How An Amateur Metal Detectorist Accidentally Found Britain’s Largest Buried Treasure

In 1992, an English farmer lost his hammer in the middle of a field. He reached out to his friend to scour the area with his metal detector. This casual trip ended with the largest Roman treasure ever discovered in Britain. With over 15,000 coins and millions of dollars worth of gold, the Hoxne Hoard revealed much about Roman history. Learn about the discovery here.

It All Started With A Lost Hammer

An old hammer lies on a table.
5598375/Pixabay
5598375/Pixabay

On November 16, 1992, a farmer named Peter Whatling was digging on his property in eastern England. He was about 1.5 miles southwest of Hoxne, a village in Suffolk. But sometime while he was working, he lost his hammer in the dirt.

At a loss of what to do, Whatling decided to call his friend and neighbor for help. This was Eric Lawes, an amateur metal detectorist who would later discover the largest hoard of ancient Roman treasure in Britain’s history.

Enter Eric Lawes And His Metal Detector

A photo shows Eric Lawes, a retired metal detectorist.
History Roadshow/YouTube
History Roadshow/YouTube

Eric Lawes was a retired gardener living in Hoxne, Suffolk. He received his metal detector as a retirement gift and often used it to help friends. When he received a call from Whatling about the lost hammer, Lawes went to his field to find it.

With his metal detector in hand, Lawes searched the field. He eventually picked up a strong signal underneath the earth. Believing that it was Whatling’s hammer, Lawes started digging. But he did not find what he expected.

Digging Up Treasure

An archaeologist reveals plastic bags filled with Roman coins.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

As Lawes dug, it soon became clear that he had not found the hammer. Instead, he had located several silver spoons. He continued digging, and discovered some gold coins that were clearly ancient. He even found some pieces of gold jewelry.

Lawes dug up so many goodies that he filled two grocery bags with them. He knew that these bags were only a fraction of what this treasure had to offer. By chance, Lawes had stumbled upon something much, much bigger than he could have dreamed of.

He Needed An Expert’s Help

An older man holds up an ancient Roman coin.
Petar Petrov/Impact Press Group/NurPhoto
Petar Petrov/Impact Press Group/NurPhoto

Instead of excavating all the goodies for himself, Lawes decided to contact some specialists. He knew that what he had discovered contained some historical significance. Taking the two bags, he returned to Whatling and the two discussed what they would do.

The men contacted the landowners, Suffolk County Council, the police, and the Suffolk Archaeological Society. They did not dig up any more of the treasure; they waited for archaeologists to handle the situation instead.

Launching An “Emergency Excavation”

An archaeologist holds a Roman coin in front of a restricted excavation area.
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

The next day, a team from the Suffolk Archaeological Unit visited the site. Led by Jude Plouvier, these archaeologists embarked on an “emergency excavation” to safely remove the treasure from the dirt.

Like Lawes, the team also arrived with metal detectors. They searched an entire 98-feet radius around the spot to determine how large the treasure was. Once they scaled down just how vast the area was, they began to excavate. The team removed the entire hoard in one day.

The Treasure Was Bigger Than Anyone Imagined

Roman coins from the Hoxne Hoard are on display.
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

As it turns out, Lawes had only discovered the edge of the treasure. Most of the hoard stemmed from a large oak chest, with some smaller boxes wrapped in fabric. All of them contained coins, spoons, and dozens of other metal objects.

In all, archaeologists found 60 pounds of gold and silver. This included dozens of spoons, 200 gold objects including jewelry, and 15,234 Roman coins. In today’s money, this treasure would be worth around $4.3 million.

Archaeologists Immediately Knew That This Was Special

Three miniature sculptures from the Hoxne Hoard are displayed.
The Land/Wikipedia Commons
The Land/Wikipedia Commons

Right away, archaeologists understood that this was no normal excavation. Out of the 40 treasure hoards found in Britain, this is the largest one ever discovered, according to researcher Rachel Wilkinson. It was also the biggest Roman treasure ever found.

Because archaeologists were immediately called in, the hoard was more delicately excavated than some other ancient treasures. Most treasures are immediately robbed, but the Hoxne Hoard was not. This allowed researchers to get more out of studying the objects.

Don’t Worry; Lawes Got His Reward And Shared It!

A woman holds bills of British banknotes.
Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

For reporting the treasure, Lawes received a monetary reward equal to its estimated worth. The Treasure Valuation Committee estimated that the treasure was worth £1.75 million ($2.43 million) in 1993, which is what Lawes received.

