Priceless medieval brooch among record 1,300 items of 'treasure' discovered in last year

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Many of the items were discovered by metal detectorists who voluntarily submitted their finds for expert analysis

Tuesday, 17th March 2020, 11:32 am Updated Tuesday, 17th March 2020, 11:33 am The early Medieval silver and niello brooch (Photo: British Museum)

A 1,000-year-old engraved silver brooch discovered in a consignment of spoil dumped by a tipper truck is among the priceless items of “treasure” to have been unearthed in the last year. The extraordinary piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery, decorated with fantastical beasts and plants, was found by a metal detectorist exploring a site near Kings Lynn in Norfolk where a consignment of soil and rock had been recently unloaded from a dumper truck. The brooch appears to have been transported from elsewhere in Norfolk in an area already associated with the work of early Medieval craftsmen known for their exquisite metalwork. 

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The piece of jewellery was just one of a record 1,311 items found across England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year which have subsequently been classified as “treasure”, meaning they are more than 300 years old and made of gold or silver or consist of coin hoards or prehistoric metalwork.

Mythical creatures

Other finds included a 2,000-year-old “drinking set” found in Kent adorned with mythical creatures likely to have been designed to serve alcohol at feasts, and a solid gold Bronze Age arm ring found in Cumbria. A Bronze Age gold arm ring found at St Bees, near Whitehaven, Cumbria. (Photo: British Museum/Portable Antiquities Scheme)

They are among more than 81,000 finds recorded in 2019 by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the project run by the British Museum and the National Museum Wales to record significant archaeological finds on a publicly-accessible database. Almost 90 per cent of the items were discovered by metal detectorists who voluntarily submitted their finds for expert analysis.

Detailed decoration

Hartwig Fischer, director the British Museum, said: “These discoveries by the public are vital for advancing our understanding of Britain’s diverse history. It is incredibly encouraging that so many finds have been voluntarily recorded.” Museum experts said they were astonished at the level of preservation of the early medieval brooch, which was found with its pin mechanism intact and its detailed decoration, consisting of etched metal filled with a black inlay known as niello, visible.

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The decoration, known as a “Trewhiddle”, dates to the ninth century and it is possible the brooch is associated with the Pentney Hoard – a collection of similar pieces of jewellery discovered in 1978 by a grave digger in the churchyard in the Norfolk village which gave the treasure trove its name. 

Wooden bucket

The drinking set, discovered in Lenham, near Maidstone, Kent, comprises the decorative fittings to what would have been a wooden bucket used to hold mead, wine or beer at feasts. The rare fittings, which showed signs of having been repaired during their lifetime, are decorated with a pair of hippocamps (creatures with the head and forelimbs of a horse and a fish-like tail) and two human faces.

In a statement, the British Museum said: “This was clearly a cherished and much-used object. Buckets like this are usually found in high-status cremation graves. They probably formed part of a drinking set, used for serving mead, wine or beer at feasts.

Perhaps the people buried with these objects hosted such feasts in life, or maybe this was a way for the living to share the funeral feast with them.”

The 8th century gold arm ring, found in St Bees, near Whitehaven, Cumbria, is similar to other decorations of the same type found in both Britain and Ireland.

Its worn outer edge suggests the ring, weighing 300g of pure gold, was worn frequently by its owner.

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