Tom Lucking, a 23-year-old undergraduate student of Landscape History at the University of East Anglia, stumbled upon the find of a lifetime this past December in Norfolk. While combing over a farmer’s field with a metal detector, Lucking and a friend were surprised when the metal detector picked up a strong signal which turned out to be from a bronze bowl buried underground (Figure 1, in situ). After uncovering the bowl, Lucking knew he had found something extraordinary, and immediately stopped to call in the Suffolk Archaeological Field Group (of which he is a member), and Norfolk County Council’s Heritage Environment Service to begin a professional excavation.Trevor Heaton, “Amazing Anglo-Saxon Pendant Joins the Ranks of Major Treasures Discovered in Our Region,” Eastern Daily Press, last modified February 27, 2015, http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/amazing_anglo_saxon_pendant_joins_the_ranks_of_major_treasures_discovered_in_our_region_1_3972534 Thanks to Lucking’s curiosity, archaeologists at the site have uncovered a seventh-century burial of a woman with jewelry and other valuable metal grave goods in the area that once was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, a find nearly priceless to scholars of Anglo-Saxon history, archaeology, and material culture. How did a first-year undergraduate student make such a discovery and what can scholars glean from this finding? Looking beyond the significance of this singular discovery, what can the United States learn from the United Kingdom’s treatment of archaeological findings?
I was fortunate enough to get first-hand knowledge of the discovery from Tom Lucking himself, who spoke enthusiastically about the find, sharing comments and pictures.
The bowl was just the beginning of this significant discovery. Archaeologists uncovered the corpse of an adult, Anglian woman (Figure 2) and a string of artifacts dating to the mid-seventh century, including several pendants, two gold beads, a knife, an iron buckle, and a ceramic pot.Heaton, “Amazing Anglo-Saxon Pendant.” Within the burial, the woman’s body was oriented east-west, a common indication of a Christian burial, but not necessarily definitive evidence for Christian practice.Richard Hoggett, The Archaeology of the East Anglian Conversion, Anglo-Saxon Studies 15 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010), 80-1, 97; Philip Rahtz, “Grave Orientation,” Archaeological Journal 135 (1978): 3-4; Tom Lucking Interview Questions. Pre-Christian burials oriented E-W have been uncovered throughout England and Europe, which scholars like Philip Rahtz have attributed to reverence for the sun. See Rahtz, “Grave Orientation,” 4. While the religion of the woman is still contested, her social class has been easier to distinguish. Judging by the high quality of her grave goods, the woman must have been part of the nobility.Tom Lucking Interview Questions. Few inhumation graves found in East Anglia from the Middle Saxon period (c. 650–850 CE) contained grave goods, and the majority of those graves that were furnished contained only a knife, in contrast to the plethora of items interred with this woman, suggesting her high social status.Hoggett, East Anglian Conversion, 105. Within the grave deposit, archaeologists uncovered two pendants made out of Merovingian coins, one of which (Figure 3) enabled them to assign an approximate date to the burial. This coin was minted under the Merovingian king Sigebert III during the period c. 630–56 CE. His reign indicates the terminus post quem for this grave; furthermore, grave goods ceased appearing in East Anglian burials c. 720–30 CE, providing the latest possible date for the deposit. Tom Lucking Interview; Hogget, East Anglian Conversion, 104.
The most spectacular find from the dig, however, was a garnet pendant (Figure 4), measuring approximately seven centimeters in diameter and inlaid with more than four hundred pieces of garnet.“History Student Digs up the Find of a Lifetime,” last updated March 6, 2015, ITV News, http://8www.itv.com/news/anglia/update/2015-03-06/history-student-digs-up-the-find-of-a-lifetime/. Even the reverse of the pendant (Figure 5) was decorated with garnets that covered the pins holding the pendant together. A piece of metalwork this intricate could have belonged only to a member of the elite in Anglian society. Craftsmen of the Anglo-Saxon period produced notable pieces of fine jewelry similar to this pendant that are now held in the British Museum and the Liverpool Museum. These institutions display a few garnet-adorned Anglo-Saxon brooches analogous to the Norfolk pendant, such as this late-sixth or early-seventh-century gold brooch found in Kent, and the Kingston Brooch, which also originated in seventh-century Kent. These museum pieces demonstrate that, while the Norfolk pendant is not an unprecedented find, it is still rare and valuable to the historical record, as the assemblage of similar Anglo-Saxon metalwork consists of only a handful of brooches and pendants.
East Anglian Archaeological Contexts
As the examples of brooch-findings above hail from Kent, the Norfolk pendant should also be contextualized within the history of other major metalwork finds from East Anglia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that contained Norfolk. Rarely do archaeologists find Anglo-Saxon metalwork artifacts exhibiting this level of craftsmanship in East Anglia, but archaeologists have located a few notable sites with metalwork finds in the past century. The metalwork pieces recovered from the Sutton Hoo ship burial and, more recently, the Staffordshire Hoard and the royal village at Rendlesham have received widespread attention beyond the academic community.
