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The British Museum

Massive Viking Hoard Unearthed by Treasure Hunter Publicly Revealed for First Time


An impressive Viking and Saxon hoard of silver and gold riches that was discovered by an amateur treasure hunter in October is being publicly revealed for the first time at the British Museum.  The treasure trove is believed to have been buried during ninth-century AD war and upheaval in southern England.

The Watlington Hoard, as it is known, consists of more than 200 pieces including chopped up gold, silver arm rings, silver ingots and coins minted by King Alfred the Great of Wessex and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia. The coins alone, 180 of them, are worth up to £2,500 (US$$3,788) apiece, for an approximate total of £450,000 (US $947,000).

James Mather, a retired advertising manager, found the hoard while equipped with a metal detector on a farm near Watlington, and will get to share the value of it with the landowner.

Whoever the original owner of the hoard was, he probably buried it in the late 870s, when the Anglo-Saxons began to push the Vikings north of the Thames into East Anglia. Prior to 878, the Vikings had been increasing raids from Denmark. The Anglo Saxons began to re-establish their rule over southern England and won a decisive battle at Edington in 878. Experts have speculated that a Viking fleeing the Anglo Saxons after this battle buried it on his way north, on the ancient road from East Anglia to Wiltshire and Dorset.

A silver coin depicting Alfred the Great

A silver coin depicting Alfred the Great (public domain)

On one side of the coins is shown an emperor’s head, and on the other are Kings Alfred and Ceowulf II seated side by side. They became allies to defeat the Vikings, though their realms had been traditional enemies.

Later, Alfred annexed Mercia and called Ceowulf a fool and a Viking puppet.

The BBC reports that the British Museum’s curator of early medieval coins, Gareth Williams, said: “This is not just another big shiny hoard. They give a more complex political picture of a period which has been deliberately misrepresented by the victor.”

This time in English history is poorly understood, he said, and the coins give insight into the coalition of Alfred’s West Saxons and Ceowulf’s East Anglians. The alliance broke up acrimoniously, and Ceowulf disappeared from history except in a list of kings that says he ruled for five years and a document recording Alfred’s insults.

A statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester; he is considered one of the great English kings.

A statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester; he is considered one of the great English kings. (Photo by Odejea/Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 20 years, Mr. Mather’s hobby has been metal detecting. Last October he had spent a long day finding nothing important when he finally came across what he thought was a silver Viking ingot like one he had seen at the British Museum. He dug a hole and saw the big clump of coins. He filled in the hole and then called the local representative of the portable antiquities scheme to record the discovery. He told the BBC he went back to the field several times over the weekend to check on the find and make sure it was unmolested.

The next week David Williams, the finds official, excavated the earth and lifted a block of clay that held the hoard, placed it on an oven tray and took it to London in a suitcase.

A museum conservator, Pippa Pearce, said that some of the coins are so thin they can’t be handled by the edges.

The treasure has been reported, per British law. The British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford are in negotiations to purchase the hoard, and it is on display along with a 2010 find of more than 52,000 Roman coins found in jars at Frome, Somerset.

So far in 2015 113,784 portable antiquities have been reported, including 1,008 treasure discoveries.

Coins from the Frome hoard of more than 52,000 Roman coins are on display along with the Watlington hoard at the British Museum.

Coins from the Frome hoard of more than 52,000 Roman coins are on display along with the Watlington hoard at the British Museum. (British Museum photo)

Featured image:  Credit: The British Museum 

By: Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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