Lawes split this reward with the farmer, Peter Whatling. Oh, and he did eventually find the hammer. Whatling donated the lost hammer to the same museum that displayed the Roman treasure, which was named after the nearby town: the Hoxne Hoard.

How Did It Get There?

A map shows Suffolk, England, where the Hoxne Hoard was buried.
Ryan Jefferson Hays/Pinterest
Ryan Jefferson Hays/Pinterest

By the year 450 AD, Rome was in a tumultuous time. Under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the only legal religion, while much of the population was still polytheist. Beyond the internal conflict, many other civilizations were also invading the Roman Empire, especially in Britain.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Roman citizens in the British Isles were left to fend for themselves. Raids from the Saxons, Picts, and Anglos became commonplace, and citizens were forced to hide their valuables.

The “Hoards Equal Hordes” Hypothesis

A glass display case holds treasures from the Hoxne Hoard.
History Roadshow/YouTube
History Roadshow/YouTube

As raiders from Scotland and Ireland invaded Britain, it started the “hoards equals hordes” hypothesis. According to historians, the British became so afraid of future attacks that they buried their valuables.

Although the Romano-Britains were not the only ones to do this, they buried more treasures than almost anywhere else in the world. The owners of this treasure likely thought that they would bury it and return to it later. Obviously, that was not the case.

The Owners Are Still Unknown

An archaeologist holds a magnifying glass over coins from the Hoxne Hoard.
History Roadshow/YouTube
History Roadshow/YouTube

Although the original owners of the Hoxne Hoard are still unknown, we have some hints. For instance, a golden bracelet has the inscription UTERE FELIX DOMINA IULIANE, which translates to “Use this happily Lady Juliane.” Other objects include the name, “Aurelius Ursicinus.”

Some believe that Juliane and Aurelius were the couple who owned the treasure. The treasure might have belonged to their ancestors instead. Perhaps an item called the Empress Pepper Pot was a depiction of Lady Juliane, although this is all speculation.

Was Britain Already Split From Rome?

The 1864 Johnson Map depicts the Roman Empire at its height.
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Images

During an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Roman archaeologist Peter Guest said that Rome likely pulled away from Britain when this hoard was buried. One piece of evidence for this is called clipping. When Britain separated from Rome, they clipped the sides of coins, reducing the size by about a third.

The coins in the Hoxne Hoard were clipped, and the removed metal was used to make more coins. Some historians believe that these coins–which were made in the Roman Empire–were kept for sentimental reasons.

A Tabloid Newspaper Turned The Discovery Into A Game

Newspaper stock
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

When the Hoxne Hoard was discovered, it made national and international headlines. But one of the most memorable articles about it came from The Sun. The article promised a free metal detector to the first person to correctly answer the question, “Who built Hadrian’s Wall? Hadrian, Barretts or Wimpey?”

The Sun was not the only publication to spark interest in metal detecting. After the Hoxne Hoard discovery, many people traveled to Suffolk with their metal detectors, which caused more problems.

Illegal Treasure-Hunters Prompted A Second Excavation

archaology
Oxford Archaeology
Oxford Archaeology

The buzz around the Hoxne Hoard inspired people to go metal detecting around that area. Because the area was a treasure trove site, this was illegal. In 1994, the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service found out what was happening and launched a second excavation.

Archaeologists did not want people to dig up pieces of the treasure that could otherwise provide some historical information. The original hoard hole was re-excavated and so was the larger surrounding area.

Findings From A Second Excavation

Spoons and strainers from the Hoxne Hoard are arranged on a table.
silvan500/YouTube
silvan500/YouTube

During the 1994 excavation, archaeologists analyzed 11,000 square feet around the initial Hoxne Hoard area. This excavation uncovered 335 additional objects from the Roman Empire, mostly coins, but also some box fittings.

Archaeologists believe that the coins got spread out because of farmers’ east-to-west plowing. The north-to-south plowing done before 1990 had no effect on the coins. They also discovered some post holes formed in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age; however, these had no connection to the Hoxne Hoard.

Dating The Coins Was Not Easy

A Roman coin from 320 BC is laid on a black cloth.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Historians had a hard time dating the Hoxne Hoard. Because there were few organic materials in the treasure, they could not use radiocarbon dating. Instead, they had to estimate the date by the inscriptions on the coins.

