Portable Antiquities Scheme Essex: The Hunt For Anglo Saxons

By Richard Moss Published: 16 November 2004

shows a woman kneeling in the centre of a field and looking down a hole. She is flanked by two standing men - one holding a spade, the other a metal detector.

Essex FLO Caroline McDonald gets her hands dirty during a detecting survey conducted under 'archaeological conditions'. Picture © Colchester Museums

This is the first of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.

At 11am on November 27 ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman is due at Colchester Castle Museum to launch a ‘Finds Roadshow’ for the Essex Portable Antiquities Scheme.

What may at first seem an incongruous choice is in fact an apt one. Bill is a keen metal detectorist and amateur archaeologist making him just the type of person the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is seeking to attract.

He will be joined by an array of archaeology experts and ‘Romans’ from the Colchester Roman Society who will be on hand to remind visitors of the county’s Roman archaeological heritage.

But for Finds Liaison Officer, Caroline McDonald, the roadshow offers a chance to explore some emerging archaeological evidence that points towards other traditions.

shows a small, hollow decorative metal object. Shaped rather like an elephant's trunk it has small indentations on the body of the object with the remains of red and white enamel in them

A mid first century 'sawfish Roman brooch.' Picture © Colchester Museums

“We’re really pleased with how the PAS has gone in Essex because unlike in Norfolk and Suffolk, we don’t have such a strong proven Anglo Saxon tradition,” she explains. “For me there is still much work to be done to figure out just where the Anglo Saxons were in the county.”

So far a wrist clasp and a girdle hanger (a kind of decoration hung from the waist) have been reported and logged following a metal detector find in the northwest of the county.

"We have a lot of active metal detectorists - I think metal detecting really is an East Anglian thing," says Caroline.

"We really want to consolidate on our work with detectorists to try and get as many finds from this period as there have been in say Suffolk and I really want to get to the bottom of the nature of Anglo Saxon finds in this area.”

shows a man in field with a metal detector. His wearing a turqoise fleece, baseball cap and gloves. He appears to have a moustache.

There are many metal detectorists in Essex and the PAS has made great efforts to establish a good realtionship with them. © Colchester Museums

It’s a measure of the scheme's success that finds by so-called amateurs are beginning to have an impact on thinking about the the local Anglo-Saxon presence.

Such discoveries are however rare and an overwhelming amount of finds tend to be medieval artefacts or Roman coins and brooches.

“These are the classic finds,” admits Caroline, “they were easily lost by their original owners and I think since the start of the scheme we have had over 50 Roman brooches brought in to us.” Other rarities include a Bronze Age arrowhead cast in bronze.

“This is my own personal favourite,” says Caroline, “less than twenty of these have been found in the whole country. Most arrow heads from this time are usually in flint, so if you think about it, one made from bronze is a relatively high status find and a very rare thing.”

shows an old bronze arrowhead. It is worn and mottled and its edges are jagged.

A middle Bronze-Age arrowhead. Picture © Colchester Museums

The arrowhead was discovered during a visit to a local metal detecting club – one of many undertaken by finds officers in the region. The visits are part of a developing relationship that Caroline sees as integral to the success of the PAS in Essex.

“Obviously much of the archaeology undertaken in the county is done on the back of building developments so it’s difficult for metal detectorists and other members of the public to work on development sites,” she says. “But I have done a controlled survey with a Colchester metal detecting club and what I have found is that they were really delighted to have been involved.”

Although Metal detecting enthusiasts account for many of the finds reported and recorded in Essex, other members of the public are also beginning to bring in their discoveries through the PAS office at Colchester museum.

Some of these discoveries merely turn out to be strangely shaped stones, but for Caroline and her colleagues it’s about meeting the public and having the chance to explain the local archaeology that is equally important.

shows a photograph of a round silver coin wtih the head of a Roman Emperor on it.

Essex has a tradition of archaeological finds. Here is a Roman coin featuring the head of Antonius Pious found at Stansted Mountfitchet. Picture © Colchester Mueums.

“When people bring in something that isn’t an ‘archaeological find’ it’s ok," she says, "because we can tell them what to look for next time. The important thing to remember is that members of the public should never be embarrassed about bringing their finds in.”

With this in mind you are invited to bring your discoveries, however puzzling, to the PAS Finds Roadshow at Colchester on November 27. The event opens at 11am and as well as a Rolling Stone and Roman re-enactors there will be six finds officers waiting to examine whatever you choose to bring in.

Saxon specialist Dr Helen Geake from Cambridge University will also be there, just in case any more Anglo-Saxon finds appear, together with Dr Roger Bland, Head of the PAS and Adrian Gascoigne, the council's Countryside Archaeological Adviser.

Caroline hopes the event will encourage more people to log and report their finds and to get involved in the archaeological process.

“There’s a real sense that metal detectorists and other members of the public want to be brought in to help,” she says, “they want to see that they’re making a contribution and that is as it should be – because archaeology is for everyone.”

In the run up to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Roadshows on November 27, we have been talking to Finds Liaison Officers throughout England and Wales.

The FLOs have been be telling us about their experiences of administering the PAS; some of the amazing finds they have encountered and giving an insight into the archaeological landscape that surrounds us.

The series began with the article you are reading now about Essex, and then we looked at Devon where Nicky Powell revealed some of the things that land on the desk of an FLO.

Shropshire and Herefordshire FLO Peter Reavill explained the historical topography of the Welsh Marches.

Simon Holmes in North and East Yorkshire expounded the virtues of 'community archaeology'.

In Wales Mark Lodwick explained how field walkers are returning a vast amount of archaeological evidence about pre-historic Wales.

Oxfordshire and Berkshire Finds Liason Officers are accumulating plentiful evidence of the many generations of occupation in the area, particularly in the Thames Valley.

Read about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Roadshows in our Roadshows feature where we talk to Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: