Unpicking the story of a stolen treasure
Last year, four men were jailed for stealing and selling one of the most significant Viking hoards ever found in western Britain. To date, only a few of its contents have been recovered. What can these objects, and the landscape in which they were buried, tell us about the area’s early medieval history? Tim Hoverd, Peter Reavill, Judy Stevenson, and Gareth Williams report.
Late last year, one of the most significant early medieval hoards ever discovered in western Britain was revealed to the country in an almost unprecedented way – through reports from the Crown Court in Worcester. In November 2019, four men were found guilty of concealing, stealing, and selling a hoard of ‘Viking’ treasure that they had recovered illicitly on land near Leominster in Herefordshire four years earlier. They were sentenced to a combined jail term of more than 23 years, ranging from 12 months to ten years in length (see CA 359), and they are also subject to a ‘proceeds of crime’ hearing where assets and goods can be seized so that they do not profit from crime.
Rather than focus on this horrendously destructive heritage crime, this article will move away from the headlines, looking instead at what we currently know about the hoard and investigating the archaeology of the landscape associated with the find. It also looks towards a future where the hoard can be relocated to the county where it was once hidden, to be displayed and enjoyed by the public.
The small portion of the hoard recovered so far includes three gold ornaments, a silver ingot, and 30 silver coins – but photos recovered by police during their investigations suggest that, when complete, the hoard had contained several more ingots and around 300 coins. It is possible that the collection contained other objects too, but the quality of the recovered photos means that this is uncertain. The combination of intact ornaments, bullion, and a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Islamic coins immediately suggests that this was a Viking hoard, and – as we will discuss in more detail below – the coin evidence indicates that it was deposited c.879, probably in connection with the actions of the so-called ‘great army’ in south-west Mercia.
Among the assemblage, the earliest item is a pendant: a small crystal sphere mounted in a frame of four gold strips that are arranged at roughly equal distance around its circumference. These are joined at the top in a four-sided box, with a suspension loop emerging from the top (also made of gold). The box is decorated with beaded gold wire and individual gold granules, while the strips are decorated with diagonal incised lines in a herringbone pattern and join at the bottom in an open lozenge shape with a cross in the centre.
The pendant is a beautiful object, and comparable examples have been found in a number of early Anglo-Saxon graves from Kent, Cambridgeshire, and the Isle of Wight, as well as from Continental Europe. The pendant is most likely of Frankish workmanship of the 5th- 7th centuries, and is significantly earlier than any of the other items in the hoard. What was it doing in the collection? It may have come from a disturbed grave, but in the course of the period 865-879 the Viking ‘great army’ had over-wintered in a number of royal and ecclesiastical centres, while some elements had earlier raided in Francia, so it is likely that this find represents loot from an Anglo-Saxon or Frankish treasury.
The second recovered item is a substantial gold finger-ring, circular in the middle but octagonal on the outside, with each of the external facets decorated with an alternating pattern of a rosette or flower of eight petals, and a grid of seven pellets, set against a black niello background for contrast. The ring has a number of parallels from England and Wales, and similar patterns are found on other Anglo-Saxon ornaments decorated in the Trewhiddle style, and dating from the 9th century – something that suggests that the ring is broadly contemporary with the coins in the hoard.
The final gold item is an arm-ring or bracelet of oval section, decorated with five plain geometric facets and closed by a stylised animal head biting on the terminal at the opposite end. This part also has signs of decoration, but as the object has not yet been fully cleaned, the detail of the ‘tail’ end has yet to be determined. At present, no direct parallels have been found for the arm-ring as a whole, but the style of the animal head also points to Anglo-Saxon workmanship of the 9th century.
Finally, the silver ingot also fits into this picture: it is crudely cast and typical of Viking hoards of the late 9th and early 10th centuries. What of the coins?
CLUES FROM THE COINS
Among the recovered coins are ones that highlight the wide reach of Viking cultural contacts, including a silver dirham of the Umayyad dynasty, probably minted in AH 102 (AD 720/721), possibly at Suq al-Ahwaz in south-west Iran, although the inscription is not completely legible. There is also a Frankish silver denier of Louis the Pious (814-840). Both Islamic and Frankish coins are rare as single finds in England but are more commonly found in Viking hoards of the late 9th and 10th centuries.
