(Above) Officials will attempt to value a Staffordshire Hoard experts believe is priceless
A metal detector enthusiast has unearthed the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found on farmland in Staffordshire.
Terry Herbert discovered the vast collection, containing more than 1,500 precious seventh century pieces in 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, at a secret spot in fields near Lichfield, which was the heart of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.
"The two most striking features of the hoard are that it is unbalanced and of exceptionally high quality," said Dr Kevin Leahy, the National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme who is cataloguing the items.
"There is absolutely nothing feminine, no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. The vast majority of items are martial, especially sword fittings.
"The quantity of the gold is amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate. This was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good.
"Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect – it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite."
A cheek-piece with a frieze of running animals is one part of several highly-decorated helmets being pieced together
Finds Liaison Officers are carrying out hi-tech scans of the pieces at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, where they are being held in storage.
City Council Leader Mike Whitby said the Council was "absolutely delighted" to support the "remarkable and historic" find, and announced the artefacts would go on public display in the Gallery this Friday (September 25 2009).
An independent Treasure Valuation Committee will recommend a value for the hoard to the Secretary of State after visiting it at the British Museum, although the team warned it would be "artistically and historically impossible to price".
"This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries," predicted Leslie Webster, a former Keeper at the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, referring to the Suffolk hotbed of Medieval burials.
"It's absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells."
A strip of gold bearing a biblical inscription in Latin has sparked feverish debate over which century it belongs to
English Heritage has given £25,000 in emergency funding and expert advice to Staffordshire County Council.
"I think for any archaeologist this is the find of a lifetime and reaffirms why you became an archaeologist in the first place," gushed Ian Wykes, head of SCC's Historic Environment Team.
"It was only when I saw the treasure still in the ground that it started to sink in."
Wykes is not the only professional struggling to contain his emotions.
"Nothing could have prepared me for that. It was breathtaking," reported Duncan Slarke, the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Find Liaison Officer for Staffordshire.
"I saw boxes full of gold items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship."
At least 84 pommel caps and 71 sword hilt collars have been identified so far
Deb Klemperer, a specialist in Saxo-Norman Staffordshire pottery at the nearby Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, admitted the hoard "brought tears to my eyes."
"The Dark Ages in Staffordshire have never looked so bright nor so beautiful," she added, describing the "incredible" haul.
The hoard is believed to have been left during a period of tribal conflict before England had been established. Christians and local pagan worshippers clashed at the time, and dozens of highly-decorated weapons, helmets and fittings from the seventh century are among the items.
"This is not simply loot – swords were being singled out for special treatment," explained Dr Leahy.
"If it were just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them, to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades would then be remounted and reused.
"It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long military career. It will be debated for decades.
"Some are decorated in what is known as Anglo-Saxon Style II, which consists of strange animals interlaced around each other. There is a joy to it. Many objects are inlaid with garnets, and even covered in earth the colour is still breathtaking.
"There is so much material that we may have to rethink seventh century metalwork. In the past the seventh century has always been looked at from the point of view of East Anglia and Kent. It's going to be hard to forget the Midlands after this.
"There are exciting times ahead. After all those urns I think I deserve the Staffordshire find."
Staffordshire Police are continuing to monitor the site, although the organisations are satisfied all recoverable items have been found.
Key objects go on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from September 25 to October 13 2009.