1. The Boot of Cortez

In 1989, an amateur treasure hunter in Mexico purchased an entry-level metal detector at a local Radio Shack and ventured out into the forbidding Sonoran Desert. Gold and silver mines are scattered across Northern Mexico, but the odds of randomly finding a gold nugget (also known as “placer gold”) in the middle of the desert are impossibly low.

Honing his detecting skills on buried coins in his backyard, the man got to work slowly scanning an area of the Gran Desierto de Altar that was rumored to contain gold nuggets. After hundreds of hours under the punishing sun, his metal detector produced an excited “beep!”

The sun glinted off a tiny exposed speck of gold at the surface. On his hands and knees, the man carefully excavated the nugget, but the more he dug, the bigger the hunk of gold became. When he finally excavated the massive, solid-gold nugget, it measured 10¾  inches high by 7¼  inches wide. Holding it in his hands, the boot-shaped gem weighed more than 26 pounds.

Known as the “Boot of Cortez,” it remains the largest gold nugget ever recovered in the Western Hemisphere. The original discoverer reportedly sold it to his boss for $30,000 and it has changed hands many times since. In 2008, the Boot of Cortez sold at auction for $1,553,500. 

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2. The Staffordshire Hoard

More than 1,500 years ago, a half-dozen Anglo-Saxon kingdoms battled for dominance in Medieval England. One of the largest and most powerful kingdoms was Mercia, whose territory extended over the region known as the Midlands.

In 2009, a British metal detectorist made an astonishing discovery in Staffordshire, what was once the heart of the Kingdom of Mercia. While previous Anglo-Saxon archeological digs had turned up small caches of jewelry and everyday objects, this was something else entirely. The “Staffordshire Hoard,” as it’s now known, contained more than 4,000 objects, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon silver and gold metalwork in the world.

Anglo-Saxon metalworkers were talented artisans, and the Staffordshire Hoard is dominated by war objects including swords and helmets. One of the most remarkable finds was an ornate gold-and-silver helmet fit for a king. No one knows why the hoard was buried sometime in the 7th century A.D., but the objects may have been battle trophies or even offerings to the gods.

Staffordshire Hoard
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
strips of gold are displayed as part of the The Staffordshire Hoard, the UK's largest collection of Anglo Saxon treasure ever found, at Birmingham Museum in England. The haul of over 1,500 gold and silver pieces artifacts were found in a field by metal detector enthusiast Terry Herbert.

3. The Derrynaflan Chalice

In the County Tipperary in Ireland, a father-and-son team of amateur metal detectorists named Michael Webb and Michael, Jr. made a headline-grabbing discovery in 1980. The site was the ruins of an ancient monastery and church dating from the 8th century A.D. known as Derrynaflan.

Scanning the grounds northeast of the church’s crumbling stone walls, the Webbs’ metal detectors lit up. There was something large and metallic right below the surface. The Webbs were thrilled to find a shallow pit containing a hoard of metal objects, the most striking being a Medieval chalice with a wide, shallow bowl made of beaten silver.

The discovery of the Derrynaflan Chalice and other treasures in the “Derrynaflan Hoard,” as it’s known, led to sweeping changes in Ireland’s antiquities laws. It is now illegal to search for antiquities in Ireland with metal detectors, and any archeological artifacts unearthed by the public are automatically the property of the state.

4. Viking Treasure

Galloway Hoard
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Treasures from the Galloway Hoard are displayed at the National Museums of Scotland on October 26, 2017, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the 8th century A.D., Viking pirates from Scandinavia sailed across the North Sea to raid and loot the British Isles. A century later, Vikings established permanent settlements in Scotland, Ireland and England, and several Viking kings even ruled England in the 11th century.

In 2014, a retired businessman and amateur metal detectorist named Derek McLennan discovered what many believe is the greatest hoard of Viking artifacts in the history of the United Kingdom.

