Why we should leave treasure buried
FOR the first time in living memory, the farmer has ploughed the park, turning the view over my morning cup of tea in bed from grass to soil. Naturally, my first feelings were of outrage, but now I am used to it and see some advantages in having the slow pageant of the year unfolding outside the bedroom window. Plough, harrow, drill. Seagulls. And still to come, as they say on the radio, the gradual sweep of green barley, stalks ripening, stubble fields. At least I hope so —God forbid it’s mangelwurzels.
I took the dogs out into the headlands this morning, keeping my eye on the turned-up soil in case I might find a Carolingian penny or even a whole Roman palace, like the man laying a trench at Fishbourne. Last month, my greatest ambition was to make a pie; now, it’s to discover a stone axe, an arrowhead or even a Saxon shilling.
We know that there are millions of Neolithic treasures out there waiting to be found—and thousands upon thousands which have been found and sit in dusty boxes in local museums. All I ask for is one. I would love it a great deal and show it off, which would be better than sticking it in a shoebox in a vault, covered in spidery black writing.
Other people attract this stuff. Not long ago the Libyan desert was crawling with small boys trying to sell you Mesolithic arrowheads. Perhaps they made them, but I think they just had a knack of finding them in the sand. A friend is big in heritage and shares my passion for old stuff but it’s not him, it’s his philistine brother, the gynaecologist, who stumbles on Roman belt buckles and flint scrapers every time he takes a walk.
I once found a promising flint, a scraper at the very least, at the foot of the Trundle in West Sussex—more or less Ground Zero when it comes to ancient Britons—but the Chichester Museum returned it to me in a Ziploc bag with a note saying it was natural erosion.
These days, thanks to metal detectors, people are digging up precious hoards at an alarming rate—5,251 coins from the reigns of Ethelred the Unready and Canute were found the other day near Aylesbury; at Seaton Down in Devon, three years ago, one lucky amateur discovered 22,000 Roman coins, some minted to celebrate the foundation of Constantinople in AD330.
It used to be called Treasure Trove and, until 20 years ago, discoveries were governed by splendid medieval laws, so well-worded they should probably be gathered together and buried in an iron chest. Now we have the Treasure Act and finds are registered with The Portable Antiquities Scheme, which has now registered its millionth item.
If this acceleration goes on, quite soon, there will be nothing left to find except a lot of rusty metal detectors clogging up people’s garages. It has become an epidemic. I once spent a pleasant evening chatting to a nice old boy about all the old agricultural bits and bobs he’d turned up on his farm, using his metal detector. It turned out he’d written a book on the subject and that in his spare time he was the bass player with the Rolling Stones. Obviously, that sort of endorsement has encouraged people to take up the hobby.
The children think it’s wonderful that so much hidden history is being revealed, but I’m not so sure. In the 19th century, landowners got the barrow bug and employed their farmhands to dig deep into any promising mumps they could find on their estates. Lots of these exquisite adornments to the landscape were so badly messed about that they have disappeared. Mostly, the landowners found nothing because the barrows weren’t Iron Age burial mounds, but part of some sort of astronomical device whose key is forever lost. Even when they did find a braided torc, it got swept into a museum and was never seen again.
Leave it to accident, I say; that’s what gingers you up, gives your walks interest and allows you to dream. Imagine if you found a crock of gold every time a rainbow spanned the heavens! You’d soon grow tired of rainbows.
There is a proper mystery and magic about the finding of buried treasure. People who find it are marked in some curious way, either by grace, like being in the Rolling Stones, or by a curse, like the Tutankhamun team.
That, it seems to me, is a better story than another bucketload of coins. And what sort of world will it be when all the treasure is found? Who gives a fig for the less-than-thrilling tale of Jim Hawkins and the Island of Portable Antiquities? We want buried treasure and we don’t want it now.
‘Quite soon, there will be nothing left to find except a lot of rusty metal detectors’