Unearthing the Anglo-Saxon treasure will spark a modern gold rush
There is no reason to believe that Terry Herbert, the 55-year-old Staffordshire man who stumbled upon one of the greatest hoards of Anglo-Saxon treasure discovered in Britain, has any particular interest in the early Middle Ages.
He is a metal detectorist, and they are generally people for whom dreams of sudden wealth are all that sustain them in their dreary and normally unrewarding hobby. Herbert, who is unemployed, more or less admitted as much when he described his feelings on finding the Staffordshire hoard: “Imagine you’re at home and somebody keeps putting money through your letterbox. That is what it was like.”
He unearthed some 1,500 beautifully crafted gold and silver items of military paraphernalia in a field near Litchfield, which happens to be the birthplace of Dr Johnson whose tricentinary was celebrated this month. They date from around 700AD, and their beauty and quantity have left the experts speechless with wonder. But Herbert admits that finding the treasure was a matter of luck, like winning the lottery (though, he claims, “more fun”).
He has never suggested that skill or knowledge have featured in metal detecting any more than in playing the lottery, but he has tried from time to time to boost his chances of success by chanting a spooky little mantra: “Spirits of yesteryear, take me where the coins appear.” On the day of his great find, he changed the word “coins” to “gold”. “I don’t know why I said it that day, but I think somebody was listening and directed me to it,” he said.
Herbert is a member of the Bloxwich Research and Metal Detecting Club, which over the years has grown accustomed to failing in its pecuniary ambitions. “People laugh at metal detectorists,” he says. “I’ve had people go past and go: ‘Beep, beep, he’s after pennies.’ Well, no, we are out there to find this kind of stuff, and it is out there.”
His was a tremendous find of potentially huge historical value, and I don’t wish to denigrate it: but a part of me wishes nevertheless that he had never made it, for it will inevitably bring metal-detecting in from the cold and lead to a modern gold rush in which thousands of disappointed lottery players will be beep-beeping all over the countryside.
Like Herbert, I live in the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia with whose King Penda the Staffordshire hoard has been tentatively associated. I look out over a field which one can tell from its ridge-and-furrow topography hasn’t been ploughed since the Middle Ages. As a matter of fact, I am beginning to feel a bit twitchy myself.