as the eighth wonder of the world by those who saw it, the Amber Room
is certainly the most unique missing treasure in history.
was an 11-foot-square hall consisting of large wall panels inlaid with
several tons of superbly designed amber, large gold-leaf-edged mirrors,
and four magnificent Florentine mosaics. Arranged in three tiers, the
amber was inlaid with precious jewels, and glass display cases housed
one of the most valuable collections of Prussian and Russian artwork
for Prussia's King Friedrich I and given to Russian czar Peter the
Great in 1716, it was located at Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg.
Today, the Amber Room would be valued at more than $142 million.
Adolf Hitler turned his Nazi war machine toward Russia, the keepers of
the Amber Room got nervous. They tried to move it, but the amber began
to crumble, so they tried to cover it with wallpaper. They were
unsuccessful and when the Nazis stormed Leningrad (formerly called St.
Petersburg) in October 1941, they claimed it and put it on display in
Königsberg Castle during the remaining war years.
when Königsberg surrendered in April 1945, the fabled treasure was
nowhere to be found. The Amber Room was never seen again. Did the
Soviets unwittingly destroy their own treasure with bombs? Was it hidden
in a now lost subterranean bunker outside the city? Or was it destroyed
when Königsberg Castle burned shortly after the city surrendered?
probably never know for sure. But fortunately for lovers of opulence,
the Amber Room has been painstakingly recreated and is on display in
2. Blackbeard's Treasure
only spent about two years (1716-1718) plundering the high seas. Within
that time, however, he amassed some serious wealth. While the Spanish
were busy obtaining all the gold and silver they could extract from
Mexico and South America, Blackbeard and his mates waited patiently,
then pounced on the treasure-laden ships as they sailed back to Spain.
developed a fearsome reputation as a cruel and vicious opportunist. His
reign of terror centered around the West Indies and the Atlantic coast
of North America, with headquarters in both the Bahamas and North
Carolina. His end came in November 1718, when British Lieutenant Robert
Maynard decapitated the pirate and hung his head from the bowsprit of
his ship as a grisly trophy.
what happened to the vast treasure that Blackbeard had amassed? He
acknowledged burying it but never disclosed the location. But that
hasn't stopped countless treasure hunters from trying to get their hands
Blackbeard's sunken ship,Queen Anne's Revenge,
is believed to have been discovered near Beaufort, North Carolina, in
1996, but the loot wasn't onboard. Possible locations for the hidden
stash include the Caribbean Islands, Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, and the
caves of the Cayman Islands.
3. Treasures of Lima
1820, Lima, Peru, was on the edge of revolt. As a preventative measure,
the viceroy of Lima decided to transport the city's fabulous wealth to
Mexico for safekeeping. The treasures included jeweled stones,
candlesticks, and two life-size solid gold statues of Mary holding the
baby Jesus. In all, the treasure filled 11 ships and was valued at
around $60 million.
Captain William Thompson, commander of theMary Dear,
was put in charge of transporting the riches to Mexico. But the viceroy
should have done some research on the man to whom he handed such
fabulous wealth because Thompson was a pirate, and a ruthless one at
that. Once the ships were well out to sea, he cut the throats of the
Peruvian guards and threw their bodies overboard.
headed for the Cocos Islands, in the Indian Ocean, where he and his men
allegedly buried the treasure. They then decided to split up and lay
low until the situation had calmed down, at which time they would
reconvene to divvy up the spoils.
But theMary Dearwas
captured, and the crew went on trial for piracy. All but Thompson and
his first mate were hanged. To save their lives, the two agreed to lead
the Spanish to the stolen treasure. They took them as far as the Cocos
Islands and then managed to escape into the jungle. Thompson, the first
mate, and the treasure were never seen again.
then more than 300 expeditions have tried -- unsuccessfully -- to
locate the treasures of Lima. The most recent theory is that the
treasure wasn't buried on the Cocos Islands at all but on an unknown
island off the coast of Central America.
On the next page, you will find the Pharaohs' missing treasure.