Historians estimated that these coins were between the reigns of Valentinian I and Honorius, placing them around 408 or 409 AD. However, other historians believe that they were made–or at least buried–after Britain split off from the Roman Empire.

Pounds And Pounds Of Gold Jewelry

A golden bracelet from the Hoxne Hoard is on display.
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Along with coins, the Hoxne Hoard has 29 pieces (2.2 pounds) of gold jewelry. These include rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and brooches that could be worn by either gender. Most were 91% gold or 22 carat gold, with designs of silver and copper.

On the jewelry, historians saw a few inscriptions to the owners. They also collected four pairs of matching bracelets, which was unusual for Rome. Perhaps they were two identical pairs that belonged to two women.

The Treasure Created A New Law

An elderly man searches the beach with his metal detector.
Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1993, a Coroner’s inquest declared the Hoxne Hoard to be a treasure trove, which are hoards that were buried to be dug up at a later date. Although no law requires the Crown to reward the person who discovered it, they usually give the founder a reward equal to the treasure.

Lawes received that reward and split it with the farmer. This inspired Parliament to enact the Treasure Act of 1996. Under this act, the founder, tenant, and landowner can split any reward.

The Most Fascinating Find: The Empress Pepper Pot

The
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

One of the most famous finds from the Hoxne Hoard is the Empress Pepper Pot. It is a silver, gilded pepper pot in the shape of a woman (who is likely not an Empress). The pot was like a salt shaker, where peppercorns and other spices were loaded into the base and then shaken out.

Historians do not believe that the Empress Pepper Pot depicts any goddess or ruler, although she does hold a scroll for some reason. It was the most elaborate of four incredibly rare pepper pots found in the hoard.

Some Bits Of The Treasure Were Never Found

Clasps and brooches from the body wrap of the Hoxne Hoard are laid out.
silvan500/YouTube
silvan500/YouTube

Despite how large the Hoxne Hoard was, there is some evidence that parts of it are missing. Several jewelry pieces had slots for gems, such as earrings and brooches. But these gems were missing, despite being in style at the time.

Catherine Johns, one of the curators for the British Museum at the time, believed that some pieces were never buried. She proposed that the owner did not bury their favorite jewelry pieces and wore them instead.

The Rarest Piece Of Ancient Roman Jewelry

The body chain from the Hoxne Hoard is draped over a mannequin.
Maridith Smith/Pinterest
Maridith Smith/Pinterest

In the Hoxne Hoard, historians found one of the rarest pieces of Roman jewelry, the body chain. This consists of four golden chains which connect on the chest and back. All chains ended in a lion’s head and were clasped together with decorative brooches. Both men and women wore it.

Ancient body chains are an incredibly rare find. Other pieces came from the Byzantine Empire around the 500s, making the Hoxne Hoard’s body chain one of the oldest discovered.

They Discovered A New Type Of Spoon

Several varieties of spoons from the Hoxne Hoard are laid out.
silvan500/YouTube
Kathy Blake/Pinterest

Seventy-eight spoons are part of the Hoxne Hoard. All were silver, and most were designed for a left-handed person. Fifty-one were cochlearia, smaller spoons for low bowls, and 23 were the much rarer cigni, large and shallow spoons with a bird-headed handle.

Archaeologists also found a new type of spoon that does not have a name. They were deep, round spoons that looked like small ladles. These were in addition to another 20 full-sized gilded ladles and a few strainer spoons.

Based On The Spoons, They Might Have Been Christian

A silver ladle from the Hoxne Hoard has the Chi-Rho symbol right next to the spoon.
Maria Dolores Fernandez/Pinterest
Maria Dolores Fernandez/Pinterest

Although historians do not know much about the treasure’s owners, designs on the spoons suggest that they might have been Christian. Twenty spoons included the Chi-Rho monogram, a combination of the letters alpha and omega. This is a reference to the Book of Revelation, which described Jesus as the alpha and omega.

The Chi-Rho symbol was also found on some pieces of jewelry, and a few spoons had Latin inscriptions wishing the owners a long life. Still, it is unclear whether or not the owners were Christian.

Where Did Romans Live In Suffolk?

A map shows Britain under Rome being invaded towards the end of the Roman Period, 410 AD.
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Whoever buried the hoard hid it far away from any buildings. However, old maps and historical records hint at where they might have lived. The most likely location is Scole, which sat two miles northwest of Hoxne at the intersection of two roads.

