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Anglo-Saxon gold hoard 'worth seven-figure sum'

A massive hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver found by a metal detector enthusiast is worth a "seven-figure sum", an expert said today.

The haul of at least 1,345 items was officially declared to be treasure by a coroner this morning and will now be valued by a committee of experts.

Dr Roger Bland, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said: "I can't say anything other than we expect it to be a seven-figure sum."

The cache - the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold yet found - was hailed today as "a fantastically important discovery".

The haul was found by metal detectorist Terry Herbert, 55, just below the surface of a cultivated field in south Staffordshire in July.

South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh said: "This is a magnificent find, both in terms of its content and its likely history."

Dr Bland told the inquest in Cannock the significance of the find was "only beginning to dawn" on the small number of experts who have examined it.

He said: "It is at least as significant as any of the major discoveries of this period that have been made in the past."

Conceding it may be difficult to establish the story which lies behind the astonishing find, Dr Bland added: "It is a fantastically important discovery.

"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 them."

Archaeologist Dr Kevin Leahy said none of the experts involved in the discovery had seen anything like it before.

He told a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: "These are the best craftsmen the Anglo Saxons have got, working with the best materials, and producing incredible results."

Ian Wykes, head of Staffordshire County Council's historic environment team, said some of the objects - many of them related to warfare - were found lying on top of the soil.

Archaeologists were "fairly confident" there was no more treasure buried at the site, he added.

Dr Bland said the hoard - thought to date back to between 675 and 725AD - was unearthed in what was once the Kingdom of Mercia.

"I think wealth of this kind must have belonged to a king but we cannot say that for absolute certain," the expert said.

A total of 1,345 items have been examined by experts, although the list includes 56 clods of earth which have been X-rayed and are known to contain further metal artefacts, meaning the total number of items is likely to rise to around 1,500.

More than 30 other objects found with the hoard have been deemed to be of modern date and were not found to be treasure.

Dr Bland confirmed that copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were discovered at the undisclosed site, but the "great majority" of the treasure was gold or silver.

The expert added: "Our best guess is that it was buried some time between the late seventh century and the early eighth century.

"We hope that further research will enable us to be a little more precise."

Experts have so far established that there are at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kg (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight.

"That in itself is an enormous quantity of precious metal," Dr Bland said.

"It's bigger than any other hoard of precious metal from the Anglo-Saxon period by quite a large margin."

Dr Bland said the Staffordshire hoard was quite different from the Sutton Hoo burial site, which was uncovered in Suffolk in 1939.

He said: "It's a hoard of objects and it's going to be hard to try and uncover the story that might lie behind it.

"At the moment all we can really do is speculate and hope that more detailed study will help us to pin it down more precisely, but it is a hugely important discovery."

The finder of the haul and the owner of the land have agreed to split the proceeds of the sale of the artefacts, which include sword pommels and at least two crosses.

Mr Haigh heard just 30 minutes of evidence before deciding that the haul should be formally classed as treasure.

Expressing hopes that the collection will eventually be bought by a museum and go on display in Britain, preferably in the West Midlands region, the coroner said: "This is a massive and fantastic find.

"These seem to be largely male items, probably military-linked items. Having heard the evidence, it is clear to me ... that these 1,345 items should be considered to be treasure."

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, said: "This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.

"(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells."

Mr Herbert, from Burntwood, Staffordshire, has described unearthing the haul as "more fun than winning the lottery".

"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," he said.

Dr Leahy said one of the most compelling elements of the find is what is missing.

He said: "It consists almost entirely of war gear, which is very strange.

"There are very few dress fittings, there are no feminine dressings. There are no brooches or pendants.

"There is no sign of the iron blades from the swords at all, just the fittings."

He added: "My interpretation is that they were being taken as trophies. I don't think these items were taken from people when they were alive.

"This was a time of great military activity, strife and struggle. They were very troubled times."

* Details of the hoard can be seen at www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/