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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,381 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were thriving cities long before the foundation of the great port of Alexandria in 331 BC. Finds suggest that they were still inhabited into the AD 700s. The cities’ disappearance was caused by gradual subsidence into the sea – much like Venice today – coupled with earthquakes and tidal waves. This triggered a phenomenon known as land ‘liquefaction’, when the ground turns into liquid. 
This reconstruction shows what the port of Thonis-Heracleion could have looked like, dominated by the Temple of Amun-Gereb. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets to our #SunkenCities exhibition. © Yann Bernard. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. Recent underwater excavations at the mouth of the Nile in Abukir Bay, Egypt, have revealed two ancient cities, perfectly preserved beneath the sea. Our #SunkenCities exhibition tells of the extraordinary rediscovery of the international port Thonis-Heracleion, and the city of Canopus, famed for their temples which attracted religious devotees from Egypt and beyond. 
Since 1996, underwater investigation using state-of-the-art technology has uncovered spectacular objects, including colossal statues, religious offerings and ancient ships. The finds shed new light on the interaction between ancient Egypt and the Greek world at a crucial period in their history, from the arrival of Greeks in Egypt around 650 BC, to the reign of the Greco-Macedonian Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt (51–30 BC). With only a fraction of these sites explored so far, annual excavations are continuing to uncover the cities’ long-hidden secrets. 
This 2,000-year-old bust depicts Neilos, the Nile river god. Neilos appealed to Egyptians and Greeks alike – he was the Greek version of Hapy, the Egyptian personification of the annual Nile flood that brought prosperity and fertility to the land. This bust was once mounted into a large decorative shield and adorned a temple in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. It was discovered by underwater archaeologists at the base of the wall on which it once hung. 
Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our unmissable exhibition. 
Bust of Neilos. Canopus, AD 100–200. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. This astonishingly detailed miniature altarpiece has been photographed by @micahfoundaquarter. Made in 1511 in the Netherlands, it’s only 25cm tall but contains incredibly intricate carvings that show Christian religious scenes in triptych form (in three parts). Aside from the masterful craftsmanship, this object is notable for its use of both Gothic and Renaissance stylings. It offers an insight into the spread of ideas and styles into northern Europe from the birthplace of the Renaissance, Italy.
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#carving #Gothic #Renaissance #Netherlands #detail This photo by @ozemile captures the pensive expression of Marsyas, a figure from Roman and Greek mythology. Marsyas was a satyr, male companions of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (Roman: Bacchus). Among other things they were associated with playing the aulos, an ancient type of wind instrument. In this Roman statue, Marsyas is portrayed making the fateful decision to pick up the pipes that had been invented and discarded by the goddess Athena. Later, he accepted a musical challenge against Apollo’s lyre (a small harp-like instrument). Unfortunately for Marsyas, he lost, and suffered a grisly demise for daring to challenge a god!
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#Roman #statue #Greek #sculpture #mythology We’re highlighting some of our favourite photos taken by visitors. Don’t forget to share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum. Here’s a great shot of the Discobolus – that means ‘discus thrower’ – by @everyjoon. The photo captures the majestic scale of the athlete, and his dynamic pose. Sculpted during the 2nd century AD in Roman Italy, the statue is in fact a copy of a Greek bronze original, made around 700 years earlier. It was found in Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, near Rome. Among other things, it is famous for having a head that doesn’t belong to the original body. The head is very close in age and style, and uses marble that is exceptionally well-matched to the torso, but it has been attached at the wrong angle! Complete statues from the time reveal the head to be turned to look towards the discus, rather than the floor.
#Discobolus #sculpture #Roman #Greek #statue #discus
%d bloggers like this: