The Curse of the Buried Treasure

Two metal-detector enthusiasts discovered a Viking hoard. It was worth a fortune—but it became a nightmare.

Leominster, in the West Midlands area of England, is an ancient market town where the past and the present are jumbled together like coins in a change purse. Shops housed in half-timbered sixteenth-century Tudor buildings face the main square, offering cream teas and antiques. The town’s most lurid attraction is a well-preserved ducking stool, a mode of punishment in which an offender was strapped to a seat and dunked into a pond or a river while neighbors jeered; the device, last employed in 1809, is now on incongruous display inside the Priory Church, which dates to the thirteenth century. Christianity has even older roots in Leominster: a monastery was established around 660 by a recent convert, the Saxon leader Merewalh, who is thought to have been a son of Penda, the King of Mercia. For much of the early Middle Ages, Mercia was the most powerful of the four main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the others being Wessex, East Anglia, and Northumberland. In the tenth century, these realms were unified to become the Kingdom of England. Although the region surrounding Leominster (pronounced “Lemster”) is no longer officially known as Mercia, this legacy is preserved in the name of the local constabulary: the West Mercia Police.

On June 2, 2015, two metal-detector hobbyists aware of the area’s heritage, George Powell and Layton Davies, drove ninety minutes north of their homes, in South Wales, to the hamlet of Eye, about four miles outside Leominster. The farmland there is picturesque: narrow, hedgerow-lined lanes wend among pastures dotted with spreading trees and undulating crop fields. Anyone fascinated by the layered accretions of British history—or eager to learn what might be buried within those layers—would find it an attractive spot. English place-names, most of which date back to Anglo-Saxon times, are often repositories of meaning: the name Eye, for example, derives from Old English, and translates as “dry ground in a marsh.” Just outside the hamlet was a rise in the landscape, identified on maps by the tantalizing appellation of King’s Hall Hill.

Powell, a warehouse worker in his early thirties, and Davies, a school custodian a dozen years older, were experienced “detectorists.” There are approximately twenty thousand such enthusiasts in England and Wales, and usually they find only mundane detritus: a corroded button that popped off a jacket in the eighteen-hundreds, a bolt that fell off a tractor a dozen years ago. But some detectorists make discoveries that are immensely valuable, both to collectors of antiquities and to historians, for whom a single buried coin can help illuminate the past. Scanning the environs of King’s Hall Hill, the men suddenly picked up a signal on their devices. They dug into the red-brown soil, and three feet down they started to uncover a thrilling cache of objects: a gold arm bangle in the shape of a snake consuming its own tail; a pendant made from a crystal sphere banded by delicately wrought gold; a gold ring patterned with octagonal facets; a silver ingot measuring close to three inches in length; and, stuck together in a solid clod of earth, what appeared to be hundreds of fragile silver coins.

The find had all the hallmarks of a hoard—the term used by archeologists to characterize a collection of valuable objects that was deliberately buried or hidden, usually with the idea that it would later be retrieved. The Vikings, whose name means “raiders,” began making plundering incursions into Anglo-Saxon Britain from Scandinavia in the second half of the eighth century. Although the Vikings did not use coins as a form of currency, they had a bullion economy—the trading of metals, based on weight and purity—and appreciated coins as portable forms of wealth. They coveted silver, which was not mined in their own lands; gold was even more prized. To obtain these precious metals, the Vikings stole or requisitioned the contents of Anglo-Saxon monastery vaults, which often included finely worked silver or gold, and chopped them into pieces, for purposes of trade—archeologists call such fragments hacksilver or hackgold—or melted them into ingots, for ease of weighing. A Viking hoard typically contains these forms of metal, and also coins minted by the Anglo-Saxon kings whose lands they had invaded.

Powell and Davies snapped a few photographs while their discovery was still embedded in the soil, then took more pictures after removing some of the dirt and laying the treasures out on a white plastic shopping bag. They also took photographs of the field where they’d made the find, so that they could locate the spot on a return visit.

