Heavy clouds hang over the rolling fields. It’s spotting with rain and the treacle-thick mud is already caked to heels and clinging to trouser legs. Cars sweep past below, flicking their lights on half-beam; the drivers barely registering the darkening landscape. There is nothing memorable about this piece of land. It is the kind you’d find yourself scrambling across in suede loafers and cursing if the car broke down, sacrificing expensive shoes and socks to the sucking mud. It is good for crops, though, and has been farmed and fought over for centuries. It lacks the drama of The Lakes or the Peaks, for there are no crags or fells, no bubbling becks or torrents of white water, but it has always been useful rather than especially admired. The soils are a fertile brown and red, though they lie only fifteen miles from the industrial heart of England.
One day in July, 2009, a man called Terry Herbert was metal detecting in these fields when a series of short electronic bleeps changed the course of his life. He’d found plenty of objects scouring the fields of the West Midlands, but nothing to compare with the riches he struck that summer’s day. Digging in the earth rarely makes lottery winners and Herbert could so easily have given up. He asked farmer Fred Johnson for permission to detect, but Johnson shrugged and told him the field had been ploughed dozens of times.
‘It’s a waste of time. Two blokes have already been here,’ he said.
Herbert was having none of it and, finally, the pair agreed to a 50/50 split of any items found. Herbert set to work, chanting his mantra to bring good fortune. Students sitting exams set out lucky charms, penalty takers cross themselves before picking their spot and pedestrians take the scenic route round window cleaners’ ladders. Herbert’s ritual ended up netting him £1.6 million, so it might be worth trying. He told Channel 4’s Saxon Gold: Finding the Hoard that he walked around that day reciting the words:
Spirit of yesteryear, take me where coins appear
Spirit of yesteryear, take me where gold appears
It doesn’t even rhyme, but it certainly did its job. After just thirty minutes Herbert found the first object, buried shallow in the soil. Less than fifteen minutes later he uncovered the pommel for a sword. Shortly after that his machine could no longer cope with the signals. There were so many bleeps it sounded like a symphony of heart monitors in a Glasgow cardiac unit.
‘Why me? Why have I found it?’ Herbert asked himself.
Herbert had really struck gold and newspapers editors across the globe would soon be scratching their brows and preparing to dust off their worst headlines. For now, Herbert was toiling away with a shovel and a stack of plastic bags. But before long he was struggling to cope with the scale of his find.
‘I couldn’t stop the pieces coming out of the ground,’ he told Channel 4.
Terry Herbert had the real thing, and lots of it. He handed over 240 bags, some containing dozens of different finds. In all, 1600 items were found including fittings from the hilts of swords, fragments from helmets, Christian crosses and magnificent pieces of garnet work.
The find was announced in the press and became a worldwide phenomenon with coverage in Canada, Australia, Russia and the USA. It was named the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s now on show in BMAG, the British Museum and the Potteries Museum. I bet those two blokes need some cheering up.
It’s on show in Stafford from early July. Click here for details.