The Mildenhall Treasure: Roald Dahl's Ultimate Tale of the Unexpected?
Hobbs, Richard, Antiquity
Just over 50 years ago, the most magnificent treasure of late Antique silver ever found in Britain was brought out of hiding in a sleepy village in rural Suffolk. The late Roald Dahl, the children's writer, may have held the answer.
This article brings to light a largely overlooked account of the discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure written by Roald Dahl, and examines its relevance to understanding the find. The second part places Mildenhall into the wider context of late Antique silver plate deposition, if the legitimacy of Mildenhall's provenance is questioned.
The discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure
The Mildenhall find [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], declared Treasure Trove at Bury St Edmunds in 1946, was subsequently acquired by the British Museum. Dr H.A. Fawcett, a local amateur antiquarian, had advised a local agricultural contractor and engineer, Mr S. Ford, to report the find to the police, which Ford was only prepared to do after much persuasion on Fawcett's part. That story began when Fawcett visited Ford in April 1946, and was reluctantly shown the hoard which Ford had concealed for more than four years. Pieces were sent to the British Museum for analysis to convince Ford they were made of silver, as Ford had persistently claimed that he thought the pieces were made of pewter and therefore not subject to Treasure Trove. After declaration and the Coroner's inquest, the items were directly acquired by the British Museum's department of British and Medieval Antiquities. Cleaning and conservation work was fairly minimal; Mr Ford himself had removed much of the oxidized surface silver, and the dark grey patina which the pieces still retained was removed by the British Museum Research Laboratory (C.M. Johns pers. comm.; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The museum's desire to satisfy public curiosity was quickly fulfilled, with the items soon placed on display (in late July 1946), and a short handbook was produced (Brailsford 1947). That would usually be where the story ends (until Painter's more comprehensive catalogue and description of the hoard, particularly with regard to the style of the items: Painter 1977a).
The exact circumstances of the find have always been controversial. Conspiracy theories naturally arose. One rumour, which still retains currency today, combined the proximity of the American air base and the splendour of the objects to suggest that the pieces were flown in during the War from North Africa (R.M. Reece pers. comm.; C.M. Johns pers. comm.; and see Paul Ashbee, below). This assumption, that such magnificent silverware items surely could not have been found in the impoverished province of Britain, is clearly an unreasonable viewpoint: think of the Corbridge Lanx (1735), the Mileham dish (1839), and the hoard from Traprain Law (1919), all well-documented finds. Another theory referred to eye-witness accounts of a treasure exhumed in the early 1920s by the relatives of a deceased widow, who had spoken of a treasure before she died (Gadd 1976: 9-11).
Setting conspiracy theories aside, the two main academic publications opted for more sober comments. Brailsford (1947: 4) said that the hoard was accidentally discovered some four years previously [to 1946] by Mr S. Ford and Mr G. Butcher, while ploughing a field.
Painter largely paraphrased that statement in his brief introduction (1977a: 11). Both accounts were based upon the statements of the two finders made during the Coroner's inquest in 1946.
There are a number of other reasons for doubts. The lapse in time between discovery and declaration immediately cast the finders in a poor light. In the first place, Ford had clearly been reluctant to declare the find at all. Fawcett had to expend a great deal of time and effort to persuade him to do so, resulting in this terse letter, dated 22 June 1946, sent by Ford to him:
Dear Dr Fawcett
I reported the find to the police at Mildenhall in the 21st inst. …