Awestruck archeologist marvels at treasure's link to the seventh century

Terry Herbert, the treasure hunter who recently unearthed the world's largest and most important hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold in Staffordshire, England, recently reflected on his historic find. He told the BBC that he often invokes a special phrase when he is out with his trusty 14-year-old metal detector: "Spirits of yesteryear take me where the coins appear." But he changed the word "coins" to "gold" on the day of the discovery. "I think somebody was listening and directed me to it," he says.

Dr. Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist in charge of cataloguing the items, told DailyFinance that he too feels a kind of mystical connection with the items: "We are, through these objects, being linked to the eyes and hands of people who were around 1,400 years ago. It is a spiritual link: These things have traveled through time."

Leahy, National Finds Advisor for the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme, an organization that records finds made by ordinary folks, says that "working on the material is awe-inspiring and, in fact, quite scary. We never expected to see anything like that." He says it's important to remember that gold at that time was extremely rare as these objects predate the opening of gold mines in the new world during the 16th century. "This gold originally came from Byzantium or Constantinople," he explains. "It entered England in the form of little gold coins called tremissis, which were melted down."

Staffordshire Hoard Excavation Video
Birmingham University Field Unit

Terry Herbert's link to yesteryear began when he uncovered a trove of 7th-century artifacts while out scanning a friend's farm with a metal detector in July. Upon realizing the enormity of what he had found, Herbert, 55, notified authorities and turned his bounty over to professional archaeologists who are still sifting through 56 clods of earth, which x-rays indicate may contain more gold. According to the British Museum, "The size and quality of the hoard is remarkable, making it the most important find of its type in Britain for over 150 years."

The Staffordshire discovery of 1,600 pieces weighs in at about 6.3 kilos and includes five kilos of gold and 1.3 kilos of silver, according to a spokesman for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where the items are on show until October 13th. This new discovery "dwarfs" an earlier haul of 1.5 kilograms of gold at a royal burial site known as Sutton Hoo, which was uncovered 70 years ago, says Rita McLean, Head of Museum and Heritage Services at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Until now, that had been the largest and most famous of all Anglo-Saxon finds.

Experts say the elaborate decoration on the golden treasures indicate that they belonged to a nobleman. The cache includes military items such as intricately decorated fragments of helmets, pommel caps and sword hilt collars. Most of the items are made of gold and are decorated with cloisonné garnets. According to Leahy, who has handled each and every object, "They are so beautiful it is breathtaking. We are in the presence of greatness in terms of artistic craftsmanship."

Single sword fittings from the same era have been found before, but discovering this number of pieces in one location is unprecedented, making the trove as important historically as it is artistically. "It's like shining a light on the dark ages," says McLean.

One remarkable item is a strip of gold featuring a biblical inscription in Latin. It reads, "Rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face." The suitably militaristic quote includes misspellings and, according to Michelle Brown, an expert on medieval manuscripts, the style of the lettering indicates that it may be the work of someone accustomed to writing on wax tablets, helping to date the item back to the seventh century.

This stash of treasures is "an incredibly important find for our understanding of the seventh century," says Michael Lewis, an expert in the portable antiquities department of the British Museum. "We don't have lots of archaeological material and there are relatively few written sources from that period." McLean agrees that the find will enable historians to glean new information about the period: "In terms of the dark ages and Anglo-Saxon history, this will tell you more about everyday life." According to Leahy, "All the archaeologists who've worked with it have been awestruck."

The value of the antiquities has not yet been assessed and the challenge of valuing the hoard will be entrusted to the British Museum in London where it will be examined by a team of independent experts who will decide on a price by mid-November. Leahy says, "We all agree that we are into seven figures, but we have to wait for the treasure evaluation committee to sit."

One thorny question now is whether the West Midlands can rustle up the cash to buy its own Anglo-Saxon treasure back from the Crown once assessors come up with a price tag, which will no doubt be steep. Politicians such as Staffordshire county council leader Philip Atkins have pledged to make this area of England the permanent home of the artifacts, rather than allowing them to follow so many other ancient treasures to London. "This is our heritage and we need to do it justice," he said. Until now, many had assumed that the treasure trove would eventually be housed at the British Museum, but Atkins insists, "We will do everything we can to bring the hoard home."

Since the collection went on show at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a record number of visitors have come to admire it, forcing the museum to extend its opening hours. Today, fund-raising efforts began in the hope that the museum will be able to team up with the nearby Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in order to purchase the hoard. "There's a potential here to attract a lot of attention to the region," says Tom Watley, head of exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum, "and the potential to put Staffordshire and the region on the map because of its unique heritage."

The money to buy the treasures will most likely come from government grants and from the nation's heritage lottery fund, as well as from private donors. Watley says, "We've raised about £6,000 so far and we haven't launched the appeal until today." As for the proceeds from such a sale, they will go to Herbert as a reward for his discovery. He has said he will split the money with the owner of the land where it had been buried for centuries.

McLean, the Birmingham Museum chief, says she's still marveling at Herbert's good fortune: "Some ordinary guy stumbling across this great hoard of gold with his metal detector--isn't it everybody's dream?"

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