Experts awed by Anglo-Saxon treasure found by man with metal detector


POSTED: Friday, September 25, 2009

LONDON—For the jobless man living on welfare who made the find in an English farmer's field two months ago, it was the stuff of dreams: a hoard of early Anglo-Saxon treasure, probably dating from the seventh century and including more than 1,500 pieces of intricately worked gold and silver whose craftsmanship and historical significance left archaeologists awestruck.

When the discovery was announced Thursday, experts described it as one of the most important in British archaeological history. They said it surpassed the greatest previous discovery of its kind, a royal burial chamber unearthed in 1939 at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk that was fashioned from the hull of an ancient ship. That find shaped scholars' understanding of the warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of 1,300 years ago that ended up as the unified kingdom of England.

The new trove includes items that one expert in Anglo-Saxon artifacts said brought tears to her eyes: gold items weighing 11 pounds, and 5.5 pounds of silver. Tentatively identified by some experts as bounty from one of the wars that racked Middle England in the seventh and eighth centuries, they included sword pommels and dagger hilts, scabbard bosses and helmet cheekpieces, Christian crosses and figures of animals, eagles and fish.

Archaeologists initially estimate the value of the trove at 1 million pounds—about $1.6 million—but say it could be many times that. And they took a vicarious pleasure in noting that the discovery was not the outcome of a carefully planned archaeological enterprise, but the product of a lone amateur stumbling about with a metal detector.

“;People laugh at metal detectorists,”; Terry Herbert, 55, who made the find, told the BBC on Thursday at a news conference at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, where the objects will go on display on Friday for two weeks. “;I've had people go past and go, 'Beep, beep, he's after pennies.' Well no, we're out there to find this kind of stuff, and it is out there.”;

Herbert spent 18 years scouring fields and back lots without finding anything more valuable than a piece of an ancient Roman horse harness. Now under British laws governing the discovery of ancient treasures, he stands to get half the value of the booty. When his discovery was announced Thursday, he kept his wish list modest, saying he would like to use some of his windfall to buy a bungalow.

Since the July day when his detector picked up traces of the hoard beneath a field in Staffordshire, a midlands county that was at the center of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, Herbert said, he has been seeing piles of gold in his sleep. Awake, he has quietly celebrated his triumph over all the people who mocked him in the years when a typical day's finds amounted to little but scrap.

As for his fellow hunters in the Bloxwich Research and Metal Detecting Club, he said, “;I dread to think what they'll say when they hear about this.”;

He said that on the day of his discovery he reworked a mantra that he regularly used for good luck. “;I have this phrase that I say sometimes—'Spirits of yesterday, take me where the coins appear'—but on that day I changed 'coins' to 'gold.' I don't know why I said it that day, but I think somebody was listening.”;

From the Birmingham museum, the Staffordshire treasure, much of it still encrusted with dirt, will go to the British Museum in London, where the artifacts will undergo months, possibly years, of study by archaeologists and historians.

A court ruling by a Staffordshire coroner this week—conducted in secret—declared the finds to be treasure, meaning that they belong to the British crown.

The crown's practice—established in part by the many shipwrecks recovered off Britain's shores—is that the value of the items, likely to be set in a bidding war among British museums, will be divided between Herbert as the finder and the farmer who owns the field where the discovery was made. His name, and the location of the farm, has not been disclosed, to allow archaeologists to continue searching the area for more treasure.

At the news conference, experts said that Herbert's initial discovery, which he reported to a Staffordshire County official responsible for archaeological discoveries, was followed by a dig that was strictly supervised by professional archaeologists. They were assisted, the experts said, by a team from Britain's Home Office who normally work on crime scene forensics.

The experts said that a painstaking search of the area had turned up no trace of a grave, a building or anything else that suggested a careful plan to bury the objects for later recovery. They said that information, and the fact that none of the discoveries appeared to be jewelry or other feminine items, added to the likelihood that the treasure was war bounty. It may have been seized by one of the seventh-century Mercian kings—men like Penda, Wulfhere and Aethelred—who pursued an aggressive, plundering policy toward neighboring kingdoms.

One of the features that led specialists to suggest the items might have been seized in battle and prized for their value in precious metal and jewels rather than as trophies was that many appeared to have been decorative pieces ripped from other objects. The three Christian crosses in the find had been bent into folds, as had a strip of gold with a biblical inscription in Latin of a kind likely to have been favored by an ancient warrior: “;Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.”;

Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians who participated in the Staffordshire dig, or who have studied the finds at the Birmingham museum, competed in the superlatives they used in describing the treasure.

“;My first view of the hoard brought tears to my eyes; the Dark Ages in Staffordshire have never looked so bright nor so beautiful,”; Deb Klemperer, an expert on Staffordshire artifacts of the Anglo-Saxon period, told the British newspaper The Guardian.

Kevin Leahy, an expert on Anglo-Saxon metallic objects who has been helping catalog the items, described their craftsmanship as “;consummate”; at Thursday's news conference.

He added: “;All the archaeologists who have worked with the finds have been awestruck. It's actually been quite scary working on this material to be in the presence of greatness.”;