4. Pharaohs' Missing Treasure
Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt's Valley of the
Kings in 1922, he was mesmerized by the splendor of the artifacts that
the young king took to the afterlife. Attached to the burial chamber was
a treasury with so many jewels and other artifacts that it took Carter
ten years to fully catalog them.
when the burial chambers of more prominent pharaohs were unearthed in
the late 19th century, their treasure chambers were virtually empty. It
is common knowledge that tomb robbers had been busy in the tombs over
the centuries, but the scale of the theft required to clean out the
tombs of the kings is beyond petty criminals. So, where is the vast
wealth of the pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings?
scholars believe that the treasures were appropriated by the priests
who conducted reburials in the Valley of the Kings during the period of
the early 20th and late 21st Egyptian dynasties (425-343B.C.).
Pharaohs were not averse to reusing the funeral splendors of their
ancestors, so this may have been carried out with official sanction.
particular ruler, Herihor, has been the focus of special attention.
Herihor was a high court official during the reign of Ramses XI. Upon
Ramses' death, Herihor usurped the throne, dividing up the kingdom with a
co-conspirator, his son-in-law Piankh. Herihor placed himself in charge
of reburial proceedings at the Valley of the Kings, affording himself
ample opportunity to pilfer on a grand scale.
tomb has never been found. When and if it is, many scholars believe
that the missing treasures of many of Egypt's pharaohs will finally see
the light of day.
On the next pages, you will find more of the world's greatest missing treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant.
5. The Ark of the Covenant
the ancient Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred
thing on Earth. The central and paramount object of the Hebrew nation,
this ornate chest was, according to the Bible, designed by God.
44 inches long, 26 inches wide, and 26 inches high, the chest was made
of acacia wood, overlaid inside and out with pure gold, and surrounded
by an artistic gold border. Mounted on the solid gold cover were two
golden cherubs, one at each end of the cover facing each other, with
heads bowed and wings extending upward.
Ark served as a holy archive for the safekeeping of sacred relics,
including the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. As a historical
and religious treasure, the Ark and its contents were absolutely
Jerusalem, the capital city of the Israelite kingdom of Judah and home
of Solomon's Temple, where the Ark was housed, was besieged and
overthrown by the Babylonians. In a terrible slaughter, more than a
million people were killed, with the survivors driven off into
years later, when the Israelites returned to rebuild the city, the Ark
of the Covenant was gone. What happened to this priceless relic has been
the subject of intense speculation ever since.
is widely believed that the Ark was hidden by the Hebrews to keep it
from the Babylonians. Possible locations for its hiding place range from
Mount Nebo in Egypt to Ethiopia to a cave in the heart of Judah. Yet,
if the Ark was hidden, why was it not recovered when the Israelites
returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple?
believe that the Ark was destroyed by the rampaging Babylonians. Still
another explanation put forth by the faithful is that God miraculously
removed the Ark for safekeeping by means of divine intervention.
6. Montezuma's Treasure
Spanish decimation of the Aztec empire in Mexico came to a head on July
1, 1520. After mortally wounding Emperor Montezuma, Hernando Cortés and
his men were besieged by enraged Aztec warriors in the capital city of
days of fierce fighting, Cortés ordered his men to pack up the vast
treasures of Montezuma in preparation for a night flight, but they
didn't get far before the Aztecs fell upon them. The ensuing carnage
filled Lake Tezcuco with Spanish bodies and the stolen treasures of
terrified army had thrown the booty away in a vain attempt to escape
with their lives. The hoard consisted of countless gold and silver
ornaments, along with a huge array of jewels.
and a handful of his men got away with their lives and returned a year
later to exact their revenge. When the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán got
wind of the approaching invaders, they buried the remains of the city's
treasure in and around Lake Tezcuco to prevent it from falling prey to
the gold-crazed Spanish.
a vast treasure trove remains hidden beneath nearly five centuries of
mud and sludge on the outskirts of Mexico City, the modern day
incarnation of Tenochtitlán. Generations of treasure seekers have sought
the lost hoard without success. A former president of Mexico even had
the lake bed dredged, but no treasure was found.
Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz,
Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi
Stevens, and Steve Theunissen
National Library of Australia, Canberra, 3 December 2005 - 12 February 2006
Review by Michael McKernan
Ned Kelly (1855-1880), helmet, MS 13361, State Library of Victoria. Courtesy National Library of Australia
Courtesy National Library of Australia
is a story I have used many times, particularly when speaking to groups
of visitors to Australia. I was on a train in the United Kingdom and
had got into conversation with a fellow traveller, as you do. He had
asked what brought me to Britain; I had said that I was a historian,
working in a couple of libraries. Wonderful, he had said, a historian;
what is your field? Australian history, I had replied. Oh, he had asked,
is there any? It was a story that I could not get out of my head as I
made my first visit to the National Library to see the exhibition,National Treasures. This is our stuff, I kept saying to myself, our story, so let's not look down our noses at it.
And I remembered Edmund Campion's account of his visit to the National Library forTreasures from the World's Great Librariesin his thoughtful and meditative bookLines of My Life.
Campion had come to Canberra from Sydney the day before especially for
the exhibition, had woken very early and was at the Library and in the
queue by 4.15am. He was admitted to the exhibition just before 7.00am
and he thought that he might just spend all day there; he was
everything in the exhibition space,' Campion wrote, 'was an important
element; reproductions or photographs would merely have given you the
information but would not have had the same impact on you. They would
not have connected you to the real experience. By contrast, everyone who
went to the Canberra exhibition came away with a heightened sense of
the values we call civilised. The experience had transformed them.'
There is no great queue snaking its way among the pillars in Canberra forNational Treasures.
But why should there be, for this exhibition will travel to all states
and territories, opening in Melbourne at the recently and grandly
refurbished State Library in early March 2006 and to the other libraries
in their turn. Still, on the days I have looked atNational Treasuresin
Canberra, three days so far, the crowds have been steady and strong
and, like Ed Campion for the earlier exhibition, deeply engaged.
exhibition displays over two hundred items, drawn from the collections
of the National Library and all the state and territory libraries. The
National Library has contributed the highest percentage of objects,
about a quarter of the total, followed by the state libraries of South
Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. The exact proportions from the
various institutions will vary from one venue to the next, to take
account of conservation and other requirements.
Cook (1728-1779), Journal of the HMS Endeavour, 1768-1771. Manuscript
Collection, MS 1, National Library of Australia. Courtesy National
Library of Australia
Courtesy National Library of Australia
Of course the foundation documents are there. TheEndeavourjournal,
Matthew Flinders' map, the first images of white settlement, evidence
of the surprise in Australian fauna and flora. Yet the big items do not
dominate this exhibition. It's whimsical, a friend said as she came out
and I think she had it precisely right. If these are the documents and
pieces that tell our national story, and in large measure they are, then
perhaps as a people we are whimsical and that is our story. Odd,
fantastical, delicately fanciful, expressing gently humorous tolerance.
There is much that is odd inNational Treasures.
Fatso, the fat-arsed wombat, for example, one of the most loved
elements of the wholly marvellous Sydney Olympics. Precisely right inNational Treasuresfor
that bit of our national story. We loved the Olympics, all of Australia
embraced the Games, to be in Sydney in those days was very heaven, but
we loved, too, Roy and HG with their nightly debunking on the Olympics
broadcaster, Channel Seven. Silly Syd, Millie and Olly, a playtpus, an
echidna and a kookaburra, were the official mascots of the Games ('to
embody Sydney and the spirit of the Games') but they weren't in the same
league as Fatso, who ends up inNational Treasures; because Fatso had that element of self-mockery, self-deprecation, that is part of the Australian way.
the extraordinary silver and wood model of the Snowy Mountains scheme
presented to the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, in thanks for his
attendance in the mountains to inaugurate the scheme. This sets the
mind wondering: why go to all the trouble? McKell, after all, was on
official duty. What happens to other gifts to governors-general handed
out to them for just doing their jobs? Are they all as elaborate as that
Then there is the evidence of whimsical library practice thatNational Treasuresalso
discloses to the really discerning visitor. Look at the convict
leg-irons in the 'Settlement, Land and Nature' section of the
exhibition. Brutal, solid, fearsome. You wouldn't get too far locked
into those things. Again the mind races: our inhumanity, the terror of
our first beginnings; Port Arthur, a place of national shame. But look
at the caption.Tasmanian c. 1840. State Library of Victoria. Pictures Collection. Pardon?
