Treasure hunters in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

The looting of ancient mounds is a very old and widespread pastime. It is well documented already in ancient Greece, but the largest impact on the preservation of ancient monuments has no doubt been the treasure hunters of the modern age.

Treasure hunters were responsible for the desecration and the destruction of a great number of megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since at least the 16th century (Haas 1925: 67). The assumption of hidden treasures in ancient monuments is often reflected in folklore and other literary sources (cf. Grinsell 1967; Liebers 1986: chapter 6). Many megalithic sites are associated with tales about the treasures they contain, e.g. Ziesendorf (144), Altensien (149), Forst Werder (245), Lonvitz (312, 314), Nobbin (345), Puddemin, Silvitz, Strüßendorf (382), Boitin, Forst Tarnow (477). Sometimes this is also reflected in their names, e.g. in the case of the 'Geldkeller[berg]' at Friedland (901). In 1680, Duke Gustav Adolph of Mecklenburg-Güstrow sent out the following (untranslatable) message to all parishes (cited after Lisch 1868):

"Wir geben Euch hiermit gnädigst zu verstehen, wasgestalt Uns berichtet worden, daß bey Unserm Meyerhofe Schwiesow auff dem Felde, über einen Steinhauffen, so man sie im Lande Riesen=Gräber nennet, deren das Land hin und wieder voll ist, blawliche Flammen, alß ein Brennendes licht, bey nachtzeiten zum offtern sich sehen laßen, welches vor ein Zeichen daselbst in der Erde vorhandenen Goldes oder Silbers gehalten wird. Als wir nun Euer Bedencken, was von solchen lichtern zu halten, und ob man dem daselbst vermuhtenden Schatze nachzusuchen habe, gern vernehmen mögten; So werdet Ihr euch hierüber zusammen thun, und Unß eure Meinung ... einschicken ..."

The site and monuments records (Ortsakten) in the Landesamt für Bodendenkmalpflege record many attempts over the years to open megaliths, or other prehistoric graves, in order to get to the treasures which they were said to contain—some successful, many not. Many megaliths were robbed of their grave-goods well before modern excavations could document them, e.g. at Mechelsdorf (12), Neu Gaarz (18), Alt Stassow, Mukran (317), Nadelitz (323), Müggenhall (403), Pöglitz (407), and Groß Labenz (706). More recently, such treasure-hunters opened megaliths in Mechelsdorf (13), and in Forst Everstorf (34).

Current treasure-hunting, which often involves the use of metal detectors, is very popular and sometimes extremely professionally organised. Although it is directed at finding 'treasures' from the past, such treasure-hunting does not aim to compete or interfer with archaeologists or historians. Modern treasure-hunting should be seen as an expression of current history culture which complements academic approaches to the past. 

The motivation of treasure-huntering is not necessarily one of gaining a material fortune, but often simply the result of a search for adventure, e.g. when school children dug into a Bronze Age barrow in Twietfort, Kreis Lübz. Already in 1835, workmen, "even those which were old and otherwise apathetic", were known to become passionate and rushed when they came across antiquities in the ground, and were curious to find out about the items' value when they had recovered them (Brühl 1835: 3f.). Some early antiquarians found the study of the past an enjoyable occupation for possibly very similar reasons (see e.g. Hagenow's report about his work in Dumsevitz as published in Baier 1904: 19–24).

Sometimes, archaeological investigations have also been seen as concerned with the revealing of 'treasures', even if these would first and foremost be of informational or aesthetic rather than monetary value:

"Man sehe alsdenn nichts des Gefundenen für zu unbedeutend und zu gering an. Die ausgegrabenen Sachen können nicht sogleich beurtheilt werden, und oft haben ganz unscheinbare Dinge, z.B. eine Scherbe, ein Klumpen Rost etc., einen höhern Werth, als andere, in die Augen fallende Stücke." (Brühl 1835: 4)

"One should thus consider nothing among the finds as too insignificant and too small. The excavated objects cannot be assessed immediately, and seemingly insignificant artefacts, for example a sherd, a lump of rust etc., often have a higher value than other more eye-catching pieces." (my translation)

Contemporaneous press reports can still be very ambivalent about the connections between modern archaeology and treasure hunting. But nowadays the laws for the protection of ancient monuments are well formulated in order to deal efficiently with unauthorised diggers.


Literature

Baier, Rudolf (1904) Vorgeschichtliche Gräber auf Rügen und in Neuvorpommern. Aufzeichnungen Friedrich von Hagenows aus dessen hinterlassenen Papieren. Greifswald: Julius Abel.

Brühl, Graf (1835) Instruction für die beim Chausseebau beschäftigten Beamten in Beziehung auf die in der Erde sich findenden Alterthümer heidnischer Vorzeit. Reprinted in Baltische Studien 4(1), 1837, 1–6.

Grinsell, Leslie V. (1967) Barrow Treasure, in Fact, Tradition, and Legislation. Folklore 78, 1–38.

Haas, Alfred (1925) Burgwälle und Hünengräber der Insel Rügen in der Volkssage. Stettin: A.Schuster.

Liebers, Claudia (1986) Neolithische Megalithgräber in Volksglauben und Volksleben. Frankfurt/M. etc.: Lang.

Lisch, G.C.Friedrich (1868) Über die Riesengräber in früheren Zeiten. Mecklenburgische Jahrbücher 33, 117f.

© Cornelius Holtorf