Britain’s soil has given rise to some truly magnificent archaeological discoveries over the years, from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo to the remains of King Richard III. But it’s not just experts who have uncovered the riches of Britain’s past: some of the nation’s greatest historic hoards were in fact located by amateur detectorists.
Metal detecting enthusiasts have become a vital source of artefacts and information for British heritage institutions. In 2015 in Oxfordshire, for example, detectorist James Mather discovered the ‘Watlington Hoard’ of nearly 200 9th century coins, which are now owned by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. More recently, in 2021, a couple discovered a 600-year-old engraved figurine of a bible, made of solid gold, in North Yorkshire.
Here are 5 of the most significant treasures discovered by amateur metal detectorists in Britain.
1. The centrepiece of a lost Tudor crown
In 2017, amateur detectorist Kevin Duckett spotted a glint of gold in the soil of a Northamptonshire field. He retrieved a small figurine, depicting King Henry VI, which is thought to be the lost centrepiece of King Henry VIII’s crown.
Henry VIII wore the crown at his coronation in 1509 and during his 1540 marriage to Anne of Cleves. The crown later vanished under Charles I, long believed to have been melted down.
The centrepiece may have fallen off when Charles I fled Oliver Cromwell’s armies at the Battle of Naseby in 1654: Duckett made the discovery close to the site of the battle, more than 3 centuries later.
When Duckett visited Hampton Court Palace to view the replica of Henry VIII’s crown, he came face to face with his figurine’s twin. The artefact was then handed over to the British Museum to be assessed. According to The Sun, it has been valued at £2 million.
2. The Millennium Hoard
Don Crawley, a builder and metal detecting enthusiast, was treasure hunting on a farmer’s land in Surrey in 2017 when he hit the jackpot. He uncovered 93 historic coins, which were later confirmed by experts to date back to 978-1016 AD – the time of English King Æthelred II.
It has been speculated that the coins were left near the site of a former church in the year 999 AD, by a pilgrim fearing an apocalyptic arrival of the new millennium. As such, the hoard earned the title of the Millennium Hoard.
The coins were sold at auction in 2019 for £90,000, with half of that sum going to Crawley and the other half to the landowner.
3. The Watlington Hoard
The Watlington Hoard was a collection of 9th-century jewellery, coins and silver ingots discovered in Oxfordshire in October 2015 by amateur detectorist James Mather.
The hoard is thought to have been buried in the 870s, when Anglo-Saxon kings were defending against Viking invasions. It included coins dating back to the time of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who ruled between 871 and 899.
All in all, Mather’s hoard contained some 200 coins, 7 pieces of jewellery and 15 silver ingots.
The hoard was valued at £1.35 million and purchased by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where it now resides.
4. A miniature gold book
While out metal detecting on rural land near York in 2021, NHS nurse Buffy Bailey and her husband Ian uncovered a 600-year-old miniature gold artefact, worked into the appearance of a tiny devotional book.
The artefact, measuring just 1.5cm long, is inscribed with figures thought to be the patron saints of childbirth, including St Margaret of Antioch. As such, it’s thought that the object may have been gifted to a pregnant woman as a devotional tool to protect her during childbirth.
It was discovered near Sheriff Hutton Castle in North Yorkshire, the former home of King Richard III (1452-1485), and has been dated to around the 15th century.
The miniature book bears a resemblance to the ‘Middleham Jewel’, a gold pendant which was discovered nearby in North Yorkshire some decades ago and that bore similar inscriptions to the miniature book. The Middleham Jewel sold for £2.5 million in 1992. Some have speculated that both objects could have been made by the same blacksmith.
5. The Staffordshire Hoard
One of the most significant amateur treasure discoveries in British history, the Staffordshire Hoard consisted of roughly 6,000 Anglo-Saxon objects and artefacts, many of them made of gold.
The find was made by metal detectorist Terry Herbert using a machine bought for £2.50 at a car boot sale. The hoard went on to be sold to heritage institutions for more than £3.2 million, with the money split between Herbert and the landowner of the discovery site, Fred Johnson.
The Staffordshire Hoard is thought to have been a 6th or 7th-century “war hoard”, seized from Northumbria and East Anglia by armies from the Kingdom of Mercia. It contained ornate sword fittings and a partial gold helmet, ultimately amounting to nearly 4kg of gold.