Golden hoard sheds light on Dark Ages

Author: By Arifa Akbar

Fourteen hundred years later, on 5 July 2009, unemployed Terry Herbert tramped
across familiar fields in Staffordshire, carrying his 14-year-old metal
detector. He murmured a prayer in hope of finding something before sunset: “Spirits
of yesteryear, take me where the coins appear.”

His detector bleeped over a haul of ancient gold and silver so immense that it
has been classed the most significant hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever to
come to light, exceeding the impact of the legendary Sutton Hoo discovery of
1939, a ship burial site dating from the 7th century.

Mr Herbert’s Staffordshire hoard contains 5kg of 7th-century gold and 2.5kg of
silver, far surpassing the 1.5kg of Anglo-Saxon gold found at Sutton Hoo,
near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He uncovered beaded ornaments lying beside
88-per-cent gold artefacts decorated with complex and exquisite animal
engravings. Eighty-four bejewelled sword fittings are each believed to be
worth in excess of £10,000.

One of the most spectacular pieces in the shimmering haul is a gold strip that
carries the biblical Latin inscription: “Rise up O Lord, and may thy
enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.”

Video: Saxon gold hoard uncovered

The charm did not save its owner, and was most likely stripped from his corpse
after victory.

The artefacts are likely to change our perception of the Dark Ages and rewrite
history. Several archaeologists spoke of how they wept when they first
viewed them; historians hope that, like Sutton Hoo, it will shed light on a
part of England’s past that remains caught between myth and historical
documentation. “People laugh at metal detectorists,” said Mr
Herbert yesterday. “I’ve had people walk past and go ‘Beep beep, he’s
after pennies.’ Well no, we are out there to find this kind of stuff and it
is out there.”

The 55-year-old from Burntwood, Staffs, added: “People have said it [the
hoard] is bigger than Sutton Hoo and one expert said it was like finding
Tutankhamun’s tomb. I just flushed all over when he said that. The hairs on
the back of my neck stood up, you just never expect this.”

Extraordinarily, much of the loot was scattered in ? and even atop ? the
field’s top soil, probably disturbed by recent ploughing. The haul was found
down to a depth of about 14 inches in an area only 20 yards long. One gold
band was found next to a modern 20-pence piece, lately of a farmer’s pocket,

The 1,345 items were officially declared “treasure trove” yesterday
by the South Staffordshire Coroner, Andrew Haigh, rendering it property of
the Crown. They will be valued by a committee of experts and offered to
British museums.

The proceeds will be divided equally between Mr Herbert and the unwitting
farmer whose field near Lichfield contained the bounty. Both will become
millionaires, although archaeologists hope to keep the farmer’s identity
secret, lest there be any more Anglo-Saxon gold down there. The discovery
guarantees Mr Herbert the bungalow he has always wanted.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory
and Europe, said the latest treasure “is going to alter our perceptions
of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, than the Sutton Hoo
discoveries”. She said that it was “absolutely the equivalent of
finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells” ? referring to the
illuminated manuscripts of the four New Testament Gospels dating from the
8th and 9th centuries. There will now follow decades of conjecture and
study. In the 7th century, Engand did not yet exist. A number of kingdoms
with tribal loyalties vied with one another for control, in a state of
pretty much perpetual warfare.

Dr Kevin Leahy, who has been cataloguing the find for the Portable Antiquities
Scheme, said it was likely that this was buried by an “incredibly
powerful individual or individuals” and that it was probably “war
trophies” taken from a battlefield. “All the archaeologists who’ve
worked with it have been awestruck.”

Dr Roger Bland, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British
Museum, said: “It is assumed that the items were buried by their owners
at a time of danger with the intention of later coming back and recovering

Many of the ornate artefacts are related to warfare: crosses and garnet
studded gold items that appear to be parts of helmets and sword fittings.
Yet others, such as the series of gold snakes, have, for the moment, left
experts nonplussed as to their function or ritual meaning. “It will be
debated for decades,” said Dr Leahy.

The last of the treasures came out of the ground only three weeks ago and none
has been cleaned. The still-earth-covered collection is being kept in secure
storage at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and a selection of the items
will be displayed at the museum from today until 13 October. Deb Klemperer,
local history collections officer at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in
Staffordshire, which hopes to acquire the treasure along with the area’s
county council and Birmingham Museum and Gallery, said her first view of the
hoard “brought tears to my eyes ? the Dark Ages in Staffordshire have
never looked so bright nor so beautiful”.

Ian Wykes, an archaeologist and leader of Staffordshire County Council’s
historic team, declared: “For any archaeologist this is the find of a
lifetime and reaffirms why you became an archaeologist in the first place.”

There is more to come. Fifty-six further clods of earth have been x-rayed and
are known to contain metal artefacts; the total number of items is expected
to rise to 1,500. Thirty other objects were found and dated to the 20th or
21st centuries.

Mr Herbert said: “I don’t know why I said the prayer that day, but I
think somebody was listening and directed me to it. This is what metal
detectorists dream of, finding stuff like this.

“My mates at the [metal detecting] club always say that if there is a
gold coin in a field, I will be the one to find it. I dread to think what
they’ll say when they hear about this.”

Treasure hunt: Previous finds in Britain

* In 1938, the archaeologist Basil Brown discovered the Sutton Hoo ship burial
below one of a series of low mounds near Ipswich ? perhaps the most
magnificent find of its type. The 30m-long oak ship from the 7th century had
a burial chamber which contained weapons, armour, gold coins, gold and
garnet fittings, silver vessels and silver-mounted drinking horns.

* The Hoxne hoard was also discovered in Suffolk, in 1992, containing more
than 15,000 gold and silver coins, gold jewellery and silver tableware ?
pepper pots, ladles and spoons. Coins show the burial took place after

* In 1831, kings and queens, knights and bishops carved from walrus ivory and
whales’ teeth were found in mysterious circumstances on the Isle of Lewis,
in the Outer Hebrides. Chess was a popular game in the 12th century, whence
the pieces date, though this is unlikely to have been known to the cow, who
is rumoured to have discovered them, 700 years later.

* Fourth-century silver tableware of outstanding quality was discovered during
ploughing at Mildenhall, Suffolk, in 1942. It was made famous four years
later by Roald Dahl’s non-fiction children’s story on the find.

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