Such technology would have been extremely useful to the Viking warrior from Denmark who, more than a thousand years earlier, had buried the valuables, probably to protect them from theft. That anonymous invader, who would have been gathering spoils as a member of the Great Army, which progressed through the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 860s and 870s, would have had to make do with rudimentary reminders of where he’d hidden the stash: twenty paces to the left of that footpath, halfway between those two trees. Historians of England contend that the difficulty of accounting for where, exactly, something important has been buried is one reason that Viking hoards and Roman caches of silver denarii are still there for the finding—or, for that matter, for the stealing.

Gareth Williams, the curator of early-medieval coinage and Viking collections at the British Museum, became entranced by the Norse world as a small child, while paging through a library book. His grandmother, encouraging his passion, made him a helmet and a shield out of cardboard. He went on to study medieval history at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, where he completed his Ph.D., and then joined the British Museum. Williams, who has a well-developed salt-and-pepper beard and a lively manner, still needs little persuading to dress up like a Viking; he makes educational videos for schoolchildren in which he wears a belted jerkin and a helmet made from leather boiled in beeswax.

In the summer of 2015, he was approached by a contact in the coin trade. As Williams told me recently, the contact informed him that several pieces of what appeared to be a Viking hoard were being offered to dealers. Some of the coins were Two Emperors, a type so rare that numismatists knew of only two extant examples: one was discovered in 1840, the other in 1950. A Two Emperor coin had never appeared on the open market, and a single one was valued at a hundred thousand dollars. A hoard with a substantial number of rare coins could be worth more than ten million dollars. The fact that individual coins were being offered to dealers suggested that the hoard was in danger of being broken up and vanishing onto the black market. According to Williams, the contact told him that he hadn’t personally seen the coins but “understood immediately from the description that this must be undeclared treasure.”

The word “treasure” conjures everything from a religious relic to a pirate chest spilling over with booty. But in British law the term has a specific meaning: the Treasure Act of 1996 defines a treasure as any object that is more than three hundred years old and at least ten per cent gold or silver. Because finds of single coins are quite common, they are exempted from this rule, no matter their metallic content or rarity, but a find of two or more coins in the same place—and certainly of a hoard—qualifies as treasure, and the finder is legally obliged to report the discovery to local authorities.

The Treasure Act was passed, in large part, because metal detecting had become such a popular activity. During the Second World War, the technology was used to help sappers find buried mines, but by the nineteen-seventies detectors had become consumer products that were relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Hobbyists began spending their Sundays scanning beaches, parks, and archeological sites. Scholars warned that treasure hunters were vandalizing history, seizing finds as trophies and subverting the possibility of archeological interpretation by destroying the context of their discoveries. Detectorists resented the stigmatizing of their hobby: many of them are amateur history buffs who eagerly take their finds to local museums. As with so many aspects of English life, the conflict was inflected with class antagonism; working-class hobbyists often felt that they were being maligned by a professional élite.

In 1983, two detectorists in Surrey found a number of coins at the site of a Romano-British temple in the village of Wanborough. They informed local curators, but before the site could be properly excavated illicit treasure hunters, known as nighthawks, descended. As many as forty of them scanned the site by moonlight, plundering antiquities and selling them for profit; some dealers bought objects straight out of the ground. The looting of Wanborough helped usher in the Treasure Act. It replaced ancient common law holding that, when the owner of a buried treasure could not be identified, it became the property of the Crown. Under the terms of the current law, treasure still belongs legally to the Crown, but in practice it often ends up in a museum. (In the U.S., comparable laws vary from state to state, but most of them stipulate that someone who finds an object of value or a stash of money is entitled to keep it if the owner cannot be located.)

The Treasure Act provides an incentive for detectorists to declare their discoveries by establishing the right to a reward for the finder, who typically receives half the market value; the other half goes to the landowner. Some forty Finds Liaison Officers across the U.K. urge detectorists to report not just discoveries of gold and silver but also those of more humble metals, which can help explain the daily lives of earlier Britons: fallen brooch pins that might indicate the route of a Roman pathway; copper pennies dropped in a medieval marketplace.