The remaining coins are all Anglo- Saxon. One of these is a silver penny of the Cross-Crosslets type issued by Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury (805-832), while the others were issued by Alfred ‘the Great’ of Wessex (871- 899) and his contemporary Ceolwulf II of Mercia (c.874-879). It is these coins that provide the historical context for the hoard. The neighbouring kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia had at times been rivals and at times allies, and when Alfred became king in 871 he inherited an alliance with the then king of Mercia, Burgred (856-874). In 874, however, following three successive years in which the Viking ‘great army’ had occupied sites in Mercia, Burgred abdicated. He was replaced by Ceolwulf, who is dismissed in West Saxon sources written in the 890s as ‘a foolish king’s thegn’ and a puppet of the Vikings, with no suggestion of any alliance – but the coins tell us a very different story.
Coins of the time demonstrate a monetary alliance between Alfred and Ceolwulf, with shared designs and a shared reform of the silver content. The first type issued by the two (represented in the hoard by two coins of Alfred and three of Ceolwulf) shows a Roman imperial bust on one side, with the name of one of the two kings, and an image of two emperors on the reverse, symbolising the alliance. This was followed by another shared coinage, with a bust on one side and a stylised cross on the other, and this is again well represented in the hoard. Both types were rare before the discovery of the hoard, with the Two Emperors type known only from a single example of each king, but this hoard, together with a similar hoard found a few months later near Watlington in Oxfordshire (which was legally reported; see CA 311), shows that both were extensive coinages, with some moneyers shared between the two kings.
In 879, Ceolwulf disappears from the historical record, although it is uncertain whether he died naturally, was killed, or abdicated. Alfred subsequently took control of much of Ceolwulf’s former kingdom, and issued a new coinage, which remained in place for the remainder of his reign. A single example of this in the Herefordshire hoard provides a depositional date for the whole assemblage of c.879. This date coincides with Viking activity in the region; the ‘great army’ was defeated by Alfred at Edington in Wiltshire in 878 and, following a peace treaty between Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum, the army moved across the border into southwestern Mercia, remaining there for a year before moving on again, this time to settle permanently in East Anglia. Although further interpretation is needed, it is likely that the hoard relates to the Viking occupation of Mercia at this time.
LOOKING TO THE LANDSCAPE
Due to the fact that the two metal-detectorists among the convicted men refused to shed light on the hoard’s findspot(s) or to cooperate with the investigation, Historic England funded work by Herefordshire Archaeology (Herefordshire Council’s Archaeology Service) to ‘contextualise’ the finds. This included establishing whether or not the objects were associated with any form of archaeological structures and/or deposits, such as a cemetery, settlement, or other site that might explain their deposition. Herefordshire Archaeology was also tasked with establishing whether there might be more material of a similar nature and date in the locality and, if possible, to establish whether the known finds had been discovered as a series of small, discrete deposits or as one single hoard.
The area where the hoard was found lies to the north-east of the market town of Leominster, where the local topography comprises a gently undulating and fairly low-lying landscape, overlooking the upper Ridgemoor valley to the west. From this spot, the northern aspect of Leominster and in particular the priory (the site of a monastery founded in Leominster by King Marewalh of Mercia in AD 660) are clearly visible, framed to either side by low hills.
The search area comprised a number of fields that the metal detectorists are known to have visited, covering an area of approximately 50 acres; a Desk Based Assessment prepared in order to document known sites of historic significance and landscape change identified the site of a historic crossroads next to a natural spring. This old road network partially survives today as a series of green lanes, although some have been lost through later landscape changes.
An initial drone survey over the fields identified gaps in crop rows, possibly locating areas of disturbance related to illegal metal-detecting, which were recorded so that they could be compared against later survey results once the crop had been harvested. Once the crop had been taken up, the entire area was metal-detected, field-walked, and subjected to geophysical survey. The first two techniques indicated that the entire area had been previously detected and that there was no further material relating to the known finds – and, with the exception of lead, very little material relating to any other period. Geophysical survey failed to identify any potential targets relating to any form of historic buried structures, but it did provide information regarding the extent of medieval ridge and furrow and the formation of headlands, and located a small number of discrete anomalies that may have indicated the disturbance of soil at a deeper depth. These areas were targeted by resistivity survey, and their locations compared with the earlier photogrammetric survey.
As the work on site progressed, staff were asked by West Midlands Police to identify images – which had been retrieved (after being deleted) from one of the detectorists’ mobile phones – that could be connected to the site and the finds. A series of photographs were identified that showed the material in the ground, and being removed from the ground, as well as two landscape photographs both referencing the corner of a field. The area identified in the photographs was the now-ploughed-out historic crossroads and location of the spring. Photographic evidence strongly suggested that the material was discovered near this spot, and that it was all found in a single place as a hoard. Expert examination of the finds had suggested that the patina and good state of preservation on them indicates that the material could have been buried within a wet environment, which would fit well with the corner of the field, which is by far the wettest part of the search area. The photographs also suggested that the objects may have been originally buried within a lead ‘box or parcel’; it is understood that an amount of lead sheet was recovered from one of the detectorists houses.
Having narrowed down this part of the search area, ground-penetrating radar was used over the corner of the field in order to locate areas of disturbance. This was followed up with targeted excavation, during which it quickly became apparent that any evidence of the exact findspot had been lost. This was largely due to the wetness of the area and the machinery used in the harvesting of the maize crop and the subsequent cultivation and replanting with winter wheat – all of the areas of disturbance related to rutting and slewing.
But while the precise location where the hoard had been buried could not be identified, the combined survey data together with the retrieved photographic evidence demonstrated that the material had come from a single deposition. It has shown that the hoard was not associated with any cemetery or settlement but was more likely buried close to a crossroads and near to a spring in order for it to be recovered at a later date. Moreover, the suite of survey methods employed during the investigation provided much useful information – field-walking and metal-detecting surveys highlighted the areas that had been previously metal-detected, and the use of a drone with suitable mapping technology proved to be a very helpful method of surveying ‘through’ a crop that could not be systematically walked through without causing significant damage. Had the crop not been maize, the initial site investigations may have located evidence for direct, localised metal-detecting, but the choice of crop, length of time between the find and the subsequent site investigation, the late cropping of the maize, and the dreadful weather at the time of harvesting all conspired to make this undertaking very difficult indeed.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Now that the criminal phase of the hoard’s story is complete and the dust has settled on the trial, Herefordshire Council’s Museum Service is at the beginning of a journey to bring the find home. Like all Treasure cases, a reward to the finders and landowner is payable, although in this case that standard practice concerning the finders would need to be reconsidered by the Treasure Valuation Committee; the timetable for the final stages of the Treasure process and the valuation is not yet certain. Pending the valuation, a selection of items from the hoard is currently on temporary display in Room 2 at the British Museum.
Once the hoard has been valued, Herefordshire Museum’s fundraising will begin in earnest. The intention is that the hoard will be displayed at Hereford Museum so that the public and potential donors can get to see this remarkable find as soon as possible. The hoard is the single most important find of treasure in Herefordshire, and a discovery of this significance is unlikely to be repeated for many years to come. It not only retells the story of the country’s journey towards a unified England but places a new emphasis on the role of Herefordshire and the Marches within the Kingdom of Mercia. The find is of great importance to local people and the museum is looking forward to having the opportunity to acquire it so the hoard is available for all to see and enjoy. The museum will develop educational activities and community involvement in the hoard’s stories, and ultimately aims to create a new exhibition space that can put the hoard in its context with a renewed perspective of Herefordshire’s role during the Anglo-Saxon period and Viking Age.
At the end of the trial, West Mercia Police issued a plea for more information regarding the remaining 90% of the hoard that is currently still missing. The huge historical potential that this stolen material contains is unknown. We can but hope that it will come to light so that it can rejoin the other finds and help us tell this unique Herefordshire story for all to marvel at.
TEXT: Tim Hoverd is Archaeology Projects Manager at Herefordshire Archaeology (Herefordshire Council).
Peter Reavill is employed by the Birmingham Museums Trust as the FLO for Herefordshire and Shropshire, and has worked for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme since 2003.
Judy Stevenson is the Museum Team Leader for Herefordshire Museum Service responsible for the management of the county’s collections and exhibitions.
Gareth Williams has been a curator at the British Museum since 1996, and has published extensively on Anglo-Saxon and Viking coins and hoards, and on the wider history of the period.
Finders of potential Treasure are legally obliged to report such discoveries, and can contact their regional Finds Liaison Officer for help with this. You can read more about Treasure and the Portable Antiquities Scheme at www.finds.org.uk.