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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


The Staffordshire Hoard: Defining “Treasure”

By Gemma Angel, on 14 January 2013

  by Felicity Winkley






In July 2009 in a field in Hammerwich, Staffordshire, Terry Herbert stumbled upon the largest hoard of gold and silver Anglo Saxon metalwork ever found. Comprising over 3,500 items, the Staffordshire Hoard – as it is now known – totals some 5.0 kilos of gold, 1.4 kilos of silver and 3,500 cloisonné garnets.[1] It is almost exclusively war-gear, save for two or possibly three crosses, the largest of which has been folded. The sheer quantity of finds in the hoard and their exquisite workmanship have caused archaeologists to speculate that what we know of 7th century metalwork may have to be completely rethought – and all this from a find that was literally sitting on a field surface due to be ploughed into oblivion. Today the Staffordshire Hoard is back in the news: last November, again after the field had been recently ploughed, a team from Archaeology Warwickshire found a further 91 associated objects[2], and just 2 weeks ago, 81 of these were ruled to be treasure at a coroner’s inquest.[3]

A selection of objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, including the folded cross.
Photograph © Portable Antiquities Scheme.


I had already been thinking about treasure, in light of the Researchers in Museums project, as a potential point on which to engage people with my research at the Petrie Museum. ‘Treasure’, I thought, could be useful for capturing visitors’ imagination, evoking chests of gold doubloons on desert islands, or hoards of jewels guarded by slumbering dragons. Indeed, as a noun the Oxford English Dictionary defines treasure as: ‘a quantity of precious metals, gems, or other valuable objects’.[4] A quantity, gosh!

At first glance, however, the crowded cases at the Petrie Museum might not seem to boast many objects which we would hasten to describe as treasure – certainly few of the portable antiquities match the criteria laid out in the UK’s Treasure Trove legislation (but more on that later). And yet here the verb of treasure becomes useful, for amongst those ‘Objects of Daily Use’ (as Petrie classified them) are numerous personal items which would certainly have been treasured – ‘kept carefully’, and valued’ (see note 4) – by their owners: miniature vases for storing cosmetics, earrings, necklaces, shabtis, votive figurines… So how do we define treasure, and does it really matter?

A selection of objects from Petrie’s Objects of Daily Use:
beads and ear studs (top) and a shabti (bottom).
Image © University College London.

The answer to the latter, in terms of England’s archaeological record, is clearly yes, it does matter. Until it was addressed relatively recently, the legislation of “Treasure Trove” had existed as common law for centuries, originally as a means for the Crown to claim any riches found. The three basic elements are as follows: the found object must be made of, or contain a ‘substantial’ amount of gold or silver; have no known original owner (or heir); and have been buried with the original intention that it would be later recovered (known as animus revertendi).[5] As Cookson suggests, ‘Treasure Trove was conceived long before archaeology gave cultural value to old things, and considers valuables from an essentially financial perspective, not an artistic or historical one’.[6] Indeed, we can see how protection was scant: anything not rendered in precious metal was disqualified, and once an object was precious metal, it had to be proven that someone had buried it with an intent to return to it (quite a task!). In the light of increasing concerns from archaeologists and heritage professionals – fuelled in no small part by the extreme increase in the popularity of metal detecting during the 1970s and ‘80s – the legislation was overhauled in 1996. Enforced on the 24th September 1997, the new Treasure Act set out to ‘abolish treasure trove and to make fresh provision in relation to treasure.’[7]

The definition now covered the following:

  • Any object at least 300 years old, other than a coin, found to contain at least 10% precious metal;
  • All coins at least 300 years old from the same find which number, in the case of base metal coins, more than 10 or, in the case of gold and silver ones, more than 2;
  • Any object of whatever composition found in the same place as, or that had previously been together with, another treasure find;
  • Any object, not falling into the 3 categories above, that would previously have been treasure trove, namely modern coin hoards or similar displaying animus revertendi [8] (see also note 7).

The Crosby Garrett helmet, a Roman helmet
metal-detected in Cumbria and sold at auction
to an anonymous buyer, because it was not
saved for the nation as treasure (see note 11).

Since then, prehistoric base metal assemblages have also been added to the Treasure Act, and the UK’s portable antiquities are better protected than ever.[9] The Portable Antiquities Scheme, a voluntary recording scheme set up in concordance with the Treasure Act has, since 1997, recorded 831,595 objects (both treasure, and otherwise) found outside of archaeological excavation – mostly by metal detectorists.[10] However, many would like to see the treasure legislation tightened further still, especially in light of recent landmark base metal finds, such as the astonishing Crosby Garrett Roman helmet, which was lost to a private vendor on account of its not qualifying as treasure. The fundamental question therefore still remains: what does treasure mean and, more importantly, what will it mean to future generations?

