Viking hoard lands treasure hunters in jail

Coining it: Two samples from the hoard, but many of the items have not been recovered. © PA

Who owns buried treasure? On Friday, two men were sent to jail for trying to sell an amazing 1,100-year-old stash of Anglo-Saxon coins and jewellery. But to whom does it really belong?

You have stumbled upon a clue to the location of buried Viking treasure. What do you do next?

You’ll need a metal detector to know where to dig. Plenty of time — and patience as well — plodding over hills and fields.

Then, when you’re just about to give up, your detector beeps. Your heart races. You start to dig. Something glimmers in the soil. A coin. And then another. And another! A gold bracelet with a dragon’s head, a ring and a crystal ball pendant! Three hundred silver coins. You can’t believe your luck. You’re rich!

Not so fast.

In the UK, at least, the law is very clear. If you find treasure, you must report it to the authorities within 14 days. The artefacts are placed in the British Museum, and a reward is split between you and the owner of the land.

In June 2015, treasure hunters George Powell and Layton Davies dug up a cache of Anglo-Saxon coins and jewellery in a field in England. Worth £3 million, they tried to sell it.

They were caught, charged and convicted of theft. On Friday, Powell started a ten-year prison sentence. Davies got eight-and-a-half years. But who did they steal from?

Most “metal detectorists” are law-abiding enthusiasts. But so-called “nighthawkers” are on the increase, trespassing on land and swiping hidden troves of Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon loot before anyone else gets to them.

“It belongs in a museum!” was Indiana Jones’s catchphrase, as he wrestled stolen artefacts from tomb raiders.

But does it? Sentencing the two men, the judge said, “The treasure belongs to the nation.”

How can the law be so sure? It first belonged to Anglo-Saxons, then it was stolen by Viking invaders, long before England or the United Kingdom existed. After so many years underground, does this treasure belong to anyone?

In a new book called Who Owns History? leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson argues that the British Museum is packed with artefacts from “other lands, stolen from their people by wars of aggression, theft and duplicity”.

The most famous example is the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in Athens in the 1800s.

So, who really owns buried treasure?

Finders keepers?

Whoever finds it, surely! It is hypocritical for the British Museum to accuse treasure hunters of theft, when so many of its own artefacts were acquired by the British Empire without permission. “World museums” like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris should be more open and honest about where their exhibits come from.

Others say, fair enough, no one owns treasure. But neither does anyone have the right to destroy history, and this is far more important than the loss of individual items. “Our treasure system,” says Gareth Williams of the British Museum, “is the most generous in the world, in terms of providing rewards for those who abide by the law.” And their historical importance means these items must be protected.

You Decide

  1. Who owns this Viking treasure trove?
  2. Should the British Museum return artefacts to their countries of origin?

Activities

  1. One thousand years in the future, treasure hunters find a hoard you buried in 2019. What do they find? Draw a picture of the treasure and label the items.
  2. You are going to open a museum for the 21st century. Choose the five objects that tell us the most about life in 2019. Write museum labels for them, explaining what they are and why they are important.

Some People Say...

“If you steal something small, you are a petty thief but, if you steal millions, you are a gentleman of society.”

A Greek proverb

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This was one of the most significant finds in recent years. Worth at least £3 million, it includes a unique gold bracelet; a 5th-century pendant; an elaborate ring, and three hundred silver coins. Some of these coins are extremely rare, “two emperors” coins, showing the heads of Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia. Historians know very little about Ceolwulf, but these coins suggest an alliance between the two kingdoms, that would later unite to become England.
What do we not know?
Only a small number of the coins have been recovered. Possibly only the two jailed men know where the coins are, and historians fear we may never find them. Lost with the coins are clues about the early formation of England. But it is also very possible that there is more treasure out there, under fields in England, waiting to be discovered.

Word Watch

Viking
This hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure was probably stolen from the nearby monastery at Leominster by Viking raiders from Scandinavia.
Metal detector
Portable detectors were first designed to locate unexploded bombs, but are now used by archaeologists as well as artefact hunters to find buried metal objects.
British Museum
The first public, national museum in the world with one of the largest collections, mostly acquired during the British Empire.
Anglo-Saxon
In the 9th century, England was divided into small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms including Wessex and Mercia. These coins shed light on the relationship between the two kingdoms.
Metal detectorists
In the UK, these treasure hunters have websites, local clubs and national organisations that share information about places to visit and how to abide by the law.
Nighthawkers
The term used by the police, the British Museum and other ‘detectorists’ for criminals searching for treasure, often at night and usually without permission from the landowner.
Elgin Marbles
Classical Greek sculptures removed from buildings in Athens by the Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce. Bruce claimed to have the permission of the Ottoman Empire, in charge of Athens at the time. Greece has repeatedly asked for them to be returned.

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