Last year, detectorists in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were responsible for thirteen hundred treasure finds, far exceeding the number made by professional archeologists. The expansion of the pastime has been encouraged by a popular sitcom, “Detectorists”—created by and starring Mackenzie Crook, of the original version of “The Office”—about the quest of two amateurs to make a great discovery. (“It’s basically the Holy Grail of treasure hunting.” “Well, no, the Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of treasure hunting.”) The show’s representation of the detectorists is wistful; their search is not just for treasure but for companionship and masculine identity. The hobby is so predominantly male that the code of conduct of one large Facebook group reminds members that it is not a dating site, and advises, “Please do not contact the ladies you may fancy and send inappropriate proposals.”

“. . . and if you look off the left-hand side of the plane you’ll see the smoldering ruins of what’s left of our civilization . . .”

Detecting tends to be either a solitary pursuit or undertaken in trusted pairs, with a pact to share spoils. Practitioners establish personal territories, known as permissions, by developing relationships with farmers, whose freshly plowed fields can dislodge new finds. In 2001, a detectorist in Kent found a decorative gold cup dating to the Bronze Age, more than thirty-five hundred years ago; having been crushed by a modern plow, it had the shape of a deli coffee cup retrieved from a trash can. More recently, metal-detecting rallies, in which a farmer is paid to open up his land to possibly hundreds of detectorists, have become common, further dismaying archeologists. As participants fan out over a field in the military-style camouflage jackets and pants that many of them favor, they can look like a Great Army themselves, bearing spindly devices in place of weapons.

Sometimes a find transforms a hard-up hobbyist into a wealthy man. In 2009, Terry Herbert, who was unemployed and lived in public housing, and who had picked up a metal detector for a few pounds at a yard sale, scanned fields belonging to Fred Johnson, a farmer friend in the West Midlands, and discovered England’s largest-ever stash of Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork. Now known as the Staffordshire hoard, it includes gold and silver ornaments, among them decorative sword fittings. Buried in the seventh century, the collection was acquired by two institutions: the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Birmingham Museum. The hoard is valued at more than five million dollars.

Powell and Davies had a potential fortune on their hands, but they also had a problem. It is standard practice for detectorists to come to an agreement, preferably in writing, with a landowner whose fields they wish to scan, in order to avoid charges of trespassing or ownership disputes over finds. Terry Herbert and Fred Johnson fell out after the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard, with Herbert accusing Johnson of wanting to keep the reward money to himself. (The proceeds were split.)

Powell, who has a dark beard, an upturned nose, and extensive tattoos on his neck and knuckles, had obtained the permission of one resident in the Eye area, Yvonne Conod, to search a field of crops next to her farmhouse. In addition, he had a go-ahead from Conod’s son, Mark, who lived on a farm nearby and also maintained his mother’s field. But Mark, a tenant farmer, could not legally authorize a search of fields that he merely rented. Moreover, Powell and Davies had ventured beyond the Conods’ fields, and the hoard had been found on an adjoining property—that of Lord Cawley, the preëminent local landowner, who has a large dairy farm.

The Cawley family once occupied Berrington Hall, an elegant eighteenth-century mansion just east of Eye. In the nineteen-fifties, when the present Lord Cawley’s grandfather died, crippling estate taxes forced his widow, Lady Vivienne Cawley, to surrender the house to the Treasury, which subsequently donated it to the National Trust. A condition of the arrangement was that Lady Cawley, who was eighty years old when her husband died, could reside at the house for the rest of her life. No doubt to the stifled frustration of the National Trust, she lived for twenty more years, taking lunch every day in the opulent dining room, obliging restorers to stop their work while she did so. Berrington Hall, now open to the public, sits atop a hill with views of parkland laid out by the landscape designer Capability Brown, and picturesquely grazed by sheep. Beyond the manicured grounds lies Lord Cawley’s current property, including King’s Hall Hill and the adjoining King’s Hall Covert, a small copse that rings with the gunfire of local gentry during pheasant-shooting season.

After trespassing onto Lord Cawley’s land, Powell and Davies could have knocked on his door, baseball caps in hand, and made an excuse for having strayed—claiming, say, that they’d got turned around in the landscape—in the hope that, in light of their thrilling discovery, Lord Cawley would overlook a minor violation of protocol. Instead, they returned to South Wales, where Davies posted an image of three coins from the find on the online forum of a metal-detecting club. Gareth Williams, of the British Museum, told me, “The finders were stupidly indiscreet.”

