Yet another hoard has been discovered by metal detectorists in a farmer’s field. Laura McLean and Stefanie White discuss the pottery vessel and metalworking hoard that was buried almost 3,000 years ago.

This past summer, John Humphreys was enjoying a relaxing August bank holiday searching for artefacts with his metal detector near Burnham-on-Crouch. Walking across a field, he heard a strong signal from the detector; digging into the plough soil, he was shocked to discover ancient metalwork, which had not seen the light of day since the Late Bronze Age.

With the permission of the landowner, John recovered a range of objects from the plough soil, including several fragments of swords, numerous socketed axeheads, casting waste (left over from the manufacturing process), and sherds of pottery.  The landowner immediately reported the finds to Laura McLean, Essex Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The finds were from a hoard dating from the Late Bronze Age. They had been disturbed by agricultural activities, and were dispersed throughout the plough soil. Laura advised the finder and landowner on the archaeological context, and informed them that any additional metalwork that might be found in the area was likely to be part of the same hoard. The landowner then spoke to members of the local history and metal detecting group B-Roads, who regularly search his land. Several days later, B-Roads metal detectorists Bill Hill, Clint Mann, and Graham Starr could not believe their eyes: less than a stone’s throw away from the material recovered by John Humphreys, more Bronze Age metalwork was discovered in the upper layers of the plough soil.

But the discoveries in this field were not yet finished. Giving the area an additional sweep with their metal detectors, the trio discovered that there was still a very strong signal. Digging down, they were excited to find the top edge of a pottery vessel. As the metal signal emanated from within and possibly below the pot, the B-Roads team stopped digging and mapped out the area of their finds, took photographs, and gathered as much information as possible about the area surrounding the finds. They then covered the exposed part of the pot and sought professional archaeological advice.

Archaeological excavation

Graham Starr, of the metal-detecting group B-roads, with some of his finds.

The landowner was more than happy for a small scale excavation to take place, as he was intrigued at what else might be found below the ground he had farmed for so many years. All three B-Roads detectorists, along with John Humphreys, were invited to participate in the excavation.

At 7am on the 12 October 2010, Laura and local archaeologist Kate Orr left Colchester Museum to get an early start on site. They were greeted by the landowner and finders, as well several members of the Treasure Team — including Treasure Registrar Ian Richardson and two assistant registrars Caroline Barton and Janina Parol, who had travelled to Essex from The British Museum.

Setting off across a damp field, the finders explained where the metalwork was recovered and the location of the pottery vessel. The team of metal detectorists and archaeologists set to work excavating a trench around the area of the pot, under the watchful eyes of the landowner and his mother — who could not wait to see what would be uncovered!

Eventually, the excavation reached the top level of the pottery vessel. Late Bronze Age pottery is usually poorly fired, and this pot also contained very heavy metalwork, which added an extra complication to the already extremely fragile condition. Due to the condition of the vessel, and the necessity to thoroughly document as much information as possible, it was decided to block-lift it for careful examination in the laboratory at Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

The exposed edges of the vessel were wrapped in cling film, and the block of soil immediately around the pot was excavated with additional cling film added at each stage to help secure the fragile pottery. The block was then place in a padded and secure box. As well as the pot and its soil block, the excavation recovered additional metalwork from the surrounding area.

What happens next?

Laura and Stefanie are continuing to work on the hoard, investigating, conserving, and analysing it to gain as much information as possible. The hoard will be catalogued with a report sent to the Essex Coroner, who can then legally declare the hoard as Treasure. Colchester and Ipswich Museums hope to acquire the objects at the end of the Treasure Process, when further conservation and interpretation can take place.

Further Information

To learn more, come listen to Laura and Stefanie speak about this fascinating discovery at the Current Archaeology Live 2011 conference, 25-27 February at the British Museum.

The PAS blogs hold more information about the excavation and lab work, and will be the first place to see new information on the hoard! Visit www.finds.org.uk/blogs/essex and www.finds.org.uk/blogs/treasure or for the film:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9ai44gkxAw

For the full article, see Issue 252 of Current Archaeology.