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-20903152

[4] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/treasure?q=treasure

[5] N. E. Palmer: ‘Treasure Trove and Title to Discovered Antiquities’, in International Journal of Cultural Property 2, (1993), pp. 275-318.

[6] N. Cookson: ‘Treasure Trove: dumb enchantment or new law?’ in Antiquity 66  (1992), pp. 399-405, (p.401).

[7] Department for Culture Media and Sport: The Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice (Revised) England and Wales, (2002) London: DCMS (pp.22).

[8] R. Bland: ‘The Treasure Act and the Proposals for the Voluntary Recording of All Archaeological Finds’, in The Museum Archaeologist 23 (Conference Proceedings) (1996), pp.3-18.


From Delphi to the Dodo: Finding Links Between Archaeology and Natural History

By Gemma Angel, on 1 October 2012

by Felicity Winkley






Initially, my response to the challenge of finding a link between my research and the zoological specimens in the Grant Museum was one of dread and panic. Such a thing could simply not be done – it would be impossible to engage a member of the public for long enough to travel the conversational distance from a dissected Thylacine to British archaeology. On closer inspection, however, I was to find that the museum which houses Grant’s collection of some 67,000 zoological specimens, is not, in fact, dissimilar to those great anthropological collections that were also assembled during the 19th century. The shadowy corners and densely-packed glass cases are reminiscent, certainly, of those at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where the shelves overflow with ethnological artefacts.

And yet the similarities go beyond the simply aesthetic. Both Robert Edmund Grant ( 1793-1874  – pictured left) and Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900 – pictured below) were undoubtedly, if unconsciously, influenced by a long-established tradition of collecting in England, which since the 17th century had been a gentlemanly pursuit acceptable to the social elite [1]. Indeed, for ambitious scholars it was even a method of propelling oneself up the social charts. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was the son of a saddler, but with a good eye and some wily investing he was able to accumulate a collection that when bequeathed to Oxford University (along with its own custom-made premises), would provide a lasting legacy to maintain both the collection and his own prestige [1]. But Ashmole was only one of any number of ‘Antiquarians’ as these collectors were soon to become known; men who, for Sweet, “were important actors in that explosion of print and ideas, that thirst for knowledge and understanding with some have called the British Enlightenment” [2].

The rise of the antiquarian popularised the collection of all kinds of objects and artefacts, from coins and medals, to maps and even fossils; the over-arching motivation was simply a thirst for information about the past, and particularly information that was not provided by the historical record. This lack of concern for the ‘what’ that was being studied, often meant that focus was instead placed upon the ‘where’, so that authors would compile an in-depth study of the local parish or county – a regional framework which brought their work into obvious connection with natural historians compiling similar studies. The connection between antiquaries and natural historians was cemented further still by their agreement on epistemological models, and a sympathetic “culture of inquiry” according to Sweet [2].

In order to find a link between my own research and the Grant Museum collections, I determined to find out whether this undeniable spirit of discovery which so connected antiquarians and natural historians during the 17th and 18th century persisted into the 19th century also – and I was very happy to discover that it did. Whilst the methodology had been modernised into a recognisable early archaeology, and the investigative locations had moved from the local county to the more exotic, there was still an undeniable relationship between antiquarian and natural historical research. Just as the history of the local parish had been a relative unknown several hundred years previously, by the 19th century researchers had begun travelling further afield to collect archaeological information alongside samples of foreign flora and fauna. And this is where Darwin comes in.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had studied under Robert Grant during the 1820s and was much influenced by his ideas; however, his focus was by no means limited to the comparative anatomical interest they both shared. Written records show that even later on in his career, Darwin was contributing to funding for voyages that would provide evidence for archaeological investigations as well as natural-historical studies. A trip, funded in part by the Royal Society (then The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), to Borneo in 1878, had the archaeological aim of finding evidence for early human occupation, but plainly also had great implications for Darwin and his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace as a potential source for proving the evolution of anthropoid apes [3]. Wallace had already visited Borneo in 1855, where his observation of orangutans native only to that island and neighbouring Sumatra, prompted his composition of the very paper that would inspire Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin pledged a sum of twenty pounds to the voyage [3]. Any discovery, whether made by an archaeologist, anatomist, collector or naturalist, was seen as a contribution to enlightenment. As testament to the limitless horizons of this quest for knowledge, signing off his letter, Darwin adds:

“I wish someone as energetic as yourself [John Evans] would organise an expedition to the triassic lacustrine beds in S. Africa, where the cliffs are said to be almost composed of bones.”

