Archaeological Treasure: Portable Antiquities Scheme finds at the British Museum

By Sarah Jackson | 03 January 2015 | Updated: 03 April 2001

From the objects logged by the Portable Antiquities Scheme on Europeana to the archaeological treasures displayed at the British Museum

Image showing a gold cup with a ridged design on a black background. The cup has been crumpled and severely damaged/
The Ringlemere Cup. Taken from Europeana.euCC-BY-SA Portable Antiquities Scheme
You might think that the archaeological objects we see in museums are all found by archaeologists, using their skills and knowledge to locate potential sites and then digging carefully into the earth to find them.

Many objects are indeed found this way, but some are found by ordinary members of public, such as metal detectorists sweeping their apparatus across farmland, or a walker strolling along a familiar field. They are not experts – so how can they find out more about these objects?

Since its inception in 1997, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has encouraged members of the public in England and Wales to report any archaeological objects they find to their local Finds Liaison Officer.

The scheme records data about the objects on a database that can be accessed by the public and researchers alike. It has recently recorded its millionth object (a copper alloy coin dating from 332 AD), a testimony to its enormous success.

Without the PAS, many of those million objects may never have been recorded and a great deal of knowledge would have been lost. In addition, some of the most significant finds may never have found their way into museum collections.

Many have been kindly donated by finders and landowners, but some items have been acquired by museums under the Treasure Act 1996.
 
According to the act, any object which is at least 10% precious metal (that is, gold or silver) and at least 300 years old when it is discovered is considered legally to be treasure and must be reported to the local coroner. Groups of coins from the same finds and pre-historic base-metal assemblages are also classed as treasure.

These objects are then offered to the British Museum, the National Museum Wales, or a museum local to where the item was found. The finder and landowner are offered a reward recommended by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee; many choose to donate the items to a museum.

To find out what hidden secrets these smaller and less well-known objects can reveal, we took a tour of some of the galleries in the British Museum with Ian Richardson, Treasure Registrar for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

We begin in Room 51 (Europe and Middle East 10,000-800 BC).

Perhaps one of the most significant and unusual finds from the PAS is the Ringlemere Cup. Found by metal detectorists in Kent in 2001, it is one of only two known Bronze Age gold cups found in the UK. Despite its bent and crumpled appearance (possibly damage caused by a plough) the fine craftsmanship that went into forming the cup from sheet metal is still evident.

a photo of two ribbed golden cup one of them crushed
L-R Rillaton Cup, Ringlemere Cup© Sarah Jackson
It is displayed alongside the Rillaton Cup, a very similar object found in Cornwall. This one has retained its original shape apart from having its bottom flattened. “It used to be in the possession of several British monarchs,” says Ian. “One of them – either King George IV or William IV – was rumoured to have used it to store cufflinks on their mantelpiece.”

Moving on to Room 50 (Britain and Europe 800 BC to 43 AD), we can see one of the most important Iron Age gold hoards yet discovered. The Winchester Hoard dates from the very late Iron Age, just before the Roman Conquest of Britain and was found by a metal detectorist in 2000.

It consists of two sets of jewellery, each comprising of a necklace torc and two gold brooches held together by a chain, along with two gold bracelets. One torc appears larger than the other, leading to the theory that one set was meant for a man and the other a woman. They appear to have been made in a way that is different to any other known torc from Iron Age Britain, Ireland and France.

Photograph showing a heavy gold torc, two gold bracelets (one of which is broken in two pieces), two gold brooch pins and a copper alloy vessel mount in the shape of a goose head.
The Winchester Hoard© Sarah Jackson
“It’s got Roman styling to it,” says Ian, “so it could have potentially belonged to two important people, say a king and a queen who would have had connections. They were able to acquire fancy stuff like this, with a Mediterranean influence.”

Just down the gallery, another set of unusual torcs can be found: a gold and silver alloy torc found near Newark, Nottinghamshire and the Sedgeford Gold Torc. The latter was found in 1965 by a metal detectorist, broken and missing one of its terminal. Amazingly in 2005, during follow up work at the same site, the missing terminal was found and reunited with the torc.

Photograph showing a gold torc, partially straightened, made of twists of fine gold wire twisted together but now coming undone.
The Sedgeford Gold Torc© Sarah Jackson
This torc was probably broken by plough damage. For once, the fact that an object has been damaged is not a problem; it is in fact an opportunity.

