British Museum blog

Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

My first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was back in 1977 when I was eight years old. I received a copy of the new Roald Dahl book, an author of whom, like many children of my generation, I was a huge fan. ‘The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar and six more’ was a collection of short stories (I still have it; perhaps it’s worth something, as a first edition) which bear more relation with Dahl’s rather macabre tales aimed at adults than the timeless classics for children such as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Henry Sugar is a story about a man who discovers the ability to see through playing cards, and uses his gift to win vast sums of money in casinos. After the buzz of winning wears off, he starts to use his newly found wealth for acts of philanthropy: first giving his money away to random strangers (the cover depicts Sugar throwing wads of £20 notes out of a high storey window), then building orphanages.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

But I was more drawn to one of the other stories in the collection, simply entitled ‘The Mildenhall treasure’, and about a rather different type of discovery, the discovery of treasure: one of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events.

As Dahl explains in his preface, he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact, ‘The Mildenhall treasure’ (then entitled ‘He plowed [sic] up $1,000,000’) was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years – Dahl was a fighter pilot in the RAF – to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. (The story was republished for a third time in 1999, this time as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Ralph Steadman).

Dahl’s story stayed with me, and in the late 1980s when I was studying for an archaeology degree at University College London, I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Of course, staff at the British Museum knew the story very well, having been contacted about it by countless school children over the years. Indeed to this day many children, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure for themselves. But how valuable is Dahl’s account? Although his intention was first and foremost to tell a good yarn, it is not without worth to archaeologists seeking the ‘truth’ about the discovery. This is because it was based on what may have been the only interview with Gordon Butcher, the original finder of the treasure. As Dahl explains in his preface, he drove to Mildenhall having read about the discovery in the Times, persuaded Gordon Butcher to talk to him, faithfully noted down everything Butcher said, and, in Dahl’s own words, ‘wrote the story as truthfully as I possibly could’.

Having successfully sold it to the American magazine, he shared the fee he received with Butcher who sent Dahl a note saying ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your cheque’. But because Butcher’s boss Sidney Ford, not Butcher, took the treasure home, after the treasure emerged from hiding in 1946 the focus shifted to Ford, and Butcher’s part in the whole affair was rather overlooked. It appears that no-one, particularly the archaeologists who investigated the circumstances surrounding the discovery, thought to ask Butcher what he recalled of the moment when his plough struck something in the ground – no-one except Roald Dahl.

Dahl himself came to see the treasure in 1946 when it was first put on display. Of the experience, he writes: ‘It was fabulous. I got the shivers… just from looking at it.’ He was not the first to be affected in this way and certainly not the last – myself included.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

7 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. kahyehm says:

    OMG, awesome!

    Like

  2. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    Wow,.how exciting is this, wonderful to be able to see them. Thank you.

    Like

  3. Julia Corredor says:

    Such a nice story!!! very interesting!

    Like

  4. Ange says:

    I visited the Museum today, and made sure to find where the Mildenhall Treasure was on display, after having read and been captivated by Roald Dahl’s story as a child. It was wonderful to see it in the flesh! Great to learn some more background info!

    Like

  5. Thanks for this.

    Fascinating stuff. I seem to recall from my RAF days, back in the middle fifties, and later news items, that Mildenhall had an American air force base, and it occurred to me that it would be most interesting if the artifacts had been discovered on the former site; if it’s gone now, that is.

    My wife and I, now living in Canada, are both very interested in ancient history and deeply appreciated a visit to the Assyrian display at the BM in 2010. We convinced my wife’s sister and her hubby to go visit, but they found the same area to be boring. That gave us a good laugh. We’r still hoping to come again later this year.

    Keep up the good work!

    Like

  6. Kath says:

    I’ve recently read Roald Dahl’s story and just looking at photos of the actual Mildenhall Treasure gives me the shivers.

    I live in some far away country so I might not be able to see the treasures in person. Thanks a lot for this!

    Like

  7. anolen says:

    Reblogged this on a.nolen and commented:
    A little gem from the halls of the British Museum.

    Like

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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