37 Objects Discovered In Deserts That Turned Out To Be Worth A Bucketload Of Money
By Ken Macdonald
When you picture a desert, you probably envision a huge, seemingly neverending expanse of sand – enlivened, perhaps, by the occasional camel train. But, as it turns out, these desolate landscapes may also host valuable treasures. That’s right: people who have been either incredibly lucky or who know just where to look have all turned up objects of great worth there.
And some of the things found in these barren wastelands are truly unexpected. A shipwreck, an entire fleet of fighter jets and thousands of buried video games are amongst the more perplexing things that have come to light. It all goes to show, then, that deserts are much more interesting than you may think.
We’ve listed 37 of the most valuable items that have turned up in these arid areas – including a huge gold nugget, an ancient Egyptian artifact from pharaonic times and a rock from outer space. And when you come to see what exactly has emerged from the sands, you’ll be truly amazed.
Timbuktu sits on the southern fringe of the Sahara in the country of Mali. And back in the 16th century, the city was wealthy, with a strong tradition of scholarship and its own university. But while this seat of learning once boasted a splendid array of books, many of these artifacts were seemingly lost to posterity in the centuries that followed. Fortunately, in recent times, a concerted hunt for the long-lost publications has come up trumps. Much of the collection has been tracked down in various desert locations, and the hot, arid environment has luckily helped to keep a number of the books in decent condition.
Yes, that’s right: there’s actually a designer outlet stuck in the desert. It’s called Prada Marfa, and you can find it a little more than a mile from Valentine, Texas, right on U.S. Highway 90. Despite the store’s appearance, though, it’s not actually in operation; instead, it’s merely an installation by artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. And, unfortunately, thieves broke into the shop on the very day that it was unveiled and took all of the stock.
In 2017 archeologists discovered the ancient tomb of an Egyptian goldsmith called Amenemhat. More specifically, his grave is in the Draa el-Naga burial ground, which is situated not far from the fabulous Valley of the Kings. And as a goldsmith, Amenemhat would have been a high-status individual in his era some 3,500 years ago. Fittingly, then, his final resting place contained elaborate jewelry as well as 150 small statues representing figures who would be Amenemhat’s attendants in his life after death.
One of the lesser-known items of value that comes from deserts is borax – a chemical compound from which it’s possible to extract boron. And boron is a key component for a number of manufactured goods, including glass, washing powder, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Naturally, then, miners have taken borax from one area where the mineral is plentiful: around California’s Searles Lake. Apparently, some $1 billion worth of the material has been extricated there, in fact, with some saying that it’s more lucrative to exploit than even gold.
Ask any prospector, and they’ll likely tell you that one of the best places to find silver is in the deserts of the world. Indeed, in 1859, miners found huge lodes of the precious metal in Nevada – hence its nickname as the Silver State. And according to website The Richest, desert land there yielded $225 million worth of silver – enough, in fact, to have a positive impact on the nation’s finances.
In 2010 archeologists working in northern Israel made a stunning discovery in the desert. There, they unearthed a gold coin – and not just any piece of currency, either. For one, the item weighs more than any other coin that has previously been found in Israel. And experts believe, moreover, that the more than 2,000-year-old piece was made in ancient Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy V. Speaking to the Associated Press in 2010, Donald T. Ariel of the Israel Antiquities Authority said of the artifact, “It must have been equivalent to half a year or a year’s salary in one coin.”
You may think of a desert as a desolate habitat with little in the way of plants or animals. But, in fact, plenty of tiny microbes exist in such inhospitable environments, and these may even turn out to be of huge value to humanity. Take the microorganism that researchers discovered in the Atacama Desert in Chile, for example. Scientists believe, you see, that this miniscule lifeform could offer an effective treatment for the human immunodeficiency virus – or HIV, as it’s more commonly known.
The tomb of Psusennes I – also known as the Silver Pharaoh – was unearthed back in 1939. The ancient Egyptian leader had ruled way before that, though, with his kingdom dating back to 3,000 years ago. And interred with Psusennes I was a stunning collection of gold artifacts that included a death mask, sandals and rings. Indeed, it’s been said that the contents of the Silver Pharaoh’s tomb are even more opulent than those of Tutankhamun’s last resting place.
