Archaeology Magazine Archive

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from the trenches
Spectacular Viking Hoard Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007
by Kate Ravilious

(Courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Trustees of the British Museum)

In a muddy field near the town of Harrogate in northern England, father-and-son metal detectorists David and Andrew Whelan made a remarkable discovery: the largest and most spectacular Viking treasure hoard found in Britain for 150 years. It is made up of 617 silver coins from as far away as Afghanistan, Russia, and Scandinavia, as well as 65 other objects, including arm bands (one gold), ingots (metal bars), and pieces of chopped-up ("hack") silver--all contained in an exquisite silver vessel. "At first dad presumed [the vessel] was an old ball cock [the round plastic float that controls the flow of water in a toilet] because he didn't have his glasses on," says Andrew Whelan, a 35-year-old surveyor from Leeds. But they realized they were onto something special when they saw a penny with an image of the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Elder. "Within two minutes it had gone from being an average day to something beyond our wildest dreams. We were stunned and started to shake slightly," he recalls.

Using their lunch boxes to transport the treasure home, the two reported the discovery to their local archaeologist who sent it to the British Museum in London. "The most exciting single object is the vessel," explains Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum. "It is very close in style to another in the British Museum collection. The two are so close they are thought to have come from the same workshop, but the two hoards were buried around 100 years apart, in the 920s and the 1020s, respectively." The Vikings either looted the Harrogate vessel, which was probably used in church services, or received it in tribute. Either way, the newly found hoard likely belonged to a wealthy Viking who buried it for safekeeping during a time of unrest in A.D. 927 (the year in which the hoard's latest coin was minted). In the same year, Edward's son Athelstan had seized the Viking kingdom of Northumbria, the northernmost county in England.

Although the Whelans unearthed the treasure in January 2007, the British Museum only announced the find in July. The extra months gave researchers time to assess the hoard before the expected media frenzy. Experts are now evaluating it, after which a reward equivalent to the value will be split equally between the finders and the landowner. Estimates suggest the hoard may be worth as much as $2 million.

Metal detecting in Britain has been controversial ("Hunting for Treasure," July/August 2002). Historically most detectorists stripped artifacts from their archaeological contexts without reporting the finds, which often wound up on the black market. But now thanks to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a voluntary program that allows members officially to record finds for a share in their cash value, metal detectorists are turning discoveries over to the authorities. "Metal detecting is really aiding our knowledge of the past," says Daniel Pett, an advisor with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. "This hoard was unlikely to have been found without metal-detecting input."

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America