Unearthed Gold Sheds Light on Anglo-Saxon History

September 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Britain's largest collection of gold artifacts has been discovered and it dates back 1,300 years to the Anglo-Saxons. Nicholas Glass of ITN reports.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a story about some long-lost gold, the largest collection of gold artifacts ever found in Britain, intricate pieces of Anglo-Saxon history, more than 1,300 years old. Nicholas Glass of Independent Television News reports.

NICHOLAS GLASS: Five days in July and a metal detectorist stumbled on the find of his life in a grass field on farmland in south Staffordshire. Here was so much Anglo-Saxon treasure, so much gold, much of it just lying on the surface, a hoard like no other.

Terry Herbert couldn’t quite believe it, working away with an old trusted metal detector…

DUNCAN SLARKE, finds liaison officer: Terry and his cousin would be showing me, “Oh, this is a nice one. This is a nice one.” And you would just be saying — it got the point — and Terry has said to me that he was dreaming the patterns. So he knew how big it was.

And one thing he says, the second — I think day two and day three of his search was horrific weather, and there was thunder and lightning, and he’d had to retreated to his car, and he’d sort of chuckled to himself with the thought that, if he got hit by lightning and he was found lying on his back with pockets full of Anglo-Saxon gold, what would it look like? I mean, that would have been a story.

War trophies unearthed

NICHOLAS GLASS: What Terry Herbert seems to have found was a collection of Anglo-Saxon war trophies, decorated in precious elements, stripped from swords, helmets, and shields left on the battlefield.

A professional archeological team moved in to complete the dig. This is something you very rarely see, a dig where the artifacts are simply there, richly scattered over an area just 20 meters square. The field had been ploughed just last year.

We watched in absolute silence and astonishment as they showed the short film at the press conference. Staffordshire was once a borderland, home to the Mercian warrior tribe so admired by the Anglo-Saxon scholar JRR Tolkien.

One thousand, three hundred and eighty-one objects identified already, and they're still counting, over 500 kilograms of gold, fragments of Anglo-Saxon England, much of it exquisitely worked.

The most famous Anglo-Saxon find of all to date was Sutton Hoo in Suffolk 70 years ago, these treasures now in the British museum. This was a royal ship burial which yielded up the face of the early Middle Ages, a helmet with brass eyebrows, nose and moustache.

But we still have so little Anglo-Saxon material. The Staffordshire hoard adds to it immeasurably.

Reinterpreting history

DR. KEVIN LEAHY, portable antiquities scheme: It allows us to reinterpret Sutton Hoo. When things like this come out, they're not subtracted from each other. This doesn't diminish the importance of Sutton Hoo. It amplifies the importance of Sutton Hoo by giving it a context. Here we've got enough material to look for a chronology, to look for sequences.

NICHOLAS GLASS: A decade ago, a find like this would automatically have ended up at the British museum, but a decision has been made to let it go to museums in the Midlands, if they can raise the money. The hoard is now treasure trove. A panel will decide what it's worth.

Terry Herbert and the landowner will split the money 50-50. It'll be no surprise if they both become millionaires.