If Harrison Ford has taught us anything in his role as blockbuster hero of the ages, Indiana Jones, it’s that treasure hunting is a viable – lucrative, even – career choice. As if to prove this point, a metal detectorist in the East of England has unearthed the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold coins ever discovered: 131 gold coins, mostly Frankish tremisses, which date back 1,400 years to before the country of “England” even existed. And yes: according to UK law, this literally counts as buried treasure.
Unlike your typical Indiana Jones escapade, however, this discovery took time and patience – the gold coins were collected over six years of careful metal detecting in a field in West Norfolk. The hoard also contains four other gold objects: three pieces of jewelry and a gold bar, and experts think this suggests the coins would be used as bullion – i.e. valued by weight rather than denomination (something which is a lot more feasible across borders when the coins are literally solid gold rather than a cotton-linen blend).
“This internationally-significant find reflects the wealth and Continental connections enjoyed by the early Kingdom of East Anglia,” said Tim Pestell, Senior curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. “Study of the hoard and its findspot has the potential to unlock our understanding of early trade and exchange systems and the importance of west Norfolk to East Anglia’s ruling kings in the seventh century.”
But with the coins comes a slew of legal knots and intrigue. While almost all of the coins were discovered by one anonymous detectorist – let’s call them King’s Lynn Jones – ten were found by somebody else. David Cockle was a serving police officer in 2017 when he was jailed for trying to sell the coins he found without declaring them, an act which, due to the fact that the UK is a strange and esoteric place, technically amounts to stealing from the Queen.
Hoards like this have been found all over the British Isles, with the most famous example being the jaw-dropping ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Dating from roughly the same time, and found in the neighboring county of Suffolk, archeologists believe Sutton Hoo was the resting place of somebody of utmost importance in Anglo Saxon society. Many gold objects were found at the site, but only 37 gold coins were among them – a paltry find in comparison to the Norfolk hoard.
131 coins is certainly an amazing number, but there’s a bittersweet nuance to knowing that it could have been more. Two of the coins that were illegally sold in 2017 were never recovered, having disappeared into the antiquities trade. Helen Geake, Finds Liaison Officer for Norfolk, said the hoard “shows how vulnerable these objects are to irresponsible collectors and the antiquities trade” – though she also highlighted “the value of metal-detected evidence in helping reconstruct the earliest history of England.”
Now for what is probably the most majestic sentence we’ve ever had to write: should the discovery be formally declared Treasure, the Crown will likely claim the find on behalf of Norwich Castle Museum.
Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum, called the West Norfolk find “hugely important,” saying that the coins will “help to transform our understanding of the economy of early Anglo-Saxon England.”
“It is close in date to the famous ship burial from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and although it doesn’t contain as much gold as the whole of the Sutton Hoo burial, it contains many more coins,” Williams explained. “In fact, it is the largest coin hoard of the period known to date.”