Britain’s Secret Treasures: Mary-Ann Ochota’s top ten discoveries

The archaeologist, presenter and author of the book that accompanies the ITV series shares her favourite historic finds from around the British Isles

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I loved researching the treasures for the book, and getting around the UK to film the series. I learned a lot about our history, about the incredible job archaeologists and conservators do to protect our heritage, and I got to meet some passionate, very knowledgeable members of the public who love looking for these artefacts and sharing them with the rest of us.

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In series two of Britain’s Secret Treasures I found out about an Iron Age mirror from Bedfordshire, a Roman statue from Lincoln, and dived a Napoleonic shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly. There’s a lot of mud and rain, and those stories about people tripping over hoards that make them millionaires are few and far between. But nonetheless, British history and archaeology is pretty hard to beat!

10. SYSTON KNIFE HANDLE

This Roman knife handle was discovered in 2007 in a Lincolnshire field by an amateur metal detectorist. The three-dimensional design shows three naked people entwined with each other – and the little person at the end is holding a severed head! Romans loved items that showed sex scenes – from sculptures to games, toys and novelty knife handles like this one. Two other ‘threesome’ knife handles have been found in Britain, but none anywhere else in the world, so it’s likely that this was made in Britain, for the local market. The scene is probably from a popular song, play or story that people would immediately recognise. 


9. SALTFLEETBY SPINDLE WHORL

A heavy metal bead called a spindle whorl used to hand-spin sheep’s fleece into yarn. Spindle whorls are quite common finds, but this one, dating to around 1000-1050AD, is unique. It’s inscribed on the flat face and sides with medieval Norse runes – Viking writing. We know Vikings had been settled in this area of Lincolnshire for a couple of hundred years, had officially converted to Christianity, and had built a number of churches in the area. But the runes on the spindle whorl are a prayer to the old gods, Odin and Heimdallr, for protection. By putting this inscription on the spinning equipment, it was believed that protection would be woven into every thread of the clothes worn by your loved ones.


8. NESSCLIFFE SPOONS

A strange pair of hand-sized metal spoons discovered by a metal detectorist in Shropshire. They’re incredibly rare and date from the Iron Age, around 300BC-100AD. Only 23 other spoons like this have ever been discovered, and twenty of those were in pairs like these. One spoon has a little hole in the bowl, the other spoon is scored into four quarters. We have absolutely no idea what they were used for but our best guess is that they could have been some kind of fortune-telling device: liquid or powder could have been blown or dropped on to the spoons, and where it landed would reveal some information – is the baby a boy or a girl, should I marry him, will I get rich…the age-old questions! This is the two thousand year old version of reading tea leaves.


7. HACKNEY WW2 HOARD

                                   

Three people were digging a pond in Hackney, east London, when they discovered a buried jar full of American $20 gold coins. No-one knew who they belonged to, or when they’d been buried – until a local historian discovered that a near-identical jar had been discovered in the same garden in 1952 – and they’d been claimed by a refugee family who had been living in a house on the site during the war. The house was destroyed in the Blitz and the whereabouts of the coins was lost – the family were left penniless. The second jar was finally reunited with the 81-year old son of the coins’ owners. He gave one of the coins to the finders, another to the local museum, and used the rest of them to pay to restore the family’s wartime graves.


6. HADRIAN’S WALL COINS     

                  

Eight bronze Roman coins discovered in Northumberland, near Hadrian’s Wall. They were probably in a purse that was dropped accidentally – the purse rotted away but the coins lay undisturbed for around 1600 years. The latest coin was struck between 406-408AD on one of the cities in modern-day Turkey or Egypt. The Romans officially left Britain in 410AD, so it’s a bit of mystery how eight eastern Roman coins reached Northumberland around this time – it had always been thought that the Romans had abandoned Hadrian’s Wall years before. The final twist of the mystery is that the coins were found north of the wall – the ‘barbarian’ side! We can only guess at what happened to the person to make them drop their money!


5. ALNWICK SWORD  

                    

This treasure doesn’t look very impressive – just a rusty lump of jagged iron.  But it’s actually an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s sword that has been bent in half before being placed in his grave, along with a dagger and another tool. Swords were much more than just functional weapons – they were linked to the spirit of the warriors themselves. So when a warrior died, his sword might be ritually ‘killed’ with him. If King Arthur ever existed, this is the kind of sword he’d have had.


4. MOURNING RING

A pretty gold finger ring is a good find for a metal detectorist, but this one from Bridgenorth, Shropshire, also tells a very moving story. Around the band, gold lettering spells out MARY & SARAH LITTLETON OB 7 JUNE 1735. It’s a mourning ring, commemorating the deaths of a mother and baby shortly after childbirth. In many parts of the world childbirth is still the leading cause of death of young women – around the world, one woman dies every minute due to complications in labour or pregnancy.


3. GIRONA WRECK CAMEO

In 1588 the surviving ships from the Spanish Armada were limping back to Spain along the west coast of Ireland. The ships and the men were in poor shape, they didn’t know the waters or coastline, and they were hit by weeks of poor visibility and gales. La Girona was one of 25 Armada ships wrecked off the Irish coast in just a few days. Many treasures were washed ashore or were rescued from the wreck since, incuding a series of 11 gold, pearl and lapis lazuli cameo badges. It was always thought that the twelfth cameo was lost forever, until in 1998 an authorised diver happened to notice something glinting in a lobster’s claw – it was the missing 12th cameo in beautiful condition, just as shiny as the day it sunk in October 1588.


2. TISBURY HOARD           

When the metal detectorist found the first spearhead in the field in Wiltshire, he suspected he’d found a hoard and with the utmost self-control stopped digging and called the archaeologists – he didn’t want any of the information from the site to be lost. The Tisbury Hoard is still being assessed, but it’s clear that when it was buried around 700BC, some of the sword blades, axe heads, chisels and spears the people buried were already more than 1000 years old. There are loads of hoards in the Britain’s Secret Treasures book, but this one from Wiltshire is special because it reveals that even our ancestors had a thing for treasures from the past!


1. HAPPISBURGH HANDAXE 

                      

A man was walking his dog along the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh when he saw a strange-looking piece of flint in the sand – he picked it up and immediately recognised it as an ancient stone tool. The Happisburgh Handaxe is so old it actually rewrites what we know about early humans in Britain. It’s between 500,000 and 700,000 years old, and was shaped by an early human species called Homo heidelbergensis­ – an ancestor of modern humans. Incredibly, these early Stone Age handaxes are still sharp and fit beautifully in our modern hands – and this find shows that they reached Britain much earlier than we’d first thought. We can draw a straight line from this problem-solving, tool-making ancestor to our efforts to cure cancer, travel through time, and live on Mars.


Mary-Ann Ochota is an anthropologist, archaeologist and presenter, and the author of the book Britain’s Secret Treasures, published by Headline and out now to accompany the ITV series

Britain’s Secret Treasures is continues on Thursdays at 8:30pm on ITV


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