The Hoxne Hoard, uncovered in Britain in 1992, stands as one of the strongest arguments in favor of what a well-trained amateur can discover using a metal detector. It is the largest find of late Roman gold and silver found on the island of Great Britain — or, indeed, in any Roman territory. Not only were there over 14,000 gold and silver coins, but the Hoard also boasted 200 pieces of silverware, in addition to historically significant pieces such as the Empress pepper pot. And it all started as innocuous as one of your own outings with a metal detector, on a hunt for a friend’s missing object.
Discovered in an oaken chest, the coins inside date from the year 407, which means they are from the final days of the Roman Empire’s rule over the province of Britannia.
The Search for a Hammer Unearths Unparalleled Treasure
So how was this massive cache of Roman precious metals and treasure unearthed? Peter Whatling, a tenant farmer in the area, lost a hammer. When conventional methods proved fruitless he called up his friend Eric Lawes, an amateur metal detectorist and retired gardener who had received the metal detector as a retirement gift, to help him hunt for it. While searching the fields, Lawes happened upon some gold coins and jewelry and silver spoons.
The pair then contacted the police, as well as the landowners (the Suffolk County Council) before searching any further, not wanting to catch themselves on the wrong side of the law. Archaeologists from the Suffolk Archaeological Unit arrived the next day. They were able to recover the rest of the Hoard that day, keeping intact many of the softer items. This would not have been possible without a professional team of archaeologists. Metal detectors were deployed to search for further treasure in a 30-mile radius and while nothing too far afield was found, the searchers were able to locate Whatling’s hammer. He donated it to the British Museum.
One of the things that make the Hoxne Hoard of such keen archaeological and historical interest is that it was largely undisturbed for centuries. While there was some minor disturbance from animals, it was mostly in the exact same position as it was originally packed. As a result, things like all bowls for women were packed together, all bowls for men and likewise.
Researchers Claim the Hoxne Hoard, But Who Owns It?
The story made front-page news on The Sun on November 19, 1992, but the press wasn’t interested in it for very long. This was actually a good thing because it allowed researchers to clean and sort the materials without the press hanging over their shoulders the whole time.
On September 3, 1993, an official coroner’s inquest was held, which declared the Hoxne Hoard to be a treasure trove. Under British law, this means that it was buried at an earlier date for recovery at a later date. And at this point, we arrive at the question undoubtedly on every reader’s mind: Did the farmer and his friend get to keep any of the treasure?
The short answer is no, they did not, but they were handsomely rewarded for their efforts and their honesty. The longer answer is a bit more interesting.
Under British common law, any treasure trove unearthed belongs to whoever buried it or their legal heirs. If no one can claim it under these terms, it is declared the property of the Crown. However, the British statute provides for rewards for a timely report of unearthed treasure to the authorities, likely to incentivize such priceless historical treasures such as these to be reported. In November 1993, the Treasure Trove Reviewing Committee valued the hoard at £1.75 million (about $4.4 million in today’s dollars). This was awarded to Lawes because he found it, but he generously shared his windfall with his friend. British law was later changed, partly in response to the find, which codified a sharing of such treasures between the finder, the landowner, and the tenant.
The Hunt for Further Treasure in Hoxne
The Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service surveyed the field the next year. They didn’t find much — just four gold and 81 silver coins. There was an additional follow-up in 1994 in response to illegal treasure hunting on the land. This uncovered 335 items, mostly coins but also some box fittings. All of the coins found in the Hoard were in excellent condition adding to both their monetary value and historical significance.
So who was the Romano-Briton who buried the hoard in the first place? We don’t really know, but a number of the jewelry pieces inside the hoard are marked with names. What’s more, broader social trends of the time tell us that they were probably buried in response to increasing barbarian raids in the region.
As Roman troops withdrew from the island between 388 AD and 400 AD, all protection was withdrawn. Many Roman-Britons buried their treasures in the ground with an eye toward reclaiming them at a later date when the rule of law was more robust. At least in the case of the Hoxne Hoard, this never happened. And while other hoards have been uncovered, one of the things that makes the Hoxne Hoard unique is that it included lots of dinnerware, whereas most uncovered hoards are simply coins.
Indeed, what was uncovered is likely only a small portion of what the family-owned. Many common household items that an affluent family such as this would have owned were missing. For example, any large dinnerware items.
Not everyone agrees that The Hoxne Hoard was buried to hide it from barbarians. An alternate hypothesis is that the Hoard was buried because it was used as part of a gift-exchange process (it was common in ancient times for families to “gift” the same goods back and forth to one another or in a circle) and after Roman authorities left they were no longer necessary. A third theory postulates that the Hoard were ill-gotten gains from a robbery that were buried by the perpetrators.
Part of the lack of clarity comes from the fact the Hoard was found so far from a large landholder or, indeed, even a large settlement from the Roman period.
Whether you’re standing on former Roman territory or land that once belonged to the Native Americans, there’s a treasure to be found for those wishing to search diligently — and who have the right equipment. You don’t need to be in the middle of the California Gold Rush to find a fortune in gold.
Images of the Hoxne Hoard have been sourced from Wikimedia Commons.