17th century illustration of Egil Skallagrimsson.
Organizing a legitimate treasure hunt is a great metaphor for life. It seems that everyone is searching for something but what they will find is uncertain. Our treasure hunt is perhaps more formal than most, consisting of an expedition to unearth the lost chests of silver coins buried by Egil Skallagrimsson in 982 AD in southwestern Iceland. Although a modern day treasure hunt may sound like a child's fantasy, the existence of the chests of silver is well documented in historical records and many of the ancient Icelandic sagas. The Aethelstan Project has conducted extensive research into the existence and location of the treasure.
As history recounts, the chests of silver coins were given to the Viking poet by King Aethelstan of England for his participation in the battle of Brunaburh. During the battle, Egil's brother Thorolf Skallagrimsson is killed and in compensation for the death of his brother and in payment for his services in battle, King Aethelstan bestows on Egil two great chests of English silver coins. These coins were eventually taken back to Egil's farm in Iceland. Much of this historical record was recorded first-hand in poetry written by Egil Skallagrimsson that still survives today detailing the battle, the gifts and the long trip back to Iceland.
The legend behind the burial of the coins is equally fascinating. Nearing his death, Egil's wish was to take his chests of silver coins and fling them into the Alping proceedings (the early Icelandic parliament) and watch the greed and violence that would surely follow. When his family would not allow it, the plucky 82 year old warrior took two of the family slaves and during the night buried both the chests of silver and the slaves that he had killed to prevent anyone from finding the location of the buried treasure. He returned to the farm in the morning and the following year fell ill and died. To this day nobody has ever located the treasure or the bodies of the two dead slaves. In this century, loose English coins have been found in an area not far from the old farm but the buried chests of silver coins have never been located. Other archaeological finds in Iceland have confirmed that silver artifacts of this period have survived well after nearly 1000 years in the ground and confirm the accuracy of early historical records.
The coins of this period are similarly well documented and have been unearthed in regions as far away as Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway. This is not surprising given the fact that after the battle of Brunaburh, Viking ships set sail home laden with the spoils of war. These finds confirm the legends of Viking sailors taking their war booty and returning to their country of origin.
The coins are distinctive in that the Latin inscription claims Aethelstan as King of all of England, the first time this appeared on any coin. Most of these coins are hammered silver pennies that were made at one of the many mints set up by Aethelstan during his early reign. Although the exact style and design varied somewhat from mint to mint, all of the coins bear the distinctive mark of Èõelstàn and the unique claim to being King of all of England. In mint condition one of these coins is worth approximately US $1,600. A conservative estimate of the material value of the two chests of coins is $US 1.5 million - $US2.5 million. The historical value may well push this figure much higher.
This information was compiled by the esteemed Athelstan Project leader, General Jick, a.k.a. Les Jickling.
Updates from the quest for the chests. Iceland, August 2001
It was about 15 minutes shy of 9am, the meeting point was a busy bus terminal behind a multi story hotel just outside of downtown Reykjavik. Across the eventful car park the stack of luggage including the two secure metal cases, labeled with the distinctive stencil markings of The Aethelstan Project, was a sign that there was a serious and well-calculated assignment about to take place.
With my arrival, the expedition party was complete General Jick, Map Man, Pat Mule and myself, Kid Shovel. Shortly after some entertaining renditions of how the padlocked metal cases cleared Icelandic customs and general consensus on the high calibre of Icelandic air stewardesses, our kind hostess to be, Hilda, pulled up the big green pickup, feverishly waving a white pad to help us identify her, as earlier agreed.
Hilda, the fiery red-headed Reykjavik native, didnt take an immediate liking to the team of colourful adventurers, but after some bad jokes and shallow conversation, she warmed up and went out of her way to give us the complete tour of Icelands capital city.
The confines of Hildas 4x4 were by no means the best perspective to observe Icelands largest city, but the running commentary from Hilda herself, coupled with a well planned out route, meant we got a good overview of the city and what it had on offer
The greater Reykjavik Metropolitan area has a population of around 175,000 almost 2/3 of Icelands 275,000 inhabitants. It is the seat of Government and almost all of Icelands commerce is housed within the citys boundaries. The city itself is built on lava fields beside a large harbour. Although it is relatively flat, to the north the skyline is dominated by a range of majestic tabletop mountains that rise abruptly from the shining harbour below.