Lucky Australian prospector Kevin Hillier hit the jackpot while he was out with his metal detector on one day in 1980. At that time, you see, he came across a gold nugget weighing an astonishing 960 ounces in a desert close to the town of Kingower, Victoria. And Hillier ultimately found a buyer in Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget, which snapped up the find for a cool $1 million. Now, that’s the way to make money out of a casino!
In 2013 an American couple – whose real names have never been revealed – were walking their dog on land that they owned in a desolate part of California’s Sierra Nevada. And that’s when they spotted an old tin can that turned out to contain gold coins. Soon, the pair unearthed further cans and coins; in total, then, there were 1,427 separate pieces of currency that were minted from 1847 to 1894. What’s more, a 2014 estimate gave a value of $10 million for the hoard. Interestingly, though, the identity of the coins’ original owner remains a complete mystery.
In 1996 a team of researchers unearthed something extraordinary while working at the Bahariya Oasis in the wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert. After several digs, you see, they managed to excavate some 250 mummies from the Greco-Roman era, which took place roughly 2,000 years ago. Some of the mummies had elaborately decorated gilded masks and waistcoats, too, and were amazingly well-preserved considering their age. And the precious items that were unveiled have helped to give this archeological site its name: the Valley of the Golden Mummies.
It seems that a mysterious parcel arrived at the offices of Desert Magazine back in 1965. Inside was a letter, some other papers and, most surprisingly, two pieces of gold. The anonymous message claimed, moreover, that the sender had discovered the location of Pegleg’s “burned black gold” and that they had removed $300,000 worth of bullion from the site. It’s true, too, that Thomas “Pegleg” Smith really did exist. Reputedly a horse thief as well as a prospector, he died in 1866. But did he leave behind a hoard of gold? Well, nobody knows for sure.
If you keep up to date with current affairs, you may remember that U.S. special forces tracked down and trapped the former leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019. Not officially captured, Baghdadi then committed suicide, and following the news, it emerged that Mohammed Ali Sajet, one of his closest lieutenants, had had something to share. Specifically, Sajet had claimed that ISIS had stashed $25 million of gold, currency and silver at various locations in Iraq’s al-Anbar desert. Apparently, shepherds had then found the treasure and taken it for themselves. And if that’s true, these must now be the richest herders in the world.
For most of us, treasure tends to mean gold, silver and diamonds. But while uranium is often overlooked in this way, it’s nonetheless a highly valuable commodity. After all, this radioactive metal is used in nuclear submarines, power stations and fearsome weaponry. And if you want to find uranium, the place to look for it is generally in the desert. One of the world’s largest mines to extract the element can be found in the Namib, which runs for over 1,200 miles along the coast of Namibia.
Cylinder seals were pressed onto clay to create an impression with detailed symbols and figures. And, typically, they were used by ancient cultures – first by the Mesopotamians 3,500 years ago – as royal or official signatures. Sometimes, the elaborate items were even worn as jewelry. But while some of the best examples of cylinder seals are understandably in museums, there’s also a thriving black market in these valuable antiquities. That illicit and highly lucrative operation is often fed by cylinder seals that have been found in Middle-Eastern deserts.
Yes, one man claims to have found a stash of treasure in a desert cave in west Utah. But when Scott Taylor suggested that he’d found 280 gold ingots and antique weapons at the location, the resulting media attention apparently threw him completely off balance. In June 2005, you see, Taylor announced that because of all the hassle the reported hoard was causing him, he was turning his back on it and letting the valuable items lie just where he’d found them.
Back in May 2019, a man hiking in the desert of Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area came across two strange coins. Subsequently, experts identified the pieces as Spanish, with one dating from the 1660s and the other probably from the 13th century. That said, there’s actually no record of the Spanish reaching this part of America until 1776. So how did these ancient coins find their way to a canyon in Utah? Well, as yet, that question has no conclusive answer.
Kolmanskop was a town in the Namib desert that boomed after one Zacharias Lewala stumbled across a diamond lying in the dusty ground there in 1908. That find then brought in a flood of hopeful people all keen to find their fortunes in the area. But while the wealth and the good times lasted until the early 1950s, Kolmanskop was a ghost town by the middle of the decade.