It didn’t take long for word of the discovery to reach Peter Reavill, the Finds Liaison Officer for Herefordshire, the county that includes Eye. Reavill tries to cultivate good relationships with detectorists, often addressing meetings of local societies. Ian Richardson, the treasure registrar at the British Museum, told me, of one such gathering, in a pub, “He got this reception almost like a rock star—all these people rushed up to show him their latest finds.” Reavill didn’t learn much about what Davies had found—only that it was from the Saxon era. “I record thousands of objects a year, and of those maybe only twenty or thirty will be Saxon,” Reavill told me. In more than fifteen years on the job, he’d dealt with only one hoard of Saxon coins.

The typical museumgoer is most drawn to the helmets, swords, or jewels of the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons; for many people, the most compelling object in the British Museum’s early Middle Ages collection is the Sutton Hoo helmet, an ornate, full-face iron-and-bronze headpiece dating from the beginning of the seventh century. It is decorated with a nose, eyebrows, and a mustache, so that almost a millennium and a half later the glowering visage of its wearer—probably Raedwald, the King of East Anglia—outstares any viewer. But, for archeologists and historians, coins, whose detailed inscriptions allow for precise dating, and which are signed by their manufacturer, often provide more crucial insight about the shifting dynamics of power in proto-England.

The Two Emperor coins found in Eye featured a representation of two contemporary Anglo-Saxon kings—Ceolwulf II, of Mercia, and Alfred, of Wessex—sitting side by side. On the obverse of each coin was a stylized profile of either Alfred or Ceolwulf. King Alfred, known as Alfred the Great, took control of Mercia in the late ninth century—a victory recently dramatized in the Netflix series “The Last Kingdom.” He thereafter commissioned the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, annals that remain the principal source of information about early medieval England between the departure of the Romans, around 400, and the arrival of the Normans, in 1066. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ceolwulf II is briefly dismissed as anum unwisum cyninges þegne—a foolish king’s servant—who collaborated with the Viking invaders. The discovery that Alfred and Ceolwulf minted coins in the same style offered surprising evidence of an alliance between them—one that Alfred had sought to whitewash in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As Williams, the British Museum curator, explained to me, “It’s like Stalin airbrushing Trotsky out.”

Reavill obtained the e-mail addresses of Powell and Davies from a detectorist society, and wrote to them on July 6th, a month or so after their adventure. If they’d made an interesting find, he reminded them, they had a legal obligation to report it. Though the Treasure Act requires detectorists to contact the authorities within two weeks, it allows for a delay should the finder not recognize the value of an artifact (or claim not to). Administrators are sympathetic with detectorists who are reluctant to surrender exciting discoveries, sometimes for reasons more emotional than monetary. Ian Richardson, the treasure registrar, told me, “Obviously, people make a personal attachment to an object.” The elasticity of the law’s deadline is intended to encourage compliance. Historically, even in cases where a finder mistakenly strayed onto territory where he lacked permission to search, the Treasure Valuation Committee, which decides the apportionment of a reward, has been forgiving, with the finder dividing the prize equally with the landowner. Davies, in particular, might have been expected to respond to Reavill’s prompt: over the years, he had brought more than a hundred detecting discoveries to his local Finds Liaison Officer, Mark Lodwick, an archeologist at the Museum of Wales, in Cardiff, who regarded him as a responsible detectorist. But Reavill didn’t hear back from Davies and received only an affronted e-mail from Powell—who claimed that he didn’t know what Reavill was talking about, and warned, “I won’t tolerate any slander.”

In fact, the coins were already being quietly sold off. Two days after making the find, Powell and Davies met with an acquaintance named Paul Wells, a retired builder from Cardiff who traded coins. Wells had asked a friend with whom he sometimes did business, Jason Sallam, to join them, and the four men met at the café of an antiques market in a repurposed Victorian municipal building in Cardiff. Powell and Davies took about a dozen coins from their pockets and explained that they had found perhaps two or three hundred more—though it was hard to tell how many, because they remained clumped together in the exhumed earth. Wells was astonished by the coins. “It was as if they had been put in the ground on the day they were minted,” he later said. “They had never been used to buy a loaf or a pint of beer.” When Powell brought out the gold jewelry, which he’d wrapped in tissue paper, “my eyes nearly fell out of my head,” Wells said. Powell became so excitably loud that Wells told him, “Shut the fuck up, and go out and have a fag!”

