A tiny French village has woken up to discover a gaping hole in front of its church, the latest of many dug by seekers of a mythical treasure trove.
Rennes-le-Château has a population of only 70, but the story that a priest buried a trove of gold coins and gems there at the end of the 19th century has spread across France.
The village near Carcassonne, 55 miles southeast of the southern city of Toulouse, became a magnet for treasure-hunters after several books recounted various versions of the myth.
The mayor was forced to ban unauthorised digging as far back as 1960 after complaints that Rennes-le-Château was starting to look “like a Swiss cheese” – but to little effect.
The priest, François-Bérenger Saunière, is also credited with a role in the conspiracy theories raised in Dan Brown’s best-seller, The Da Vinci Code. One of the novel’s main characters, Jacques Saunière, is named after him.
Fewer treasure-hunters have been sighted in the village in recent years, but the new hole has raised fears that it is about to be swamped by a fresh wave of unwanted guests armed with shovels or dynamite.
Marcel Captier, a deputy mayor, said: “We don’t want to find ourselves with swarms of treasure-hunters again.”
But Hélène Calmedero, who runs the local bookshop, “Au Rendez-Vous des Chercheurs” (The Seekers’ Rendez-Vous), said she would welcome them back.
“I miss those days. The treasure-hunters were all like big children, excited about their searches. They carried on day and night, following up the vaguest hunch with metal detectors,” she said.
According to a popular version of the myth, Saunière discovered treasure buried by the Bishop of Alet as he fled to Spain during the French Revolution.
Saunière renovated the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, which dates from the 10th or 11th century. Some believe that the priest himself buried what was left in the church grounds or graveyard. Others maintain that he only recovered part of it.
However, most historians have concluded that the treasure never existed and the priest raised money by stealing donations and charging for church services.
He is also said to have had an affair with his housekeeper. Villagers say a story circulated after his death in 1917 that he was punished by being transformed into the stone figure of a horned devil supporting a basin in the church.
Eight months ago, a young woman wearing a Venetian mask attacked the sculpture with an axe, badly damaging it. She was given a suspended prison sentence for vandalism.
“That awakened bad memories,” Mr Captier said. “It’s all very traumatic.”