The Mildenhall Treasure: A First-Hand Account

By Lethbridge, T. C. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Mildenhall Treasure: A First-Hand Account


Lethbridge, T. C., Antiquity


Perhaps the most fascinating problem, which I ever shared with Gordon [Fowler], was that of the Mildenhall treasure. He rang me up one evening in June, 1946, and asked if I had seen the paper. Of course I had not looked at it and asked what was in it. He told me that an enormous silver find had been made and that among other things was 'a great dish with gods and goddesses rolling all over it'. First, he said, I must go and see the treasure in the police station. The place was full of officers of the law. To say that I was surprised by what I saw is very much an understatement. The billiard table was just covered with silver. I knew at once that it was the greatest Roman silver treasure ever to be recovered in Britain and probably in Europe. I saw the great silver dish, which Fowler had mentioned; it is a misnomer to call it the 'Oceanus' dish, for a very similar head to the one in its centre and with similar dolphins in its hair, is clearly labelled 'Neptunus' on a Roman mosaic from Dorset. There were the cups and bowls and wine ladles and the two salvers, which might have been designed by Adam. There were also two long-tailed silver spoons, which are usually believed to be Christening gifts. One was engraved PASCENTIA VIVAS and the other PAPITTEDO VIVAS. I was just spelling these names out when a constable came up and pulled out a note book.

'Did you see a name on those, sir?' he asked.

'Yes,' I replied. 'There are two girls' names on them.'

He asked me to read them out again and carefully wrote them down in his note book, although the girls had probably been dead for fifteen hundred years.

Next day I had to drive over to Bury St Edmunds to see the coroner. Somehow it happened that C.W. Phillips came with me. He became Archaeology Officer to the Ordnance Survey, but was at that time a don. The coroner was a solicitor and Phillips, who apparently did not know that a coroner represents the crown, seemed to be putting his back up by telling him his duty to the nation, archaeology and knowledge in general. I realized that we were on a sticky wicket and did not know how to put things right. The Fates, who seem sometimes to watch over these things, caused the coroner to say that he had been a captain in the Home Guard and knew his duty, thank you.

'Oh, were you a captain?' I asked. 'I was a major.'

Instantly he became all smiles and we had no more difficulty with him at all. He agreed to see that an intelligent jury was chosen and thought that there would be no real trouble in bringing in a verdict of Treasure Trove. It was touch and go while it lasted and I left with a feeling of great relief.

The next hurdle was the inquest itself. By some mischance the British Museum had asked a man from Bury to represent their interests, but he had been dead for four years. I got called as an 'expert witness'.

The inquest was held in Mildenhall, where years before one used to see frequently, a bulky sergeant of police wearing a green homburg hat and without a tunic, but dressed in his uniform trousers and regulation boots, propping up the wall of the police station in the sun. Gordon Fowler brought a niece and my wife came also to see the fun.

As far as we could learn, the background was very complicated. Four years earlier, during a snowstorm, a man named Butcher had ploughed a field for a farmer named Rolfe, using equipment supplied by a certain Sid Ford, who hired out ploughing teams. This particular field had in 1932 produced the remains of a very small Roman villa, which I myself had dug out with a party of volunteers. It was a dull little house, but during the work we had been told that a treasure was supposed to be hidden in the field. Of course this was in itself odd, for how could the knowledge that there was treasure buried in the field have survived from Roman times? Be this as it may, Butcher was said to have hit the big Neptune dish with his plough in the middle of a snowstorm in the winter of 1942. …

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