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The Medieval Brooch found in Wiltshire. Credit: Solent News and Photo Agency

Thrilled Detectorist Finds 800-Year-Old Brooch with Magical Words to Ward off Illness

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Metal detectorists have become important allies to the archaeology community. Over the past few years, several exciting finds of ancient coins, jewelry, tools, weapons, and other assorted metallic objects have been credited to their tireless treasure-seeking efforts. These amateur explorers have made quite the impact in British archaeology in particular , and now a new searcher has joined the ranks of the acclaimed discoverers.

While scanning a field in Pewsey Vale, Wiltshire in March 2021, detectorist William Nordhoff got a hit that he at first thought had been generated by yet another piece of lead, which is all his latest surveys had been uncovering.

However, when he dug down and pulled the tiny object that had triggered his device out of the ground, “there was this glint of gold looking back at me,” he told a reporter from the This is Wiltshire news service.

The golden object he recovered was small, round and exceptionally lightweight (it was later measured at .2 ounces or 5.77 grams). It was covered with engraved letters on both outside and inside surfaces, all around its circumference, which revealed ‘magical’ words to ward off illness.

“I was so shocked it made me sit down,” Nordhoff said. “For what seemed like ages I was just sat there looking at it. I knew straight away it was something special, because I’ve seen these brooches before but I’ve never seen these brooches with so much writing on them.”

He quickly reported his remarkable discovery to the authorities, who then arranged for the local coroner’s office to pick up and analyze the ancient object. Under English law, coroners are required to evaluate archaeological finds turned in by members of the general public, in consultation with specially appointed archaeological experts.  

The results of this examination have only now been released, and they have revealed both how ancient and how valuable this piece of jewelry actually was.

The coroner’s investigation dated the brooch to medieval times, establishing its time of manufacture as occurring sometime between 1150 and 1350 AD. Content analysis proved it was made from real gold, and experts estimate it could be worth several thousand dollars (or pounds) if put up for auction.

Under the terms of the Treasure Act of 1996, Nordhoff will be obliged to offer the medieval gold brooch for sale to a museum at a price set by an independent board of antiquities experts. Nordhoff has already stated that he’d like to see the brooch on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, so his fellow county residents can see it and learn more about their shared heritage.

Nordhoff, 49, is a native of Wales who served in the British Army Royal Engineer Corps in Wiltshire for 10 years. He is currently serving as a member of the Military Provost Guard Service and is now based in Upavon, where he lives with his wife and four children. Nordhoff took up metal detecting in 2017, and since then has become an avid enthusiast of this often frustrating but occasionally highly rewarding hobby. His discovery of the medieval golden brooch in March 2021 is his first historically significant find.

A Protection Against the Black Plague?

Experts have identified the circular broach as a religious artifact. Inscribed on four surfaces around its beveled edge are parts of a Christian devotional prayer, written in Latin. This message translates to: “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Amen.”

Given the small size of the brooch (it is slightly less than one inch, or 24 millimeters, in diameter), the inscriber must have been a highly skilled professional trained to work on tiny surfaces. The writing on the brooch contains no spelling mistakes, outside of an ‘s’ that had to be omitted because of the positioning of the brooch’s pin.

On the inner inscription, a few Hebrew letters were added to the script. According to the expert’s report, these would have been seen as possessing magical properties. This means the brooch was used as a type of magical talisman or charm, designed to protect the user from the onset of illness.

Since the notorious Black Plague or Black Death that wiped out between 75 and 200 million people arrived in England just before 1350, it is possible the brooch was manufactured and inscribed to protect the wearer from its terrifying ravages. But the beginning of the Black Death only coincided with the end of the brooch’s dating window, raising the possibility that it was made at an earlier time and not as a reaction to any specific outbreak of disease.

"Bring Out Your Dead" A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. (CC by SA 4.0)

"Bring Out Your Dead" A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners. ( CC by SA 4.0 )

A One in a Million Chance

Searching through the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, where records of archaeological finds in the United Kingdom are stored, officials couldn’t find any references to medieval brooches that matched the characteristics of this particular object. Many other medieval brooches have been recovered by archaeologists and occasionally by detectorists, but the recently discovered brooch appears to be an entirely unique artifact.

From the moment he dug the brooch out of the ground, William Nordhoff knew he’d uncovered something extraordinary.

“I was quite shocked,” he explained, “as soon as I picked it up, I could tell from weight and color it was gold.”

“You can clearly see it's gotten a little bit of damage here and there, it's not quite round anymore, but that’s to be expected,” Nordhoff continued. “It spent 800 years in a field getting hit by a plough every now and again. It's had quite a traumatized life and that’s part of its character.”

Nordhoff credits his discovery to “a one in a million chance,” and the results of his good fortune will soon be on display in Wiltshire for all local residents to see.

Top image: The Medieval Brooch found in Wiltshire. Credit: Solent News and Photo Agency

By Nathan Falde

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