For the public, the great archaeological finds at Sutton Hoo may be the most familiar symbols of early medieval British history; the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ likely conjures up the image of the famous helmet from the Sutton Hoo site. Excavation of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo began in 1939, the largest of which contained the remains of an elaborate ship burial. From this mound, archaeologists extracted the helmet and a surfeit of gold treasures, including shoulder clasps, a garnet-embellished purse lid decorated with an animal motif, a buckle for a sword-belt, and this gold belt buckle with interlace design.Note the use of garnets in the sword-belt buckle, reminiscent of the Norfolk pendant. Archaeologists have dated the Sutton Hoo ship burial to the seventh century, judging from the stylistic design of these metalwork pieces and coins found in the mound. Angela Care Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial (London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1986), 109. According to this chronology, the noblewoman found in Norfolk and the occupant of the ship burial could have been contemporaries. More recently, in July 2009, metal detectorists uncovered a cache of Anglo-Saxon metalwork known as the Staffordshire Hoard. This collection has been labeled the “largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, anywhere in the world” with over 3,500 pieces of gold and silver work, including some objects adorned with garnets.“The Find,” Staffordshire Hoard, http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/about. The bulk of these items pertain to weaponry and warfare—sword fittings, cheek pieces of helmets, etc. Several items appear to parallel the style of the Norfolk pendant, like this almond-shaped garnet fitting and this triangular garnet fitting. In 2014, the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon settlement in Rendlesham received attention when metalwork pieces from the site were displayed in the National Trust Visitor Centre at Sutton Hoo.“Rendlesham Rediscovered,” Suffolk Institute of History and Archaeology, 2014, http://www.suffolkinstitute.org.uk/node/123. Scholars studying the site have theorized it was a royal settlement, possibly inhabited by the royalty buried in the mounds at Sutton Hoo, as Rendlesham is in close proximity to Sutton Hoo.“Anglo-Saxon Royal Village Discovered,” Cardiff University, March 11, 2014, http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/29492-anglo-saxon-royal-village-discovered. Investigation of the royal village commenced in 2009, but the work was kept quiet to stave off looters. The “Rendlesham Rediscovered” exhibit at Sutton Hoo in 2014 displayed gold jewelry, silver pennies, metal pieces from a smith’s workshop, and a bronze horse harness.Bill Gardner, “Newly-Discovered Anglo-Saxon Village ‘Stripped of Valuable Artefacts by Thieves’,” The Telegraph, March 12, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/archaeology/10692939/Newly-discovered-Anglo-saxon-village-stripped-of-valuable-artefacts-by-thieves.html. Though images of the treasures uncovered at these sites have become ubiquitous and easily recognizable (at least to students and enthusiasts of Old English), the reality of Anglo-Saxon material and archaeological studies is that rich find such as these are rare. Famous though they are, the few examples of Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard, and Rendlesham demonstrate the paucity of intricate Anglo-Saxon metalwork discoveries made in East Anglia during the past century.
Thus finds such Lucking’s are of inestimable value, from historical and cultural perspectives. The artifacts from the noblewoman’s burial have enabled archaeologists to gain insight on East Anglian society in Norfolk, an onerous task up to this point. The sandy composition of the soil around Norfolk often breaks down human remains rapidly (as in the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the body had disintegrated completely, leaving behind only phosphate residue) so the survival of this burial is a boon for archaeologists.Evans, The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, 39-40; “The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial,” The British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/k/the_sutton_hoo_ship-burial.aspx. This burial has also shed light on the socio-economic layout of the region. Lucking noted, “the area is a heavy clayland and was always considered to have been a marginal area at this time, the ground being too heavy to want to plough. It was an archaeological blank for Anglo-Saxon activity before this cemetery was discovered, and such a high status burial proves that this area was clearly not the marginal land people thought it was.” Scholars clearly have more work to do in understanding this burial and its societal context.
While the future of the site is uncertain, more archaeological fieldwork may be conducted. According to Lucking, “there’s clearly a cemetery on the site, as other early Saxon metalwork has been found in the plough-soil from other burials being disturbed by ploughing. Interestingly, the other finds have all been slightly earlier, fifth to sixth century, so it would appear the site was in use over a long period of time.”Tom Lucking Interview. Lucking also indicated that the site has undergone a geophysics survey, but a more in-depth geophysics analysis could happen later as part of a full-scale excavation.
