LIFTING THE CURSE ON THE SEVSO TREASURE – PART I

Treasure is the stuff of which, according to Sam Spade, the detective played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, dreams are made. Archaeologists are necessarily a little more precise in their use of the term than the authors of stories of adventure, mystery or piracy. This is limited to collections of objects of gold or silver, buried long ago in soil, a cavity or a recess in a building or waterbed whose legal ownership ceased to exist after concealment but which are later found by someone other than the person who concealed them.

St Matthew, in one of his well-known parables, tells the story a man who found hidden treasure in a field, hid it again, and then sold all that he possessed in order to buy the field. This story sheds light on an ancient legal custom – still extant even today in some countries – according to which hidden treasures share the same legal status as the land on which they are discovered. In order to legally own a treasure abandoned by others, one has to be the owner of the place where it rests.

Among the most valuable and significant finds of all time is the Sevso Treasure, a hoard of silver from the late period of the Roman Imperial Age stretching from the end of the 2nd century to the 5th century AD. This consists of 15 vessels: large plates, ewers (two of which together with a basin form a set), two buckets with a jug also forming a set, an amphora and the copper cauldron in which the treasure was buried.1 Eight pieces of them have been recently transported to Hungary, and were on display from 26 March 2014 in the Parliament.

The Sevso Treasure, as is obvious from the mineral deposits on its surface, was hidden, presumably on the occasion of some sudden danger, by its original owners who never had the opportunity to retrieve it with the result that it remained concealed for at least one and a half millennia before being offered for sale on the market.

Remarkably, it is not known where the treasure was found, or by whom, or in what circumstances. Those who know these things have chosen to keep this information to themselves. The most probable explanation for this is that the treasure was not found during an authorised excavation; consequently no documentation was made.

In advanced societies, only trained archaeologists in possession of permits issued by relevant authorities can excavate a find site. Of course, archaeological finds quite often come to light unexpectedly, and in such cases the finder is required to report it to the nearest museum or local authority. In this case there were no legal excavations either in Hungary or elsewhere. The discovery of the Sevso Treasure was not reported to any museum or authority in the world. This is why it is rightly supposed that it came into the possession of its present holders as a result of illicit activities.

Illicit excavations usually entail an irreversible loss of information. One could compare an object coming from illicit trade to a photographic portrait without a caption: it can be pleasing, even artistically valuable, but if we don’t know the identity of the subject, or on what occasion and by whom it was made, it tells us less than it should. This is why information about sources is treated by archaeologists with the utmost care and respect. Since there are only the scarcest written records dating from ancient times, information from excavations can be of great value in filling in the gaps; archaeological finds are therefore indispensable for the study of history. Losses in this domain can be irreparable.

The context of a find site is necessarily related to a specific geographical location, the place the objects ended up as a result of events taking place at a specific moment of time. The archaeological context is an imprint of history that is inseparable from the given geographical region. This is why the provenance of finds and their dating are of key importance – and this is why efforts to manipulate provenance data can lead to the falsification of history.

Archaeological treasures usually bear the name of their finding place. Various rumours about the origins of the Sevso Treasure have circulated in the press during the past quarter of century. It has been suggested that this was Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia. The first of these claims was based on a set of fake export licences bought from Lebanon (although no evidence has ever been produced to show that the treasure has ever been in Lebanon), while it seems that the story about its Yugoslav origin was invented by the press.

In a situation where excavation documentation is not at hand, the provenance of finds may still be established, although with far less accuracy. Apart from police investigations, scientists can delimit an area with the help of archaeological, art historical, historical or laboratory means. The most obvious of these methods is to find clues on the objects themselves. Luckily, in the case of the Sevso Treasure there are inscriptions on the vessels: some of them are scratched on the underside, some of them inlaid on the upper side. One such inscription is placed beside the depiction of a water surface, and reads PELSO, which is the ancient Roman name of Lake Balatonin Hungary. There is a consensus among scientists, that the ancient owner had his home near the lake, and he used and then buried the vessels there. We find a longer inscription on the same plate, a two-line dedicatory verse, a distichon, naming its owner as SEVSO. Contrary to the custom of naming treasures after their finding place, the holders of these objects decided around 1990 to put it on the market using the ancient owner’s name, although it is still sometimes referred to as the Pelso Treasure.

