Dr Sean Kingsley is an archaeologist and historian with over 15 years’ experience exploring ancient ruins. An internationally renowned marine archaeologist, Sean holds a doctorate in the archaeology of the Holy Land from Oxford University and is a Visiting Fellow at the Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at Reading University. He is also the Managing Editor of Minerva, the International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology.
His sixth and most recent book is titled God’s Gold (Amazon US and UK). The book “explores the fate of the greatest biblical treasure in history, the central icons of the Jewish faith looted from the Temple of Jerusalem…using untapped historical texts and new archaeological sources, Sean Kingsley unravels the incredible history of this treasure; its character; and religious, political, and financial meaning across the ages.” You can find more information about God’s Gold at the official website.
TDG: Thanks for giving up some of your time to talk to us Sean. Firstly, I’d like to ask if you could briefly introduce yourself to readers, how you came to find yourself searching for the lost treasure of the Jerusalem Temple, and the conclusions you came to regarding the whereabouts of this treasure.
Dr Sean Kingsley: In 1991 I turned my back on a stable profession to pursue a dream: exploring ancient shipwrecks off central Israel. One day as a storm swept down from the Carmel Mountains, forcing a break from diving, I chanced upon a letter in The Jerusalem Post written by Israel’s Ministry of Culture, which accused the Pope of imprisoning the gold candelabrum plundered from the Temple of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70, deep beneath Vatican City. If true, the political implications were astonishing.
Though sidetracked by discovering twelve ancient ships that year – the largest concentration in the Mediterranean – and going on to write a doctorate at Oxford University on Holy Land maritime trade, I never forgot that letter. An obsession grew, and as I took on the roll of Managing Editor for Minerva magazine in London, the international review of ancient art and archaeology, I embarked on a journey of truth, wherever it would take me.
The Temple treasure of Jerusalem is to my mind at least as important historically as the Ark of the Covenant and Holy Grail, and I was astonished that nobody had explored this conundrum scientifically before. What was the forensic evidence? Could God’s gold really lie under lock and key in the Vatican – a plot straight out of a Dan Brown novel – or was the reality even more dramatic? I had to know. This loot is not dead, it lives on as a symbol of hope, with the candelabrum even serving as the insignia of the state of Israel. The changing meaning of these artistic masterpieces down the centuries and into the modern era are intriguing. God’s Gold was to be both a personal quest and a biography of the religious, artistic, political and social history of these icons.
The journey was long and arduous. Without giving away the plot, over ten years I twice circled the Mediterranean, pursuing a trail of evidence from Jerusalem to Rome, Tunis, Istanbul and back to the Holy Land. In Rome I was almost arrested by the carabinieri and had machine guns pointed at me outside the presidential palace in Tunisia. In the final analysis – and with no political or religious axe to grind – I proved that the Temple treasure was never in the Vatican City. The reality and its final resting place, far closer to Israel’s parliamentary assembly, the Knesset, is even more startling.
TDG: Do you really think that the treasure could have survived for all these years, without being either destroyed accidentally or for reasons of trade?
Dr Sean Kingsley: Today’s Reality TV generation is bred on a diet of fame and fortune, the dream of quick-fix wealth. $500 million worth of silver found in a ship’s hull is seen more as liquid cash than living history. It is normal for us to define ancient treasure in monetary terms. If any ancient civilization would have melted down the treasures of Jerusalem, it would have been Rome. Vespasian came to a throne and Empire bankrupted by his predecessor, Nero. The army was unpaid, the city mob gnashing its teeth, and Rome itself in desperate need of a facelift after the great fire of AD 64. The new ruler needed an estimated 4 billion sesterces to put the state back on his feet – around $4.5 billion. Through modern rose-tinted spectacles we would have expected Vespasian to have quickly turned the holy icons of Jerusalem into fast cash.
The fact that historical texts prove he didn’t speaks volumes about antiquity’s attitude towards this loot. The gold and silver art and tax revenue that Rome plundered from the Second Temple, estimated at some 50 tons, was a sufficiently massive cash injection to satisfy Vespasian’s immediate financial crisis. The foundations of the Colosseum in Rome cost at least $200 million and, as an inscription proves, were paid for from the spoils of Judea.
But spin and propaganda were infinitely more crucial. Vespasian had been a nobody, a country hillbilly whose rural accent people laughed at. His family reared mules. How could he justify his new imperial, Flavian dynasty? The Temple treasure of Jerusalem was a pagan godsend. Vespasian packaged the fall of the Holy City as the greatest battle in history and so coveted the menorah, Table of the Divine Presence, and Jewish trumpets as the physical expressions of the Flavians’ ultimate foundation myth. Put simply, the most important forms of communication between man and the God of the Old Testament were worth more alive than melted down into cash.
The same power behind the Jewish icons guaranteed their survival down the centuries. When the emperor Justinian conquered the Vandals of North Africa and recovered God’s gold from Algeria, it gave early Christianity the legitimate right to rule because now the followers of Christ controlled and possessed the religious tools of the past, biblical Israel.
So, yes, a web of texts and archaeological remains lead to one objective conclusion: God’s gold survived intact for 800 years into the early seventh century AD, when it disappears from the pages of history.
