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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