Archaeology

Saxon Gold



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Just an ordinary day: 

July 5, 2009 must have seemed like another ordinary day to Terry Herbert, then 55 years of age and a resident of Burnford in Staffordshire, in the United Kingdom. Mr. Herbert, then unemployed from a coffin factory, was about to indulge himself in his hobby of 18 years, using his metal detector to turn up interesting and unusual, and with any luck, valuable items from out of the way places near his home. Today, he was traveling to the farm of one Fred Johnson, a long time friend who had granted Mr. Herbert permission to scan one of his fields for whatever might lay hidden there. 

Neither man had an inkling of what the day would bring to light, or how their lives would change as a result. 

Link to the Roman occupation and Kingdom of Mercia:

The field Terry Herbert would probe with his metal detecting equipment - purchased at a pawn shop for two and one half pounds – is located in nearby Hammerswitch Village, just off the old Watling Street Road constructed by the Romans shortly after the conquest. In the 7th and 8th centuries Watling Street would have passed through the Kingdom of Mercia. Presumably it was still in use by the people of the Kingdom at that time. 

A change of ritual: 

Terry Herbert had formed the habit, just before getting down to serious detecting work, of uttering a little spell or charm, just for luck. It was his practice, he reports, to open a search by saying: 

“Spirits of yesteryear, take me where the coins appear.” 

He reports that on that 5th of July, and without knowing why, the little incantation came forth as: 

“Spirits of yesteryear, take me where the gold appears.” 

Perhaps the spirits prefer that form of address, for as Mr. Herbert swept the field, his detection instrument chirped and he stooped to brush soil from what would come to be known as “The Staffordshire Hoard”. 

An unparalleled discovery: 

The small gold plate that Terry Herbert plucked from the ground that day was the tip of an archeological iceberg. What he discovered was simply the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metal craft ever discovered, not just in Staffordshire, or even in The UK for that matter, but in the entire world. 

Realizing that they were out of their depth, Mr. Herbert and Mr. Johnson contacted the United Kingdom Portable Antiquities Schemes and Finds and reported what had been discovered. A Mr. Duncan Starke soon arrived at the scene and realized that something truly unique was literally underfoot, and the wheels of official historic societies, archeological researchers and government officialdom were soon set in motion. 

In the end, over 11 pounds of gold artifacts, 3 pounds of silverwork and over 3000 garnet stones were removed from the site. Oddly, and unlike most other Anglo Saxon finds the artifacts seemed almost completely war related. Over 100 richly crafted sword pommel caps were uncovered, along with numerous hilt pieces, decorative scabbord studs, helmet fittings and the like forming the bulk of the hoard. There were several gold crosses and stylized plates as well, but the far more commonly unearthed feminine items such as brooches, pins, dress fittings, pendants, bracelets and so forth were conspicuous only by their complete and total absence. 

Battle trophies? 

These items seem to be part of a battle trophy, hidden by whom or for what reason is not at all clear. Tentatively dated to somewhere in the 7th to 8th  centuries, the items my well have been concealed during the reigns of Mercian Kings Penda, Wulfhere or Aethelred but this is by no means certain. Why the artifacts were buried where they were, with no evidence of buildings, markers or structure of any kind is also not currently known. 

Perhaps buried in haste by a king or warrior who was never able to return to claim it, the hoard’s origin is likely to remain a mystery. 

A big payday and then a falling out: 

An almost priceless find in terms of historic value the monetary value of the discovery both to Mr. Herbert and Mr. Johnson, while finite, is certainly of life changing proportions. The National Heritage Memorial Fund eventually collected, and paid out, 3 million pounds to be split equally between the two men, to gain the release of outright ownership to which they were entitled to under British law. 

Unfortunately the July 4th 2011 edition of the Daily Mail Online reports that the windfall has engendered hard feelings between the former friends. Mr. Terry apparently feels that there could be more treasure where the first hoard came from, and wishes to continue to search Mr. Johnson’s farm. Mr. Johnson feels that Mr. Terry has become greedy and avaricious, and has banned him from his land. 

How often does a wealth of money cause more problems between people than it ever solves? It is a very old story. 

Regardless of how the personal interplay between the two treasure seekers plays out, Britain and the world are richer for the discovery of the spectacular Staffordshire hoard. It remains to be seen what time and research will reveal about the men who buried it off the old Roman road, 13 centuries ago.

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