Curator's Choice: Ipswich Museum curator Caroline McDonald's Wickham Market Hoard

Caroline McDonald interviewed by Ben Miller | 03 May 2011
A photo of a stash of gold coins
© Suffolk Archaeological Unit
In Her Own Words: Ipswich Museum Curator of Archaeology Caroline McDonald tells us about the Wickham Market Hoard which became one of the most significant discoveries of its kind in Britain when it was found in a Suffolk field in 2008.

"There are 840 Iron Age coins in this hoard, buried somewhere around AD 20. The coins themselves date from between 20 BC and AD 20.

Eight hundred and thirty five of them are from the Iceni tribe, whose territory covered Norfolk and part of Cambridgeshire, but five of them are from the Catuvallauni tribe, who were the neighbouring tribe in Lincolnshire, so that says something interesting about their relations with their neighbours.

There are two main theories: one is that they were buried for safekeeping, and the other is that this was a ritual activity.

During the two-day excavation, evidence of features were found nearby. Although there wasn’t a definite round house or anything, there was clearly human activity in the area.

If you were going to burn something for safekeeping you would probably do it away from where you lived. So the fact that it’s near human activity suggests it may have been more of a ritual, but ultimately we’ll never know.

We weren’t involved in the excavation at all. We heard about it through the treasure process –  every time a major archaeological find comes up in the county we’re asked to state our interest.

Treasure comes in all shapes and sizes – sometimes it’s just a little fragment of something, and invariably we say we’re not interested, but something like this is a real no-brainer.

It’s nationally important and we’re the only museum in the region with a large archaeological collection and archaeological specialists on the staff. We feel we’re the right place for it.

It’s a real, major find for Suffolk. There have been a whole series of finds here during the past century, starting with Sutton Hoo [1938], then Mildenhall [1942], then the Hoxne [1992]…it’s almost as if we were due another one, which is why we’re so keen to keep it here.

All the others are in the British Museum, but I think as a country there’s been a sea change in attitudes and we’re more regionally-focused now. Over the decades the regions have come into their own in all sorts of ways.

There are lots of very generous funders out there who you make applications to, but unfortunately their funding is squeezed. What we have to do is compile a really compelling bid, which I have done.

We declared our interest and it went quiet for a year. Then all of a sudden we received an invoice – that’s how it goes, literally out of the blue. It turned up and now we have four months to raise the money, which really is no time at all. It’s a race against time. We’ve gone into funding overdrive.

I don’t want to count my chickens but there is a really compelling story behind this discovery. People say we’re saving it for the nation. It’s really important for Suffolk and local people, but it tells a much wider story of Britain.

The coins were buried with a pot – it’s the bottom half of a very ordinary, grey-looking pot. It was made on a wheel, which is not how they were made in Suffolk at the time – they were made by hand, so it’s not from a local tradition.

It’s travelled from somewhere. If we’re successful we get the pot with it, and a lot of our research will be on that. It’s a really tantalising bit of evidence. In many ways it’s more interesting than the coins.

The last time we had treasure of national importance here was when the Hoxne Hoard was discovered in the 1990s, and people queued around the block to see it. It was really exciting, and I hope that will happen again.

We’re holding an exhibition at Colchester Castle about buried treasure and things which have been hidden away. It’s a perfect opportunity for us to put it on display there. Then it’s going to tour to Norwich Castle Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who we have close links with.

By lovely coincidence this means we tour the coins around the territories of the Iceni. It means that people get to experience the hoard on a regional level. It’s trying to recreate that territorial reach – there were communities 2,000 years ago in these areas who had really deep personal connections to these coins.

There’s a slight sense of uncertainty. We’re asking for lots of money and times are tough. There’s no such thing as a done deal. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes deciding what gets the money and what doesn’t."

  • A selection from the Wickham Market Hoard goes on preview at Ipswich Museum from today (May 3) until June 10 2011.
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