HAHG Lecture: Treasures Beneath our Feet – The Watlington Hoard

Members of the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group were lucky enough to hear a talk on 1st May by James Mather, the finder of the nationally-important Watlington Hoard. James has been a responsible metal-detectorist for over 25 years and has visited some 150 farms. Until he made this once-in-a-lifetime find, most of the retrieved objects were individual coins and minor artefacts, together with innumerable pieces of rubbish, such as shotgun cartridges and ring pulls!

He made the big find in October 2015. Toward the end of an unproductive day detecting with the landowner’s permission, James decided to investigate a patch of high ground in a field. First he found a silver ingot and then a number of silver coins; he was still getting a strong detector signal even after digging up these coins. Sensing that this could be something significant, he contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme archaeologist who told him to stop digging and that it would be professionally excavated a few days later. When this happened, the archaeologists removed a mass of metal and soil for careful treatment by museum conservators. This mass was found to contain many fragile silver Anglosaxon coins, silver jewellery and metal ingots.

The hoard contained coins of kings Alfred of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia dating from the late 870s, in superb condition and with some rare examples including the “Two Emperors” type of these monarchs, suggesting that they were in an alliance, a fact difficult to deduce from historical documents. The combination of the coins with the other items is typical of a Viking hoard, the first to be found in Oxfordshire.  It seems likely that the hoard was the property of a single Viking soldier passing along Icknield Way with Athelstan’s army from Cirencester to East Anglia in 879, following the Battle of Eddington in 878.

It is fortunate that the find was made by James Mather. A less-responsible detectorist may have been tempted to do the excavation himself, damaging the coins in the process and losing valuable historical information, besides risking punishment by the law and missing out on substantial payments under the Treasure Act payable to the finder and the landowner.