Icelandic folk are leaving the small rural villages and moving to Reykjavik in droves. The citys growth is obvious, with the skyline dotted with silhouettes of cranes, constructing 4-6 story commercial and residential blocks almost everywhere there is space. Efficient and smooth 4-lane highways, occupied with big American and Japanese 4x4s, crisscross their way across the city linking the sprawling suburbs to the downtown area, made up of fairly modern buildings, with a small historic area (circa 1900s) dominated by a large church towering over the cityscape.
Midway between Reykjavik and Mosfell the alleged area of the buried chests, is Hildas Guest House, our fine lodgings for the duration of the quest, etched into the side of a golf course on the waters edge overlooking the stunning vista of the tabletop mountains, and in a prime position to catch the ruby red skies as the sun sinks into the North Atlantic each evening.
After getting settled into our temporary accommodation, we again set off, as before rammed into the back of Hildas wagon, en route to the bus stop set for the 40 minute journey through the almost lunar lava landscape to the blue lagoon, a fine facility whos magnificent pools naturally heated by the areas thermal activity.
Not only did the trip allow us to relax and unwind in the soothing steamy pools, but also determine a plan of attack for the days of treasure hunting to follow and gage the general feeling about the treasure from both the Iceland public and tourists in the area.
The Icelandics are a beautiful race. The healthy, natural-looking population, combined with a genetic pool of both dark and blonde hair and blue eyes, ensures that a good portion of the local lassies could quite easily feature as the weather lady pointing out the hailstorms. They seem to have a deep sense of pride in their island, happily advertising the fact that the clean air, fresh water and safe environment make Iceland the best country in the world to live in
In general Icelanders are fairly shy at first, but shortly after initial contact, a short conversation later, the Icelanders tend to warm to the inquisitive outsiders.
Armed with a video camera and some clever and subtle treasure-related questions, we quizzed the local population and some rather suspicious looking tourists ranging from Japanese teachers, to Italian families, to grey-headed tour-parties from Germany.
The locals and tourists alike were rather tight-lipped as to their knowledge of the treasure, with some of our seemingly fluent foreign friends, conveniently claiming a lack of English when the topic of treasure was discussed, making it hard to tell who else is on the trail and how much the locals actually were letting on.
The day began with a hearty breakfast topped off by a some diced hákari, a traditional Icelandic delicacy consisting of putrefied shark meat that has been buried for months to ensure sufficient decomposition. The foul aftertaste of the horrid seafood was to haunt our taste buds for many hours to follow.
Loaded with bags of goodies including maps, flags, metal detectors, a semi-functional compass and packed lunches, under clear blue skies, the team of able fortune-hunters set off in search of the Viking lure.
Across gullies, through fields, over rivers and up hills we trekked, lugging the utensils that were fundamental in the quest for silver coins. Blasting familiar tunes from a local radio station on the handheld, windup transistor radio we clambered, befriending a herd of Icelandic horses before reaching what we thought was the scenic Mosfell valley.
The objective of our first day in the field was to establish our bearings and determine the exact area that we would be combing for the chests. Using an approach that would see us pinpointing landmarks from the treasure map, we determined the vicinity of the riches where we would eventually start digging.
An old wooden church featured prominently in the Egil sagas, and was the distinguishable landmark on the maps. Upon discovery of the church we could locate the other markers, notably the residence of the recent Halldor Laxnes, Nobel Prize winner in 1954 for his book Independent people, one of sixty books he wrote in his productive existence. The book, based around the Mosfell area, featured references to the lost Viking treasure throughout, and although Halldor had recently passed on, we thought that his widow, who still lived in the large white house, may hold some helpful clues as to the location of the treasure.
Proudly bracing the side of a grassy hill stood a historic wooden church, white in colour. Its position in reference to the mountains around, and harbour beyond, were a sign that we had the right structure and we were hot on the trail and would soon locate the Laxnes dwelling.
We got some directions to the Laxness from some Reykjavik ladies touring Mosfell for the day. The directions didnt add up based on the proximity to the church to the distinctive white house that we apparently couldnt miss.
From the ridge of the hill, across the valley below, dwarfing the small agricultural buildings around, we could see a large white mansion surrounded by lush pastures and a sweeping driveway. Its shear scale seemed to match the descriptions perfectly of the Laxnes abode, and looked fit for Icelands renowned Nobel Prize winner.