Sallam, who owns Antiques at the Green, a shop in the harborside Welsh town of Tenby, told the detectorists that they had to report their find to the authorities, but he agreed to take the items to be seen by a more knowledgeable numismatic colleague, Lloyd Bennett. A few days later, Sallam went to Bennett’s home, in Monmouth, for a consultation. Bennett, pointing out the pair of kings depicted on the coins, identified them as dating from the late ninth century, and said that they were in very good condition. He then told Sallam that he didn’t want to see any more of the hoard, and that the detectorists needed to declare it as treasure as soon as possible. “Everything here needs to be in a museum,” Bennett warned. Sallam returned the coins to Wells and repeated Bennett’s injunction, adding, “Get in touch with these boys. It needs to be declared. Tell them, ‘Don’t fuck around.’ ”

But Powell and Davies didn’t contact the authorities, and nine days after the discovery Powell travelled to a gas station on the M4 motorway, which connects South Wales with London, and met with Simon Wicks, a coin trader and a detectorist from Sussex. Wicks has a blighted reputation, having been convicted in 2014 of nighthawking. “He is, without question, not a dealer,” Chris Martin, the chairman of the British Numismatic Trade Association, told me. “He’s a vest-pocket person who happens to buy things from people, but doesn’t really know what he’s buying, and doesn’t really care what he’s buying. He could be buying coins today, motorbikes tomorrow, and old military-cap badges the next day.”

On June 18th, Wicks went to London and took seven of the coins to Dix Noonan Webb, a blue-chip auction house in the Mayfair area. James Brown, a coin cataloguer there, later said, “One coin like that would be an incredibly lucky find. To have seven offered at one time is really unusual.” It was obvious to him that he was examining objects from a hoard: such items are exposed to the same soil composition, and all seven coins featured rusty-brown staining. Hoard coins often bear a half-moon imprint indicating where one coin has overlain another. Those in the middle of a cache can be in almost pristine condition, having been protected from soil exposure by surrounding coins. Brown told Wicks that he could not give a valuation on the spot, and he retained the objects in a safe on the Dix Noonan Webb premises. Later, Brown estimated that the consignment of seven coins was worth nearly four hundred thousand dollars.

Powell and Davies did make one gesture toward legitimacy after receiving Peter Reavill’s e-mail. Two days later, on July 8th, they went to the Museum of Wales to meet with Mark Lodwick, the Finds Liaison Officer with whom Davies had often dealt. Usually, Davies was chatty, but Lodwick noted that on this occasion he seemed anxious. Powell did most of the talking, and at one point produced a plastic takeout container. Inside, wrapped in paper towels, were the three items of gold jewelry: the bangle and the faceted ring, both later confirmed to be from the ninth century, and the crystal orb, which is from the fifth or sixth century. Powell seemed ignorant of the objects’ provenances. Lodwick printed a map of the area where Powell said that the items had been found, and the detectorists marked several spots on it, claiming that the jewelry had been buried under a tree. When Lodwick later checked the area on Google Earth, there were no trees to be seen.

“Let’s have a drink from the toilet, sniff around a little, and then leave.”

At the end of the meeting, Powell and Davies showed Lodwick two silver Saxon coins, of a style known to collectors as cross and lozenge. The pair was worth perhaps forty thousand dollars. Although the surface tint of the coins suggested to Lodwick that they had been buried together, the detectorists insisted that they had found one coin each, in separate fields, thereby obviating any need to declare them as treasure.

The next day, Powell returned to the Leominster area and visited the home of Mark Conod, the tenant farmer, excitedly recounting to him and his wife, Amanda, that on a recent scan of their property he had found some jewelry, which was now at a museum. He showed them photographs and said, “There might be money in this.” They all went outside, and, from a distance, Powell pointed to indicate that he’d discovered the items at the top of the field belonging to Conod’s mother, Yvonne.

