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By CHRIS HILL, Rural affairs correspondent
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Four of Norfolk’s archaeological treasures have been nominated among the nation’s 50 most significant recent finds by a TV panel of experts.
New ITV1 series Britain’s Secret Treasures will begin tomorrow (Monday 16th), revealing the stories behind some of the fascinating antiquities unearthed by ordinary people which have helped our understanding of British history.
Historians and archaeologists will judge the visual and cultural merits of 50 key artefacts to find the most important piece among almost a million objects recorded in the last 15 years by the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.
They include four priceless items found in Norfolk, which had been either lost, discarded or hidden by our ancestors.
Three are on permanent display at Norwich’s Castle Museum: The 7th-century Balthild seal-ring matrix, the Stone Age Happisburgh hand-axe, and a rare Roman amulet found at Billingford. The fourth, a hoard of 2,000-year-old Iceni gold coins hidden inside a cow bone at Sedgeford, resides at King’s Lynn Museum.
Tim Pestell, curator of archaeology at the Castle Museum, said the featured shortlist was testament to Norfolk’s extraordinary wealth of archaeology, and the museums service’s good working relationship with metal detectorists.
“Norfolk is one of the most stunning places for archaeology in Britain,” said Mr Pestell. “The county regularly records more than 20,000 finds per year – between a quarter and a third of all finds made through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. In recent years, a lot of that has been down to the hard work of metal detectorists.”
One of Norfolk’s most enigmatic finds of recent years is the tiny Balthild Matrix – a gold seal-ring bezel, only 12mm in diameter, unearthed in a field in Postwick, outside Norwich, in March 1998.
Made 1,350 years ago, it unusually has two faces: One side bearing the bust of a long-haired figure and the name Baldehildis, and the other showing two people in an intimate embrace.
The inscriptions, date, and high-status workmanship suggest the seal could have been owned by the documented Queen Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon woman who married the Frankish king Clovis II and became a saint after her death.
“This is what makes it such a beguiling object,” said Mr Pestell. “We know about the historical Balthild and if it belongs to the historical character – and we cannot say with any more certainty than ‘if’ – then it is the most important object in the museum, because it is the seal of a queen and a saint.
“One of the points of the programme is to tell the stories of the significance of these finds, rather than just looking at the biggest, or the richest. It is about what these objects tell us about ourselves and our past. That’s why the Balthild matrix is so important. When you look at an object like that it may seem mute but you have to put yourself in a position to understand that someone commissioned that item, because it was worth such a lot of money, and they wore it in everyday life.
“It is the same with the hand-axe. It is lovely to hold and there is a groove which you can feel your thumb in , and you can imagine this early human jumping around with this in his hand.”
The Paleolithic hand-axe, found embedded in clay at Happisburgh by a dog-walker in 2000, has been dated back to 700,000BC – an astonishing find which pushed back the known origins of early human occupation in Stone Age Britain.
Another exceptionally rare object is the Roman gold lamella, a good luck charm or amulet, found in topsoil at Billingford. It is currently on loan to an exhibition at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London.
Britain’s Secret Treasures is presented by veteran TV journalist Michael Buerk alongside historian and author Bettany Hughes, with the discoveries selected and ranked by a panel of experts from the British Museum and The Council for British Archaeology.
The first of six episodes of Britain’s Secret Treasures will be shown tomorrow (Monday 16th) at 8pm on ITV1.