After scrambling over almost the unwalkable terrain, from our hilltop viewpoint to the big white house, we arrived at the modest entrance of the homestead. With the front door slightly ajar, our scampering around could easily be heard by the occupants inside, and before we had a chance to regroup and ring the door bell, we were greeted by a seemingly simple character, oblivious to the English language. Looking for supervision, the rather odd gentleman called on his elderly companion a kind old soul, who was also unfamiliar with English.
The house showed no sign of the Laxness, and by this stage, it looked like we had found ourselves in a snag, but as luck would have it, our elderly friends grandson, Elias, who spoke fluent English, happened to be driving by at our time of visitation. Elias, a strapping Icelandic man in his late-20s and owner of two health clubs in Reykjavik, cured our confusion by establishing we were in fact in the wrong valley, and the Mosfell we were looking for, complete with the church, Laxnorr residence, and therefore, the buried booty, was in fact in the next valley over, on the other side of the hills, about 5km away from our current location.
As we were quickly finding out, the Icelandics are a very helpful and obliging species, with Elias being no exception, as he offered to drive us to the right valley.
At the Laxnes residence we arrived, and to top off his helpfulness, Elias offered to talk to Laxness widow in Icelandic and try to get us inside. Holding his gorgeous blonde baby daughter, with a charming tone, Elias had befriended the 83-year old, Ms. Laxnes, and before we knew it, we were inside the house of the Nobel Prize winner looking for any signs of Halldors work that could assist in the search for the lost chests.
Halldors widow turned out to be a very sweet old lady and kindly showed us throughout the house including the library where Halldor would do his fine work, including the typewriter used to record his literature. The house contained some of the finest and most expensive collections of Icelandic art (some of which were valued at almost US$1m).
As pleasant as the visit was, and as fortunate as we were to be inside the Nobel Prize winners house, Ms. Laxnes or the house gave no strong leads to the whereabouts of the silver.
In our continued string of convenient occurrences, Elias pointed out the farm across the road from the Laxness. It turned out that this was the same farm that millennium year-old silver coins, reputedly from Egils stash, were found in the river beds, believed to have washed up after the high creek levels of the spring run-off, pointing to a location upstream for the burial site.
The same farm provided Icelandic horse treks that would be the perfect opportunity scope out the search area and befriend the farmers so they would be a lot more understanding about us digging up their farm. Hour by hour we were getting closer to finding the treasure, everything was starting to fall into place.
As the day was getting on and the hard work of treasure hunting had exhausted us, we decided it would be a good idea to plan for a horse trek early tomorrow morning.
Day 3, still no treasure, but etching closer every hour. An early morning start saw us at the farm we had visited the day earlier, saddling up and ready to ride the fine specimens of Icelandic Horses calmly waiting before us.
Egil Skallagrimsson had ridden horses up the Mosfell Valley in the area of the Laxnes farm and had buried the treasure somewhere in the vicinity. Riding horses just as he had, helped put us into the head on the 10th century Viking poet and simulating his behaviour by retracing his every step, would help us understand what he could have done with the treasure.
Through rugged gullies, along thin dirt tracks we trotted, crossing mountain streams, past spectacular waterfalls we were guided, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery.
We happened to stumble upon a small section of the very gully that Egil carried the chests of silver into, as legend has it, and by took a mental note of the complicated route to the locale from the farm so we could return with the treasure-detecting equipment.
The most enjoyable trek finished and was complimented by a fine feast of bread, soup and locally caught trout washed down with local ales.
Leaving behind our newfound friends, we set off in the journey back to where we had just been - the gully of the treasure. The serious hunting was about to begin.
After calibrating our active-scanning, mulitispectrum, microprocessor-controlled, graphic target analysing GTAX 400 metal detectors to beep for silver, we set off along the creek, penetrating the rich soil for treasure, marking the areas the detectors indicated activity with bright yellow flags, ready for digging when we returned with a shovel.
We scoured the valley dotting the step walls alongside the pristine creek with the indiscrete yellow markers.
After the exhaustive day of treasure hunting, having covered the creeks edge from the foot of the gully to the stony plateau above the runoff area, we retired to enjoy the late afternoon sun back at the horse farm. Poli, the middle-aged resident of the ranch, shared some interesting insights into the legends of Egil and the treasure. His knowledge of the buried fortunes was enlightening, but probably the most informative suggestion he provided was the contact for local expert in the field of the Egil sagas, Bjarki, local resident historian and professor, teaching antiquities at the local university.
With the evening rolling on, after the nightly barbeque routine back at Hildas Guesthouse, we rolled into downtown Reykjavik for what turned out to be a fabulous evening all round with a complete evening with everything from karaoke to dirty-mouthed Icelandic women.
Heads were on pillows a little later this morning due to the previous evenings festivities, but it wasnt long before the stale aftertaste of Viking Lager was gone and the onerous memories of badly performed karaoke tunes ringing in my head fell silent. The team was once again hard on the heels of discovering the location of the lost Viking treasure.
Although English is widely spoken in Reykjavik, we were starting to find that some of the elders, especially those in the rural areas like the Mosfell Valley, are unfamiliar with the language. As a precaution we recruited Frida, one of the foul-mouthed local girls from the previous evening, to join the expedition as we knew her local knowledge and bilingual expertise would be invaluable.
Upon return to the gully of treasure it was reassuring to see the bright yellow marker flags dotting the ravine as a testament of the good work we had done a day earlier.
We had used a detailed formula to determine the treasure could be buried as deep as 2m 60cm from the sediment build-up that had occurred in the 1,000 years since Egil buried it, and the remainder coming from the depth of the hole that could have been dug to bury the treasure.
While it was unfeasible to dig holes of such great deepness in every area that the GTAX 400s had beeped, we instead took soil samples, which we would later examine for traces of silver. Retracing our steps from yesterday, we shovelled small samples of dirt from each locale into purpose-specific sample bags, labelling every sample with a descriptive location of the source.
With the welcome help of an extra set of hands, we worked tirelessly into the night, having only headlamps to guide us through the darkness after the sun had set. It was a welcome transmission on the short wave radio from Map Man to inform us that he had obtained the last sample and our work for the day was done.
There was an eerie silence in the gully and the absence of street or house lights around ensured it was now very dark. The darkness, complimented by the mist, set the scene for some rather spooky tales of ghosts and trolls in the area that Frida recited to us as we walked cautiously along the stream bank carrying the days soil samples back to the car.
The sport of treasure hunting is no easy task at the best of times. The concentration and dedication required for legitimate expeditions, demands incredible focus, both mentally and physically. For the previous few days we had been fuelled by adrenaline from the run of successes as we had edged closer to tracing the treasure, but rather than facing the risk of burning out, the line-up of treasure seekers decided to have a well deserved day off and see some of the sites of Reykjavik.
The 18th of August was no ordinary day to be in Icelands capital city, the day marked both the Reykjaviks birthday and a celebration marking the end of prohibition just 16 years ago. The bustling downtown area was full with more than 50,000 Icelanders from all corners of the land, enjoying everything from white-boy rap contests to fireworks displays.
As the night went on, and the young families and old folk started to leave the crowded streets, the behaviour became more drunken and disorderly. The buzz was electric, with a positive vibe that swept through the masses like a forest fire in the wind, meaning there wasnt a grumpy face to be seen.
Over the course of the evening we soaked up the atmosphere in a number of establishments varying from trendy ones to sleazy ones to discotechs, but the last stop and undoubtedly the paramount of eventful evening was the legendary Café Nobel, the comfortable karaoke bar that was our 2nd home. We were given a heros welcome by the familiar bar staff and patrons, with whom we had established a rock star status over the previous evenings.
Giving in to crowd pressure, we performed a number of acts including Eye of The Tiger, and sung our hearts out entertaining the receptive audience well into the early hours.
Back on the trail for the lost chests, we made an executive decision to search further up the ravine than we had ventured earlier to cover all of the possible scenarios that Egil could have taken a Millennium ago.
We journeyed for miles from the original site to an area that surpassed the natural beauty of anywhere I had seen in Iceland since arriving. Dramatic jagged rocky cliffs, whose silhouettes formed profiles of human faces, framed an area of graceful waterfalls and crystal clear springs.
As breathtaking as our surroundings were, the strain of the long journey hauling the treasure finding equipment along rocky riverbanks was starting to tire the merry men. The irony is, it was just when we were discussing the possibility of calling it a day as the chances of the treasure being any further upstream was unlikely, when we were drawn to the twinkle of the suns reflection in the pristine riverbed in front of us.
Due to the significance and sensitivity of historical artefacts in Iceland, I cannot say anything more about our treasure hunt. Extensive footage was taken throughout the expedition, and it was decided amongst the Aethelstan Project committee (the four of us looking for the treasure) that we would not disclose any further information until the release of the movie.
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