TDG: In terms of the ‘mythology’ of the treasure, much of the attention in recent decades has focused on the information in the Copper Scroll. Is this a topic that you looked into in any detail, or was your investigation entirely separate?
Dr Sean Kingsley: The enigma of the Copper Scroll, found in Cave 3 along the Qumran cliffs in the Dead Sea in 1952, is one of the most intriguing and, to many, convincing sources that explains the fate of the Temple treasure of Jerusalem. I dedicate two chapters of my book to making sense of this Hebrew document.
For the uninitiated, the Copper Scroll is a list of sixty-one buried deposits listed by volume, value, and hiding place – a veritable treasure map leading to $3 billion, by some estimates. To many scholars this is the master key to the treasures removed from the Temple to escape the greedy clutches of Rome. Incised on copper in AD 70, these precious relics were squirreled away across the Judean Hills by Jewish High Priests. Thus, for instance, Item 7 tells us that:
In the cavity of the
Old House of Tribute, in the
Platform of the Chain:
65 bars of gold.
But little in this bizarre document makes sense as historical reality. First of all, no expert agrees on its date: to some it was hidden by Essene Jews in AD 68; to others it was penned during the Bar Kokhba Revolt of AD 134. If we play with the idea of the scroll being written by worried High Priests determined not to let Rome get its hands on God’s gold, then consider this reality. Titus is encamped outside the gates of Jerusalem with over 22,000 troops. The House of God is about to fall. The atmosphere would have been desperate and the decision to smuggle the Temple art and money out of town would have been a last-ditch act decided upon at the last minute.
But the so-called secret to its hiding places was incised on copper, a process that would have taken weeks. Copper was a formal medium for writing inscriptions in the Roman world and utterly inappropriate for this time and place. At best, a High Priest would have grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled some notes. Writing on copper is at least ten times slower than writing on papyrus or leather, which is what is used for every single one of the other 850 Dead Sea Scrolls.
Further, the cryptic notations of places cited in the Copper Scroll would have been non-sensical to anyone other than the person who wrote them. Place names are not provided, only mnemonic hints. Dr John Allegro believed he’d cracked the code, and led expeditions to the Dead Sea between 1960 and 1963, even with the support of the King of Jordan. His search was utterly worthless. Most probably the treasure of the Copper Scroll was pure myth, written long after the fall of the Temple as nostalgic literature yearning for a brave old world – as Dr Jozef Milik, the document’s official publisher, concluded. Or it listed taxes gathered by Jews between AD 70 and 134 in anticipation of the rebuilding of the Temple after the fall of Rome. But what is certain is that nowhere does this Disneyesque scroll refer to the central and most precious artistic icons of Jewish worship – the candelabrum, Table and trumpets. Texts and wall reliefs on the Arch of Titus prove that all three treasures made it safely to Rome in AD 71. As absolutely fascinating as it undoubtedly is, the Copper Scroll is a castle in the sky in the real quest for God’s gold.
TDG: Doesn’t the fact that copper was used as the medium indicate though that this is a document meant to stand the test of time, just as would be expected of something that records the location of important treasure? Or is this a misconception?
Dr Sean Kingsley: Rome used copper exclusively for monumental inscriptions set up formally in public forums. Everyday correspondence and documentation were recorded on papyrus or leather parchment. Records of treasures in temples across the Mediterranean were not documented on metal. Given the Copper Scroll’s concealment in a cave, and presumed creation solely as a guide to some kind of treasure, the use of this metal is a contradiction in terms in my opinion. What’s the benefit of using copper for a text spirited away in a cave in the Dead Sea? To stand the test of time? Well, the 850 Dead Sea Scrolls haven’t fared so badly over the centuries.
This debate will run and run, with every one and their dog having a different opinion. If the leading experts can’t agree on this scroll’s date and function, then there’s no short-term answer. But we have to be very weary of projecting our own image of what constitutes a treasure map on antiquity. There lies if not madness, then certainly Walt Disney!
TDG: In the past two decades, much of the speculation about Temple treasure, and related topics such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, has entered the public consciousness via books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (and more recently of course, The Da Vinci Code), and Graham Hancock’s Sign and the Seal. Most scholars and orthodox historians dismiss these books, but it has to be admitted that they act as a great ‘gateway’ for people to get interested in historical topics. What are your personal thoughts on this genre of books?
Dr Sean Kingsley: The ‘Brownitis’ genre is terrific fun, but also a double-edged sword. You’re completely right that it serves as a welcome peg to get the public interested in the past. Few scholars other than perhaps Erich Segal or David Gibbins can produce such literary excitement as Mr Brown. However, the expectation level amongst public and publisher alike is now completely unrealistic. People now think that recovering ancient treasure or exposing major archaeological remains inevitably hinges on codes, cryptology and – next-up from Dan Brown – ‘keys’. The bar of how to write popular history and archaeology books is now ‘fantastically’ high. This isn’t Brown’s fault but the publishers for packaging fantasy as fact.
