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Golden hoard sheds light on Dark Ages

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.