This week, the 1.5 millionth discovery made by the public has been recorded on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database. The PAS scheme, which was launched in 1997, records archaeological finds discovered in England and Wales by members of the public. Since then, colleagues from the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales – have managed the programme, working with 40 regional Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) to identify and record the finds, from arrowheads and axes to brooches and buckles.
The discoveries have shaped our understanding of the archaeology of Britain, and represent human existence on the British Isles from the Palaeolithic, with 700,000-year-old worked flints, through to 20th-century militia badges. They range in size from vast coin hoards – the largest being the Frome Hoard with 52,000 coins – to one-off finds like the Ringlemere Cup, which you can read about below.
To celebrate the milestone of 1.5 million finds, we’ve compiled a top ten list of discoveries which have most transformed our knowledge of the past.
1. The Ringlemere Cup
We’re starting the list with a trip back to Bronze Age Kent, and shining a light on the dazzling Ringlemere Cup which was discovered on 4 November 2001. This golden vessel was made between 1700–1500 BC, and was found by metal-detectorist Cliff Bradshaw in the fields of Ringlemere Farm in the south of England.
The cup is one of the oldest treasures ever discovered in Britain, and is incredibly important due to its age and rarity – only one other gold Bronze Age cup has been found in England. Although the vessel is now crumpled, probably as a result of a farmer’s plough, it has a rounded base which suggests it would have been held and passed around, perhaps like a modern communion cup.
2. Roman ‘grots’
Although individually they might not seem special, these Roman ‘grots’ – a term sometimes used to describe worn and corroded coins from this period – can be incredibly useful in telling us about where people lived, worked and travelled in Roman Britain.
Each emperor (and most usurpers) issued their own coinage, meaning we can trace the growth of Roman Britain from the invasion in AD 43 through to the collapse of the province by AD 409/410. Over 320,000 Roman coins have now been recorded on the PAS database, found all over England and Wales. They tell us that the rural landscape may have been more important to the Roman economy than we have previously imagined, acting as an important source of food for the Roman army.
3. Domitianus – the doubtful emperor
When a coin minted by the Roman emperor Domitianus was found in a French hoard in 1900, it was rejected as a hoax – nobody had ever head of a ‘Domitianus’ and there was no supporting evidence for his existence.
It wasn’t until 2003, when metal-detectorist Brian Malin found a jar containing 4,957 Roman coins including one bearing the portrait of the same Domitianus, that opinion began to change. Because of this discovery, we now know that Domitianus is likely to have been a very short-lived emperor in Gaul – he may have only ruled for a few days or weeks, but he made sure to mint a few coins in that time.
4. A souvenir from Hadrian’s wall
Beautifully decorated with colourful enamel circles, the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan is one of a group that were crafted to celebrate Hadrian’s Wall, usually as keepsakes for the soldiers who spent their time on this edge of the empire.
Inscribed around the rim are the names of the four forts on the western end of the Wall – a sequence which would have brought to mind endless marches along this route between the garrisons for the soldiers stationed there. One of them may have been Draco – the likely owner of this pan, whose name is inscribed on it.
5. The Staffordshire Hoard
Another transformative discovery to have come through the PAS is the Staffordshire Hoard, which shone new light on the early Anglo Saxon period.
In 2009, over four and a half thousand fragments of war gear and religious objects from the 7th century were discovered near the village of Hammerwich in the English Midlands, amounting to 4kg of gold and 1.5kg of silver. Both the size of the hoard and the exquisite craftmanship of some of the objects garnered significant public attention, turning the world’s gaze on the early Anglo Saxon period and raising new questions about the people who made and used these beautiful items.
6. Alfred the Great
The late 9th century in Britain was a time of turmoil, as Viking forces swept through the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia, before turning their attention on Wessex – the home of Alfred the Great.
The Watlington Hoard, containing Viking silver jewellery, ingots and coins, illuminates the political situation right after AD 878, when Alfred defeated the Vikings at the battle of Edington. In the hoard were rare silver pennies of Alfred the Great and the king of Mercia, Ceolwulf II, which were produced using the same design, suggesting economic co-operation between the two kingdoms in a time of great uncertainty.
The Watlington Hoard is on display at the Ashmolean Museum.
7. The Chew Valley Hoard
1066 – the year of the Norman Conquest – was the start of a period of huge instability in English history, as the country transitioned from Anglo Saxon to Norman rule.
The Chew Valley Hoard, found in 2019, was buried in the west of England during the early years of William the Conqueror’s rule, and its contents are divided between coins minted under Harold II – the last crowned Anglo Saxon king, and the first issue of coinage under William. The hoard has doubled the number of coins available to study for Harold, and increased by five times those for William, opening up new windows of discovery for the late 1060s.
8. From the Anglo Saxons to Afghanistan
The Vale of York Hoard is an astonishing record of Viking wealth, craftsmanship, and trade links – and it all fits into one little silver-gilt cup.
The hoard was found by father and son David and Andrew Whelan in 2007, and contains a remarkable range of objects. Deposited around AD 927, the cup itself is probably from a church in Carolingian France, and much of the jewellery within is Irish. Remarkably, the coins extend in origin from Anglo Saxon England to Afghanistan.
You’ll find objects from the Vale of York Hoard at Yorkshire Museum.
9. Pilgrim badges for Thomas Becket
Although pilgrim badges are not especially rare, this particular example, found on the banks of the River Thames in 2016, is surprisingly pristine considering it lay in the river mud for perhaps 700 years.
Made in the 14th or 15th century, it shows the assassination of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the hand of god descending on Becket at the moment of his martyrdom. Pilgrim badges like this one were hugely popular throughout the Middle Ages – they were used as proof of a pilgrimage, and many believed they turned into a lucky charm when they had touched a relic.
10. Richard III’s Bosworth boar
We know that King Richard III used the symbol of the boar as his emblem throughout his life – badges were made for his coronation and for the investiture of his son as the Prince of Wales, but this particular pig tells us more about his death.
Made of silver-gilt, this broken badge was found at the site of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard famously lost his life in the Wars of the Roses. It is likely to have been lost by a member of the king’s personal household, and its remarkable discovery has moved the epicentre of the battle about 3 kilometres from where it was previously thought.
All of these discoveries have been made by members of the public, who have recorded their finds through the PAS with the help of a network of 40 Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) who work as a team directed by the Museum, and are based locally at 100 national and local partners. We’d like to say thank you to everyone who has voluntarily come forward to record their discoveries so we can all learn more about our shared past. The PAS team are looking forward to even more finds being recorded – who knows what exciting discoveries are yet to be made!
If any of these discoveries have piqued your interest, all the information recorded on the PAS database is freely available to anyone, and is used by students, scholars, researchers and the public alike – you can start exploring here.
If you’re lucky enough to find something of archaeological interest buried in your garden, record any finds through your local Finds Liaison officer – the stories above show you never know what you might discover when doing some digging.