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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Metal Detector Enthusiast Unearths Largest Anglo-Saxon Gold Stash Ever Found

The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found has been unearthed on farmland in Staffordshire by a metal detector enthusiast, archaeologists revealed today.

Terry Herbert, 55, from Burntwood, came across the huge hoard as he searched a field near his home. The exact location of the discovery has not been disclosed but it is understood to be near the Lichfield border in South Staffordshire, in what was once the independent Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

Experts said that the collection of more than 1,500 pieces, including helmets, sword pommels and sword hilts possibly looted on the field of battle 1,400 years by a victorious warlord, is unparalleled in size and may have belonged to Saxon royalty.

The hoard contains around 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, far bigger than previous finds such as the Sutton Hoo burial site.

A coroner is holding an inquest today at which he is expected officially to classify the find as treasure. After that a Treasure Valuation Committee made up of independent experts will put a market value on the hoard, a process expected to take more than a year, and local museums will be given the option to buy it.

The hoard is being held in secure storage at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but some of items are to be displayed at the museum from tomorrow until October 13.

Staffordshire County Council, Birmingham Museum and also the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery have already discussed buying the hoard. The money is paid to the finder, who usually gives half to the landowner — suggesting that both Mr Herbert and the farmer stand to receive a substantial sum. At today's bullion prices, 5kg of gold is worth more than £100,000 according to gold merchants Baird & Co, but historic artefacts will have a much higher price.

Mr Herbert claimed that finding it with his 14-year-old detector was destiny. “I have this phrase that I say sometimes: ’Spirits of yesteryear take me where the coins appear’, but on that day I changed coins to gold," he said.

“I don’t know why I said it that day, but I think somebody was listening and directed me to it. Maybe it was meant to be, maybe the gold had my name on it all along, I don’t know."

Under the Treasure Act, anyone who finds a group of coins buried together, or any artefact that is 300 or more years old and has a 10 per cent gold or silver content, must declare it to the coroner within 14 days. About 500 such finds are reported each year.

Dr Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who catalogued the hoard, said: “The quantity of gold is amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate.

“This was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect; it is stunning.

“Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite.”

He speculated that the treasure might have been built up by a warlord in the course of a long military career, but could equally have been the loot from a single battle. He predicted that historians would debate it for decades.

The fact that the largest of the golden crosses had had its arms folded inwards so that it could fit into a smaller space has already prompted speculation that the hoard was buried by pagans.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe, said that the importance of the find couldn't be overstated. “[It is] absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells," he said.

“This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries."

Mr Herbert, who has been metal detecting for 18 years, came across the treasure in July after asking a farmer friend if he could search on his land.

“This is what metal detectorists dream of, finding stuff like this. But the vast amount there is just unbelievable,” said Mr Herbert.

“My mates at the [metal detecting] club always say 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.”

Duncan Slarke, finds liaison officer for Staffordshire, was the first professional to see the hoard.

He said: “Nothing could have prepared me for that. I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship.

“This is absolutely phenomenal. When I first saw the material I was absolutely staggered. To see the volume and the quality of this Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork was absolutely stunning and I was literally speechless.

“It is a hugely important find — the most important one that I have dealt with, but this has got to rank as one of the biggest in the country.

“The volume and size and range of material is amazing and there are things here that we have not seen before.

“At this stage we are still unsure why the material was put in the ground and exactly what some of the material is. Even the dating is difficult because we’re relying on previously found material to date this.

“This is such a huge amount, this will probably change the way we date Anglo-Saxon metalwork in the future.”

He added: “I feel very privileged to have been the finds liaison officer that dealt with Staffordshire Hoard.”

Steve Dean, County Archaeologist for Staffordshire, said: “It wasn’t until Duncan started to send the photographs through that it actually dawned that this was something incredibly more substantial than we’d previously imagined.

“We had a look at our records and there was no indication for that area actually having the potential for that sort of find so it was a big surprise.

“It is almost certainly nationally important and potentially internationally important and it is going to tell us an awful lot about the development of the Mercian kingdom, which obviously Staffordshire lies within.

“The quality and quantity is something I haven’t come across and I don’t think any archaeologist in this country has. It is out of this world. It is going to be the basis of research for the next 20 years.

“I’m loathe to compare it to Sutton Hoo because it is something very different. Sutton Hoo is a burial. This is different — this is a hoard. There is more material, and in some places the quality is higher. It is unique.”

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