The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 109

Issue 109

Nov / Dec 2009



Museum calls for fund to study treasure finds

Missing Stonehenge circle did not come from Preselis

with Important revision to Stonehenge bluestone theory
An interim note on the latest developments, by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins

Found: "The great lost monument of Cambridge"

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Staffordshire Gold

Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer

Tracking Hunters and Gatherers on the Continental Limits

with Bibliography

Remembering the Great War with Lutyens

Extending the British Museum


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at excavation websites

Matt Ritchie introduces Forest Heritage Scotland

CBA Correspondent

Don Henson looks at the Marsh Award shortlist


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Staffordshire Gold

"Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee be driven from thy face"

Exclusive to British Archaeology, editor Mike Pitts reveals how they found the hoard set to change the story of England.


Terry Herbert found the first piece on Sunday July 5. It would have been good on its own, a bit of crumpled metal that looked like gold. Then he found another one. It did not take him long to work out that he had something unusual, and by the end of the day he was calling it an Anglo-Saxon hoard – the period's distinctive decorative styles are well known to serious detectorists. The couple of dozen items might all have been gold.

When he signed an agreement with the owner of a field outside Lichfield, neither of them had reason to think they would need to refer to it again. The field was bad land, often waterlogged, and last year the farmer had ploughed deeper than usual before sowing grass, good for nothing but horses. Nobody knew of anything interesting ever having been found there, and at Staffordshire County Council, where archaeologists maintain the historic environment record, the site had no entry. After what is probably the most intensive artefact survey to which a field has ever been subjected, the HER file is still blank. Except for the treasure.

Herbert carried on until the following Friday, taking one day off and dodging powerful thunderstorms. Each day when he got home, he laid out the proceeds on an old tablecloth and photographed them, just wiped clean of mud. He could see what many of the objects were, and he labelled them accordingly, using abbreviations – SWOF (sword ferrule), SWOP (sword pommel), SCAB (scabbard). There were a lot of sword fittings.

Early on the evening of July 10, over at Lichfield Cathedral Martin Yates was preparing to conduct excerpts from Bizet's opera The Pearl Fishers. Back at home again, Herbert nervously packed away his finds. He had taken over 70 record photos. He had also bagged up 22 lumps of earth, each of them responding positively to his metal detector. His restraint in not breaking them open would hugely impress the archaeologists, as it would also challenge them.

It was time to share what he was doing. He was active in the Bloxwich Research Club, the largest detector group in the area, and though he had told none of the others about his discovery (he had had to fend off one member who had spotted him in the field) he knew, and respected, the drill. He would have reported it earlier, but nothing had any context – no signs of graves, no pit in which a hoard might have been buried. All an archaeologist could have done was watch. (Later, they would realise that it had only entered the ploughsoil last year, and if Herbert had not found it when he did, it would, in Kevin Leahy's words, "have been atomised").

The next Monday his cousin phoned Duncan Slarke, the Portable Antiquities Scheme's Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Staffordshire and the West Midlands. Slarke visited Herbert at his home, and returned to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with 244 bags ("It can't stay here another night", Herbert had told him). He called the PAS head at the British Museum, Roger Bland, and they discussed what to do. Slarke was to play a key role, bringing together the people who should know about the hoard. It was already extraordinary – though no-one could imagine how much more so it was to become – and it needed a middleman, keeping in the loop the finder and landowner (whose bad field was about to be messed up even more), the archaeologists and specialists, the museum staff and local politicians, all of whom had important matters to consider during the tense, busy quiet before the public storm. Slarke – "he has been absolutely brilliant throughout this process", says Bland – was that man.

Slarke called Steve Dean, the County Archaeologist, and Ian Wykes, leader of Staffordshire's historic environment team, and spoke to the appropriate staff at Birmingham museum and at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. These were perhaps the UK's two largest local authority museums, while for over 30 years Staffordshire itself had no longer been building an archaeology collection – a role maintained by the Stoke museum. Here was the PAS's prize find – which Stoke shares with two other museums – the Staffordshire Moorlands pan, a Roman bowl bearing names of Hadrian's Wall forts. Stoke's local history collections officer Deb Klemperer is an archaeologist specialising in Saxo-Norman and medieval pottery and metal artefacts. She would immediately understand the hoard's significance. Birmingham too was to be crucial, providing secure archival storage, helping to examine and photograph the finds, and conducting the first metal analyses with X-Ray Fluorescence.

We've got something bigger than Sutton Hoo. Can you help us dig it up?

The coroner was informed, as Herbert's discovery clearly fell under the terms of the Treasure Act. Staffordshire Council told the police, and in due course would bring in Birmingham Archaeology, the commercial arm of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University. They were called by Wykes. "I think we've got something bigger than Sutton Hoo", he said. "Can you help us dig it up?"

