top of page
  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 45 - The Soily Fondue Jazz Quartet (Treasure Week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Tom's Episode Notes:

I’m talking about a great source that gives us a fantastic insight into why people buried their treasured belongings. At university I studied hoards in continental Europe during the period when the Roman Empire was being pressed by Germanic tribes, and this source I’m going to refer to is a really valuable source that is often referenced.

· Possibly surprisingly, it’s Samuel Pepys’s diary that was written in 17th Century London, more precisely from 1660 to 1669.

· This is a very famous document because of its scope (for example he talks about everything from the King’s dog doing a shit on the deck of a ship to the Great Fire of London) and it’s personal and detailed nature.

· I won’t say too much about it because it’s been covered by lots of other podcasts. Here’s a very quick summary and some context:

o Pepys worked for the Royal Navy and as a member of parliament. He was a successful individual because of his organisation skills, hard work and attention to detail.

o He also negotiated political upheaval successfully. He’d lived through the English Civil War between 1642 and 1651, the subsequent Protectorate or Interregnum and then the Restoration with Charles II returning to the English throne.

o He kept his diary for close to 10 years.

In Pepys’s diary there are 2 occasions where he buries personal belongings. The first is during the Great Fire of London that destroyed huge amounts of London from September 2nd 1666 to the 6th of September. Tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed, with a modern-day monetary value in the billions of pounds and something like 85-90% of the people of London lost their homes.

· On the first day of the fire Pepys’s has a good look around, at one point with a chap called Captain Cock, and records what he sees.

o Nothing funny there

o Sounds a bit like a role in a rugby team’s drinking game doesn’t it?

§ Hahaha, this week, ya, Hugo is going to be Captain cock for throwing a miss pass that got intercepted during today’s game

§ Oh and George has to wear the mitre of the Archbishop of Banterbury for his wizard japes in the showers after the match

o In fact, Pepys was so dismayed by the fire that he couldn’t bring himself to discuss the sale of his closet to a friend

o At night time on the first day of the fire, Pepy’s packs up his belongings and arranged for many of them to be carted out of London. Quote “I did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place.”

· On the 4th September the fire is still out of control and Pepys continues to describe the chaos in London as people try to save their belongings and other people, in safer suburbs, are inundated with requests to keep belongings. Pepys himself has some belongings at a friend’s house, some held in a barge at Deptford and…

o Quote: Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.

o Unfortunately Pepys does not record whether he returned to find the cheese and wine

o The question is obviously why did Pepys bury his cheese?

§ I think he was awfully fond of campfires and fondue. He just wanted the fire to get close enough to melt the cheese so that he could enjoy it with some wine and possible marsh mellows.

o In reality, it highlights the panicked decision making in the face of a rapidly approaching threat. More commonly treasure hoards appear to be buried due to hostile armies approaching; this certainly appears to be the case with many Anglo-Saxon hoards or Roman hoards from the 5th Century.

The second burial of belongings was in 1667 during the Second Anglo Dutch war (a war fought as the two empires jostled for dominance at sea to protect their military and commercial interests). More specifically, after the Dutch navy had sailed up the Thames as far as Gravesend (very much part of Greater London now) and captured the Royal Navy’s flagship. A Dutch invasion seemed very real and the incident was also a major catastrophe for the Royal Navy and so Pepys, who worked for the Royal Navy, was concerned that he would also come under attack from domestic rivals. He talks about this on the 12th June 1667.

· So God help us! and God knows what disorders we may fall into, and whether any violence on this office, or perhaps some severity on our persons, as being reckoned by the silly people, or perhaps may, by policy of State, be thought fit to be condemned by the King and Duke of York, and so put to trouble; though, God knows! I have, in my own person, done my full duty, I am sure.

· So he sends his values off with his sister and father

10th October 1667.

· my father and I, with a dark lantern... into the garden with my wife, and there went about our great work to dig up my gold. But, Lord! what a tosse I was for some time in, that they could not justly tell where it was… But, good God! to see how sillily they did it, not half a foot under ground, and in the sight of the world from a hundred places… But I was out of my wits almost, and the more from that, upon my lifting up the earth with the spudd, I did discern that I had scattered the pieces of gold round about the ground among the grass and loose earth; and … I perceive the earth was got among the gold, and wet, so that the bags were all rotten, and all the notes … with several pails of water and basins, at last wash the dirt off of the pieces, and parted the pieces and the dirt, and then begun to tell [them]; and by a note which I had of the value of the whole in my pocket, do find that there was short above a hundred pieces…

· He goes on to say that they went back out later that night to search for more fearing that their neighbours would have a go during the night!

· So here again is another fantastic example of how even after surviving a worrying period with an external or internal threat is apparent, people could still lose their treasures in the ground because they forgot where they buried it!

Sam's Episode Notes: The buried, lost, hidden, lost again and recovered Bactrian Horde - one of the greatest buried treasures of all time.

I'm going to be honest, this isn't the most unknown or silly story I've ever spoken about on this podcast, in fact it's fairly well known if you are into art or archaeology. BUT the story behind it is so bloody interesting, almost more than the treasure itself, so I just had to share it.

I looked at treasure ships and buried treasure and pirates, but they've all been done to death and the stories are all reasonably similar – if you do want some good ones though check out Amaro Pargo the famous Spanish pirate and his lost treasure, or the Wydah Galley, which is very well known in the US but not so much elsewhere. Both really interesting pirate treasure stories.

Pargo actually I''ll give an honourable mention to – his real name was Amaro Ridriguez-Felipe y Tajera Machado. Which is harder to say than Pargo. Good fact. Pargo is actually a kind of slippery fish, which he supposedly looked like. And he was very good at evading his attackers and slipping through their fingers.

