Friday, December 31, 2010

Treasure troves - finders keepers?

Imagine you were a builder that was hired to erect a shed on a farmer’s property, and while digging out the foundations, you uncover a collection of valuable items.  Who gets them: you as the finder, the farmer as the landowner, or the state/crown?

It should come as no surprise that this thorny question is the subject of laws governing what should happen, who will be the owner, and who should get rewarded.  In 1996 Britain introduced their Treasure Act (aka the Portable Antiquities Act) which essentially said that if the find is determined to be treasure and the owner cannot be found, it becomes property of the crown and the finder & landowner are rewarded (there’s a handy flyer on the subject that could be a good prop for a game).

That law replaced the Treasure Trove Law which had been part of English common law dating back to perhaps Edward the Confessor.  It was built on a few core principles:

  • To be ‘treasure’ it had to be predominantly gold and silver; other metals, ceramics, stone and wood didn’t count, and gems were so rare they probably never imagined them to make a substantial proportion of the haul.
  • The crucial question was whether the treasures were deliberately buried or lost by misadventure: if they were lost, they fell under the Law of Finders; if they were buried, the treasure becomes the property of the crown.

When a treasure trove was discovered, it was to be reported to the coroner who would then hold an inquest to determine what category applied to the find.  Failing to report a find was a crime punishable by fines or imprisonment; coroners were advised that such cases of concealed finds "may be well perceived where one liveth riotously and have done so of long time".  That is, people who formerly had little money who are now big spenders probably found a pile of treasure.

Scottish law remains very similar to the old English law, but is even stronger: all cases of “vacant goods” (ie things with no clear owner) belong to the crown.  American law was founded on the old English law, but has acquired the wrinkle that the finder, rather than the landowner or the state, is awarded possession (as long as they were acting on the property “in good faith”).

Sadly, common law doesn’t appear to say anything about treasures acquired through the ravages of dragons, giants, or goblin hordes, but I imagine that would count as “lost by misadventure”.  On the other hand, if the original owners could be determined, the treasures should be returned to them.  Likewise, any hauls taken from, say, a tomb would have been the possession of the crown. 

How would that play out in your game?  The characters just finished off the pirates and gathered up their booty; they head back to port and start spending, but get met by the merchants that the pirates were stealing from who want their stuff back.  Or they knock over the Tomb of Horrors with whatever they can carry, and the king’s agents turn up to demand they hand it over (being a deliberately buried hoard).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The treasure of the Madre de Deus

In 1592, a squadron of the Royal Navy attacked a Portuguese fleet and drove one ship, the Santa Cruz, aground.  Although the Portuguese had reclaimed much of the cargo of that ship, the English did compel (i.e. threatened to torture) some of the survivors to reveal that another group of ships was following them.  The raiders lay waiting for them to arrive.

In mid-August, they sighted, attacked, and, after a day-long battle, seized one of these ships.  I imagine that it was clear right away that this was no ordinary ship.

This was the Madre de Deus, an enormous Portuguese carack.  It was over 160’ long, 47’ wide, weighed some 1600 tons, of which 900 tons was cargo, and had a gilded superstructure.  It had a crew of something over 600 men, covered 7 decks, and carried 32 guns.  In all, it was some three times the size of the largest ship then in the Royal Navy - the great ships like the Mary Rose and the Henry Grace à Dieu having sunk - this ship must have been very imposing indeed.  But of particular interest to the English raiders was its cargo.

According to Wikipedia, the inventory reports:

… the following goods aboard, besides jewels: "spices, drugs, silks, calicos, quilts, carpets and colors, &c. The spices were pepper, cloves, maces, nutmegs, cinnamon, greene, ginger: the drugs were benjamin, frankincense, galingale, mirabilis, aloes zocotrina, camphire: the silks, damasks, taffatas, scarceness, alto bassos, that is, counterfeit, cloth of gold, unwrought China silk, sleeved silk, white twisted silk, curled cypresse. The calicos were book-calicos, calico-launes, broad white calicos, fine starched calicoes, course white calicos, brown broad calicos, brown course calicos. There were also canopies, and course diapertowels, quilts of course sarcenet and of calico, carpets like those of Turky; whereunto are to be added the pearl, muske, civet, and amber-griece. The rest of the wares were many in number, but less in value; as elephants teeth, porcellan vessels of China, coco-nuts, hides, ebenwood as black as jet, bested of the same, cloth of the rind’s of trees very strange for the matter, and artificial in workmanship".

In all, it was estimated that the cargo was worth some half a million pounds, almost half the value of the entire English treasury.  That number doesn’t seem terribly large, but if we were to imagine 3% inflation over the intervening 400 years we would have a value of something over 60,000,000,000 pounds.  It was, quite literally, a king’s ransom.  But not all of it reached the crown: the sailors in the raid had already started stuffing their pockets with the treasure, and when it reached England it attracted all manner of thieves with even the local fishermen making night-time visits to the ship.  By the time Walter Raleigh was sent to restore order, perhaps two thirds had vanished.  The English had learned their lesson – in the future the dockworkers would have to wear "suits of canvas doublet without pockets".

Among all those obvious treasures was one less gaudy but no less valuable: a document detailing Portuguese trade in China and Japan.  This was a critical find, the money on the ship may be lost or squandered, but with this information the English could kick-start their own trade in the east.  Again from the inventory at the time:

"Gods great favor towards our nation, who by putting this purchase into our hands hath manifestly discovered those secret trades & Indian riches, which hitherto lay strangely hidden, and cunningly concealed from us".

Raids like this really underline just how much wealth must have been coming back into Europe from the New World.  Here is a ship carrying the kind of wealth that nations formerly could only dream of (outside of, perhaps, the Papacy), sailing across the ocean largely undefended.  Did the Spanish and Portuguese treat these raids the way that a department store treats shop-lifting: as long as the losses are only a small fraction of the total takings it’s not worth trying to prevent them?

In a fantasy setting, especially one with a high-magic feel, just what kind of protection would a ship like this have to be carrying?  Would it be bristling with wizards or magical defences?  Or would there simply be too much danger in sending single large ships, that the treasure would have to come across in many smaller ones instead?

And what about those documents, would your players think to themselves, “Oooh, someone will pay well for these”?  Would they even know who to take it to?

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Wash and the lost crown jewels

[I suppose it’s only natural that you start thinking about treasure hoards around this time of the year.  And lost or hidden treasures seem especially apt after spending a day putting piles of wrapping paper into the bin,, only to have to take it all back out while searching to see if you accidentally threw out something that the kids can’t find.]

The Wash is a large square bay and estuary of four rivers (the Witham, Welland, Nene, and Great Ouse) in East Anglia.  The land around about is largely broad, flat moors and fens, much of which has been reclaimed and turned to farmland over the centuries, and the Wash itself is quite shallow with many large sandbanks.  That very flat terrain gives the area a large tidal variation, and in the past many of the inland areas were prone to flooding with the tides; these sodden areas also hide many large patches of quicksand.  All of which was a factor when King John lost the crown jewels.

John of England hadn’t been the most successful or popular of kings.  Born in 1167 as the youngest son of Henry II, under ordinary circumstances he would have expected no inheritance from his father.  But in the 12th century, and for the royal families in particular, ordinary circumstances were far from the rule.  After a period of machinations and rebellions from his brothers against his father, in which John had a reputation for plotting both with and against his brothers, his brother Richard became king in 1189.  Richard joined the Third Crusade in 1190 and spent the next four years warring in the holy lands.  In his absence, John attempted to overthrow his chancellor, a period that became part of the story of Robin Hood.

John ascended to the throne in 1199, when his brother died without an heir, and set about earning himself the title “Bad King John”.  After a series of military failures that lost the English kings their territories in France (earning him the nicknames “John Lackland” and “John Softsword” among the nobles), he had to raise taxes in England to make up for the lost French income.  He further angered the barons by his treatment of them, especially by the rumours that he was seducing their wives and daughters.  He argued with the pope and was not only excommunicated but had the entire English church cut off until he relented. 

