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Derek Coleman: Found treasure can pay big time in Great Britain

Nov. 25, 2012 @ 06:49 PM

Twenty years ago today, Peter Whatling, a tenant farmer who rented a farm in the village of Hoxne in the English county of Suffolk, was working outside when he lost a hammer. It was a good hammer, not very expensive but he used it a lot, he liked it and he wanted it back. He’d lost it in a field so, after unsuccessfully looking for it, he called on his friend Eric Lawes to help. Lawes, who was a retired gardener, had a hobby, he was an amateur metal detector and between them Peter Whatling thought they would soon find his missing tool.

They did not; instead, they found a silver spoon. Then the machine beeped again and they discovered a piece of gold jewelry, then another spoon and a few coins. These things were old, very old and so they stopped digging, informed the County Council, who owned the land, and then the police.

Their finds were examined and on the following day a team of archeologists arrived at the farm and proceeded to examine the field. What they found was astonishing.

Firstly they came across the moldering remains of a large oak box. Most of the wood had rotted away but there were hinges, metal straps, nails and locks. Inside were other, smaller boxes and cloth wrapped bundles. In and around the box was scattered the biggest hoard of Roman gold and silver coins and artifacts ever discovered in Britain. Most of the 14,865 coins were from the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and they constitute the biggest collection of coins from that era discovered anywhere in what at one time was the Roman Empire.

In addition to the coins the searchers found some two hundred pieces of jewelry, silver tableware and Mr. Whatling’s hammer.

For over 1,000 years under English law objects like these fall into two categories. If the objects had been hidden with the intention of recovering them later and the owner or the owner’s descendants can prove they belong to them then they get to keep them. If the finds are more than 50 percent gold or silver, if they have been hidden with the intention to retrieve them and no one can prove ownership they are termed “treasure trove.” They have to be reported to the nearest coroner and become the property of the crown in the person of Queen Elizabeth, unless someone can prove a better right to it.

That may not seem fai, but the Queen never keeps any items declared as treasure trove and, as long as the objects have been properly reported, after the coroner’s inquest the finders are either paid the full antiquarian value of anything that is kept for museums, etc., or the objects are returned to them. In the case of Mr. Whatling’s and Mr. Lawes’ finds, the objects went to the British Museum in London and the two men were paid the equivalent of $4 million between them. As a gesture, Mr. Whatling donated his hammer to the museum, too.

Losing the hammer was lucky for our two Englishmen, but what of the people who originally lost the treasure? Who were they and why did they bury it? We shall almost certainly never know. The number of coins and the amount of other items would have constituted a considerable fortune in Roman times. The people who hid it were very rich but they did not live nearby, there is no trace of Roman buildings in the vicinity and the archeologists found only a single post hole close to the treasure, perhaps left there to mark the spot where the box was buried. There were a variety of names inscribed on the spoons together with Christian symbols, but nothing to identify the owners.

The newest of the coins found is dated early in the fifth century A.D., which was the time when Rome suddenly withdrew her legions from Britain. What followed was a period of lawlessness and chaos that lasted more than 200 years and is known as the Dark Ages. We can only imagine a Roman family, beset by invaders, fleeing and unable to carry the heavy box containing their valuables with them. What could they do except dig a hole and bury it? Obviously they never returned for it, so presumably they were overtaken and either killed or captured and their secret died with them.

I’ve always been fascinated by archeology. I’ve never tried metal detecting and so have never found any artifacts of worth but if I ever did take it up I might be tempted to try around the village of Hoxne because, although Farmer Whatling found spoons, pepper pots and ladles he never did discover any of the great silver and gold serving dishes that were so typical of wealthy Roman households and maybe, just maybe, they are still lying under some nearby field.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.