That July, Reavill alerted the West Mercia Police to the possibility of a heritage crime, and, because of the potential multimillion-dollar value of the alleged find, an investigation was launched. Around this time, Simon Wicks, the coin dealer, returned to Dix Noonan Webb with nine equally remarkable coins, which the auction house also took into its custodianship. All the coins were soon turned over to the police.

The next month, the British Numismatic Trade Association issued an unusual warning to its members, stating that coins believed to be from an undeclared hoard were sneaking onto the market, and that buying any of them would violate the Treasure Act. On August 18, 2015, a little more than two months after their trip to Leominster, Powell and Davies were arrested. Powell warned the police, “I ain’t gonna make it easy.”

It’s impossible to measure how much of a role the black market plays in archeological finds made by detectorists, but it isn’t hard to turn up dealers who promise discretion. Nor is there any shortage of collectors who, in their eagerness to create a set of coins, may be willing to overlook a sketchy provenance or two. Coins are simple to move around, including overseas, and the fact that the Treasure Act permits the retention of single-coin finds means that a cunning detectorist, over a period of time, might sell a number of valuable coins one by one, without drawing undue attention. But such an approach is not foolproof. In 2017, a detectorist from Norfolk, David Cockle, was sentenced to a sixteen-month prison term for theft, after selling off a hoard of ten extremely rare Anglo-Saxon gold coins, having previously declared them as individual finds from various sites around the U.K. Cockle happened to be a police officer, a circumstance that likely added to the vigor with which his case was pursued. Prosecutions of rogue detectorists are uncommon, as criminal-investigation departments contending with cases of rape, murder, and armed robbery are disinclined to dedicate their limited resources to the disappearance of objects whose original owner might have been dead for more than a millennium.

Powell told the police that he was a longtime hobbyist, having started metal detecting with his father. He insisted that the gold he had handed in to Mark Lodwick at the Museum of Wales came from lands occupied by the Conods, from whom he had permission to detect, although he acknowledged that he had not sought permission from the Cawleys—“Lord and Lady of the Manor,” as he characterized them. Powell denied all knowledge of a hoard of coins. “They are telling people I found three hundred coins,” he said. “Why would I hand in the gold and keep the coins?”

The homes of Powell and Davies were searched. Both had display cases containing finds, but there were no valuable objects inside. “They didn’t have the silver coins, and things like that, that you’d expect from detectorists who went out on a regular basis,” Reavill told me. There was certainly no sign of a large cache of Anglo-Saxon silver.

Davies gave the police an account in line with Powell’s: the pair had recently found just the three pieces of Saxon gold and a couple of stray coins—all of which they had declared to Lodwick. When asked about the café meeting with Paul Wells and Jason Sallam, Davies claimed that he and Powell had been lying when they’d said that the coins were from a large hoard: Powell had actually owned the coins presented at the café for years, and the hoard story had been concocted merely to help him “get rid” of them.

A few weeks later, Gareth Thomas, an officer with the West Mercia Police, visited Wells at home and discussed the encounter at the café. Wells insisted that he, Sallam, and Davies had agreed that the coins needed to be declared, but that Powell had other ideas. “George Powell was in it for the money—that was obvious,” Wells said. He also revealed that, some days after the café meeting, Davies had asked him to retain five of the coins for safekeeping. Wells then showed the officer a leather case for a magnifying glass. On one side, the stitching had been unpicked then glued back together: it was a secret compartment. Wells opened it up, and all five silver coins slipped out. The police officer called his supervisor to ask what he should do. Arrest him, the supervisor replied. “I knew it would come to this,” Wells said, as he was taken to the station.

Late that summer, Tim Hoverd, the archeology-projects manager for the Herefordshire Council, was dispatched to Eye to survey the territory. If, as Powell and Davies claimed, the items had been scattered at different locations, that might mean the presence of a significant new site: a Saxon cemetery, religious settlement, or royal palace. But seasonal changes made clues hard to come by. “By the time we got there, most of the area was covered with maize, which grows damn fast,” Hoverd told me recently. “It was way over my head. And how do you find holes people have dug two or three months before when you can’t actually see the ground?” Hoverd and his colleagues paced the fields, dug multiple test pits, and conducted an aerial survey by drone. “It quickly became apparent that there were no formal structures—no royal burials—that this material could have come from,” he told me.

Powell and Davies hadn’t yet been charged with crimes, but the case against them grew considerably stronger in 2016, when a forensic examination of their mobile phones revealed deleted photographs of glimmering objects being extracted from the ground. In addition to the jewelry, there were hundreds of coins. In Davies’s original interview with police, he had asserted that he hadn’t taken his phone with him to Herefordshire. After being confronted with the photographs, he declined to comment.

When Hoverd examined the deleted images, he immediately keyed into two snapshots of the landscape. “They were designed to fit together,” Hoverd said. “I went back to the field with copies of the photographs and stood where they must have stood to take them.” The hoard’s location had been found—and it was decisively within the borders of Lord Cawley’s property. Nevertheless, apart from the two dozen coins recovered during the police inquiry, any larger hoard had disappeared.

In October, 2019, Powell and Davies stood trial in Worcester, a city about an hour east of Leominster. They had been charged with theft and with conspiracy to conceal and convert criminal property. Wicks, the shady coin dealer, was charged with concealing and converting criminal property, and Wells, the retired builder, was charged with concealment. All four denied the charges. “This case, in two words, is about buried treasure,” Kevin Hegarty, the prosecutor, said in his opening remarks.

The trial, which lasted for two months, offered the jury and others present in the courtroom an extended seminar in numismatics and in Viking history. Gareth Williams, the coin specialist at the British Museum, declared on the stand that the hoard had almost certainly been deposited sometime between the summer of 878 and the autumn of 879, when the Great Army fled northward from Wessex after Alfred the Great’s victory over Guthrum, the king of the Vikings, at the Battle of Edington, in what is now Wiltshire. This battle, Williams explained, laid the groundwork for the establishment of England as a unified country by Alfred’s grandson King Athelstan, in 927. Williams explained to me that while the Vikings were on the move “they would seize somewhere, normally either a royal estate or monastery, and stay there for the next few months, eating the food that someone’s gone to all the trouble of gathering together.” Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention Leominster, its monastery likely offered sustenance for a band of Viking fighters during that winter, before they moved on to settle in East Anglia. The coins told the story.

The detectorists, however, offered a different tale: there had never been a hoard of coins. Davies testified that their only finds in Eye had been the gold jewelry and a few coins, and that the dozen coins they had taken to the café came from Powell’s own collection. Powell did not testify, but he appeared surprisingly confident as he arrived in court each day, chatting with security guards as he passed through the metal detectors. Hegarty, the prosecutor, told me that Powell was clearly the ringleader of the four men, and “saw himself as a bit of a character.”

When Davies was asked to explain the images recovered from his phone, he offered a new twist to his story: the image showing a large cache of coins in the ground was actually a staged photo. “George had the coins in his rucksack, and he said he wanted to get some provenance on them,” Davies told the court. “He put some coins in the ground, to make it look as if they were found there.” Davies claimed that he hadn’t been happy with the idea but had gone along with it. When Hegarty asked him what Powell’s motivation for staging such a find might be, Davies said only that Powell wanted to “show off.” (Hegarty told me, dryly, “He was never able to explain why you would come all the way from Cardiff to a piece of land in Herefordshire to dig a hole, and put things in it, and cover them up, and dig it up again.”)

Simon Wicks and Paul Wells also denied any wrongdoing. Wells, who was charged with the lesser offense of concealing the five coins in his possession, explained that he hadn’t sought to hide the coins inside the magnifying-glass case—he’d just wanted to protect them. Some of his testimony must have displeased Davies and Powell. Wells insisted that he had urged both men to declare the coins. After the café meeting, Wells said, he had spoken with Davies, who, indicating that there might be a problem with the landowner, told him, “I’m either going to be very rich or spend a long time in jail.”

“Damn! We missed the fall-foliage display.”