The journey of finds from their original source to a collector may take several years, during which time they may change hands many times before being sold, either privately or at an auction house. Small middlemen, dealers, or well-to-do investors all want to occupy the seller’s position during the subsequent sales enabling them to realise as much (usually several hundred per cent) profit on their investment as possible. All their attention is fixated on the hoped-for hammer price while everything else, even inherent value, is of secondary importance to them. Prioritising price and neglecting value is the core problem in a process that may bring along unwanted consequences for the participants.

How much is the Sevso Treasure worth? Ordinary people are inclined to judge the value of an archaeological object according to its metal-value, that is to say on the weight and purity of the gold and silver artefacts in question. Some of those claiming to have seen parts of the Sevso Treasure have made estimates of this kind. Professionals familiar with the treasure, however, are unanimous in agreeing that it is vastly more valuable than the price that could be asked for silver of the same purity and weight.

One way of defining the price of artefacts is looking at their insurance value. This is what insurance brokers use to determine the price of a work of art after analysing possible risks, taking into account market-value and “intrinsic” values too. The market-value of an object can be assessed by the comparison of the prices of similar objects; much of the Sevso Treasure, however, is unique, and no such basis for comparison exists. Its extreme rarity is one component that gives value to the treasure.

The other factor which needs to be borne in mind is complexity of the Sevso Treasure: this consists not only of a number of pieces, but also of various sets forming distinct units; these developed into a one-family collection during a relatively short period of time. Uniqueness, rarity and composition into sets are enduring values that have always been acknowledged by the market. Additionally, the Sevso Treasure is a collection of objects, a “find-complex” accumulated through time and containing inscriptions; therefore it conveys historical information and has a very high historical value.

In determining the price of an artefact, a vital component is marketability. Since archaeological finds like the Sevso Treasure are protected by national laws and international conventions, such objects have a value, but because of their disputed status they cannot have a price on the legal market in the western world. Although the Supreme Court of the State of New York rejected the claims of ownership of both Hungary and Croatia in 1993 (Lebanon withdrew its claim before the trial), the question of ownership was not resolved, mainly because Hungary’s claim was not allowed to be adequately presented in court. The treasure, as it lacked provenance and consequently reliable ownership information, became unmarketable.

If the need to protect historical information conflicts their aims, the sellers of artefacts in illicit trade tend to ignore or deny the existence of such information. On the other hand, academics, authorities, NGOs and volunteers, often criticised by sellers for their conservationist attitude, are keen to extract as much information from artefacts as possible in order to advance their research.

The long and irreconcilable debate between sellers and conservationists has flared up in the case of the Sevso Treasure. John Henry Merryman, a professor of law at Stanford University devoted an article to this issue with the title Thinking about the Sevso Treasure.2  In his study, Merryman divides the debating parties into two groups, that of archaeologists and that of collectors/museums, before adding a third one, that of source nations. He seems to acknowledge the professional interest of archaeologists concerning the importance of provenance as well as the reliable information about the findspot, context and subsequent history, and also recognises that on the other side “collectors, museum professionals and dealers deplore the loss of contextual and historical information and disapprove of theft”. But although he acknowledges the value of contextual information, he does not ask why a large proportion of the antiquities traded on the international market are unaccompanied by reliable information about findspot and subsequent history.

Reflecting on the nature of the interest that sustains collecting and the antiquities market he finds the answer in the human appetite for antiquities and in the powerful demand it creates. He also finds that the market supply of provenanced antiquities is clearly inadequate to meet the demand, the cause being the retention of cultural property by source nations.

“The information about the findspot, context and history […] will continue to be irretrievably lost”, he states. “That loss is not ‘caused’ by collectors and museums in market nations, it is ‘caused’ by source nation politics, legislation and bureaucratic behaviour.” This is Professor Merryman’s view of where the blame lies. But, in my view, he comes close to blaming the victim. Of course, collectors and museums can rarely be held responsible for the destruction of the context: sellers and their helpers do that for them. As for his suggestion that archaeological treasures should be treated as commodities, this is not a new idea at all, and would represent a step back in time for many countries.

