Mildenhall: Memories of Mystery and Misgivings

By Ashbee, Paul | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Mildenhall: Memories of Mystery and Misgivings

Ashbee, Paul, Antiquity

Half a century on, the principals in the Mildenhall affair are deceased. Paul Ashbee, senior prehistorian of East Anglia, has no direct evidence, but material recollections from near to the time. His account, drawing on those memories, notices aspects different to those which are stressed by Richard Hobbs (above), a researcher of a younger generation looking at the written record.

Sutton Hoo's excavation and the emergence of the Mildenhall silver bracketed the 1939-45 war and were the two major events of Sir Thomas Kendrick's career at the British Museum (Bruce-Mitford 1992: 462). Despite disorganization and war damage, the museum placed much of the Sutton Hoo material and the Mildenhall silver on display with admirable promptitude; the latter on 20 July 1946. A serviceable handbook by John Brailsford, at that time Assistant Keeper of British and Mediaeval Antiquities, appeared in 1947. In it he said that the assemblage had been 'accidentally discovered some four years previously by Mr S. Ford and Mr G. Butcher while ploughing a field'. This statement was immediately puzzling, as none of the pieces, least of all the Oceanus dish (Strong & Brown 1976: colour plate 1), showed any signs of having been struck by a ploughshare. Contrary to popular belief, ploughing does not immediately bring things to the surface and they are invariably scored and broken, often considerably. A good example is the broken Byzantine bronze bucket remnant harrowed up at Bromeswell, near Sutton Hoo, in 1986 (Mango et al. 1989). There would also have been tarnish, corrosion and pitting from soil acids. It was thought that.even Dr Plenderleith's laboratory, a world leader, would have had difficulties had such damage obtained.

Matching misgivings about Mildenhall were entertained by those attending Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excavation school at Verulamium in 1949 (Cotton & Wheeler 1953). Some, particularly ex-service people, were openly sceptical about the silver's ploughing-up as well as the implications of the fruitless excavation. After the Treasure Trove inquest at Mildenhall (1 July 1946) an excavation was carried out at the place indicated by Ford as the find spot. Under the aegis of T.C. Lethbridge (Cambridge Antiquarian Society and Crown witness at the inquest), Major Gordon Fowler (Fenland Research Committee) and C.W. Phillips (Selwyn College, and later Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey), a considerable area was stripped to the sub-soil. They found neither pits nor pieces, indeed, nothing to show that the silver had ever been in or beneath the ploughsoil, or a pit, at that particular place. There had also been some muddled changes of story at the Mildenhall inquest regarding the discovery. A further consideration, back in the 1940s, was that, in style and splendour, the silver obviously originated in the Mediterranean region, and was out of keeping with provincial Roman Britain. It was said that the 34 pieces had been found in 1942, or 1943, and had subsequently been kept in a farmhouse, the great Oceanus dish on a sideboard. Lack of the damage which would have been unavoidable had the assemblage been 'ploughed up' called the circumstances into question, as did the absence of a credible context, and cast considerable doubt upon them. War loot, a collection brought back from the Mediterranean theatre to this country was invoked, while the nature of large-scale black-market transactions was endlessly speculated upon.

C.W. Phillips (1987: 87), who took part in the fruitless, misled excavation, was forthright about Mildenhall in his memoirs. He stressed the clouded, tortuous circumstances of the silver's emergence, saying that Sidney Ford received a reward which was not the sum that he would have had were his story thought true. His observations are, in substance, largely the misgivings current in 1949 about the trade in antiquities around airfields; with the story that a doctor, presumably Dr H.A. Fawcett, had called without warning upon Ford and had seen the silver, an incident which may have precipitated its emergence and the treasure trove process.

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