Evidently, he was already planning the next adventure! [3]


[1] Swann, M. (2001) Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Sweet, R. (2004) Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain London: Hambledon and London (pp. xiv)

[3] Sherratt, A. (2002) Darwin among the archaeologists: The John Evans nexus and the Borneo Caves Antiquity 76 pp.151-157

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones … Excavating Memory, Digging up the Past

By Gemma Angel, on 16 July 2012

by Katie Donington





Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the ‘matter itself’ is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights – like torsos in a collector’s gallery.[1]

The Buried on Campus exhibition at the Grant Museum ran from April 23rd to July 13th 2012. Following the 2010 discovery of human remains beneath the Main Quad of UCL, research was undertaken to determine the reason for their presence. Forensic anatomist Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, members of the UCL Anatomy Lab, were able to date the bones which were over a hundred years old. The bones themselves also gave clues to the reason for their presence. Several items had numbers written on them and others displayed signs of medical incisions. This led the team to the conclusion that the bones represented a portion of the UCL Anatomy Collection which had been buried at some point after 1886.

The issue of displaying human remains in a museum of zoology was discussed by Jack Ashby, Grant Museum Manager in a recent blog post:

The whole topic of displaying human remains has to be considered carefully and handled sensitively… One of the questions we asked our visitors last term on a QRator iPad was “Should human and animal remains be treated any differently in museums like this?” and the majority of the responses were in favour of humans being displayed, with the sensible caveats of consent and sensitivity.[2]

The discovery and exhibition of human remains raises interesting questions about the relationship between archaeology, history, science, memory and identity. It also links into debates over the ethics of display in relation to human beings. Who were these people? Why did their bodies end up in an anatomy collection? Did they consent or were they compelled? Is it possible or desirable to attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the object as subject?

The case of the bones buried on campus reminds me of another example in which the physical act of excavation was transformed into an act of historical re-inscription. In 1991, workmen digging the foundations of a new federal building close to Wall Street uncovered the remains of 419 men, women and children. Archaeologists, historians and scientists were called in and they were able to identify the area as a 6.6 acre site used for the burial of free and enslaved Africans by examining maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Maerschalck Map of 1754, showing the Negro Burial Grounds near the “Fresh Water” (the Collect Pond). Image © The African Burial Ground Project.






The bones offered specific information which helped to give a partial identity to the people interred. Using ‘skeletal biology’[3] it was possible in some cases to pin point where in Africa individuals had come from – Congo, Ghana, Ashanti and Benin, as well as revealing whether they had been transported via the Caribbean. Bone analysis spoke of the appalling conditions of slavery; fractured, broken, malformed and diseased bones articulated stories of unrelenting labour, nutritional deficiency and coercive violence.

Objects found inside some of the burials created a sense of the uniqueness of each person as well as the care taken by loved ones as they performed burial rituals. The lack of items found also indicated the social status of the majority of people buried on the site.

This pendant (image courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project) was recovered from burial 254, a child aged between 3 ½ and 5 ½ years old. It was found near the child’s jaw and may have been either an earring or part of a necklace. The objects and bones represented a visceral historic link to the African American community in New York. The sense of ownership they felt towards this history and the individuals who had emerged from the soil, led to active community engagement in the project. In line with the wishes of the African American community, all original items were facsimiled before being reinterred along with all 419 ancestral remains in a ceremony in 2003. A memorial and museum were also built on the site (see image below, courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project).

The emergence of the skeletons was interpreted by some as a literal rendering of the way in which America has been haunted by its relationship with slavery. As physical anthropologist Michael Blakely, who worked on the site explained; ‘with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been.’[4]

The context of the two sites is of course very different. However, a comparison of them does raise questions about the uses of human remains and their relationship to history, memory and identity. The bones at UCL formed part of an anatomical teaching collection; a composite of individuals whose bodies somehow became the property of medical institutions. Those people often consisted of those on the margins of society; the poor, the criminal and the exoticised ‘others’ of empire.[5] Debates over the repatriation of human remains in museum collections highlight their importance to people’s sense of identity and history. Without family or community groups to claim the individuals discovered at UCL, it seems that they are destined to remain object rather than subject – ‘severed from all earlier associations… torsos in a collector’s gallery’.











Have your say – what do you think should happen to the bones at UCL?

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Excavation and Memory’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 2 (1931–1934),ed. by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, (Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 576.

[2] http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2012/04/24/buried-on-campus-has-opened/

[3] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[4] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[5] Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, The Hottentot Venus’, History of Science, Volume 42 (2004), pp.233-257.