The few coins and jewelry items from the Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire coin hoard which have been declared by the treasure hunters or recovered by the police. Photo: West Mercia Police
Two UK treasure hunters, or metal detectorists, have been found guilty of stealing a massive coin hoard worth some GBP 3 million, consisting of 9th century AD Anglo-Saxon coins seemingly hidden by a Viking, and carrying new information about the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex.
The two treasure hunting detectorists, George Powell, 38, of Newport, and Layton Davies, 51, of Pontyrpridd, dug up about 300 coins in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, England, UK, back in 2015.
During their trial at Worcester Crown Court, Powell and Davies have been found guilty of theft and concealing their find, thus deliberately ignoring the UK Treasure Act, which demands that significant finds be declared, BBC News reports.
Just 31 coins – worth between GBP 10,000 and GBP 50,000 – and some pieces of jewelry from the 1,100-year-old Anglo-Saxon, Viking-hidden coin hoard have been recovered, while the majority is still missing.
The treasure dug up by the two metal detectorists in Herefordshire, England, is believed to be the largest Anglo-Saxon coin hoard to have ever been discovered.
In addition to the coins of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wesser, the coin hoard also included a 9th century gold ring, a dragon’s head bracelet, a silver ingot, and a crystal rock pendant from ca. 600 AD, among other artifacts.
When they stumbled upon the Anglo-Saxon treasure, which is believed to have been hidden by a Viking, back in June 2015, Powell and Davies did not notify the farmer who owned the respective field.
What they did instead was contact coin dealers to figure out how much the 9th century coin hoard was worth.
The British treasure hunters contacted the National Museum of Wales about their discovery only a month later, and on top of that they declared just one coin each, and three jewelry artifacts.
They sold the rest of the 1,100-year-old Anglo-Saxon coins to two coin sellers, Simon Wicks and Paul Wells, who have now also been convicted on the concealment charge.
The two treasure hunters alleged that talk of a hoard of 300 coins had been just a rumor but the police launched an investigation, and eventually managed to recover photos deleted from Davies’ phone showing the intact coin hoard in a fresh dug hole.
Most of the estimated 300 coins believed to be in the Herefordshire hoard are still missing. Photo: West Mercia Police
Among the Herefordshire hoard was a crystal pendant that dates to around 600 AD. Photo: West Mercia Police
The court heard the detectorists had been meeting Wicks, from Hailsham, and Wells, from Cardiff, in order to trade off the coins from the Anglo-Saxon hoard estimated to be worth some GBP 3 million.
The British police traced several of the coins, which had been sold to private collectors, resulting in Wicks, Powell and Davies being also found guilty of converting the stolen hoard into cash.
Wells told the court he knew the coins should be declared, but was himself found to have hidden five in a magnifying glass handle.
Experts have lamented the loss of the marvelous treasure find, saying it has the potential to “rewrite history”.
They point out that the coins, which are Saxon and believed to have been hidden by a Viking, provide fresh information about the unification of England.
The coin hoard from Herefordshire demonstrates that there was an alliance previously not thought to exist between the kings of Mercia and Wessex. The recovered coins were issued by these two separate, but neighboring, kingdoms in the late 9th century.
“These coins enable us to re-interpret our history at a key moment in the creation of England as a single kingdom,” Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, is quoted as saying.
Wessex at the time was ruled by Alfred the Great (r. 871 – 899), the most famous Anglo-Saxon king, and Mercia by the lesser known Ceolwulf II, who “just disappears from history without a trace” when the hoard was buried around the year 879, Williams says.
“What the coins show, beyond any possible doubt, is that there was actually an alliance between Alfred and Ceolwulf,” he is convinced, as they were sharing a coin design.
“And yet a few years later, Ceolwulf is dismissed by historians at Alfred’s court. He’s written out of history, but the coins show a different picture. This is a find of national importance from a key moment in the unification of England. It comes just at the moment when the Vikings were attacking in a large way," Williams elaborates with respect to the Anglo-Saxon treasure from Herefordshire.
“Important information has been lost forever. That’s our heritage, everyone’s heritage, that’s being lost in the hope of financial gain and I think that’s terrible,” he adds.
Although most of the hoard is Anglo-Saxon, Williams is convinced that it was gathered and buried by a Viking.
He points out that a Viking army is known to have been in the area at the time, attacking the Wessex and Mercia kingdoms including the Battle of Edington, Wiltshire, in 878 against Alfred the Great, one year before the hoard is thought to have been buried.
“It was probably buried to preserve it from other Vikings as well as Anglo Saxons, and for whatever reason the person who buried it wasn’t able to go back and recover it," Williams concludes.
The two British treasure hunters and the two coin sellers who helped them have been convicted of ignoring the law which states significant finds must be declared. The court was adjourned until Friday for sentencing and the other defendants were remanded in custody.
Layton Davies, George Powell, Paul Wells and Simon Wicks were convicted by a jury at Worcester Crown Court. Photo: West Mercia Police
“I am not going to admit George Powell bail, he’s going to be sentenced for theft of items worth millions of pounds and is facing a very long sentence of imprisonment and in addition to that there will inevitably be a confiscation process," Judge Nicholas Cartwright has said.
“There are hidden assets by way of unrecovered treasure worth a very large sum, probably millions of pounds, so there’s the prospect of a very long default period of imprisonment should the assets remain hidden,” he has added.
Peter Reavill, the finds liaison officer for the British Museum in Shropshire and Herefordshire, says it is a concern hobbyists like Powell and Davies could prioritize personal financial gain over national interests.
“It will be so easy for really important objects just to slip through the net, mostly due to individuals’ greed," he adds.
Amanda Blakeman, West Mercia Police’s Deputy Chief Constable, has said the treasure hunting detectorists were looking to “criminally profit from removing the historical footprint of our country”.
“It’s absolutely critical that we protect our heritage, our history, and we bring offenders to justice who are looking to profit from something that is owned by the community,” she has stated.
Blakeman has recently been appointed as the national leader for heritage and cultural crime and has established police and expert networks to help tackle these “complex and protracted” investigations in the future.
“We must recover that property and we must cut off those markets that are available to be able to disperse our history, not only across this country, but across the world,” she has said.
“[The coins] must be concealed in one or more places or by now having been concealed have been dispersed never to be reassembled as a hoard of such coinage again,” prosecutor, Kevin Hegarty QC, has noted.
Bulgaria also has a very massive criminal industry of treasure hunting and antiques trafficking, with an estimated annual turnover of up to EUR 1 billion.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.