BURIED Iron Age gold jewellery thought to be the oldest ever found in Britain, has been formally declared treasure, with a coroner saying the haul was likely to be ‘worth a bob or two’.
Two amateur treasure hunters uncovered the four near-solid-gold, 18-carat torcs – three necklaces and a bracelet – in the middle of cow-field on a hillside in Staffordshire last year.
At a formal treasure inquest today, senior coroner Ian Smith said it would be ‘highly desirable’ for the unique find to remain in the county.
A formal valuation will now take place but a fund-raising campaign is expected to be launched within weeks, aimed at securing the jewellery for permanent public display.
Life-long friends and metal detectorists Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania said they could not believe their eyes when they struck gold in December 2016.
After 60-year-old Mr Kania uncovered one of the bands, they then found three others concealed six inches below ground and a metre apart.
The jewellery is thought to be up to 2,500 years old.
One of the torcs was broken, probably by ploughing, and its other half was only discovered when the pair returned to the spot of the first dig last Sunday.
Staffordshire is gaining a reputation as a hiding place for some of the country’s greatest historical treasures, with the latest discovery following 2009’s Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard find, worth £3.285million.
This new find near Leek is about 45 miles north of Hammerwich, near Lichfield – the site of the vast 3,900-piece Saxon Hoard, which is perhaps the most famous discovery made by a metal detectorist.
It is not known why the Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs were buried, but it could have been for safekeeping, an offering to the gods, or as an act of remembrance.
The decoration on the sole bracelet has excited experts because it is thought to be some of the earliest Celtic British art.
Mr Hambleton had searched the same field once before, about 20 years ago, but without success.
After scouring the ground on the morning of December 11 last year, both men were ready to call it a day when suddenly Mr Kania got a signal.
Pulling out the first torc on his hands and knees, Mr Kania said his initial thought was ‘bloody hell, I’ve seen this in a treasure-hunting magazine’.
Mr Hambleton, 59, said: ‘I’d had enough, I’d taken my detector off and packed up.’
He added: ‘He (Joe) shouted to me ‘I think I’ve found something quite significant’.
‘He pulled this big torc out of his pocket, and dangled it in front of me.
‘When I’d got some air back into my lungs, my head had cleared and my legs had stopped wobbling, I said ‘do you realise what you’ve found there?’’
After digging up the rest of the gold, Mr Hambleton admitted he had had a sleepless night with the haul next to his bed.
He handed the gold over to experts at Birmingham Museums the next day, with archaeologists from Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council brought in to investigate the finds site.
The men are now planning to split the find 50/50 with landowner Stuart Heath.
Mr Heath said it was ‘fate’ the gold had been found by the men, because it had repaid the kindness Mr Hambleton’s late father had shown him as a boy.
Dr Julia Farley, curator of British and European Iron Age collections for the British Museum, said: ‘This unique find is of international importance. It dates to around 400-250 BC, and is probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever discovered in Britain.
‘The torcs were probably worn by wealthy and powerful women, perhaps people from the continent who had married into the local community.
‘Piecing together how these objects came to be carefully buried in a Staffordshire field will give us an invaluable insight into life in Iron Age Britain.’
Asked if there could be more finds awaiting discovery, she added: ‘It’s hard to know – we’ll never know unless people find things.’
There are hopes the collection, thought to be from Europe and most likely Germany or France, can now be secured for Stoke as it bids to be 2021 UK City of Culture.
An inquest heard the torcs’ gold content was at least 80 per cent, with each piece weighing between 230g (8oz) and 31g (1oz).
Mr Smith raised laughter in the public gallery, by joking: ‘Even as scrap, that’s still worth a bob or two?’
He added: ‘This must rank as one of the most exciting treasure finds I have ever dealt with – not quite in the same league as the Staffordshire Hoard, but nevertheless exciting.’
A group of independent antiquities experts, the Treasure Valuation Committee, will now estimate what the haul is worth.
The pieces will be displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke for the next three weeks.