In such cases as the Sevso Treasure, Merryman does not attempt to distinguish between those acting in good faith and those who are not. Respect for ethical rules, so important when dealing with archaeological finds, is raised by him, but put to one side.

To be sure, Merryman also has a proposal for what to do with the Sevso Treasure: according to him it should be sold to a museum (preferably in the USA) where it would be on display without indication of provenance. “The Sevso Treasure is special”, he admits. “The treasure is a spectacular and culturally important find. It belongs in a museum where it can be properly conserved, shown and enjoyed, studied and interpreted.”

Here, at least, it is possible to agree with him and it is to be hoped that Professor Merryman must delight in the fact that Hungary has recently made the treasure publicly accessible: eight pieces have been deposited at the Hungarian National Museum. The flaw in Professor Merryman’s argumentation, however, is that he does not recognise the priority of context that lends real value to objects, and he does not recognise that only the work of “establishment archaeologists”, as he calls them, can guarantee that value.

For outsiders archaeological finds can only have significance when that is explained: their “meaning” is like a halo around them that can be interpreted and made comprehensible only by properly trained people observing ethical standards. Meaning can be deciphered by them from recorded context. This in turn makes objects desirable for investors, collectors and the public. That is why all information concerning the findspot and the context should be revealed candidly by those who possess it.

Uncertainty regarding the Sevso composition after more than 25 years of its finding, and the habit of “throwing in” objects for deceptive purposes, then removing them, shows how easy it is to alter historical context, and how heavy the burden of responsibility is on the shoulders of those who deal in them or acquire them. This responsibility to adhere to strict ethical rules is evident for “establishment archaeologists”, but is most unlikely to bind those who participate in illicit trade.

We can see objects on the 1984 picture of the Sevso Treasure before their final cleaning (see above), and we can observe considerable amounts of mineral deposits e.g. on the Sevso plate on the left, or on the basin in the centre. Such deposits may convey information about the environment where the objects were originally concealed and the date of their burying. Most of these deposits were removed, and we only know that samples were taken at London University’s Institute of Archaeology as part of a commercial agreement between Sotheby’s, the Institute and one of its research associates. Only few people know the circumstances of the cleaning process and where the samples are kept. It is to be hoped that they have been preserved and documented, and it will soon be accessible not only for purchasers, but also for the wider scientific community.

Sediments, deposits and corrosion marks also form part of the archaeological record. Anthropological, animal, botanical and other organic remains associated with, and cultural features observable on the site also form part of the find, as do all related written and photographic documentation. All this data constitutes a body of information that should be archived and retrieved for future research, and this is undeniably true for the Sevso Treasure.

In biblical times, and even later during the Middle Ages until the Renaissance, archaeological objects had little value, unless made of gold or silver and adorned with precious stones. But as during the 19th century historians had realised that written records from past ages were scarce and there was little hope to find new bodies of writings, they began to value information conveyed by artefacts, and more recently those conveyed by the context of several artefacts. Advanced societies developed during the past two centuries a legal institution called heritage protection that directs such artefacts to public collections where they can be preserved, studied and interpreted. This mechanism is constantly challenged by those who subordinate the public interest to own ambitions and enrichment.

Professor Merryman explains the controversies about collecting and the antiquities market by reference to human appetite for antiquities. It is also the case that there is a huge human appetite for genuine information, and not only among establishment people and not only in source countries. It is clear to most people that this demand can be better supplied by archaeologists and museums than by dealers and sellers.

So if the Sevso Treasure is “cursed”, as often been claimed, it is because of the lack, or more precisely the withholding of information. Curse is not a necessary ingredient of treasure troves. When the complete archaeological record of the Sevso Treasure becomes accessible, the curse will evaporate. Probably not all data is lost, and the treasure’s context could be at least partially reconstructed. In this way, the find complex could perform its proper societal role: contributing to diversity, adding new elements to cultural reference points, enhancing cultural identity. This is what public interest requires from citizens and socially responsible corporate management.

