Top:"Aranyos" Bálint, with his dad and younger brother; bottom:Various pieces of Hun gold with the restored "torques"
Gold of the Huns
Olga Vállay Szokolay
Pre-Trianon Hungary had rich quarries of gold, such as Körmöcbánya (now Kremnica, Slovakia), a medieval town built above important gold mines that is the site of the oldest still-working mint in the world. Current-day Hungary, on the other hand, seems to be an ever-growing and ample, surprising provenance of silver and gold treasures discovered in different parts of the country, relics and evidence of ancient cultures on that land.
It was in the summer of 1926 when a five-year-old peasant boy, Bálint József, helped his mother plant flowers in their yard at Nagyszéksós, near Szeged. As he put the dahlia seeds in the soil, he found a gold torques (neck piece). His mother straightened it on the chopping board, so he could use it for a stick. It was pretty. He couldn’t sleep all night, having such a fancy stick. He used it to drive pigs, until he lost it. A tractor-driver found it again in the soil at threshing time. He became suspicious and cut off a piece which another man, Börcsök Károly took to town on his motorcycle, to a jeweler. And that’s when the whole discovery began.
The jeweler noticed something unusual and notified the Szeged Museum. At the time, the director of the museum was Móra Ferenc, the country’s much-liked prolific writer, novelist, polemicist and poet. He went out to the premises and lived at the house of the Bálints for a while. By that time, Móra had heard about other objects, discovered there a generation earlier. The local kids, not realizing the pieces were gold, were trading them for baked pumpkin and apples. Examining the surface, Móra found several golden objects. But he could not dig deeper, since Bálint Mátyás, the grandfather of József and owner of the property, would not allow anyone to disturb his vineyard. They were only allowed to use rakes, hoe and spade tips to free what was available near the surface. That lot was taken to the museum. Móra related the events in his story “A kincsásás halottai” (Victims of the Treasure Hunt).
In 1934, Bálint Mátyás died and his son dug up the worthless vineyard and plum tree. As he turned out the roots, he found a silver-and-gold alloy chalice and a shallower small golden plate. He cut the latter into three pieces with a hoe, to divide it. Being familiar with the earlier events, he notified the jeweler who advised the museum. They borrowed a sieve from Móra’s mother, to sift the sand. They invited relatives, friends and reliable acquaintances to help with the digging. They could make good money doing it, but were fired if caught keeping anything. The Bálint family was paid the price of gold at the time, and they bought some land with it.
The digs produced over 200 pieces of various objects, including drinking vessels, daggers, knives, jewelry and horse harnesses. The gold and silver items had been unanimously identified as originating from the fifth century, when the Huns inhabited the land. However, opinions vary about the exact time frame of the origin and purpose of the items.
Some archeologists link them to the treasures of Attila, the well-known and feared Hun leader. Layers of mystery, including his funeral in 453, have surrounded his memory. According to the romantic legend that originated in the 19th century, his coffin, a triple casket of iron, silver and gold, was buried in the Tisza River. The burying squad, returning from the burial, was executed by arrows to keep the location a secret forever.
Other experts date the treasures to the first third of the fifth century. The most probable theory connects it to Attila’s uncle, Uptar or Oktar who, as per written documents, led the Huns in a campaign against Burgundy before 430. Allegedly, he had eaten himself to death and might have been buried there, but the funeral feast could have been celebrated later in his homeland. The treasures could have been his sacrificial gifts.
Some of these Hun discoveries are said to have emerged in museums in Western Europe, where their provenance has not always been recognized. Those that, through Móra Ferenc’s efforts, were housed in the Szeged Museum, have been afforded an unusual degree of protection.
Towards the end of World War II, when the Soviet armies entered Hungary, the new director of the Szeged Museum decided that his first duty was to protect the Hun gold from possible new predators. He therefore set out on foot northwards with a backpack in which he had placed the gold, the museum typewriter and a few personal possessions. In the course of his journey, the Soviet soldiers relieved him of the typewriter and his personal possessions, including his overcoat. But the Hun gold was concealed under some sandwiches that had become so moldy that they excited no interest.
The invaluable treasure thus was saved, and was first housed at the National Museum in Budapest, before being taken back to the Szeged Museum that now bears the name of Móra Ferenc. After careful restoration, the objects have been kept there in a vault, while their copies are exhibited to viewers. Should you ever visit the exhibit, remember: “All that glitters is not gold” …
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.