Bettany Hughes and Michael Buerk pick their favourite British treasures

The hosts of Britain's Secret Treasures choose the best long-lost finds unearthed by the public - from beer tankards to brothel tokens

imagenotavailable1

BETTANY HUGHES – MY FAVOURITE FINDS

Advertisement

OBJECT: DURHAM ASSEMBLY
FOUND: in the River Tees
BY: amateur river archaeologists

This isn’t one object but over 5,000! Diving enthusiasts Bob and Rolfe have made the River Tees their archaeological hunting ground and have put a sleepy village in County Durham back on the map of ancient Britannia.

They took me on an underwater investigation and within 10 seconds I pulled out a fragment of Samian ware (finely decorated Roman pottery), then came a lovely silver coin boasting the head of the emperor Antoninus. Make-up tools, delicate gold rings, a lovely pudgy cupid – all this material was thrown into the river over 1,600 years ago. The majority of the finds were almost certainly votive offerings; reminding us just how superstitious the Romans were.

OBJECT: THE HOCKLEY PENDANT
FOUND: in a field in Essex
BY: a 4-year-old with a metal detector

Found by James Hyatt in 2010 when he was just four years old, this is a gorgeous, discreet piece of jewellery that hides a whole heap of secrets. Possibly dropped towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign by a nervous Catholic in an age of religious upheaval, this is not just a bauble, but something sacred; a reliquary, designed to contain a holy relic.

When I slipped open the hidden back panel at the British Museum all I found was mud, but the intricate designs on the outside – a woman (the Virgin Mary or St Helena) clutching at a cross, surrounded by slashes of oozing blood – suggest this was once believed to protect chips of the true cross, or even Christ’s blood.

The names of the three Magi are inscribed around the edge, which adds to the pendant’s allure; these wise men once journeyed far to see a boy-child, so it feels curiously appropriate that a young lad should lead historians back to the gold that they have guarded in the ground for close on 500 years.

OBJECT: IRON-AGE BEER TANKARD
FOUND: in a field in Langstone, Wales
BY: a security guard

By rights, this massive Iron Age beer tankard should not exist. Made of wood and leather, most objects like this from our distant past have just rotted away. Left in ancient marshlands as an offering to the gods, the bucket-sized cup has been preserved in the anaerobic conditions of the swamp.

I’ve tried some of the alcoholic cocktails brewed up by people in the Bronze and Iron Ages and they are pretty darn potent. So you can imagine our original owner drinking from his four-pint mug, then passing it round for his tribal companions to share; a wild night followed by horribly sore heads. A remarkable survival that also reminds us that this whole period of prehistory would be better called ‘the Wood Age’.

OBJECT: HACKNEY HOARD
FOUND: in a garden in east London
BY: a community worker

Terry, a community worker, was digging a frog pond in a back garden in Hackney when he and his mates hit something hard: a Kilner jar filled with golden coins. How did they get there?

During the Second World War the house had been owned by the Sulzbacher family, Jewish bankers fleeing Hitler. Sulzbacher senior buried the gold he brought with him – American 20-dollar coins – in his back garden. The house was bombed and no one knew the whereabouts of the coins. Thanks to Terry, the jar and its contents have been reunited with Sulzbacher’s grandson.

JOINT CHOICE: CROSBY GARRETT HELMET
FOUND: on farmland in Cumbria
BY: a youngster with a metal detector

Bettany Hughes: This object maxes out for me in terms of both beauty and pathos. It was discovered as 67 fragments after the finder spotted a bronze griffin. As new segments emerged, it became clear that this was a rare and splendid Roman Parade helmet. Designed to shock and awe, the chilling visor represents an exotic Eastern hero or god; its original owner a protagonist in war games. Kids emptied their piggy banks in Cumbria to keep this helmet at the Tullie House Museum – which raised 1.7 million in just three weeks. But because it isn’t officially treasure, it was sold to the highest bidder.

Michael Buerk: The helmet is utterly stunning. It sold for £2.3 million, and to this day, no one knows who the buyer was.

MICHAEL BUERK – MY FAVOURITE FINDS:

OBJECT: THE SEDGEFORD TORC
FOUND: in a field near Sedgeford in Norfolk
BY: a local farmer

You just can’t beat this for bling. It’s a beautiful gold necklace, the first half of which was dug up in 1965 by a local farmer while he was ploughing the field. Fashioned from lots of cleverly-twisted gold wires, it is believed to have been made by the Iceni tribe, around AD 60-62, which is just the time when Boudicca was their leader.

I don’t think there’s any way it can be proved to have been her necklace, but it belonged to someone important, and obviously carries very Boudicca overtones, shall we say. It also shows how wrong we are to dismiss Celts, Vikings and early Brits as being all wild, rugged and unsophisticated, compared to the Greeks and Romans. You can see this wasn’t made by savages wearing woad.

OBJECT: ROMAN BROTHEL TOKEN
FOUND: on the banks of the Thames at Putney
BY: a pastry chef

I just love the story attached to this little bronze token. On one side, it’s got the Roman numeral XIV (14), on the other is an erotic depiction of, shall we say, a rather energetic couple. Hence the conclusion that this was a token used in a brothel; perhaps the “14” referred to how many sesterces, or whatever, the client had paid or perhaps what service he had chosen.

Just as fascinating is that it was discovered by Regis Cursan, who is a member of the Mudlarks, a society with access to scavenging rights on the Thames, and the pastry chef at the smart London restaurant Nobu.

OBJECT: ROMAN SLAVE SHACKLE
FOUND: near Winchester & Silchester
BY: a landscape gardener

This object is all to do with slavery, and, as it comes round to Proms time, and we’re all singing about how Britons never never never shall be slaves, it’s worth noting there was a time when some of us were enslaved by the Romans.

There was an amphitheatre at Silchester, which means the wearer of this shackle could well have been on his way there, with a view to being eaten by wild bears and wolves. It was a neat conceit by our producers to get John McCarthy to present the part of the programme relating to this object; having spent five years shackled to a radiator in Beirut, he knows all about being deprived of freedom.

OBJECT: CHARLES II HORSE BRASS
FOUND: on a housing estate in Epsom
BY: a local journalist

Advertisement

This decorative, brass medallion must have become detached from one of the King’s horses on September 1, 1662 when Charles II went to Epsom, to dine with the Earl of Berkeley. In this little object we see the end of that preceding period of Puritan zeal and the restoration of the monarchy.