The story of buried bank notes discovered on a development site in Runaway Bay on the Gold Coast circulated widely last week, perhaps because it stirred a fantasy many of us secretly harbour – the dream of finding hidden treasure.
The $200,000 in cash, allegedly secured in large plastic containers, probably didn’t belong to Spanish pirates. Yet it’s already inspired neighbours to dig on their own properties, hoping to unearth a hoard of their own.
So what does treasure hunting mean in 21st century Australia?
Nick Richards knows something of the emotions motivating the Runaway Bay searchers.
“There’s a treasure hunter in everyone,” he says, “particularly in kids that refuse to grow up – which is basically me.”
Instead, he’s listed on Ring Finders, an organisation that, as its name suggests, unites people with missing jewellery.
When, for instance, a woman lost three rings playing water polo at Ballina, Richards spent seven hours and 10 minutes methodically scuba diving along a grid pattern to locate them all. “I’ve got a minelab metal detector that’s waterproof down to … about 60 metres,” he explains. “So long as you know roughly where the thing is and it’s within my diving capabilities, which is about 30 metres, then I’ll have a crack at it.”
It’s hardest in the surf, he says, particularly since most bathers only vaguely remember where their bling slipped off.
“I like the targeted hunt. Someone says ‘I lost this, this is the situation’. You ask all the questions in the world and you go there, outthink it, and hopefully you actually get it back.”
Along the way, he’s acquired a massive collection of other items he hasn’t been looking for, which he then advertises on social media.
He credits Facebook for miraculous reunions, including the wedding ring returned to a couple from Dubbo after the woman’s beautician saw it on Richards’s page.
“I’m still pretty sure that they’re still not certain how they got it back but it was very, very satisfying.”
Finding jewellery lost in the ocean might not be the most swashbuckling way to acquire loot. But Bob Sheppard from Heritage Detection Australia has used the same technology to hunt for the Spanish galleon San Francisco wrecked at Iwawada, Japan, in 1606.
He rejects the label “treasure hunter”.
“I’m an archaeo-metal detectorist – an archaeologist who applies metal detecting technology to archaeological or historical sites.”
Though he began his detectoring career as a prospector, he’s since formally studied archaeology and forensic anthropology. Both skills have helped him to investigate sites where survivors of Dutch East India Company (VOC) wrecks camped in the 17th century.
He, was, for instance, part of a team researching the tiny atoll where Dutch authorities staged gruesome executions, in the wake of a murder spree by passengers and crew from the VOC ship Batavia in 1629. He wrote a book on the fate of the Vergulde Draeck (or Gilt Dragon), a story generating lurid rumours of chests of gold – and, of course, a missing treasure map.
He also brought his equipment to sites associated with Australian bushrangers. In that expedition, he located what was probably a boot belonging to either Ned Kelly’s brother Dan or their friend Steve Hart, as well as the cartridge fired by Queensland cattle thief Patrick Kenniff to kill a local pastoralist.
But the moment that thrilled him most came when he dug up a bottle placed on Dirk Hartog Island in 1772, by Louis Aleno de St Aloüarn in a ceremony claiming Western Australia for Louis XV.
In 1998, researchers had found an antique French bottle cap on the island – and Sheppard and his team eventually unearthed an intact bottle.
“It was pretty amazing. It was actually on the first of April. And I remember we reported it to the museum staff in Perth and they thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke.”
Alistair Paterson from the University of Western Australia worked with Sheppard on the Batavia site.
He’s passionate about local maritime history, pointing out that one of the first Englishmen to explore parts of the continent was William Dampier, a privateer.
“So I guess you could say one of our earliest explorers was essentially an authorised pirate.”
Many of the early expeditions to locate historic wrecks in Australian waters were motivated by the treasure they were thought to contain.
“The VOC ships carried basically cash, you know, in the form of bullion to Jakarta. And so, in a sense, they were treasure ships.”
The wreck of The Trial (or Tryall), a British East Indiaman that sunk in 1622, was physically blown apart by bullion hunters, one of the incidents that helped motivate the West Australian government to enact the first maritime archaeology legislation anywhere in the world.
More recently, material from old wrecks has become sought after by research physicists because of their low levels of intrinsic radioactivity, with, for instance, lead from Roman vessels particularly prized for experiments into dark matter.
Not surprisingly, Paterson gently encourages a different view about what discoveries might or might not be valuable.
“One of the things I find amazing that Australia is, you know, we do have treasure,” he says. “It’s a cultural heritage, right? The treasure is 60,000 or more years of human occupation. So, yeah, I’m finding treasure all the time. It’s just that perhaps other people don’t view it that way.”
Developers, in the Gold Coast or elsewhere, should take note.