The largest and arguably most beautiful hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found in Britain has been valued at nearly £3.3m by a panel of experts, a reward that will be shared between the amateur metal detectorist who found it and the Staffordshire farmer in whose pasture it lay hidden for 1,300 years.
Professor Norman Palmer, chair of the treasure valuation committee, whose members pored over 1,800 gold, silver and jewelled objects in a day-long session at the British Museum, said: “It was breathtaking – we all agreed that it was not only a challenge but a privilege to be dealing with material of such quantity, quality and beauty. It was hard to stop our imaginations running away with us.”
Museums in Staffordshire will now scramble to raise the money – £3.285m to be precise – which will be paid as compensation to Terry Herbert, the metal detectorist, and Fred Johnson, the farmer.
Johnson was magnificently underwhelmed by his good fortune this morning. “Right now I’m just trying to get over the flu, and money is the last thing on my mind. I hope it’ll not make any difference to me. I won’t be putting in a swimming pool anyway, this country is wet enough already.
Johnson, who paid his first visit to London to see the pieces installed in a temporary display at the British Museum, and bought a suit for the occasion, is in awe of the extraordinary objects that poured out of his field. “Anybody would have to be in wonder at the workmanship, and the years all that history has been lying in the ground with me driving across it.”
Some had speculated that the hoard could be worth many times the sum eventually settled on by the valuation committee. But Johnson was content: “A friend of mine came round and said another hoard was worth £12m, and mine was bigger so it might be worth more – but I said I hope to God it ain’t, I wouldn’t want that responsibility.”
He added: “I’ve met people through this I would never have come upon in all my life. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Palmer said valuing the hoard was a unique experience in his 13 years as chair of the committee.
“We dealt with masses of paperwork before the meeting, and solicited four independent expert valuations in advance, which is unprecedented in my experience. When we met we were driven by two lodestars, scrupulous accuracy obviously, and a determination not to allow the process to drag on and on but to arrive at a figure which would be acceptable to all parties. I don’t think they would have been happy if it had dragged on beyond Christmas.”
Herbert found the first pieces of gold last July, some lying just below the surface or tangled in grassroots in the field, which Johnson had ploughed deeper than usual the previous season. When he reported the find a small army of archaeologists and forensic investigators hit the field, giving the cover story that police were investigating a murder.
They recovered box after box of exquisitely worked gold, including a cheek flap from a helmet, dozens of pommel and hilt decorations from swords, a gold processional cross and a cryptic inscription from the Bible on a strip of gold. Archaeologists will be poring over the find for years, and have already said it will rewrite the history of Anglo-Saxon England, and the pugnacious kingdom of Mercia where it was found.
When the find was announced in September, the news went round the world. Some mud-caked pieces went on display for a fortnight at Birmingham city museum and people queued for up to four hours to see them, with the museum having to double its opening hours. Highlights of the collection now on display at the British Museum have created the same buzz of excitement.
“There was some speculation that because there was just so much in this hoard it might drive down its value,” Palmer said. “But others of us held the opposite opinion, that because it had created so much excitement, if it were ever to go to auction, people who wouldn’t normally be interested would want to own a piece of it, driving up the value.
The British Museum has launched a rapid-response book on the hoard, written by Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who spent weeks cataloguing all 1,800 pieces as they came into the Birmingham museum – with his wife weighing them and labelling them with cloakroom tickets – and Roger Bland, head of the portable antiquities scheme, which encourages metal detectorists such as Herbert to report all their archaeological finds. One pound from each copy sold will be donated to the appeal to acquire the treasure for local museums, to keep the extraordinary objects on display in the county whose history they have transformed.