A mysterious gold cauldron discovered in a Bavarian lake is posing a riddle for officials. Who owned the treasure and why was it thrown into the Chiemsee? Although decorated with ancient motifs, the cauldron is a modern fake. Nevertheless, it is still valuable, since its 10.5 kilograms of gold represents a bullion value of e100,000. If it originally belonged to an ordinary citizen, then its value will be shared equally between the Bavarian State, which owns the lake, and the finder. But if it was Nazi property, then it all goes to the State.
Although news of the discovery has only just emerged, it was found in September 2001 by a diver in the Chiemsee, 70 kilometres east of Munich. The finder has remained anonymous, but it was apparently discovered at a depth of three metres, some 300 metres off the northern shore, between the villages of Ising and Seebruck.
The cauldron’s workmanship meant that it was identified as a modern object, but its motifs are clearly based on an ancient vessel which was discovered in a peat bog at Gundestrup, in Jutland, Denmark. Now in Copenhagen’s Nationalmuseet, the Gundestrup Cauldron is the largest surviving piece of European Iron Age silver, and has been variously dated between the fourth and first centuries BC.
Although discovered in 1891, the Gundestrup Cauldron was not properly published until 1915, which means that the Chiemsee pot must have been made later. As the recent find was made some distance from the shore, but in relatively shallow water, it was most likely deliberately hidden there for safekeeping. This suggests that the cauldron was dropped in the lake during the World War II. It also seems that whoever owned the 50-centimetre-high cauldron was keen to preserve it, rather than simply realise its bullion value.
The most likely explanation is that a Nazi would have hidden the cauldron during the American advance in 1945. One suggestion is that it had been made on the orders of Hitler’s ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who was planning to set up a Nazi education centre near Chiemsee. Rosenberg drew inspiration from mythology, believing that the Germans were descended from a Nordic race whose strength came from their semi-Arctic environment.
Among the few clues to the Chiemsee cauldron’s original owner are the raised motifs decorating its inner and outer surfaces. Based on the Gundestrup Cauldron, these depict Celtic pagan deities, surrounded by animals and plants. But why would a Nazi have used the Jutland cauldron as his model?
The Celtic motifs suggest that the Gundestrup Cauldron may have been seized by the Romans in northern Gaul—and could even have been made in Ireland. But the workmanship appears Thracian, from the Lower Danube basin near the Black Sea, as do the fantastic animals in the decoration. So had Nazi ideologue Rosenberg simply missed the scholarly debate over the Gundestrup Cauldron, assuming it to have been made in Jutland? Had he realised that it may well have come from near the Black Sea then it would hardly have demonstrated the superiority of the Nordic race.
The newly discovered Chiemsee cauldron is currently being studied by Professor Ludwig Wamser of Munich’s Staatliche Antikensammlungen (archaeological collection). He will advise the Bavarian ministry of finance and an announcement is expected next month. If it is decided that the cauldron did indeed belong to the Nazis, then this poses a dilemma: the State will hardly wish to display a fake in its archaeological museum but to melt it down for bullion would seem unduly destructive. Presumably the Chiemsee cauldron would therefore end up hidden in store, a relic of the Nazi’s misplaced admiration for the ancient Celts.