Critically, Slarke rang Kevin Leahy. The PAS's national advisor on early medieval metalwork, Leahy had recently finished a major study of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Cleatham, Lincolnshire. Now he faced the task of bringing to the world of Anglo-Saxon scholars not just its greatest treasure, but something that could overturn accepted ideas about artefacts, manuscripts, society and politics. "After doing twelve hundred burial urns", he told British Archaeology with a smile as he completed the first analytical listing of the hoard in mid September, "I deserve this. But it's going to be a vast job".

On July 21 – 70 years to the day since the first gold had been found at Sutton Hoo, the nation's most famous Anglo-Saxon treasure (for now) – Slarke brought together at Birmingham museum Bland, Leahy, Wykes and Dean. "We were all scared", says Leahy. The responsibility to the finder, to the public and to scholarship, the unknown scale and significance of the hoard, its security: what should they do about the Staffordshire gold?

The biggest immediate question, was what was going to happen to it? It would surely be judged "treasure" in a legal sense, meaning the finder would have to hand it over to the Crown. It would then be offered to museums, and the finder and landowner would be compensated for its full value, assessed by an independent specialist committee. But which museum would it go to?

Helmet Cheek Piece

The British Museum has a statutory role in administering the Treasure Act, advising the coroner and providing the secretariat of the treasure valuation committee – Bland heads the Museum's Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure. Traditionally, in cases like this the BM would imperiously take command and return with the goods. But times have changed. Neil MacGregor's outgoing museum values scholarship and public interest as much as acquisition. It tours its treasures. In a month's time an announcement was to be made of a unique partnership between the BM and the York Museums Trust. A Viking hoard – found by a detectorist, and valued at over £1m – had been bought by both institutions, and would be alternately displayed by both.

The York hoard was an obvious, if complicated, model for the new treasure. But this time it would be different: the BM would have no ownership of a British archaeological discovery of unique international status. Instead the gold would remain where it was found, in the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon Mercian kingdom: where JRR Tolkien grew up and from which he drew inspiration for The Lord of the Rings (Saruman is a Mercian form of Anglo-Saxon, and the Riders of the Mark's land was Mercia itself); where Birmingham, Staffordshire and Stoke would create a new partnership between City, County and Unitary Authority.

These were big decisions for the future and out of their hands, but at the meeting the first, symbolic step in that direction was taken. Instead of the usual practice of the hoard being assessed for the coroner at the British Museum, to speed things along it would stay in Birmingham. In two weeks Leahy, working with his wife Dianne (an education assistant at the North Lincolnshire Museum, where Kevin had been the archaeologist), would have started cataloguing it.

The next day Dean and Wykes visited the site with Herbert and Slarke. They dug a trench, one metre square, the day after, and found 24 pieces of precious metal. It was obvious that further excavation was needed. Bill Klemperer, an English Heritage inspector in Birmingham, agreed, and EH provided £25,000 to back the County Council. This meant they could bring in more excavators, and the following day the four men were joined by Kevin Colls and Will Mitchell from Birmingham Archaeology. They extended the trench to 2m×2m.

By the time the excavation was backfilled, it had grown to around 9m×13m and a month had passed. They had taken away a further 571 bagged finds. The quantity and quality were staggering, there was just nothing to compare – and many pieces themselves seemed unparalleled. Terry Herbert was correct: there were no features that might indicate that someone had buried the gold deep, or that it had lain in a grave or under a building.

It was an unnerving experience for the archaeologists. One piece of gold on a normal excavation, says Wykes, would be cause for celebration. Here there was no party. "We drove to the site", he told British Archaeology, "dug for eight hours, put lots of gold into finds bags, and drove home again". Herbert worked the spoilheap. "You need to be a detectorist to get it right", says Slarke, commenting on how much Herbert found. "He was doing this as a professional." It just seemed to be scattered in the soil. Some pieces lay on the surface, antique gold under the tread of your muddied boot.

At first they had tried to wash it out, setting up a complicated system of tanks and bins and sieves in the corner of the field so as not to miss the tiniest scrap – and some of the pieces, including single cut garnets, were really very small. But it was cumbersome, and it was Herbert's detector and his simple process of wiping off the dirt, using your eyes and hands, that won the day.

Birmingham Archaeology's Eamonn Baldwin conducted a rapid magnetometer and topographic survey of the whole field. He tentatively identified a curving ditch, which they were able to section at the edge of the excavation, and two small postholes. Some further geophysical anomalies were investigated, but nothing produced anything of archaeological interest.

Meanwhile the Leahys were working on the catalogue in the conservation studio at Birmingham museum. Kevin had learnt from his twelve hundred urns, and they began by setting up a Microsoft Access database. Dianne weighed and measured each piece with an electronic balance and callipers, wrote the results on the back of an orange raffle ticket – guaranteeing each one a unique number – and passed them to Kevin, who typed in the data with descriptions. It took them two days a week for six weeks.

