The Baltic island of Gotland is a goldmine for artefact hunters equipped with metal detectors, Gotland. Later Roman and Early Medieval gold hoards abound, as do Viking age silver hoards and as a journalist notes "a single rare coin from a silver treasure could be worth six figures alone". Stolen dug-up artefacts "are often sold on Swedish and foreign websites that specialise in these types of objects. Parts of silver treasures are also sold by the finest auction houses in Europe". "Finest"?
Kenneth Mandergrehn, coordinator of the cultural heritage crimes at the National Police (Rikspolisen), described the looting of antiquities as a large and often difficult problem. "We rely heavily on the public being mindful. The crimes often take place at night out in fields with the help of metal detectors. As a rule, the looters are well acquainted with the areas. They know the value. They are not ordinary people who are out and plundering," he explained.In other words it is not just "treasure finders" who are responsible for illicit items on the market but "treasure seekers" too.
In November last year a silver find was made in a field in Gandarve in Alva and reported to archaeologists employed by Gotland county (there is a reward paid in Sweden for such reports). On arriving at the site they were dismayed to discover that the area was already riddled with holes and it was clear that many valuable artefacts had been looted from the archaeological assemblage.
The thieves had dug some 250 holes in a bid to secure as much booty as possible. Initially it was estimated that the criminals had made off with 500 silver pieces. These could, it was suggested be worth "a combined total of 250,000 to 500,000 kronor ($35,000 to $70,000)". Following the discovery of the looting, the field was placed under police surveillance, enabling archaeologists to continue their excavation work and recover items the thieves had missed. These included over 100[0?] silver coins, a gold bracteate and a silver crucifix.
Four days later it was announced by Sveriges Radio that "three men, including the board member of an auction house, have been arrested on Gotland in connection with the plunder of hundreds of Viking-era silver artefacts [...] The three men, 38, 44 and 45, all live on the mainland, though two also own homes on Gotland. One of the men, a 44-year-old from Stockholm, is employed by an auction house specializing in the sale of old coins. The two men in their forties are suspected of aggravated cultural heritage offences, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of four years in jail. The 44-year old and 45-year-old are also both suspected of aggravated preparation to commit a cultural heritage offence. The 38-year-old is accused of the lesser crime of preparation to commit a cultural heritage offence.The report of the bringing of criminal charges this week shows how complex and time-consuming investigations of this type of crime can be. The number of people charged has now risen to five. The men will now be
prosecuted for the theft of around 1,000 silver coins from the Viking Age. Five men aged 40 to 45 were charged for robbery. "These thefts have been so frustrating for many years. It really feels like a sweet success that it has resulted in criminal charges against the thieves today," said Majvor Östergren, archaeological administrator of Gotland's county administrative board.The thieves had stolen over 1,000 coins from the deposit. This was typical of the type of thing that is found around the whole Baltic Sea region. In this case the deposit consisted of comprised a total of 2,000 coins from the 1060's, mostly German, English and Danish coins.
The suspects were linked to the crime scene by a remarkable discovery. Part of a crucifix from the 11th century was found in the ground where the looters dug. Several days later, an email was discovered by chance with a photo of a part of a crucifix. A comparison of the find and the image showed that the parts belonged together and that the crucifix came from the hiding place in the field in Gandarve.
"The person who had sent the email was suspected of having attempted to sell the crucifix and he led us on to another person with ties to Gotland," said prosecutor Mats Wihlborg. During a raid on a property on Gotland, investigators came across three people with metal detectors, shovels and backpacks. After examining computers and GPS equipment, they also found links between the defendants and two other places where the looters had struck on Gotland.
The charges the defendants face include preparation of aggravated crime against relics and aggravated crime against relics that carry a penalty of up to four years in prison. Three of the defendants were seen as the ringleaders behind the silver looting.
Prosecutor Wihlborg is reported as saying: "It is very rare that we get this far. We have never had a case of this scope". The last time someone had been convicted of cultural heritage offences on Gotland was apparently in 1991 when two German geologists with metal detectors were each sentenced to three months in prison when they tried to make off with a number of artefacts.
Paul O'Mahony, 'Island thieves bag Viking treasure, thelocal.se, 2nd Nov 2009.
Paul O'Mahony, 'Three arrested for Viking treasure theft', thelocal.se, 6th Nov 2009.
TT/The Local/vt, 'Stolen silver treasure recovered on Gotland',thelocal.se, 8th Dec 2010.