Who owns our history? – Treasure and Antiquities Law in the US vs. UK
The finds are currently stored in the Norwich Castle Museum, undergoing preservation and awaiting a treasure inquest, a process that came about after the English Parliament passed the Treasure Act in 1996. The Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice, 2nd Revision, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, https://finds.org.uk/documents/treasure_act.pdf. This act was put in place to protect metal artifacts and coins of historic significance from looting and being sold illegally on the black market, which would take these artifacts out of their archaeological context and prevent them from being displayed in museums for all to see. The act specifically protects individual metal objects and groups of coins three hundred years of age or older that contain ten percent or more of gold or silver.“Summary Definition of Treasure,” Portable Antiquities Scheme, https://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/summary; “Altered Coins as Treasure,” Portable Antiquities Scheme, https://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/piercedcoins. Coins that do not meet the criteria for precious metal percentage fall under the jurisdiction of this law if ten or more of them are found together.Ibid. To account for historic or cultural value, metalwork objects not composed of gold or silver are protected if they are discovered in an assemblage of two or more pieces and are prehistoric in date.Ibid. The legislation also protects individually found coins if they have been modified (i.e. made into jewelry). Ibid. If anyone in England discovers anything they believe constitutes “treasure” under this definition, they are to contact a coroner or a Finds Liaison Officer in their county within fourteen days of finding it.Ibid. These officials will then begin the valuation process, where a monetary value is assigned to the treasure. If valued as treasure, the valued amount will be split between the finder and the landowner as compensation and the treasure will go to a museum for display.J.II.72, The Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice, 2nd Revision, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, https://finds.org.uk/documents/treasure_act.pdf. If found not to be treasure, the finder may hand over the find(s) to the Portable Antiquities Scheme headed by the British Museum, but this is a voluntary act not enforced by the law.“About the Scheme,” Portable Antiquities Scheme, https://finds.org.uk/about. The Treasure Act has been effective, with approximately ninety percent of the British artifacts discovered since its passage having been uncovered by metal detectorists.Cathy Newman, “Finders Keepers? Not Always in Treasure Hunting,” National Geographic, published online March 7, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130306-finders-keepers-treasure-hunting-law-uk-us/. Remuneration for finds under this act has kept artifacts out of the illegal antiquities trade, but also kept many of these objects within their context for archaeologists to investigate properly. Once an artifact is taken from the ground, archaeologists lose the ability to study the provenance, geographic location of an object and its relation to other finds and features (man-made and natural), and the stratigraphy, or layers of sedimentation that establish different levels of archaeological contexts and enable dating of objects within them. Without studying an object’s provenance and the stratigraphy surrounding it, archaeologists cannot properly assign a date to objects or understand the culture that made it. When amateur metal detectorists locate artifacts, leave them in situ, and report them to the proper authorities, archaeologists still have a chance to study their contexts and possibly discover more artifacts and man-made features, such as walls or buildings. Archaeologists need to properly excavate in order to add to the historical narrative and enlisting the help of amateur metal detectorists has enabled many archaeologists working in Britain to do just that.
If a find of the magnitude of the Norfolk burial had been uncovered in the United States, the story may have ended quite differently, as the US does not have nearly as strict laws regarding archaeological findings in place. In fact, most laws surrounding artifacts in the US differ state to state.Ibid. A few federal laws have been passed to protect finds and sites of historical value, but they do not call for members of the public to turn over artifacts to a museum or other institution for cultural preservation. The Antiquities Act of 1906 protects archaeological findings on federally owned land and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 covers federal and Native American land exclusively.“Archeology Law and Ethics,” National Park Service, last updated May 11, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/archeology/public/publicLaw.htm. No other types of land fall under the purview of this legislation. These laws were put in place to prevent unauthorized archaeological excavations and to limit this work solely to professional archaeologists, making no provisions for amateurs with metal detectors. Given the nature of American laws concerning antiquities and archaeology, perhaps the United States could learn a lesson from England’s handling of historical artifacts. Maybe if the US government incentivized the forfeiture of finds, fewer Native American items would end up on the black market. This was almost the case for dozens of artifacts, some of which dated five thousand years old, that police recovered in Oregon in February of this year.Courtney Sherwood, “Oregon Police Seize Native American Relics Headed for Black Market,” Reuters, February 24, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/25/us-usa-crime-oregon-idUSKBN0LT03K20150225. Keeping artifacts off the black market allows not only for the study and preservation of these materials, but it also provides the opportunity for these objects to be displayed in museums for the public to learn from and to appreciate. Artifacts are more than mere objects; they are pieces of history that record the lives of the many and give voices to the voiceless in the historical narrative. It is up to the living to preserve these cultural records as a testament of the past for the future. As scholars of the past, no matter our discipline or our nationality, we must act as the vanguard in this fight by producing scholarship, reaching out to the public, or, for those in the US, even contacting members of congress, asking them to take a stand in protecting the past. Fellow medievalists and scholars— especially those living and working in the United States—we should defend historical sites now before we lose them and the irreplaceable windows into the past that they can provide.
Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University
All images courtesy of Tom Lucking