TreasureReilly Blum (BFA FD 2021)
On a humid but gray afternoon perhaps five months ago, I found myself in the chapel of a small Romanesque church. This was at the tail end of August, during My Big Fun Week of Travel preceding the advent of a semester in Rome. I was spending a few nights in Berlin but thought it might be fun to take a train way out into the country to visit Quedlinburg, an exceptionally well-preserved medieval town I came across at the bottom of a deep, deep Internet hole I dug some years ago. It wasn’t until I arrived in Quedlinburg that I learned of the Town Treasure, a collection of relics kept (rather dramatically) in the Collegiate Church of St. Servatii, a very mysterious looking castle-abbey that sits atop a mountainous hill overlooking the town. Of course I made a beeline for the treasure—who wouldn’t?
I was a bit surprised to find the treasure much less wondrous that I had hoped it would be. Spread across two small rooms and in glass display cases—decidedly not glittering from within a padlocked chest :-(—were a sacred comb, a few priests’ relics, gold and gemstone-encrusted covers for nearly disintegrated holy books, and most unusual, a pewter and emerald cup for an ostrich egg.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I’ve seen so much fake treasure in movies and costume stores that I imposed upon the real thing a cheapness which wasn’t actually there: I would later read that the collection is valued somewhere between $200 million and “priceless”, whatever that means.1
While I barely felt the impulse to log the treasure in my camera roll, I couldn’t have taken pictures even if I had wanted to. Signs with a camera and a big red “X” were posted at the entrance to the treasure room, and it seemed disrespectful to disobey. Yet I would, in several weeks, find my morality compromised in a medieval church near the rural mountain town of Castelvecchio Calvisio.
I am here with my class and we are not supposed to take pictures but the frescoes are really, really beautiful, and as soon as the guide leaves us alone, phones escape their pockets and steal images with twenty-first-century haste. At first, I keep my phone tucked away, riding high and mighty inside my little moral blimp, but after some minutes, it comes to my attention that images of the frescoes are being stolen by, quite literally, everyone, including my very own EHP chief critic (oop!). So I, too, whip out my phone to capture the image of a dancing, flute-playing devil.
I like to justify this transgression by saying that, since the advent of the Internet, the ethics of photographic reproduction have changed. Also, I am an ～artist～, and a student too, so maybe I can kind of find virtue in this sort of intangible theft. If I use my illegal fresco photo as educational reference, maybe it’s ok.
Since the Internet effectively negates the need for capitalized sightseeing, protected imagery such as these frescos may serve as a kind of anachronistic treasure, and may very well be this now-defunct church’s only means of attracting tourists and funding restorations. But, it’s 2020; half of me believes that the arbiters of these relics ought to be accepting of the Gen-Z impulse to share, to offer free advertising, and to make this otherwise restricted, locked-up information accessible as the object of study. Who are we to keep pieces of education and beauty shuttered under lock and key? (Why do I have to pay so much money to get inside of the Whitney?) So, I found myself a bit conflicted; I wanted simultaneously to seek out the church director and apologize for my program’s unanimous refusal to respect the rules of the chapel, and also to give her a hefty shake and shoot her a curt, “Hey, what’s the big idea??????????”
A U.S. park ranger once told me to “take only pictures, leave only footprints,” but what do I do when I’m not even allowed to take pictures—just look at the walls, sketch, write in my diary? This is impossible because the culture of tourism necessitates vandalism and theft. The impulse to take a photograph, to insert oneself in front of a breathtaking landscape or famed monument says, “I was here”; “look at this beautiful place with ME on it,” and, indeed, maybe we simply aren’t capable of going anywhere without taking or leaving just a little something. There is a reason I have nearly 32,000 pictures on my phone (I don’t want to forget!); it is the same impulse that, as a child, drove me to scratch “REILLY ’07 :-)” into bit of wet cement near my house (don’t forget me!); it is why, whenever I go somewhere particularly breathtaking, I usually like to visit the bathroom as well (I wanna pee in the famous place). Maybe this is the irresistible creaturely impulse to leave my mark.