The Forgotten Winchester is a Winchester 1873 rifle that was actually made in 1882. Then, more than a century later, a team of archaeologists working in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada came across the curious item leaning against a juniper tree. Nobody really has a clue how the antique rifle could have been left there, either. Speaking to The Washington Post in 2015, Great Basin National Park staffer Nicole Andler said, “It looked like someone propped [the Winchester] up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it.” Originally costing $25, the gun is likely to be worth thousands today.
In a move that some once believed to be mythical, Atari Inc. interred a load of old-school video games back in 1983. And yes, the burial really did happen, with approximately 700,000 video game cartridges put into a New Mexico landfill. Then in 2014, a film company decided to make a documentary about the story and located the landfill site. Excavations in the area subsequently yielded around 1,300 game cartridges, with some going to the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Furthermore, by late 2015, officials had raised $107,000 from selling off around 880 of the items.
In 1946 a man called Walter Bartram discovered an uncut opal that weighed a little less than 5,000 carats – or a bit more than 35 ounces. In particular, Bartram made the find near the Southern Australian town of Coober Pedy at a barren desert location named Eight Mile Field. And looking at the sparkling, multicolored hues of the opal, it’s easy enough to see why it was christened the “Fire of Australia.” Ultimately, then, Bartram sold the precious stone for just over $362,000 to the South Australian Museum. This was considerably less than the opal’s true worth, too, but its finder was keen to see it stay within the country.
Hidden beneath the sands of Guadalupe, California lies a film set that remains undisturbed for the best part of a century. The movie in question was the epic 1923 The Ten Commandments – a lavish no-expenses-spared production by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. And the silent-era picture’s set not only included a 12-story-tall exterior, but also a 15-foot replica of The Sphinx. Urban myth had it that the set was dynamited at the end of filming; in actual fact, though, it’s simply been buried by the natural action of the desert.
Since 2011, an Enzo Ferrari has been abandoned in a police pound in a desert lot in Dubai. The high-performance – and high-priced – car was originally photographed back in 2016, and at the time nobody had any idea who owned it. The international police body Interpol suspect, however, that the vehicle was either stolen or bought with dirty money; Dubai police say, too, that they can’t sell it without knowing its provenance. If law enforcement did put the Ferrari on the market, though, it would likely go for top dollar, as only 400 of the Enzo model were ever made.
The Mojave Nugget is not just any old lump of gold; it’s the biggest nugget to have ever been found in California. And the lucky individual responsible for unearthing this treasure was detectorist Ty Paulsen, who discovered it in 1977 in the Stringer District near the tiny settlement of Randsburg. Given the Mojave Nugget’s sheer size, then – it weighs in at nearly 11 pounds – it could fetch over $270,000 as of February 2020.
Tutankhamun’s death mask is probably the most iconic of all the ancient artifacts to be found in the Egyptian desert. And, famously, British Egyptologist Howard Carter was the one to uncover the item in 1925 when he was exploring the pharaoh’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Indeed, Carter was the first to set eyes on the mask in some 3,250 years. Its value? Impossible to say.
It may seem strange to include a shipwreck in a list of desert finds, but the Portuguese vessel Bom Jesus was indeed discovered in the Namib. Back in the 16th century, you see, Bom Jesus came to grief in a lagoon that was later drained of seawater. Then, in 2016, miners working for the De Beers diamond outfit uncovered the wreck. And once experts excavated the ship, they found a treasure chest stuffed with gold coins.
Libyan desert glass, found in the eastern Sahara, is something of a mystery. Scientists have theorized, though, that it may originate from meteorites exploding and melting on the desert floor around 26 million years ago. And we do know that this material has been highly prized for millennia. Evidence of this comes from Tutankhamun’s tomb, where an exquisite scarab was discovered that featured a worked piece of the yellow glass.
When we say $2 billion worth of aluminum, we don’t mean a huge deposit of bauxite – the mineral from which aluminum is derived. We mean $2 billion worth of smelted aluminum, ready to use. So, who on Earth would stash that in the Mexican desert near the U.S. border? Well, to start with, the cache was spotted by aluminum industry executive Jeff Henderson, who flew over its hiding place in the Mexican desert. Then while Chinese businessman Liu Zhongtian was accused of hiding the metal in a tariff-dodging scheme, he ultimately denied the charge.
