarre treasure-hunting expeditions, many taken from the extensive records of the Duchy of W├╝rttemberg and elsewhere in Germany, as well as from accounts of English trials. A factor that seems missing from many of these records is any attempt to explain the origin of the treasure that was being searched for, still less any attempt to search for the treasure in a 'scientific' or 'archaeological' manner. There was sometimes an assumption that treasure might have been hidden by some religious foundation - this was particularly the case in England after the Dissolution of the Monasteries - and church or abbey ruins and wayside crosses were favourite spots to search -  but more often the treasure trove would be sought for in a remote uninhabited location. In most cases the treasure would seem to just exist in its own right, unconnected to the society around it.

This is, according to Dillinger, the whole point of the treasure legend. People in pre-modern, traditional societies believed in the "image of limited goods" - that there was a fixed quantity of wealth in any one place, so that one individual could only become wealthier at the expense of another. In this society hunting for treasure allowed material gain to be socially acceptable, as the wealth that might be accrued came from the magical sphere and had no deleterious effect on other members of the community. As society and economic conditions changed and increased wealth could come from within the economic system, the need for 'magical' wealth declined. Treasure began to be associated with actual historical facts, which could be interpreted to find the trove.

This is a fascinating and complex book, and although scholarly is very accessible, even just for the remarkable collection of narratives of treasure hunting expeditions. -- John Rimmer.

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