I welcome and thoroughly enjoy adventure novels about lost treasure (and would particularly recommend Paul Sussman’s The Last Secret of the Temple (Amazon US and UK), published by Bantam). But there is a perception problem here, which is stopping excellent research, written in accessible, popular form, reaching the public. In a book review I have already been accused of being Graham Hancock, even though I qualify all my facts and sources and have worked as an academic for fifteen years. And a well-placed member of the publishing fraternity even had the audacity to suggest I make up some stories for my book – total sacrilege, which I would never entertain! Meanwhile, controversy sells, and the real-life Indiana Jones often finds his book ideas dubbed too respectable.
Like everyone else, I greatly look forward to Dan Brown’s forthcoming The Solomon Key. Not least because during my research in Jerusalem I was told that Brown had been treading similar ground to me. Is my own book the real-life story of Temple treasure that he’s going to be grappling with next, I find myself wondering? But the Brown bubble will inevitably burst, and I hope publishers and public will appreciate that books like God’s Gold have as much real-life drama as the dreamland of the fictional novel or pseudo-historical books that are so popular today.
TDG: In recent years the Middle East, largely due to underlying religious tensions, has become an extremely dangerous location to work – especially when it comes to locations of religious significance such as the Temple Mount. Did you encounter any difficulties in carrying out field research?
Dr Sean Kingsley: Generally, the West sees the East as a battleground. Fear not. More people should visit the Holy Land from Lebanon to Jordan. The security situation inside Israel is good right now. Very early on I made the decision not to tell anyone outside a tight group about my research – I went under cover and visited people and places under the radar. The Temple treasure is such an emotional subject that I suspected getting through security from Israel into the West Bank by declaring an intent to go and find the gold candelabrum just wouldn’t have been wise!
By going under cover I got to almost all of the sites I needed to investigate. The Temple Mount was calm, although my photography of clear traces of large-scale archaeological destruction by the Islamic authorities did raise unwanted attention. In the West Bank, both Palestinian police and Hamas checked me out, but playing the tourist card worked well. I suppose my cover is now well and truly blown for the future.
Oddly, my biggest security scare was in Rome, where Berlusconi and friends were helping celebrate the centenary of the Great Synagogue. For taking notes and trying to photograph the media scrum and candelabrum on top of this House of God, Israeli and Italian security tried to take my camera away. In the end, I charmed the heavies (in Hebrew) but was forcefully expelled from within the first of the two security cordons I’d slipped through.
In terms of the big picture, it is precisely because of the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharifs’s centrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the inevitable future breakdown of final status talks of Jerusalem, that I pledged not to personally dig up God’s gold. The Mount has rightly been called a time-bomb of apocalyptic dimensions by Meron Benvinisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. All hell can break out here at the drop of a hat. Imagine if the gold candelabrum – the light of Israel – re-surfaced? Here would be divine proof of the arrival of the end-times and justification for replacing the Dome of the Rock with a Third Temple. I would not like to be part of such a doomsday scenario. Anyway, to me treasure has always been about knowledge, not possession.
TDG: All the same, doesn’t your book raise the likelihood that others might attempt to recover the treasure (from both Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, through to Mossad or even simple treasure hunters)? Is it wise to discuss the possible existence of this treasure openly?
Dr Sean Kingsley: I’d be mightily surprised if Israeli intelligence hasn’t collated a file on this subject by now. I don’t equate my search for historical truth with the politicization of the past. As an archaeologist I have an obligation to follow research through to what I consider to be an objective conclusion, wherever it may take me. The world has an intrinsic interest in this subject and I believe I’ve dealt with the treasure’s diaspora across 550 years in a responsible way. Was it wise for Schliemann to dig up Troy and expose pots covered with swastikas, Greco-Roman symbols of good luck adapted by Adolf Hitler into the most despicable image in history? Can we blame the Schliemann’s of this world for future fanaticism? I think not.
TDG: In terms of adventure, it’s hard to top the quest for God’s Gold. What’s your next project, and are there any other plans on the horizon for an adventure of this scale?
Dr Sean Kingsley: God’s Gold was a logistical nightmare. I had to ‘consume’ a vast amount of sources and get to grips with centuries of civilizations. Great treasures of global proportions are far and few between these days. So, I think I’ll take a break from the quest for now.
In any case, more immediate matters are pressing, like global warming and religious fanaticism. Although I am technically an atheist, I’m especially infuriated with the immaturity of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion diatribe, now reinforced by Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great. The extremist anti-god views of both writers are not helpful and flag up problems we all know about intimately already, rather than searching out and suggesting healing solutions. I may not have faith in a god in the traditional sense, but everybody has the right to prayer and worship. Both scholars utterly fail to understand how religion works historically, let alone the cultural poverty we’d have without it: just think of the great art, music and architecture spawned by the synagogue, church and mosque down the centuries. How many great books would have been lost to mankind if monasteries hadn’t safeguarded them for posterity? So next up, I feel the need to write a balanced book explaining the social and psychological role of gods in antiquity. Many of the great mysteries of life may have been answered by science, but does this becalm the soul at times of family or personal crisis or tragedy? Science is totally incapable of nourishing the spirit, rather than the intellect. Of course God has a central role to play in modern society.