And who would bury fully functional fighter jets, which don’t come cheap, in the desert? Step forward the late Saddam Hussein. Yes, the Iraqi dictator’s air force entombed dozens of Russian-built MiG-25 and Su-25 planes in an area west of Baghdad. These were subsequently uncovered by the international team that were searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq back in 2003. And at the time, U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss told the BBC, “Our guys have found 30-something brand new aircraft buried in the sand to deny us access to them.”
The Copper Scroll is actually one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was discovered in the Israeli desert back in 1952. And as you may know, the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves are ancient Jewish documents that were hidden in the Qumran Caves not far from the Dead Sea. Yet the 2,000-year-old Copper Scroll is unlike the others in some important respects. As the name suggests, its words are inscribed on copper instead of written on papyrus or parchment. In addition, the item doesn’t include any religious text; instead, it actually features a description of the hiding places of valuable gold and silver artifacts.
While Mongolia’s Gobi desert is arguably one of the most remote places on Earth, that’s just where some stunning Buddhist treasures were unearthed in 2009. In the 1930s, no fewer than 64 crates of invaluable relics were hidden in the area by a monk called Tudev, who had concealed the items to protect them from rampaging communist troops. Then Tudev left the secret of the whereabouts of the artifacts with his family, and a grandson retrieved some of the crates in the 1990s, with more ultimately discovered in 2009. And among the pieces unearthed are priceless manuscripts, statues and artworks.
As far as we know, the first time that Europeans set eyes on the Rosetta Stone was in 1799, when Frenchmen accompanying Napoleon’s campaign of conquest in Egypt discovered the legendary slab. Called a stele and looking rather like a gravestone, the object is densely inscribed with a pharaonic decree from 196 B.C. What assured the Rosetta Stone’s fame, however, was the fact that experts were able to use it as a key to decode other Egyptian writings – thus greatly increasing our understanding of the country’s ancient history. Putting a price on the stone – which is now at the British Museum in London – is somewhere between difficult and impossible, however.
Yes, a meteorite originating from the planet Mars was found in the Western Sahara near the Moroccan city of Smara. Its official designation is Northwest Africa 7397, usually shortened to NWA 7397, and it weighs in at about 75 ounces. And the rarity of this piece of rock is reinforced by the fact that only 300 pounds of Martian meteorites have ever been found on Earth. You can buy a just-under-two-ounce sliver of NWA 7397 on the internet for about $500.
In 2008 archaeologists found two pounds of marijuana in a 2,700-year-old grave in the Gobi desert – making the discovery possibly the world’s oldest narcotics stash. However, analysis unsurprisingly showed that, after the best part of three millennia, the cannabis was no longer capable of getting anyone high. Specifically, the drugs were located at the last resting place of a 45-year-old man – who may well have been a shaman – in the Yanghai Tombs near the Chinese city of Turpan. And while we do not know how much marijuana cost in China at the time, it was priced at an average of $846 per pound in Colorado in 2018.
With gold at historically high prices, there’s plenty of motivation to go prospecting in the deserts of Western Australia. Indeed, up to an estimated 20,000 people did exactly that in 2019 – and at least one of them struck very lucky. This hopeful hunter was searching near the old mining town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder when fortune smiled. And the prospector’s efforts were rewarded with a nugget weighing in at about 50 ounces and valued at roughly $70,000.
Hiking through southern California’s arid Mojave Desert, the last thing you’d expect to find would be a fully functioning swimming pool. But thanks to Austrian artist Alfredo Barsuglia, that’s just what you may stumble across. Since it’s on the small side, it may not be the world’s most luxurious pool; its remote location means that it can certainly claim to be one of the most exclusive, however.
The Boot of Cortez is a huge gold nugget that is said to be the largest ever found in the Western Hemisphere. The tale behind the discovery of this massive lump of gold, though, seems to be one of sheer luck. The story goes that, in 1989, a prospector bought a metal detector from Radio Shack. Then, when trying out his new toy in the desert around the Mexican city of Senora, the searcher stumbled across the enormous nugget, which weighs in at nearly 27 pounds. And in 2008 the Boot of Cortez duly went up for auction, where it achieved a price of $1,553,500.