Scabbard Boss

At this stage, many of the names are vague, "plates", "fittings" and "fragments". But – such is the hoard's size, 1,345 separately-described metallic pieces or gems – many items are identifiable. Most are from swords. "Sword pommel", reads a typical entry (find number 284), "set with lidded cloisonné garnet in a zoomorphic pattern, now concealed by earth", 21.1gm, gold. "Edging strip from a helmet, dirty, detail hidden", another (number 81), 10.73gm, silver. The word "sword" occurs 310 times. Herbert's soil balls are in there, too – now risen to 56. Find 1357, reads one entry, "Four lumps of earth giving a response on a metal detector, no X-Ray, clean".

These lumps, which might turn out to be the contents of decayed bags – it is early days – complicated the listing. They could see massed metal objects in X-Ray images, but they were reluctant to take them apart. The number of items is not yet complete. Remarkably, there are only 33 pieces considered not to be part of the hoard, things like a nut and bolt, a piece of gutter or a copper button. The bad field had guarded its treasure from interference for over 1,000 years.

On September 11, when much of the world was otherwise distracted, Wykes, Herbert and the landowner met with the Staffordshire police and the Home Office Scientific Development Branch. The farmer, who had bought the field in the 80s, had been a tower of support all through; but he knew what might happen. Existing 24-hour security was plainly unsustainable, and when news of the discovery got out, nighthawkers bent on finding more treasure could be a destructive nuisance. Archaeologists said the site was clean; the professionals would prove it.

So with top military-specification detectors, a team from HODSB scoured the field, helped by a consultant geologist and interim finds liaison officer Tom Brindle (Slarke was now on holiday), and staff from the police's Tactical Planning Unit, Staffordshire County Council and Birmingham Archaeology. They found metal objects as small as a grain of rice up to 30cm down: but nothing of archaeological interest. It was formally decided to close the dig.

Ironically, it was the sight of such a crack uniformed team that alerted a member of the public. He was told, truthfully, that nothing had been found. There had been a similar scare a month before, when a local reporter had asked Bob Burrows, the Birmingham Archaeology project officer who had managed the dig, what was up. They had some recent pottery, said Burrows, and maybe a ditch, but to date, as the Wolverhampton Express and Star reported on August 17, "there is nothing to suggest Roman features so far". As indeed there was not.

By now Leahy was bringing in other scholars, and within hours they were filing their first thoughts. Leslie Webster, a former BM curator and specialist in Anglo-Saxon art and culture (not least Sutton Hoo's), saw the treasure on September 17, and by the end of the next day had circulated 1,500 words of analysis.

A provisional consensus was emerging – after some debate – that the hoard might have been buried around AD700: somewhere, perhaps, between the rules of the powerful, iconic Mercian kings Penda and Aethelbald. They were all agreed about the absence of feminine artefacts. "There is nothing in this astounding and marvellous assemblage", wrote Webster, noting one tentative exception, "that couldn't in some way be associated with warfare or warrior culture". Yet that was not a full explanation. There were hundreds of sword fittings, but none from sword belts (was this an echo of the scene in Beowulf, when "the golden hilt was handed over to the old lord, a relic from long ago" – vastly multiplied?). And many items had never been seen before, such as five tiny gold snakes.

"It's still covered in mud", says Kevin Leahy, "but it's so beautiful. The delicacy, the little animals, the love of colour – the garnet cutting is superb". Leahy's vision, shared by colleagues, is to avoid the pattern – think Dead Sea Scrolls, or Sutton Hoo itself – where a complex, valuable find is pored over for decades by a few specialists, while the rest of us wait. "Our responsibility", he says, "is to make this available to the scholarly world as soon as possible". There will be symposia, arguments and discoveries; people will write their own papers and reimagine the Anglo-Saxon world in their own ways.

You can start yourself, now. The complete finds list, with descriptions and photos, went live on the web immediately after the coroner's pronouncement on September 24 that the hoard was officially treasure, even as the press in Birmingham were mentally rifling their thesauri for superlatives. Dan Pett, ICT adviser at the PAS, with his wife Katharine Kelland, the BM's education manager, created this website within days: it was ready, he says, two weeks after the final find. "Better than 36 years for Sutton Hoo", commented Leahy.

A few of the artefacts are being displayed at Birmingham museum, until October 13. Then they all travel to London for assessment by the treasure valuation committee, perhaps, depending on whether or not the earth lumps are taken apart first, when it meets on November 25. It is impossible to predict the result, but noone is in any doubt that when the time comes, the institutions that would like to acquire the hoard will face a major challenge. Archaeologists and historians will be challenged, too, as years of research lie ahead.

If I'd known there were things like this, I'd have taken more interest in history when I was at school.

"This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century", says Leslie Webster, "as radically, if not more so, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did. It will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and manuscripts. It will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms, the expression of regional identities, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production." This is, she says, "the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells".

"If I'd known there were things like this when I was young", the landowner told Slarke, "I'd have taken more interest in history when I was at school".

The hoard website is at Mike Pitts would like to thank all those who helped with this feature.

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage