British Viking coin hoard discovered in October 2015 intrigues

Only hoard from 870s is of national importance, difficult to interpret
By , Coin World London Correspondent
Published : 04/09/16
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There is always something exciting about finding buried treasure. Most discoveries are typical of others at the time of concealment, but there are occasionally finds that shout from the rooftops, “I am special!” This is the story of one of those, and it generated more interest than most.

I vaguely heard on the radio that a hoard had been found that “would change history.” 

However, it was not until nearly midnight that I got ‘round to browsing the papers. The Daily Telegraph had devoted a good half page to the find. Its headline read, “Enthusiast with a metal detector unearths Viking hoard and rewrites history of King Alfred.”

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The discovery was even featured in the editorial. It started by saying that perhaps with the exception of Alfred the Great, as he became known, it is hardly fair to expect English kings before 1066 to be generally well-known. It continued with a mention of one of Alfred’s contemporaries. “Poor Ceolwulf [II] got a dismissive write-up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for feebleness in the face of the heathen (as the Vikings were known). Whether the latest find shows otherwise, no one can deny the effect of metal-detecting on our knowledge of our past. It is immense.”

Describing the hoard

James Mather, who has been metal detecting for 20 years, found the hoard during October 2015 in a farmer’s field that had been used to grow cereal crops. The farm is located near Watlington, a market town in the Chiltern Hills about seven miles south of Thame, Oxfordshire. The announcement was made two months later during the run-up to Christmas, when the annual Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure reports were launched.

Mather, a retired marketing executive from Reading, was searching with the farmer’s permission. He had been searching for five hours “detecting ring pulls from drink cans and shotgun cartridges,” he said with a smile. “I then found a silver ingot six centimeters in length, which I immediately recognized as being Viking. I had seen a similar one at the British Museum. Then after a more systematic search, I found the location of the hoard, 12 feet away.”

Having received a strong signal that a sizable amount of metal was under the surface, he neatly removed an area of cereal stubble and with a trowel undertook a careful exploratory investigation. He soon came across a few Anglo-Saxon coins, but could see that there were compressed items that would need professional extraction. 

Mather immediately alerted his local Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Unfortunately the officer was not able to travel to the site for five days. Mather took the loose coins home for safekeeping and secured the site as best he could, returning at intervals over the next few days to ensure that all was well. 

He said, “Discovering this exceptional hoard has been a really great experience and helping excavate it with archaeologists from the PAS on my 60th birthday was the icing on the cake!” 

A “haggis-shaped” mound of earth was then removed containing the treasure. Wrapped in cling film and bubble wrap, the whole was transported to the British Museum in London, where it was excavated. 

The coins in the find were examined by Dr. Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum and also Dr. John Naylor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who is the Portable Antiquities Scheme national finds adviser for post-Roman coinage. 

The hoard comprises 186 coins (some fragmentary) including some great rarities, seven arm rings and 15 ingots. The noncoin artifacts in the hoard are being worked on by Dr. Barry Ager, an early medievalist at the British Museum. 

Initial view of hoard

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