He was a great Spanish corsair, probably the most famous Spanish pirate who actually battled Blackbeard on the high seas and made a fortune raiding British and Dutch ships, which he used to buy vineyards. He'd sail out with his own wine and brandy in his own fleet of ships, sell his stock in Cuba, then sail back blowing the shit out of anything he found along the way. When he died, he left a note in his will saying there was a chest of his greatest treasures – silk, gold and the like, all catalogued in a book wrapped in Parchment with a letter D on it. The book was never found and neither was the treasure, though it's long been rumoured to be hidden in a cave in Tenerife or under the floorboards of one of his many villas around the world – most of which have now been comprehensively sacked by treasure hunters.

Either way, when he was buried it was in a tomb marked with a winking skull and crossbones. And why did they exhume him, Tom?

It was paid for by a video games company, Ubisoft, as a PR stunt, to coincide with the release of Assasins Creed 4, Black Flag.

And I was going to do them until I learned the back story of the Bactrian Horde, which I just thought was amazing and kind of heartwarming. Because it's a treasure that was found, lost, found again, and survived 30 years of absolute hell hidden right under the noses of a regime that would almost certainly have destroyed it if it hadn't been hidden by a communist with an unusual respect for the idea that art was for everyone.

I know traditionally in communism everything is supposed to be for everyone, but it's amazing how often the most precious and lavish treasures end up as the private desk ornaments of the most pious Leninists. Yes comrade. Of course this tsarist jewellery is the property of every good soviet citizen. And I'm keeping it safe for them right here around my neck or in my desk drawer along with this collection of the people's faberge eggs.

Of course the current Russian leadership would never take state treasures and hoard them for their own personal use. Oh no no no. And with that, goodbye to our 37 Russian listeners who will no longer be able to access this podcast. It's been a pleasure and I'm sorry. Dasvidanya.

So today Tom, we are heading to Afghanistan and the year 1978. Greek-Soviet archeologist Viktor Sarianidi is digging around in Jowzjan, right in the northern tip of the country on the border with Turkmenistan. Now this guy lived and breathed the bronze age and discovered some of the greatest treasures in central Asia – including the oldest known temple for the religion that would become Zoroastrianism, pre-dating Zoroaster himself by over 1000 years. He discovered whole cities and civilisations dating back to the 25th century BC along the Oxus river in central Asia.

Anyway, in 1978 he was digging at a site called Tillya Tepe or golden hill in Afghanistan and came across six undisturbed tombs. And in those tombs was a treasure like no other. Over 20,000 gold and silver coins, jewellery, crowns and trinkets dating back to around the first century BC to the first century AD.

And it is a fantastic collection. The craftsmanship is unbelievable, I'll try and put up some photos. But just astonishing beauty if a little gaudy for my tastes. The burials are believed to be of a Scythian or Parthian royal family, two empires that were contemporaneous with the Romans, but the treasure comes from everywhere. There's depictions of Greek Gods and coins from as far away as Gaul showing the Roman emperor tiberius, and references to cities thousands of kilometres away on the bosphorous sea. There's ivory from india, Chinese bronzes... It really is a cultural mish mash. Interestingly, some of the coins are local forgeries of other coins, re-done in gold.

Anyway, that's kind of the least interesting part. It's what happens next that's surprising. Just a year after its discovery, in 1979, the Soviet-Afghan war began, and would last almost the next 10 years. And if there's one thing we know about wars, it's that they are very bad news if you happen to be a treasure made of gold. The horde was originally stored in the Afghan national museum, but that was repeatedly looted, and after one such attack, the treausres went missing. A huge hunt was launched to try and get them back, but nothing was ever found, despite the efforts of international treausre hunters scouring the black market, and the few archaeologists who were able to get into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Fortunately the burial site itself I believe never fell into Taliban hands where it almost certainly would have been destroyed – it was under the control of the northern alliance who were a bit more lenient with pre-islamic artwork.

So what had happened to it? Where's the last place you would expect to find a national treasure, Tom?

In 2003, when a vault was discovered... In Kabul's central bank. Just a couple of miles from the museum. Yes, the Government had pretended to loot it, and just hidden it instead and then completely forgotten about it in the confusion. It turns out that in 1989, the last communist president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, had ordered the hoard hidden to keep it out of the hands of advancing warlords and the Taliban.

And it was just in time as well; He himself came to a very sticky end after getting trapped in Kabul and seeking asylum at an Indian Government compound, where he lived for a couple of years before being killed in a Taliban raid in 1996.

Now, he'd had a cunning idea to keep the gold safe. Only a handful of people knew of its existence. And of those, five were given different keys to the vault. And they didn't know who the others were, with no official records being kept. Great idea for keeping something safe, not such a good idea when you want to re-open the safe.

New Afghan president Hamid Karzai wanted to celebrate the overthrow of the Taliban by re-opening the vault and showing off the treasure, which would have been a major PR coup – but they literally couldn't open the vault. It was an impregnable wall and there was no way to find the key-holders. A national campaign was launched to track down the five men, known as the tawadars, and unite them like the power rangers to get the safe open. In the meantime, Karzai launched a high-court battle to literally blow the safe doors, possibly destroying the hoard in the process.

Slowly, one by one, the keyholders did come forward – they'd somehow all survived the Taliban but presumably had spent the last few years rooting around in their man-draw among all the other odd keys and phone chargers to try and find it again.

So eventually, shortly before the vault was due to be cracked, the five keyholders were united alongside the man who discovered them, Viktor Sarianidi. And the entire lot was, indeed, inside the safe. All 22,000 items.

An agreement was reached with the French to catalogue and store the finds – always risky letting a European country get their hands on your archaeological treasures cough elgin marbles. And the treasures were taken on a world tour whilst a new museum was built for them.

bottom of page