“It allows you to see how they were made,” explains Ian. “You can see it in that form,” he continues, pointing to the complete torc found in Newark, “but you can’t appreciate the complexity of how it’s made by a great many gold wires twisted around each other and then twisted into bigger groups back in the opposite direction to keep it unwinding”.

Photograph showing a gold and silver allow torc made from twists of fine gold wire which have then be twisted together to form a thick gold band.
Gold and silver alloy torc found near Newark© Sarah Jackson
The torc from Newark was also found in 2005. Both have such similar terminal ends that it seems likely that they were made in the same workshop – although they were found in different counties.

In Room 49 (Roman Britain) you can see some of the most famous examples of Treasure, including the Mildenhall and Hoxne Treasures, both found by members of the public and acquired by the British Museum under the Treasure Act. However, we start with something much more humble: the Staffordshire Moorland Pan.

Photograph showing a small copper alloy pan with coloured glass inlays set in a geometric pattern. The pan is sitting upside down on its top and a Latin inscription can be seen written around the rim
The Staffordshire Moorland Pan© Sarah Jackson
At first glance, the small copper alloy Roman pan appears dull, especially in comparison with the sheen of a gold torc. However, its remarkably preserved and colourful enamel decoration gives it a beauty of its own.

“The really interesting thing,” says Ian, “is that around the rim are the names of these Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. So although this was found in Staffordshire, there’s a theory that it was some sort of memento, or souvenir, or going away present for some soldier or officer who was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. This may have been some way to commemorate his years of service.”

Metal detectorists can also reveal previously unknown archaeological sites. One such example is the Ashwell Hoard, whose discovery revealed a multi-period site dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period, apparently acting as a ritual place for all those cultures.

The hoard itself consists of 27 gold and silver Roman items, including at least 20 votive plaques made of gold or silver foil as well as a silver female figurine inscribed with the name Senuna, a previously unknown Roman goddess.

“She was probably very local to the area and little known elsewhere,” says Ian.

Photograph showing  votive plaques made from thin sheets of gold and silver.
Votive plaques from the Ashwell Hoard© Sarah Jackson
“Some of the plaques have been delicately inscribed with the name of a god, including Senuna. What they were used for is not fully understood, but later excavations suggest that the site was used to ritual feasting and other activity associated with funerary practice.”

Room 41 (Europe:  AD 300-1100) is dominated by the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo, discovered by archaeologists in the 1930s. Yet this gallery also contains several other important treasures, discovered by amateurs and metal detectorists, which are often overlooked by visitors.

Photograph showing a brown glass beaker with claw-like protuberances. On its left stands a tall clear glass vessel, and on its right a squat globular blue vessel.
The Ringlemere Claw Beaker© Sarah Jackson
The Ringlemere claw beaker was found at the same site as the gold cup in Room 51.  Made of brown glass, the beaker has an ornate claw decoration but it is unlikely to catch anyone’s eye.

Looks can be deceiving – this dull-coloured beaker has been valued at about £400,000 as so few examples of Anglo-Saxon claw beakers have been found intact.

“This vessel is one of the few complete ones they have from Anglo-Saxon England,” says Ian. “It’s just because they were digging it up in an excavation that it remains whole - if someone [a member of the public] was just digging it up they might have put a spade through it!”.

Moving downstairs to Room 2 (The Changing Museum), visitors now have a rare chance to see items currently going through the treasure process.

Photograph showing 13 bronze axe heads, three small gold bracelets and a crescent-shaped thin sheet of gold.
Display case showing bronze axe heads, a gold lunular and three gold infant bracelets.© Sarah Jackson
This display will change every six months to a year, but at the time of writing contains some rare examples of late Bronze Age jewellery, including the most complete gold lunular ever found in Britain, and three gold bracelets, still plugged with mud from their excavation.

According to Ian, these bracelets are “fairly unique in the combination of decoration and size. We think they were probably worn by an infant”.

Thanks to the Portable Antiquities Scheme millions of unique items that may have remained in the ground forever, or else tucked away in somebody’s drawer, have now been recorded for history.

In many cases, the generosity of finders and landowners mean that the most precious and important of these objects are safely held by museums up and down the country for everyone to enjoy. Keep an eye out for them next time you visit the British Museum.

Click below to launch a gallery of images.



These images and many more are available to view on Europeana.eu, a digital portal that allows you to explore the digital resources of hundreds of Europe’s galleries, museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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