Treasure hunters broke ground today in Poland, hoping to find a legendary train said to be filled with gold and hidden by Nazis near the end of World War II.
But some scientists doubt that such a train ever existed and said it's unlikely the team will find the gold they're looking for.
"We're entering the sphere of almost urban myth," Tony Pollard, a battlefield archaeologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, told Live Science. "From my own experience as an archaeologist, I'm highly dubious about it, and I think most of the archaeological community shares that opinion."
The tale of the Nazi train
According to local lore, the Germans hid a train loaded with gold and other loot in a secret tunnel as the Soviet army advanced in 1945. Government-sponsored and private efforts alike had attempted to locate this fabled treasure trove over the past several decades. Last summer, a pair of amateur explorers, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, claimed that they had identified the spot where the train was buried, in the town of Walbrzych in Poland. [Images: Missing Nazi Diary Resurfaces]
The announcement touched off a frenzy. Treasure hunters and tourists reportedly flocked to the region. Some Polish officials even backed the claims; Poland's deputy minister of culture said he was "99 percent" certain the train existed after seeing Koper and Richter's ground-penetrating radar images, which supposedly showed an armored train buried underground.
Excitement over the discovery dampened just a few months later, after a scientific commission from AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, Poland, attempted to verify the findings and found no evidence for the train. "There may be a tunnel, but there is no train," Janusz Madej, a geology professor who led thecommission, reportedly told a press conference in December 2015.
Koper and Richter, however, pressed on. This week they began digging in the spot where they say they found a train-shaped anomaly in their radar scans. Photos from the site showed that the team has already started clearing large amounts of dirt with an excavator. The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the team plans to initially dig 20 feet (6 meters) deep.
Is the train real?
"I suspect that any findings will disappoint those who are seeking gold," said David Passmore, a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and a geoarchaeologist who has worked on World War II battlefields. "I think the widespread use of terminology like 'legend' and 'myth' in connection with this story is revealing, since there is no compelling evidence of hidden trains in the public domain, despite the use of state-of-the-art geoprospection technology by Madej and colleagues." [In Photos: The Hunt for a Circus Train Graveyard]
Pollard noted that he was especially skeptical about Koper and Richter's radar images, which purported to show the underground train in great detail. "I've worked with ground-penetrating radar experts, and these are like no results that I've ever seen," he said, adding that radar images of buried archaeological features typically look more abstract.
He added that he was also disappointed that much of the discussion surrounding this treasure hunt was about the possibility of striking gold and its value. "I certainly don't want people to think this is archaeological research," Pollard said. "Archaeology's raison d'être is to answer questions about the past. If there is indeed a train laced with Nazi gold, it could raise a lot of questions."
Even the discovery of an empty tunnel could be an interesting turn of events. In this part of southern Poland, the Nazis used forced labor to build a vast network of tunnels called the Riese complex ("riese" is the German word for "giant"). Though the unfinished tunnels have been surveyed —and some are now even major tourist attractions —it's not clear what purpose these Nazi bunkers were intended for. Some ideas hold that the tunnels were meant to protect industry and armament from Allied bombing.
The muddled history of the tunnels —combined with the fact that some of the art and other treasures the Nazis were moving around at the end of the war are still missing —has probably helped fuel the story about a hidden gold train, Pollard explained. And even if Koper and Richter are empty-handed by the end of their dig, he doesn’t expect stories about the lost Nazi gold train to go away. Pollard said he saw parallels with the case of another amateur explorer, David Cundall of the United Kingdom, who recently launched an expedition to find 140 World War II planes known as Spitfires that Cundall said were buried, still in their crates,in Myanmar. "They found absolutely nothing, but the leader of the expedition is still convinced that the planes are there," Pollard said.
Original article on Live Science.