No aristocratic Roman buildings have been discovered around Hoxne. Historians believe that the treasure was only a fraction of the owner’s wealth, and the field where they buried it might have been a pasture during that time.

Perhaps It Came From The Mysterious Villa Faustini

An artistic depiction of a villa in Pompeii shows what it might have looked like during its heyday.
Icas94/De Agostini via Getty Images
Icas94/De Agostini via Getty Images

Some people have speculated that the treasure came from the Villa Faustini. This villa was referenced in the Antonine Itinerary, a third-century record of cities and roads created for the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. According to the theory, engravings on the spoons that say “Faustinus” hint at Villa Faustini.

Nobody knows where the actual villa existed. Some theorize that it was on the nearby Pye Road (the A140 in modern-day) or Scole. Whoever buried the Hoxne Hoard was definitely rich enough to own a villa.

Bones, Plants, And Other Organic Findings

A needle is stuck through leather.
Couleur/Pixabay
Couleur/Pixabay

Although most articles focus on the coins and jewelry, the Hoxne Hoard also featured some organic objects. These include animal bones, wood (mostly from the boxes), and other plant materials such as leather. It is unclear if the animal bones were intentionally added or not.

The wooden boxes and fragments were made from cherry trees and yew, both native to Britain. The owners packed silver utensils between layers of straw and linen. Unfortunately, many of these were too degraded to study, especially the leather.

Analyses Showed That Many Items Had Been Repaired

Two toiletry items, probably bristles or cleaning tools, are displayed.
silvan500/YouTube
silvan500/YouTube

While examining the Hoxne Hoard, archaeologists used X-ray fluorescence, a method that uses X-rays to examine metals, ceramics, and glass. This method showed that several objects had been broken and repaired–with mercury!

One bowl had traces of mercury solder, which implies that someone used mercury to fuse the broken pieces together. On the silver tigress, metals were melded together with silver sulfide, not lead sulfide like most Romans used. Whether or not this was done as a repair is unknown.

The Roman Polished Jewelry With Rust

Silver and gold coins lie in a pile.
Marty/Pinterest
Marty/Pinterest

The Hoxne Hoard features one of history’s earliest examples of jeweler’s rouge. This method a combination of ingredients, including iron oxide, better known as rust. Jewelers used (and still use) this abrasive compound to polish the metals.

Researchers found a large golden armlet in the Hoxne Hoard that has traces of hematite on its reverse side. They believe that hematite was part of a jeweler’s rouge compound. If this is true, then this is the earliest known record of jeweler’s rouge in Roman history.

What Happened To These Silver Tiger Table Vessels?

The silver tigress, a piece broken off of a vase, is displayed from the Hoxne Hoard.
silvan500/Pixabay
silvan500/Pixabay

The Hoxne Hoard features spoons, ladles, bowls, toiletry items, and pepper-pots. Historians believe that larger pieces of tableware–such as pitchers and vases–are missing from the hoard. The most compelling evidence for this theory is the silver tigress.

In the hoard, archaeologists found a tiny silver tigress. They propose that the tigress was a decorative handle for a large vase, but that vase is missing. Where did all of these pieces go? Were they ever buried in the first place?

Putting The Hoard On Display

A glass display box shows findings from the Hoxne Hoard.
marble document/Pinterest
marble document/Pinterest

The British Museum wanted to purchase the Hoxne Hoard, but they did not have enough funding at the time. With donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, and the J. Paul Getty Trust, they bought the hoard to put it on display.

Since April 1994, the Hoxne Hoard has been showcased at the British Museum. It was also featured on the BBC documentary Our Top Ten Treasures in 2003, and visitors saw it during the Treasure: Finding Our Past tour of England and Wales.

The Hoxne Hoard Helped Future Metal Detectorists

A close-up photo shows a man treasure-hunting with a metal detector.
Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images
Jonathan Blair/Corbis via Getty Images

The discovery of the Hoxne Hoard improved the relationship between metal detectorists and archaeologists. When Eric Lawes turned in the treasure without damaging it or taking it, archaeologists trusted metal detectorists more. The Treasure Act of 1996 encouraged people to turn in any hoards that they find.

Because of the act, everyday people could find a treasure and receive a reward for it. Plus, the media attention on the Hoxne Hoard inspired more people to buy metal detectors. There are certainly some great treasures out there left to be discovered.