Golden hoard sheds light on Dark Ages

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The chance discovery of a huge cache of Anglo Saxon treasure in a Staffordshire field has been hailed as one of the most significant archaeological finds in decades

It must have been among the epic battles of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia – aristocratic warriors charging into combat draped in their gold and silver finery, surrounded by cadres of brutish guards.

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."



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, presumably.

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 them."

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 AD407.

* 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.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Head of Technology

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Head of Technology needed for a Outsta...

Maths teachers needed in Cromer

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teachers requir...

Head of Business Studies

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Head of Business Studies needed for a ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits