03 Nov, 2009

Staffordshire hoard goes on show

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Farmer on whose land 1,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver were found pays first visit to London for exhibition opening
Iron age gold treasure found in Scotland

Some of the most spectacular treasure finds made in Britain have gone on display at the British Museum, still caked with the clay of the Staffordshire field that hid them for 1,300 years.

Fred Johnson, the farmer on whose land near Lichfield more than 1,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver were found in July last year, paid his first visit to London to see the pieces safely installed in the museum, and had bought a new suit for the occasion.

“It’s been an incredible experience. I’m overwhelmed by it all,” he said, looking down on the jewel-studded gold that once ornamented swords, shields and helmets of princely quality. “They say this will change the history books; it’s a strange thought that came from something lying in my field all this time. I’m trying to keep a level head about it. I’m trying not to think at all about the value of it.”

His friend Rita Madeley, who accompanied him to London, was on holiday when she first heard that police were swarming across his fields investigating a murder – the cover story to explain the small army of archaeologists, historians and forensic scientists who hit the farm after the hoard was discovered by an amateur metal detector, Terry Herbert. “My first thought was ‘Goodness, what’s Fred done now?'” she recalled. She was still stunned at the truth of what lay hidden beneath a field she used to cut across as a child walking to church.

When the find was announced in September, some pieces were exhibited for a few weeks at Birmingham city museum, where more than 40,000 people queued for up to four hours to see them.

The hoard has gone to the British Museum so that the treasure committee can begin the long task of working out the value of the unprecedented find, containing many unique pieces. The reward will eventually be shared between Herbert and Johnson.

The local museums and politicians, with the blessing of the government and the British Museum, are determined it will then return for permanent display in the county where it was found, once the heart of the warlike kingdom of Mercia, whose fierce princes may have looted the treasures from their Anglo-Saxon neighbours.

“It’s not the quantity, it’s the sheer quality, the barbaric splendour of it that gets you,” said Kevin Leahy, an archaeologist who originally trained as a metalworker, and who carried out the initial cataloguing. “This was the very, very best they could do – and their best was pretty damn good.”

The hoard has overshadowed many other fabulous finds contained in the most recent Treasure and Portable Antiquities report, for 2007, also launched at the museum. Treasure – gold, silver and bronze hoards – must by law be reported, and the antiquities scheme also encourages metal detectors to report all archaeological finds. As the scheme has expanded since 1997 to the present network of finds officers across the country, the number of treasure reports has climbed, to 747 in 2007, along with 66,311 non-treasure finds.

The discoveries include a Viking hoard from the Vale of York and a silver gilt cup – undoubtedly acquired under dubious circumstances from some French monastery, and discovered stuffed with gold and silver pieces – which has been jointly bought by the British Museum and the York Museums Trust. There is also a small, rolled-up sheet of Roman gold found in south Oxfordshire, a charm to ensure safe childbirth for a woman called Fabia, only the third such amulet found in Britain.

One of the more modern pieces was a small 19th-century lead figurine found on the Isle of Wight, portraying Tom Molineaux, born a slave on a Virginia plantation, who won his freedom and a $500 prize in one of his early boxing bouts and went on to become an international celebrity.

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