Everyone dreams of finding buried treasure in their vegetable patch. With the prospect of paying off the mortgage and having the British Archaeological Society dig your garden in one fell swoop, who wouldn’t want to unearth a stash of Viking loot?
For thousands of years, mankind has been burying items for safekeeping and then promptly forgetting where they were interred. One man’s lost treasure, however, is another’s found fortune. The following treasure hauls were all discovered by amateurs: that’s right, people just like you who got lucky, got smart or got a metal detector.
How many coins constitute a hoard – a dozen? 100? 1,000? Whatever way you measure it, the Hoxne Hoard qualifies with bells on. The 15,000 Roman coins – along with a bunch of tableware that includes pepper pots, because everyone needs seasoning – was found in Suffolk in 1992. Fragments of the wooden chest and smaller casks it had been buried in were also discovered.
Retired gardener Eric Lawes put his metal detector to good use when his friend Peter Whatling lost a hammer. While searching for the farmer’s missing tool, Lawes came across silver spoons, gold, jewellery and coins. Suffolk Archaeological Unit was called in to excavate the site and did a sterling job, recovering not only the hoard but also Peter Whatling’s missing hammer. The hammer is now on display in the British Museum – and so’s the treasure.
In 1966, a group of workmen stumbled across a stash of treasure on a building site. The Fishpool Hoard, as it became known, consists of over 1,200 coins, four rings and four pieces of jewellery dating back to 1464. Set with gold, gems and enamel, the horde was worth around £400 when it was hastily buried by someone fleeing the War of the Roses – £300,000 at today’s prices. Assuming its keeper returned for it, they must have dug up half of Sherwood Forest before finally conceding defeat.
In 900 AD, Britain’s Anglo-Saxon and Danish settlers were prone to beefing with one another, as mankind has been apt to for the past 10,000 years. At the height of the conflict, one enterprising individual decided to stash their lucre in a lead container and bury it in Silverdale, Lancashire. They did a good job of it, for the silver jewellery and coins lay undiscovered for the next 1,100 years.
The treasure finally saw daylight in 2011 after metal detectorist Darren Webster heard a beep and dug his trowel 16 inches into the dirt. Upon unearthing the lead sheeted box, his first reaction was one of disappointment. Those feels soon turned to elation when he raised it to the surface and a handful of silver coins spilled out. The Silverdale Hoard, which includes 27 coins, 10 arm rings, two finger rings and 14 ingots, has been valued at over £100,000 and includes a coin bearing the name of a previously unknown Viking ruler. While credit must go to Darren for digging deep, kudos must also go to his wife, who bought him the detector as a gift. Best Christmas pressie ever.
Ringlemere in Kent is best known for its farmland and by ‘best known’ read ‘not very well known at all’. That all changed one morning in 2001 when Cliff Bradshaw literally struck gold, unearthing a Bronze Age cup with his metal detector. (It may have been the Bronze Age, but even back then us humans were mesmerised by all things shiny, and it doesn’t get much brighter than gold.) The British Museum went on to purchase Cliff’s cup for a cool £270,000.
The aureate cup didn’t always look like a crushed Coke can by the way – that’s thought to be the fault of the farmer’s plough that unwittingly brought it to the surface. You win some, you lose some.
Dave Crisp is the most English-sounding man in all of England. He is also one of the luckiest. While metal detecting in Frome, Somerset in 2010, the hospital chef stumbled across the mother of all stashes: 52,000 Roman coins. The haul, which was concealed inside a huge rounded pot, amounted to 160kg. Show up at the bank with that weight in change and they’d tell you where to go. Dave Crisp was laughing all the way there however after the Museum of Somerset acquired his hoard for over £300,000.
Despite what this article may indicate, most treasure finds don’t amount to a hoard – it’s more likely to be a couple of coins at best. While most of us would be happy to discover an Edwardian belt buckle or Tudor brooch pin, the treasure finders on this list made off with the kitchen sink – if the kitchen sink were to be made of gold and precious stones.
The Staffordshire Hoard, which totals over 3,500 gold and silver items, is the largest Anglo-Saxon find ever made. In 2009, Terry Herbert hit the jackpot while metal detecting in a field near the village of Hammerwich. Total value of the 7th century stash? £3.2 million.
Before the invention of the metal detector, most major treasure finds were discovered by blind luck. Aside from the occasional Howard Carter type, who was able to fund large archeological digs, the only way to find hidden riches was by serendipity. In 1840, workmen repairing the bank of the River Ribble hit pay dirt when their spades struck a stash of loose coins. The delighted workers swiftly began filling their pockets only for the bailiff to appear and instruct them to return their ill-gotten gains. Each worker was allowed to keep just one coin for their troubles.
In total, the 40kg hail amounted to 8,500 silver pieces, including ingots, coins, brooches and rings, making it the largest Viking silver hoard in Western Europe.
Not all treasure hoards were discovered in an English field by an English gentleman clutching a metal detector – just most of them. The next haul on this list thoroughly dispenses with that model however. The Belitung shipwreck was discovered in 1998 by fishermen a mile off the coast of Indonesia. The Arabian dhow, which set sail to China 1,200 years ago, was loaded with ‘Tang Treasure’ – the largest collection of Tang Dynasty artefacts, including all manner of bling, from gold bowls to gold dishes.
Another exotic shipwreck, the Antikythera wreck was found off the Greek island bearing the same name in 1900. Once again, serendipity played a large part in the wreck’s discovery: Captain Dimitrios Kondos and his team found themselves chilling on the island after a storm had put their travel plans on hold. How better to pass the time than with a spot of impromptu sponge diving?
The first diver to spot the wreck, 60 metres below the water’s surface, described the scene as resembling a heap of rotting corpses and horses on the seabed. Captain Kondos initially thought the diver was suffering from excess carbon dioxide in his helmet, and decided to take a look for himself. When he surfaced clutching part of a bronze statue, it was apparent that his crewman had not been tripping: this was the real deal. The Antikythera wreck produced a number of spectacular statues, including the imposing gentleman above, known as the philosopher’s head. More intriguingly, the wreck also produced the Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first analog computer. Despite its primitive operating system, it’s still more user friendly than Windows 8.
UNESCO estimates there are three million shipwrecks lying on the ocean floor, containing treasures worth hundreds of billions of pounds. Whether you’re metal detecting on your British holiday or wreck diving in the Med, keep your eyes peeled – the lucre is still out there.