The Galloway Hoard, as it’s known, contained 100 priceless artifacts believed to have been buried around A.D. 900. McLennan found the stash in the same Scottish field where, just a year earlier, he unearthed 300 Medieval coins.

The Viking treasures in the Galloway Hoard were collected from all over the ancient world. One of the largest pieces was a decorative, linen-wrapped vessel believed to have originated in Central Asia centuries earlier. Other striking artifacts included a silver cross with intricate gold-leaf inlay and a small rock-crystal jar mounted in gold filigree.

5. Million-Dollar Spanish Chalice

In 1622, a Spanish galleon named the Santa Margarita was torn to pieces by a hurricane off the coast of modern-day Key West, Florida. More than 140 passengers and crew went down with the ship, which was also carrying chests full of gold and silver bullion bars, opulent jewelry and other New World treasures.

For nearly 400 years, the wreckage of the Santa Margarita and its booty were buried in the mud and sand of the Florida Straits.

Then, in 1980, a portion of the Santa Margarita was discovered by a research and salvage team 40 miles off the coast of Florida, including $25 million in sunken treasure. They knew there was more down there, though. It had likely been scattered by centuries of tides and storm activity.

In 2008, a 20-year-old metal detectorist and treasure diver named Mike DeMar was scanning the ocean floor near the Santa Margarita wreck when he found what he thought was an old beer can buried in a foot of white sand. When DeMar washed away the debris, he saw what it really was—a solid-gold chalice big enough to hold a softball. It was valued at more than $1 million.

6. 3,600-Year-Old Gold Cup

Back in England, where every farmer’s field is a potential archeological site. In 2001, a retired electrician named Cliff Bradshaw was scanning a wheat field in East Kent when his metal detector alerted him to something sizable just below the surface.

When Bradshaw wrested the object from the soil, he could see immediately that “it was old” and “it was gold,” he told The Guardian. It was some sort of golden cup that had been crushed by a farmer’s plow, and it looked familiar. When Bradshaw got home, he scoured his archeological books and found its match, a Bronze-Age artifact known as the Rillaton cup.

Archeologists from the British Museum soon confirmed that the golden cup from Kent was indeed from the Bronze Age, beaten from a single piece of gold between 1700 and 1500 B.C. It was one of only five known Bronze Age golden vessels found in Europe.

Bradshaw’s find is now known as the Ringlemere gold cup and he reportedly split a reward of $520,000 with the landowner. “Not a bad day’s work,” said the hobbyist.

7. Royal Crown's Missing Figurine

Kevin Duckett was a metal detector enthusiast for 30 years before he made a life-changing discovery near a pond in Northamptonshire, England in the summer of 2017.

Alerted by his detector, Duckett overturned a clod of dirt and saw what he thought to be a crumpled piece of aluminum foil. On closer inspection, there was a tiny face staring back at him. It was a golden figurine of a king holding a scepter and a cross, and the little royal stood no more than 2.5 inches tall.

Intrigued, Duckett started doing some research and became convinced that the statuette was once part of a crown worn by King Henry VIII in the 16th century and passed along to his royal heirs. The crown was destroyed in 1649 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, the anti-monarchy revolutionary, but the golden figurine must have gone missing before the crown was melted down.

Duckett’s theory is strong since a replica of Henry VIII’s crown in the Hampton Court Palace is fitted with a nearly identical “twin” figurine to Duckett’s discovery. An object of such important historic significance could be worth more than £2 million pounds.

8. Teen Discovers Ancient Ax Hoard

Thirteen-year-old Milly Hardwick was only on her third metal-detecting expedition when she made a thrilling discovery in 2021 in a field near Royston, England. The high-pitched squeal of her detector was followed by giddy laughter when Milly’s father dug up a hoard of Bronze-Age ax heads.

The solid-bronze axes would have been some of the earliest metal weapons made in England as early as 2300 B.C. Milly and her father unearthed 65 objects that day, and a follow-up archeological expedition found a nearby hoard containing more than 135 objects.