Some two months ago, I came across a news article profiling the story of a couple of French tourists who faced between one and six years’ imprisonment for trying to steal sand from Chia, a protected beach in Sardinia. Countless other accounts of visitors fined excessive fees for trying to chip off pieces of monuments or deface archaeological sites find their way into local and international news on the daily. Crime of this character is not, however, limited to theft—it encompasses vandalism too.2 At the end of the day, taking and leaving are moral equivalents (both are bad). We do not steal bricks from the Colosseum and we also do not scratch our initials into them. Instead, we “take” pictures, we “capture” snap-”shot’s,” we “shoot” a scene. All of these colloquialisms, though spoken and undertaken without consequence, make use of verbs that suggest nonconsensual interaction. Maybe it’s a bit of a moral leap to equate tourist photography with vandalism, but I think that the sentiment underlying these actions is reflective of general social behavior: the English language reflects a culture of entitlement, violence, and theft.
Not too long after I left Quedlinburg’s treasure room, I learned that the church’s contemporary collection is merely a shadow of the town’s medieval wealth. The treasure on view is actually composed primarily of the gilded containers which housed Quendlinburg’s “true” medieval treasure: ceremonial relics precious to religious figures which were largely sold in the 10th century when the town experienced a bit of economic hardship. Yet, the greatest blow to the Quendlinberg treasure actually came at the tail end of World War II, during a period of American occupation. When the area fell prey to Allied air raids in World War II, the Nazi government relocated the collection from St. Servatii’s to several chests placed within bomb-proofed caves at Quindlenburg’s outskirts. At the end of the war, when the treasure returned to its home in St. Servatii, members of the town found 12 objects missing.3 It was later revealed that an American lieutenant named Joe Meader had ransacked the chests and had, via military post, shipped a hefty bounty to his home in Whitewright, Texas.4
According to William Honan, a New York Times journalist who chronicled the loss of the treasure, the U.S. Army investigated the theft but dropped the case when Quedlinburg was subsumed into East Germany in 1949. Meader's guilt remained undiscovered until after his death, when his descendants attempted to sell several of the missing relics.5 An out-of-court settlement with the Meader family resulted in the return of 10 of the 12 pieces to Germany in the 1992; as catalogued by the church of St. Servatii, a rock crystal flacon and a small cross still remain in the U.S., location unknown.
Of course, the exploitation, destruction, and theft of cultural artifacts, whether or not they materialize so literally as physical ‘treasure’, is natural to the character of imperialism and colonialism; this story of American exploitation is distinct only because it describes a relatively isolated historical incident rather than destruction which is, by nature, categorical, recurrent, and unmitigated, and also because it ends with at least some semblance of retribution.
I collect rocks. I pick up stones and seashells and bits of rubble from everywhere I go; until quite recently, I thought of rock collecting as a delightful (and cheap) way to store and catalogue memories. While walking along a path around the outskirts of Rome which traced the ruins of the city’s aqueducts, I realized that the bits of color beneath my feet I had initially presumed to be bits of plastic and food wrappings were, in fact, shards of mass-produced enameled stoneware embedded within the earth. At first I saw just a few, and then more and more and more, and I realized that they were everywhere. Soon my hat was heavy with these tiny bits of trash—to me, precious relics—which perhaps, I later realized, are protected by the Italian state. In the moment, I thought I was doing what I always do: picking up cool rocks. I would later discover that my shards may actually be historically relevant markers of the second world war: when the neighborhoods of San Lorenzo and Pignetto were bombed, and many Romans sought shelter under the ancient aqueducts. The ruins were the site of makeshift shelters until the early 1980s;6 the ceramic shards embedded in the earth of Aqueduct Park originate from this period of inhabitation.To the untrained eye, however, they looked like valueless bits of litter, indistinct in character from the rocks, food wrappings, and bottle caps cluttering the walkway. I have already injected them with the memory of my first few weeks in Rome, and they are dear to me. In hindsight, rock collecting seems immoral—but l love my little ceramic bitties and I smuggled them home. Sorry!