reminded that libraries collect much more than works on paper. Nearly a
fifth of the objects on display in Canberra are classified as
(three-dimensional) objects. Manuscripts and printed material make up
more than half the total, followed by paintings, prints and drawings,
and photographs. Then come maps, sketchbooks and diaries, and oral
contrast to the convict jacket, the exhibition provides evidence of the
civilisation and civility that came to Australia in the earliest days,
and the skills that people brought with them. Was every military officer
an accomplished artist? There is exquisite evidence to suggest that it
might be so. Was every one of them an engaging diarist and observer?
Again the evidence would lead you to think so. This is not drawn out for
you in the text panels: rather, the beauty and significance of these
works emerge in an understated way that is characteristic of the
Mary Watson, diary fragment, 8 September 1881, State Library of Queensland. Courtesy National Library of Australia
Courtesy National Library of Australia
of the diaries make remarkable reading and it is the serendipitous
nature of their presence here that sparks the imagination. I noticed
that people really wanted to read what the diarists had set out for
them, and made good use of the well-placed hand rails, just below the
bottom of the glass of the exhibition cases: a design feature that other
exhibitions would do well to emulate. For a game, go from one diary to
the next, ignoring all that is not personally written and intimate to
the writer. What variety of experience, narrative skill, and life
experience you will discover. What sadness, too: Mary Watson's diary
fragments detailing the last days of her life, and of her four-month-old
son and Chinese servant, dying of thirst in a makeshift boat. Make
sure, too, that you do not miss Shane Gould's diary, as touching an
object in the exhibition as any.
for me there was an element of predictability in some of the items on
display. Am I the only Australian little moved by Ned Kelly's armour? Or
Don Bradman's bat? (Though I was taken with his 1946-47 blazer: what a
small man he must have been, or how tightly the blazer might have
fitted.) I suppose the 'iconic' items draw the people in and the
unexpected items arouse and astonish them.
this is not really an exhibition for hardened old historians such as I.
We have been lucky enough to have lived with this type of stuff all of
our working lives. That it can still excite and stimulate us is tribute
to the richness of the material on display. But the point of this
exhibition is to open to those who would never normally make it to the
manuscript reading room something of the joy and excitement to be found
there. You could imagine someone deciding to become a historian of
Australia, simply as a result of a visit toNational Treasures. It could be, as Ed Campion found earlier, a transformative experience.
exhibition's design allowed clear viewing of the displays. Two of Eddie
Mabo's daughters, Jessie Mabo (left) and Maleta West view some of their
father's papers. Courtesy National Library of Australia
Courtesy National Library of Australia
cabinet of curiosities, that's what we need, one of the directors of
the Australian War Memorial used to say. Let's stop directing people in
the way we want to tell them the story; let them start discovering
things for themselves. A cabinet of curiosities as ourNational Treasures?
Randomly selected items to give the taste and flavour of the Australian
story? I suppose those who worked so hard for this exhibition and met
over so many long hours endlessly debating including this against that
would give a wry smile at the idea thatNational Treasureshas the feel of a cabinet of curiosities. But it does.
it so suits the whimsicality of our story. Little bits and pieces, a
surprise at every turn, telling us who we are and where we have come
from. Material to study earnestly, to examine carefully, to laugh over
with a friend, to reflect on privately; but none of it to pass over
lightly. For this is an exhibition that tells us that we do indeed have a
history; but our history is not like the history of other folk. And
possibly only we can truly understand it. For, despite the best
endeavours of those who do not understand us as a people (our
politicians among them), we are not like all the peoples elsewhere. We
are our own folk; telling us that is the achievement of this exhibition.
National treasures, indeed.
Michael McKernan is a former academic and museum administrator. Now a writer and broadcaster, his most recent book isThe Brumbies: the Super 12 Years.
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