The barons decided that enough was enough and obliged John to sign the Magna Carta.  John attempted to wriggle out of it and prompted a war with his own barons that saw a French army land in England in support of the rebel barons.  In late 1216, John was in King’s Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn) on the banks of the Wash.  He was seeking a quick exit from the area without entering the rebel strongholds in East Anglia, and so attempted to head directly east, crossing several of the rivers in the area.  His baggage trains were too slow, the tide changes before they are done and the rivers start to surge.  Then, as Charles Dickens wrote:

… looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [the king] saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the waggons, horses, and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.

Among that train was supposedly the English crown jewels, including those that were inherited from his grandmother, the Empress of Germany.  John proceeded on to Swineshead Abbey, with his monarchy in now serious financial trouble.  He contracted dysentery and ultimately died only a few days later.  The treasures with the baggage train have never been recovered.

Now, there are many questions left open in this story.  The first is, where exactly did the incident happen?  The terrain in the area is very different now than it was 800 years ago.  The boundaries of the Wash are different, the rivers have changed course, human intervention has both raised and lowered areas.  If the treasures are still there, then they could be buried under 20 or 30 feet of silt now.

The other is, were the crown jewels really lost at all?  It seems strange to think that John would have been dragging them around the country, but he had given himself plenty of reasons to be suspicious of people.  More interesting is that the most contemporary reports about the incident don’t mention the crown jewels; they certainly say that there was a lot of valuable cargo lost, but they don’t mention those jewels in particular.

The jewels certainly went missing: in John’s reign he ordered an inventory of all the royal possessions (the Rolls), but when another inventory was taken for his successor (Henry III) in 1220 much of it is absent.  There were rumours that John had used the jewels to secure a loan, or that they had been sold, to pay for the war and then fabricated the story of the lost baggage.  Of course, that’s rather typical of the stories that people do tell, of unpopular kings.  There was also a rumour that the monks of Swineshead Abbey had poisoned the king, perhaps then to have stolen the jewels and the concocted lost baggage train story, or perhaps just as further machinations in the scheming of the day?

There are lots of great things to pick up out of this story.  Apart from the lost treasure itself, there is the mystery story of the plotting treacherous king undone by treachery himself.  There is the detail of the royal inventories: what if the characters are tasked to find items that are missing from them?  Perhaps there is a coronation or marriage that has to be delayed until they can be found – admitting they are lost would be either too embarrassing or would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the throne.  It wouldn’t have to be a king either, perhaps a baron could be in a similar situation?  They will delay as long as they can, but they can’t keep a lid on the situation forever.

Finally, there is the Wash itself and the surrounding lands.  A terrain which is something of an adversary itself, prone to sudden flooding, home to quicksands, and hiding sandbars to make navigating by boat dangerous too.  And perhaps also the site of a lost, priceless treasure.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Much of the way that people write and speak in English makes heavy use of the various different forms of the verb ‘to be’ – for example, count how many sentences use the words ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘were’ (etc).  Some thinkers criticise this pattern, saying that it promotes a kind of mental laziness or imprecision: we say “the sky is blue”, but what can that ‘is’ mean there?  Better (more precise) to say “the sky appears blue”.

Around 1965, David Bourland proposed a new dialect of English – E-prime, or E’ in mathematical notation, short for English-Prime – based around the mental discipline of deliberately avoiding all of the forms of ‘to be’.  Instead of saying “I am a lawyer”, say “I answer legal questions, I write contracts, I represent people in court”; by saying precisely what you actually do you are obliged to examine exactly what “being a lawyer” means.  Or consider the old ditty:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

In E-prime, we might instead write:

Roses look red,
Violets look blue.
I like honey,
And I like you.

You can find further examples of E-prime in the books of the psychologist Albert Ellis or science-fiction author David Gerrold, each of whom wrote several books in an E-prime style.

This seems to me to be a viable explanation of “alignment languages” in D&D, not that they are actually separate languages, but that they are “mental disciplines” of talking or writing using certain forms and avoiding others.  The idea of a dialect built upon such precision sounds like something that could mark out Lawful-Neutral types.

