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RESCUE Says: The Lenborough Hoard
The media have once again whipped themselves into a frenzy regarding buried treasure. The latest example is the Lenborough hoard – a metal detecting rally bonanza consisting of over 5,000 allegedly pristine silver coins dated (so far) to the reigns of Aethelred and Cnut – AD 978-1016 – which according to the press will net the landowner and the finder a cool £1m.
This of course is all we need to know. Little need for explanation of the Treasure reporting process, or the rules regarding reporting finds, or the fact that media-driven treasure valuation claims are almost always wildly inaccurate and exaggerated. Little need for any discussionsa about the academic or educational value that archaeological material might have.
Little need either to outline the damage that this kind of reporting – and indeed this kind of activity – does to the county’s historic environment resources.
Our current knowledge of the Saxon period overwhelmingly comes from two main sources: the written record the Saxons’ left behind on paper and parchment, and the archaeological record they left behind in our landscape. A huge amount of our understanding of the Saxon period is owed to archaeologists who investigate sites, excavate individual features, examine minute pieces of evidence, take samples to look for environmental traces, painstakingly collect artefacts and data, and then piece these elements together to build a coherent narrative detailing the lives of the inhabitants and the nature of their society. Note that only a small part of the information archaeologists’ collect listed above relates to the artefacts: equally important in constructing a narrative of the past are the context of the discoveries – the surrounding landscape, the environmental data to be obtained, the features they are buried in, the nature of the rest of the immediate site. All this information is equally important – in some cases more important than the artefacts themselves – in providing information about the past.
It is also an evolving narrative, and each new piece of information added to it changes the whole, and enhances both our understanding and our enjoyment of the richness of the historic environment. It is true that as students of the Saxon period, we have a particularly limited understanding of how and why precious hoards were buried, by whom and under what circumstances. This is all information we would like to have, and to understand more about and place it in the context of the rest of the information we have accumulated about the period – but this is never likely to happen when practically every time a hoard is discovered it is unceremoniously dragged from the ground in the minimum time possible and paraded in front of the national press for the gratification of sensationalist headline writers. The pictures of the excavation and retrieval of the Lenborough hoard make for depressing viewing. A hole in the ground surrounded by people. A Sainsbury’s bag full of silver. Whilst this might represent a tasty windfall for the finder and the landowner, for the rest of us – the other 60 million plus inhabitants of the British Isles – it represents nothing but yet another lost opportunity to add to the knowledge we have about the Saxon period and a lost opportunity to put another small piece back in to the incomplete jigsaw of our understanding of their culture.
So we now know that the Saxons made nice silver coins between the periods 978-1016. But didn’t we know this already? So we now also know that the Saxons buried hoards of precious objects periodically. We knew that too. The question of who, how, when and why will just have to wait for the next time. If there is one. And if that hoard is not excavated similarly poorly. Unfortunately these hoards are rare, so there might never be another one and we might never be able to answer the many questions surrounding them. But you won’t read about that in the papers.