Friday, September 25, 2009

Unemployed man discovers largest hoard of Saxon gold ever found

We all dream of striking it rich, that one lucky minute that changes our lives forever. But for Terry Herbert, an unemployed man from Staffordshire the dream has become a reality.

Using his 14 year old metal detector on a friend’s freshly ploughed field in Staffordshire, he stumbled across the largest single find of Anglo-Saxon gold in history. ‘I dreamed of gold night after night until I handed it in’ said Herbert yesterday when the find was revealed to the world.

Since July when the discovery was made there has been some question as to the ownership of the hoard. The laws governing ‘Treasure Trove’ can be complicated to interpret in themselves. They are based on several principles founded on Roman law.

The ‘Treasure Trove’ law written in Edward the Confessor’s time remains almost intact to this day. There are three main deciding factors if something is subject to ‘Treasure Trove’ and therefore property of the crown. 1) if it can be proved that there was an intention to recover it later. 2) No person living can prove ownership either themselves or their descendants. 3) If treasure is hidden it belongs to the crown unless someone else can lay better claim to it.

From the early 1900’s the treasury has paid the finders/landowners the full antiquarian value of pieces they keep (they have declared this treasure trove). While I personally would have nightmares putting a value on the Staffordshire hoard, there is no doubt that Mr Herbert and his friendly farmer are looking at a substantial sum.

The 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver are mainly comprised of armaments and ornamental objects. Decorative sword hilts, bosses, pommel caps and helmets are some of the types of articles they have discovered. There are no feminine pieces such as necklaces, bracelets or rings.

Unlike the discovery in 1939 of ‘Sutton Hoo’ which was a burial mound of a Saxon king, there is no context for this discovery. Mercia would have been one of the richest kingdoms in Britain in the 7th century, so it seems likely that it was a hastily stashed hoard from a raiding party. There are perfect examples of shield bosses with chequered ‘millefiori’ inserts and garnet ‘cellwork’ ornamentation. Densely interwoven helmet pieces, and intricately carved sword hilts. Many of the items are similar in style to Babylonian work of this age, suggesting that even in the Dark Ages we were importing jewelled items to our shores.

Although 1345 pieces have been examined so far, there are 56 pieces still remaining in clods of earth. This find will take years to document and understand. One thing is for sure, it will greatly change all we know about the ancient goldsmith’s art and the stones they used.

In the meantime, Terry Herbert is already dreaming about his next treasure.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rare 2000 year old jewel unearthed on dig site

For years archeologists have been digging for artifacts in Tel Dor, an ancient town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Days, even weeks, will go by without a find of any significance. So imagine the sense of awe that fell on the dig last week when they uncovered a cornelian engraved with a portrait of Alexander the Great. It was 2,000 years old.
To the historian, of course, this piece is enthralling for its story. The Emperor would have passed through Tel Dor in 332 BC on his way to Egypt having just taken Tyre. He died nine years later, just 32 years old, having conquered half the known world.

To the jewellery historian, this piece fascinates for a very different reason: we can identify its source without any doubt. You see, while Berganza has some extremely rare Hellenistic and Roman intaglios in our collection, it is impossible to say with any certainty where they originated from. This piece, however, was unearthed on a University of Haifa dig, with world renowned archaeologists on site to scrutinize the details that reveal so much about jewellery making at that time.

The length of the gemstone is less than a centimeter, and its width less than half that. Yet despite its size, its undeniable quality proves that master craftsmen not only worked in the small rural communities far from the thriving hubbub of the major cities, but they worked for the richest and most influential of customers. After all, this piece would have been extremely costly at the time and could only have been afforded by a nobleman or affluent merchant.

Travel forward through two millennia and an uncanny perspective emerges, one less evident to the historian, clearer to a jeweller today. Alexander may well be seen as the first known proponent of what business gurus call ‘personal branding’. He ordered his likeness carved on more than just seals like this one, but also on coins, mosaics, statuary and buildings all over his empire. A model of personal image making that is now synonymous with not only celebrities but high-profile men and women in boardrooms and ballrooms the world over. After all, as image consultants Elan say, ‘Jewellery is an expression of personal style that has the distinctive power of blending art with fashion. It is in fact … a secret weapon.’

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