One could ask in what sense and to what extent people promoting the sale of the treasure acted in a socially responsible way? In this “tale of greed and irresponsibility”, as Professor Colin Renfrew had characterised the contemporary vicissitudes of the Sevso Treasure, the United Kingdom has done a lot to clear up the chain of title from the present possessors, Lord Northampton and his attorneys and solicitors, Philip Wilson, the son of the late Peter Cecil Wilson, former chairman of Sotheby’s, through sellers and dealers like Rainer Zietz, Halim Korban and Anton Tkalec. But still much has to be done. The London Police launched an investigation as early as 1990 into three separate offences committed in Britain including conspiracy to defraud committed, the results of which were channelled into the litigation in New York. The court decision led to a stalemate: although Hungary’s claims were dismissed, analysts agree that Judge Beatrice Shainswit did not rule that the defendant, the Trustee of the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement (whose beneficiary is Lord Northampton) was the treasure’s legal owner.

After the trial the fate of the treasure still remained a matter of public controversy in both Hungary and Britain. Some prominent British public figures acted responsibly, among others Lord Rupert Redesdale, who stated that the Sevso Treasure undermines Britains’s stand on illegal antiquities, as “it represents a standing challenge to the effectiveness of the measures in force… to combat the trade in illicit antiquities”. Lord Renfrew also condemned the “collectors” in high places for seeking a quick and easy profit, and said that it was a shame that “Europe’s cultural heritage is treated as a mere investment”.

More generally, it needs to be understood that looting of precious items and the manipulation of information is not confined to archaeology. In the central eastern part of Europe the sad memory of the Second World War is still alive, as well as the unprecedented scale of looting connected with it. Contrarily to the former case, the motivation behind taking war-booty in modern times is primarily political rather than financial, although there may be an element of both. In the long run, it may distort identity, planting the feeling of superiority in the looters, while the looted feel necessarily inferior. The latter condition may be inherited by subsequent generations, leading to scapegoating or sometimes even to hostility. In such situations the question arises: who owns the past and who owns the information necessary to understand it?

The many examples of war-booties are relevant to the present discussion because a similar mentality lies behind the actions: a whole nation can be considered guilty, stripped of its cultural heritage and treated merely as a source-nation. Care for cultural and historical roots and respect of diversity are valued aspects of civilised society; these are threatened by this process. The remedy is to prevent the spread of this mentality by encouraging respect of diversity, and the acceptance of others as a partner in a dialogue. In the case of the Sevso Treasure, the first step could be access to information presently withheld.

Tabloid newspapers may love to picture and interview rich collectors and sometimes describe the role of dealers and middlemen (whom they do not love as much), in colourful accounts of how great private collections of cultural artefacts are amassed. But we must not overlook the role of the community and its civic activists who constitute the foremost inheritors and guardians of our cultural legacy; nor should we forget the role of specialists and academic experts who serve a vital interpretive function.

This essay attempts to outline what an archaeological treasure is, what purpose it serves and how it should be treated for the benefit of society. I am convinced that our best guide is the theory of sustainability which is already widely applied in advanced societies. If a find, like the Sevso Treasure comes to light, everyone who has control or influence in the matter bears a huge responsibility to make wise decisions about its fate.

Today, wise men, responsible for the society in which they live, keep treasures inherited from their ancestors in dwellings called museums, and do not squander them foolishly.

THE SEVSO TREASURE: WHAT SCIENCE CAN TELL US

Given that there was no archaeologist on hand to observe and record the finding of the “orphaned” artefacts of the Sevso Treasure, what can science tell us about their origins? Some clues can be found on the artefacts themselves and these provide a useful starting point for scientific inquiry.

Eight pieces from the treasure were transported to Budapest earlier this year and from 24 March this year were on public display in the Hungarian Parliament. This is the part of the collection that had been held by the heirs of the late Peter Cecil Wilson, former chairman of Sotheby’s. Probably the oldest object in the collection is the plate with geometric design in the central medallion and on the rim which was made during the first half of the 4th century AD.