It also reminds me of the pop-psychology therapy idea of using an “active voice” and avoiding nominative forms.  So instead of saying “you are an idiot”, saying “I feel frustrated when you do that”.  They share a feeling of saying “me me me” all the time; I feel frustrated, the sky looks blue to me.  All this self-centric talk would suit chaotic alignments too.  Imagine Chaotic-Good as a kind of touchy-feely, new-age types instead of the rugged individualists for a change.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The cenotes of Yucatan

If you look at a map of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a keen eye may notice that although it is located in the tropics, and therefore receives quite a bit of rain in its wet season, there are no major lakes or rivers to speak of, especially to the north.  There is water there, though, flowing underground through aquifer and cave systems known as cenotes.

Since Mayan times, people living in the Yucatan have relied on the cenotes as their source of drinking water.  Growing population in the region have obliged the government to make environmental assessments of the area, and that hydrological surveys of the cenotes.  As a result, the full extent of these underground water systems are becoming apparent.  Two of the systems in the region – Ox Bel Ha and Sac Actun – trade the title of the longest underground river in the world, each having over 180km of explored passageways. You can see an older map of Ox Bel Ha at the site of the group who did the first explorations.

Exploring a cenote, image from

Exploring the cenotes combines the dangers of diving with the challenges of caving.  The air in their tanks limit how long they can remain in the cave at one time, and the dark, narrow passages give many chances to become lost or stuck.

Exploring a cenote, image from

The explorers have found numerous relics in the caves, some supposed to be significantly older even than the Mayan culture, perhaps as old as 9,000 years.  They are thought to have been the centre of religious traditions in the area, with the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza possibly the site of human sacrifices to their rain god Chaac.

The cenotes have a connection to an even earlier history than that, far earlier than anything from human history.  In the north of the peninsula, many of the cenotes form a distinct ring, following the rim of the Chicxulub crater, the site of an asteroid impact from some 65 million years ago, and a candidate for the cause of the great dinosaur extinction.

Prehistoric geology, ancient human rituals, the encroachment of modern society.  Could the Mayans have been sacrificing not so much to a god in the skies as to a predator under their feet?  A predator that has been there for millions of years.  Shades of Colour out of space, perhaps.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In the middle of the north Pacific ocean is a region that is estimated to be anything between twice the size of Texas up to the size of the African continent containing some 2,500,000 tons of garbage.

Welcome to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Trash floating in the Pacific gyre.  Photo by Cesar Harada

The world’s oceans each have more or less permanent currents that circulate through them: for example, the Gulf stream, the Humboldt current, the East-Australian current, the Equatorial counter-current.  These currents tend to form great circles on the map – clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counter-clockwise in the south – and in the centre of these regions (their ‘gyres’) the floating refuse (mostly long-lived plastics) is gradually accreting.

The oceans’ major currents and their gyres, from Wikipedia.

Some of the trash is still recognisable objects – bags, bottles, nets, even toilet seats (!) – but over time they start to break up so that the bulk of the trash is a giant cloud of small plastic particles.  This cloud is worse news than the larger pieces, as it essentially can’t be removed, the particles still pose serious hazards to marine life, and it may shade the water from the sun which slows the growth of plankton in these areas.

A sample of the region’s plastic “soup”, photo from Algalita Marine Research Foundation, via CNet

The image of a gigantic floating island of refuse seems very compelling to me.  Imagine those millions of tons of trash compressed together, mixed with dirt, seaweed, and dead fish and birds.  Could this be an alternative home for Dagon?  Perhaps the rotting hulks of abandoned ships are there too, ships that perhaps ran ‘aground’ (if that’s the right word).  I suppose this is now merging into something of the old popular image of the Sargasso Sea: located in a similar situation on the Atlantic ocean and named for the seaweed that grew there, it has often been imagined as something of a floating graveyard and a place of mystery.

Could someone have claimed this new territory as their domain, ruling from a decaying ship somewhere in the middle of this blighted floating land?  Is the land solid everywhere underfoot?  Are there sinkholes into the ocean beneath scattered around to trap the unwary, are there waterways through the mire?  What could be living beneath this land, what would survive in the toxic waters?  Perhaps it’s not stationary, perhaps it’s heading to the shore, perhaps even with the intent of invading?