Stolen skull of 14th century German pirate recovered

Hamburg Museum director Lisa Kosok with the alleged skull of pirate Klaus StoertebekerOn January 9th, 2010, thieves stole the alleged skull of medieval pirate Klaus Störtebeker from a display cabinet in the Hamburg Museum. The skull, still sporting the spike it was impaled on as a deterrent to any other would-be pirates, was one of the museum’s prized possessions. They offered a reward for information leading to its recovery and the Hamburg police investigated the theft for a year without success, reportedly following up on 67 leads.

Finally they hit the jackpot with the 68th. A middleman who is not a focus of the investigation handed over the skull-n-spike to the police earlier this week. The details are being kept nebulous intentionally because the investigation is still ongoing. On Thursday the police delivered it to delighted museum officials.

Next weekend, March 26-27, the museum will celebrate his return with a party. Admission will be free and Störtebeker experts will be available for guided tours. After the party the skull will be moved back to its original location now protected with a new alarm system and security guards. The cultural ministry gave the museum an additional €100,000 (about $140,000) to beef up their security measures, which were sorely needed since the display case that held the skull when it was stolen was protected only by a simple lock.

Although museum director Lisa Kosok considers the skull “Hamburg’s Mona Lisa,” it actually has never been fully authenticated as the skull of Klaus Störtebeker. It was found in 1878 on an island in the Elbe River during construction, the same island where Störtebeker and 30 of his crew were beheaded in 1400. The skull has been radiocarbon dated to the late 14th, early 15th century, so it certainly could be his.

Störtebeker (not his real name; it’s a nom de guerre meaning “empty the mug with one gulp,” apparently a reference to his legendary hollow-legged ability to swallow a four-liter pitcher of beer in one gulp) was a privateer initially hired to fight Danish ships and run supplies to Sweden. He and his comrades were known as the Victual Brothers. After the war, they decided to stay in business, only for themselves this time. Finally the Hanseatic League struck back, sending a fleet to capture Störtebeker and his cronies.

Centuries later he would be seen as something of a popular Robin Hood-like hero figure for his fight against the big-money Hanseatic League.