The two ewers with geometric decoration form a set with the hand-washing basin: they belong together functionally, they are also linked by their fluted decoration on the upper part of the ewers’ body and the surface of the basin representing waves of water.

The fluting and the beaded rims are similar to those in the Kaiseraugst treasure from Switzerland, which were made some time before 351 AD in a workshop near the ancient silver mines of Naissus (modern Niš in Serbia).

The jug which has an octagonal body, a roll moulding around the neck and star- shaped base has a distinctive form. Similar faceted jugs have been found in the Carpathian Basin, in the major towns of Pannonia, the ancient province of the Roman Empire bounded north and east by the Danube. This type of jug has also been found in the Rhine region. The straight handle bent in a sharp angle and with a curl at the lower end has its origin in Gaul. So contrary to former attempts to tie this piece to an eastern workshop, I believe that it originated in the West.

The so-called animal jug, which has not yet been acquired by Hungary, has a ten-sided body and a star-shaped base with ten points. It has a similar handle, but is different from the Dionysiac jug in that it is decorated with black inlaid motifs by means of niello-technique. It is important to remember that so far such multi-faceted items with star-shaped feet and niello inlay have been found only in Trier (Germany), a town that served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire during the reign of Valentinian I (364–375 AD) and which is known to have possessed a silversmith’s shop.

During this period gifts were an indispensable instrument of political persuasion. A Roman emperor needed to control workshops working directly for the court in order to acquire these. Emperor Valentinian I, from his election on 25 February 364 AD, until he reached Trier in the winter of 367 AD, spent the first three-and-a-half years of his reign constantly on the move, passing through cities such as Aquileia, Mediolanum (today Milan) and Remi (today Reims). This meant that he could commission the items he needed directly only if the artisans followed his court.

Of course, other state workshops in the administrative centres of the empire also served the purposes of the imperial largesse. In Trier there were workshops as early as 354 AD, but the principal Trier workshop, and the town itself, began to flourish again only when the imperial court moved there under the reign of Valentinian.

The vessels listed above were used as tableware either before or during a banquet. The sixth piece now in Hungary, the cylindrical casket with a domed lid, belonged to a lady’s toiletry. Inside it has a perforated disk with seven holes that once held silver or glass phials (the whereabouts of which are presently unknown).

This casket can be compared to the ones in the Esquiline Treasure, one of which contained five silver phials, made during the mid-4th century AD as a wedding present for a young couple. This is believed to have been buried at the end of the same century or at the beginning of the next. The toilet box of the Sevso Treasure is significant in another respect. On the reverse side of silverware marks scratched by the owner can often be found. On the published objects of the Sevso Treasure there are only a few graffiti, e.g. one personal name on the geometric plate which is among the earliest pieces of the treasure. The other name on the hunting plate is again a personal name, that of Sevso. Since there are no other personal names, we can be confident that Sevso was the last owner of the treasure. The bottom of the toilet box bears a Latin inscription which may be read as TIAON. This word is unparalleled in Antiquity. The only comparable words I can find are the Old Frisian3 word tian and the Old Icelandic word tio, both meaning “ten”. If this interpretation is correct, the scratching could refer to an inventory carried out by somebody speaking a (non Gothic) Germanic language using Latin characters.

To be continued.

1  The treasure is believed to have originally been much richer, with approximately 16 times more pieces. Further objects may belong to the treasure: five silver bowls, 37 silver gilt drinking cups and 187 silver gilt spoons. One of the “bowls” could perhaps be identical with a plate showing the portrait of an emperor and the busts of four other imperial persons (probably Constantine and his sons) that was on offer in 1986. Two silver horse roundels were in fact bought as part of the treasure, and a paten (a plate with Christian symbols) may also belong to the treasure, but their whereabouts are not known today. Two heads of statuettes made of limestone were also said to be part of the Sevso Treasure.

2  Stanford Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series, Research Paper No. 1105584, 1 March 2008.

3  West German language spoken between the 8th and 16th centuries.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

LEADERSHIP IN WAR

Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as

REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask

THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES IN HUNGARY’S TRIANON TRAGEDY

“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of