September 25, 2009 in Nation/World

British treasure hunter hits medieval pay dirt

Anglo-Saxon cache discovered in field
Raphael G. Satter Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Metal detectorist Terry Herbert, 55, handles some pieces of an Anglo-Saxon hoard he found in a field. Herbert is shown at Birmingham Museum in Birmingham, England.
(Full-size photo)

LONDON – It’s an unprecedented find that could revolutionize ideas about medieval England’s Germanic rulers: An amateur treasure hunter searching a farmer’s field with a metal detector unearthed a huge collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver artifacts.

The discovery sent a thrill through Britain’s archaeological community, which said Thursday that it offers new insight into the world of the Anglo-Saxons, who ruled England from the fifth century until the 1066 Norman invasion and whose cultural influence is still felt throughout the English-speaking world.

“This is just a fantastic find completely out of the blue,” said Roger Bland, who managed the cache’s excavation. “It will make us rethink the Dark Ages.”

The trove includes intricately designed helmet crests embossed with a frieze of running animals, enamel-studded sword fittings and a checkerboard piece inlaid with garnets and gold. One gold band bore a biblical inscription in Latin calling on God to drive away the bearer’s enemies.

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribes who invaded England starting in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Their artisans made striking objects out of gold and enamel, and their language, Old English, is a precursor of modern English.

The cache of gold and silver pieces was discovered in what was once Mercia, one of five main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and is thought to date to between 675 and 725.

For Terry Herbert, the unemployed metal-detecting enthusiast who made the discovery July 5 while scouring a friend’s farm in the western region of Staffordshire, it was “more fun than winning the lottery.”

He spent five days searching the field alone before he realized he needed help and notified authorities. Professional archaeologists took over the find.

The gold alone in the collection weighs 11 pounds and suggests that early medieval England was a far wealthier place than previously believed, said Leslie Webster, the former curator of Anglo-Saxon archaeology at the British Museum. She said the crosses and other religious artifacts mixed in with the military items might shed light on the relationship between Christianity and warfare among Anglo-Saxons, in particular a large cross that may have been carried into battle.

The hoard was declared treasure by a coroner on Thursday, which means it will be valued by experts and offered for sale to a museum in Britain. Proceeds will be split 50-50 between Herbert and his farmer friend, who has not been identified. The find’s exact location is being kept secret to deter looters.

Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who catalogued the find, said the stash includes dozens of pommel caps – decorative elements attached to the knobs of swords – and appeared to be war loot.

“It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career,” he said. “We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when? It will be debated for decades.”

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