A tantalising mystery: The story behind the huge Anglo-Saxon coin hoard found in Buckinghamshire

By Ben Miller | 11 January 2015

Four days before Christmas, a metal detecting rally in Buckinghamshire revealed one of the largest Anglo-Saxon coin hoards ever found in Britain, touted in the national press as being worth £1 million. Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrrell tells Culture24 the full story

A photo of a large number of ancient gold coins laid out in a kind of square formation
Some of the first coins examined in the British Museum laboratories from the hoard found on farmland in Buckinghamshire just before Christmas© Portable Antiquities Scheme
“I was at the weekend rally by invitation of the Weekend Wanderers.

There are several medieval villages in the area, just south of Buckingham. That particular group had been to Lenborough before.

They'd found some stuff, but not a lot. They hadn't been on these fields, but we expected more of the same. Little did I know.

I'd hardly been there a quarter of an hour when the organiser came down and said 'there's something you ought to see.' They'd got more than two silver coins.

Even two coins are treasure, as long as they're 300 years old, but it was clear that it was going to be more complicated 'cos there were a couple of bits of lead early on, which suggested there was more in there than we could see.

I got the finder to enlarge the hole, because it was very small. Their protocol is to dig the smallest hole you can because then you don't have to fill too much back in.

I'm not quite as young as I once was and I can't get down and kneel and do things like that, like I used to be able to. The detectorist and his son did the digging and we covered up the original site of the find with a plastic bag so we weren't messing it up as we cut around the hole.

As we came level with the top of the coins it was clear there were more than just a few.

By then I was lying on my front in the grass. I couldn't not get involved by then, I needed to get down and see it.

They were wrapped in a lead parcel, which I thought was very strange – turns out there have been lead pieces come up with other coins hoards in that period.

It was an oblong of finished lead sheet which had been folded over in a sort of cylinder. The ends folded over each other to seal it and then the two short ends were pinched closed.

It looked like a giant pasty, really: like how you would cook a piece of chicken in tin foil in the oven. It's a very simple, cheap way of wrapping your coins up so that you don't sacrifice a vessel.

You could do it on the table in your house, I suppose. It may well be that they had cheap lead lying around.

At a quick glance, which is really all that's been done so far, all I can say is they were probably coins of Cnut or Æthelred, anything around that period.

Ideally we would have launched the story after we'd done our investigations. But it was all over the internet by Monday morning, well out of control.

I was on Christmas leave by then, but I had to do the lifting because there was nobody else to do it, basically.

I did it with the help of the finder. The landowner was kind enough to take the sheep out of the field. He'd been warned that there was something going on and kept updated, but he was dealing with his sheep to get ready for the market, which as far as he was concerned was much more important.

We did, in fact, use his kitchen table to make an initial count of the coins that night. With everybody else being on holiday there would not have been anyone else to help anyway.

I had to work on the Monday to bring the stuff into the museum because I didn't want it at home, especially over Christmas. I don't think my house insurance would have paid it.

I've been an FLO for more than 11 years and I've never had anything quite like that before, but we got it sorted out fairly quickly. I didn't feel happy to keep them very long – they went to the British Museum fairly soon after that.

My colleague took them up in the museum van with a driver, because we weren't that keen on sitting on the train with them. It's quite heavy, that many coins.

They're safe and sound in the British Museum now, and their conservation lab is cleaning the coins and lead, ready for Gareth Williams, the Curator of Medieval Coins, to identify them and do a report for the coroner, who can't rule on them until he's got an archaeological report.

We have to wait with bated breath for that. There's no way we could have identified more than a couple in the circumstances. You can't tell when they're muddy, although they're in very good condition.

A photo of some gold coins with a depiction of an emperor's face and lettering on them
Some of the coins depict Æthelred the Unready, who became King of England more than 1,000 years ago© Portable Antiquities Scheme
Certainly they were packed in a tight little parcel – you wouldn't believe that many coins could be in such a small parcel. Wrapping them in lead had worked – it preserved whoever's money it was for a lot longer than they'd planned. They never came back for them.

If I'm right about Cnut, the latest one would be 1035, which is the end of his reign. It might be an early or late one, there are different types.

It's so early in the game we really haven't had a chance to research any of this. I'm not sure of the full significance of any of this at the moment, it's too early to tell.

It's an exceptional find – one of the biggest in the country. It's the biggest hoard of any sort in Buckinghamshire.

We've had medieval pennies and a Roman hoard, but not as many and they weren't in as good condition. It's certainly the prettiest hoard, if you like coins.

The museum would like to acquire them for the people of Buckinghamshire. Whether we can afford them is another matter.

The money being bandied about in the press is totally unreliable. What they're really worth remains to be seen and will not be decided until the Treasure Valuation Committee has met and come up with a fair market value.

I hope they're not worth more than £1 million. We don't have that sort of spare money – does any museum, come to that?

The Keeper of Archaeology will be working on that one. We'll be seeking to raise the funds when the time comes, but it's all very much in the balance.

The coin specialist was on leave, as well. I've hardly had any Christmas holiday at all, what with the press chasing me.

I was driving back for New Year and thought I'd left something behind, but it was a guy from the Daily Mail. The difficulty is in saying something coherent when you've had your mind on other things for three or four days.

Sometimes being an FLO does impinge on your private life a bit. The press did get a bit overexcited.

While we were trying to dig we were surrounded by metal detectorists peering down the hole taking photographs on their iPhones. It was quite difficult to work.

Archaeological people have criticised me for digging it there and then but there was no way we could guard that hoard overnight. Would there have been anybody to come and help?

It was just too public, so it had to be lifted and sorted out as best we could. Sometimes FLOs work in difficult conditions.

We'd rather have had an excavation done slowly and gently, but even then you can be metal detected by nighthawks as soon as you've gone home – I'm afraid they don't care about whether it's a proper excavation or not. They can easily sweep in when your back's turned.

If you look at the YouTube footage it makes it look like we're 'tee-hee, yum yum, giggle giggle', shovelling the stuff out in a hurry and scooping the coins out in handfuls.

It really wasn't like that. It took us all day – we only just got it in before the light went, we worked hard and slowly on it. We were lucky the lead was in such good condition.

I think somebody in the press said they were in a lead bucket, which definitely wasn't the case. It was a parcel.

The finder could have kept quiet about it, although it would have been difficult to put it in your pocket and sneak away with it – it would have made your trousers a funny shape.

We've organised for him to go up to the museum and see the conservation lab while they're cleaning some of his coins early next week. He's quite excited about it all.

There are bad guys out there who give the hobby a bad name. People don't always report things, although one likes to think that most detectorists are aware of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and their responsibilities.

You can tot up that a silver coin of that period costs so much and then multiply it by 5,000 but that's not really how it works. It might be that the rest of the hoard is full of unusual coins. It's a real unknown quantity.

I think the PAS is launching its treasure report early in February and they were hoping that Gareth would have done at least the initial report by then. That would actually be quite quick for a treasure report.

I'd like to be able to say it'll be done by a certain date, but Gareth would probably kill me. I'd be found with a trowel or a set of coin scales between my shoulderblades.

We hope to tell people the whole story eventually: what it was doing in Buckinghamshire, whether it was minted at the Buckinghamshire mint –  there's lots to finds out. It's tantalising.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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I wonder how much those coins would cost these days. I think it would be awesome to get some coins from back in the 1200s. I have a small collection of coins that I hope to hold onto and maybe turn them into collectible items. <a href='http://www.hjbltd.com/ancientcoins/cncc.asp?inventorygroup=cc' > http://www.hjbltd.com/ancientcoins/cncc.asp?inventorygroup=cc</a>
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