I’m not sure when or how historical value decisively attaches itself, but it seems to be tenuous, subject to societal and personal whims. Many of the archaeological treasures I was told I had to see while in Rome are, I think, perhaps more accurately regarded as the byproducts of imperial exploitation. Tourism more often than not necessitates a denial of imperial history; it is thus sustained by canonizing, Disneyfying, and capitalizing upon unethical moments in our past. It is regressive to use displaced obelisks stolen from Ancient Egyptian societies and stadiums built with blood labor to glorify governments which no longer exist. But in areas where tourism is an economic necessity, misplaced protectionism also emerges as a powerful force.
On a class trip to Pompeii, a friend of mine, fatigued and in pain, was chastised by a tour guide for resting against the wall of an ancient bath complex—“that wall is 2000 years old” (and therefore a historical treasure?)—while each and every member of his group, clad in screaming neon ponchos, posed for pictures, smiling, in front of a glass tank containing the plaster cast of an ash-mummified corpse lying in fetal position. Maybe ethical tourism is really an exercise in tact. Remember the French tourists I mentioned earlier, the ones who faced six years’ imprisonment for trying to steal some protected sand? I neglected to mention that they tried to swipe not a small vial in their pocket, but rather that they attempted to board a ferry to France with approximately 88 pounds of sand (not subtle). If I saw them, maybe I would’ve stopped them too.
I think we’re all in search of treasure, but, as I stood at the threshold of the Quedlinburg treasure room, I realized I may not fully understand what treasure actually is. At the time, I remember thinking that there’s something kind of funny about designating a room full of objects as the “Town Treasure”—the prospect of visiting a “treasure room” imbued within me a sort of childish excitement very much distinct from the mature appreciation I am accustomed to putting on when I visit an educational exhibit.
I would like to offer a new definition of treasure. If it is something protected, guarded, and hoarded, then perhaps it is the record of human greed. Therefore, it is in our best interest to examine the motives behind our organization and regulations of history, regardless of whether this is in the interest of cultural preservation or personal property.
But perhaps treasure is a subjective, and often intangible, ideal. These ideals may be protected in both genuine and ingenuine ways, and are easily susceptible to capitalization. In Rome, it is the cobblestoned streets, the feral cats, the yellow sunlight, the part of the city that is distinct and independent from the someone who is always trying to sell me a hyperbolized version of Italian culture. You expect these things when you go to Rome, and the Roman economy is dependent on tourism. Therefore, the Roman economy gives you what you want, with vigor, or else risks devaluing itself through outsider disappointment. This is, in part, why I found myself a bit let down by the Quedlinburg treasure: I wanted my introductory experience with treasure to involve chests, a rusted lock, and a map with a big, red X.
And that’s why I think it’s weird that the town of Quedlinburg has a quantifiable collection of physical entities which are properly referred to as “The Quedlinburg Treasure”: in all honesty, I remember the actual objects of treasure less than I do the meal I had that evening. From my diary, 8/27/19, (abridged)—“Saw crypt, pretty cool. Naughtily ate a full box of cookies for lunch. For dinner I enjoyed fried meat, black beer, and a delightful bread basket served with herb butter and crunchy lard. I have a lot of opinions about German suburbs and treasure and heritage and normalized beauty and other stuff. Herb butter was better than the lard...”
So, maybe in the end, treasure can take many forms. It is the record of plunder; it is a ceramic shard; it is a seashell; it is springtime; it is Waterfire; it is a lovely little walk in the park; it is a picnic. It can be a poem; it can be sunshine; it can be herb butter.
1. William H. Honan, “Letters Show Thief Knew Value of the Quedlinburg Treasures,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 1994; accessed online.
2. A Russian tourist was recently fined for carving his initials into the Colosseum. https://www.thelocal.it/20141123/russian-tourist-fined-20000-for-defacing-colosseum.
3. Including “two valuable gospel books, a relic chest, the ornamental comb of Heinrich I, six rock crystal flacons, a small cross-shaped reliquary and an Agnus Dei capsule,” as logged in a piece of literature handed to me by a church volunteer.
4. Meader, coincidentally, had studied art and art history in college, and, as it was later revealed through posthumously published letters, was well aware of the treasure’s worth.
5. According to Texan Law this crime had expired by prescription.
6. This is a vast simplification of an immensely complex and troubled history.
Reilly Blum loves butter.