Dazzling homecoming for treasure

One of the country's most important archaeological finds is coming back to Thetford. Adam Gretton looks ahead to the temporary homecoming of the Thetford treasure….

One of the country's most important archaeological finds is coming back to Thetford. Adam Gretton looks ahead to the temporary homecoming of the Thetford treasure….

IT was in November 1979 that Arthur and Greta Brooks stumbled across every metal detectorist's dream whilst on the way home from a day trip.

After just ten minutes scouring a soon to be developed industrial site at Gallows Hill, Thetford, the Norwich couple unearthed a spectacular hoard of precious Roman gold jewellery and silver spoons.

The 1,500-year-old objects, which were later dubbed the Thetford Treasure - one of finest historical and archaeological discoveries of the 20th century - have been on display in London since their purchase by the British Museum in 1981.

But almost half of the pristine and remarkable gold bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings, and silver spoons and strainers are set to finally go on display in its home town from Monday, nearly 30 years after their first discovery, as part of a six-month loan at Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life.

The visit of the treasure, which dates from between 380 and 390AD, marks a huge coup for the Tudor townhouse and officials from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, which would not have been possible before a £1.6m top-to-toe renovation of the White Hart Street building that was completed 18 months ago.

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Sadly, the Thetford Treasure and its shale jewellery box sat in a bank vault for six months before news of its discovery spread, denying archaeologists the opportunity to carry out a detailed excavation of the site off Mundford Road.

However, the recovery of the spectacular collection of 44 pieces of jewellery and 33 silver spoons, do tell experts a lot about life in Roman Britain at the end of the 4th century.

Visitors to Ancient House, who in the past have had to make do with replicas of the Thetford Treasure, will be able to see the real thing between May 12 and December 13 as part of The Thetford Treasure, Romans Rediscovered exhibition at its changing displays space.

Oliver Bone, curator of Ancient House, said the British Museum had agreed to let go 35 pieces of the Roman collection as part of its Partnership UK scheme.

The on loan treasure includes an iconic gold belt buckle depicting a satyr, and a remarkable “duck handled” spoon decorated with the image of a triton.

Mr Bone said the exhibition marked an “exciting” time for Ancient House, which can now attract more high profile artefacts following its refurbishment.

“I am really pleased that we can display these fascinating Roman gold and silver objects here in Thetford. We are very grateful to the British Museum for lending them.

“The British Museum is one of the biggest museums in the world and I wonder if Ancient House is the smallest museum they have lent stuff to,” he said.

Roman life in other parts of Norfolk will also be celebrated with items from a temple site in Hockwold, Roman town at Brampton, near Aylsham, and a blacksmith's hoard from an organised excavation at the Thetford Tesco supermarket site at Kilverstone. Key objects from these sites include a small figure of Mercury, a key handle depicting a lion devouring a man and several blacksmith's tools and agricultural implements.

Mr Bone said: “It is hard to tell what the interest will be, but hopefully it will generate a lot of visitors from now until December. We are reducing people's museum miles by hosting this British Museum collection and it will also be an opportunity to see objects that have never been displayed before and finds from recent excavations.

“The British Museum can be a bit overwhelming and you cannot do it all in one day, so it is nice for the Thetford Treasure to come to a small, relaxed and intimate environment.”

The Thetford Treasure, which was found on the site of the Fison Way industrial estate, has been on display in London since it was declared treasure trove and bought by the British Museum in 1981.

Metal detectorist Arthur Brooks, of College Road, Norwich, who was suffering from cancer at the time of the discovery, died before its true value was estimated.

His widow, who said that her husband had not revealed what he had found because he had been in and out of hospital, received £87,180 compensation, which was split with landowner Breckland Council. However, the couple and the district council would have been entitled to £261,540 had they declared the find within a fortnight.

Many archaeologists and historians believe that more Roman artefacts may have been found at the Gallows Hill site, if a detailed excavation had been carried out.

Richard Hobbs, curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum, said it was “unfortunate” that the treasure was not immediately declared.

However, studies of the engravings and inscriptions on the silver spoons testify to the continued worship of the pagan god Faunus at a time when Christianity was the official religion for about 50 years. It is believed that Gallows Hill - a natural setting within the Breckland landscape - was a sanctuary for feasts and offerings by the pagan cult.

“The Thetford Treasure is of national and international importance. It is probably the best preserved collection of Roman jewellery from the western Roman empire.”

“The jewellery is extremely well made with tiny beads of gold and wire. The craftsmanship is excellent and it is very intricate work, which before the days of magnification was vey impressive. The silver spoons are also extremely nice,” said Dr Hobbs.

East Anglia is famed for its yield of ancient gold and silver objects from places such as Snettisham, Mildenhall, Hoxne, Water Newton, Sutton Hoo and Ipswich over the years, but the Thetford Treasure ranks as one of the best.

Experts believe that the gold jewellery, many of which were bejewelled with precious stones that was never worn, and the silver spoons were made in France and were hidden in a shale box and buried for safe keeping during a period of increasing numbers of barbarian raids in East Anglia or were intended as a gift to the pagan woodland god Faunus.

Another theory is that the gold and silver may have been buried around 410AD when the last of the Roman legions were ordered back home.

“In an ideal world you can normally carry out a small scale excavation after a find is made and there was an outside chance of finding evidence of a burial, but unfortunately it does not always happen. On the other hand, at least we have the metal and millions of people have been able to look at it since,” said Dr Hobbs.

The visiting Thetford collection will include a gold buckle, 11 gold rings, a pair of gold bracelets, two pendants, three gold necklaces, one silver strainer and 14 spoons. Ancient House currently has about 30 replicas of the Thetford Treasure, but they will not be displayed beside the real gold and silver objects.

Dr Hobbs added: “We feel very strongly that these objects should be celebrated locally and we are delighted to have this partnership with Ancient House, which has had the renovation work to enable the treasure to be displayed in Thetford securely.

“Norfolk is very rich in precious metal finds and traditionally there is good

liaison between detectors and archaeology units; it is fantastic that so much is declared and properly reported.”

The Thetford Treasure, Romans Rediscovered opens on Monday at Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life. The venue is open from 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday. Admission £3.20 for adults, £2.65 for concessions and £1.75 for children aged four to 16 years.