A turning point in the trial occurred after Gareth Williams, the British Museum numismatist, explained that Anglo-Saxon coins were struck by hand, with a hammer on a die, and fashioned by a named moneyer—Torhtmund, say, or Hygered. As a result, such coins all have minute variations that an expert eye can identify. A photograph recovered from Powell’s phone showed a Two Emperor coin lying in what a fingerprint expert confirmed was Powell’s palm, taken the day after Powell and Davies had made the find. Hegarty told me, “Williams was able to look at the Two Emperor in the photograph and say, ‘No, that is not one of the coins that has been recovered.’ So that proved beyond any doubt that there were more coins.” The recovered coins were too fragile to bring to the courtroom—most were less than a millimetre thick. So Hegarty showed the jury slides of the coins. “They were really beautiful,” he recalls. The Anglo-Saxon kings looked almost Cubist: Alfred the Great with a large nose and deep-set eyes, Ceolwulf II long-chinned and grimacing. Hegarty told me, “When you realize that this is something that was handmade twelve hundred years ago, you gasp.”

The jury deliberated for two days. On November 22, 2019, the four men were found guilty on all counts. The judge, Nicholas Cartwright, was severe in his sentencing. Powell received ten years in prison, Davies eight and a half, Wicks five. Wells avoided prison time but was given a suspended sentence of twelve months. (Hegarty said, “The jury was quite satisfied that he had tried to conceal the coins, because, literally, he had concealed them.”) Cartwright scathingly declared that the two detectorists had been recklessly motivated by greed. If they had only obtained the required permissions and reported the find to the authorities, they would have been richly rewarded. He told Powell and Davies, “You could have expected to have either a half share—or, at worst, a third share—of over three million pounds to share between you. You could not have done worse than half a million pounds each. But you wanted more.”

Not only had Powell and Davies stolen the hoard—the value of which, intact, might have been anywhere between four million and fifteen million dollars—from Lord Cawley, the judge went on; they had cheated the public of its heritage, and deprived residents of Herefordshire of the illumination the find might have offered about the Kingdom of Mercia in the ninth century. Another constituency damaged by the plundering was the metal-detecting community, where news of the conviction was welcomed on online message boards. “I hope the law starts to come down heavily on these lowlifes,” one contributor posted. The hobby’s reputation had been severely tainted, and landowners would reconsider granting permissions. “They’ve spoiled it for the large percentage of genuine detectorists,” another contributor posted. “They’ll think we’re all a bunch of crooks.” At the close of the trial, James Tucker, the barrister for George Powell, said, of his client, “It is clear, from his point of view, he wishes he had never found the treasure. It became a temptation—and, for him, a curse.”

The spot where the Viking buried the hoard, according to Tim Hoverd’s expert analysis, is in the corner of a field just north of King’s Hall Covert, the copse where pheasants are hunted. A spring flows nearby, leaving the soil often sodden. Aerial photographs and topographical analysis indicate that this was once a crossroads: one track connected two local hamlets, Moreton and Orleton; another, which fell out of use two hundred years ago, descended from King’s Hall Hill to the hamlet of Ashton. It’s impossible to know for certain whether Anglo-Saxons and Vikings trod these paths, but it’s reasonable to conclude that they were established thoroughfares for centuries, and that their intersection provided a landmark for anyone with something to hide.

In an almost unbelievable coincidence, a similar Viking hoard was found in October, 2015, just four months after Davies and Powell made their discovery in Leominster. A detectorist named James Mather was scanning a field in Watlington, in Oxfordshire, when he came across what turned out to be hundreds of coins, and also ingots and jewelry. Mather followed protocol to the letter, informing the local Finds Liaison Officer as soon as he determined that there was something unusual in the ground, so that scholars could excavate the site. John Naylor, the National Finds Adviser for Early Medieval and Later Coinage at the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, told me that when he examined the Oxfordshire coins, a few days after their extraction, he was amazed to see several Two Emperor coins featuring the visages of King Alfred and Ceolwulf II. “It really reinforces the case that Ceolwulf was accepted by Wessex as the Mercian king,” he told me. Press accounts described the Watlington hoard as having rewritten British history. The Ashmolean, which acquired the hoard for $1.75 million, now has it on prominent display, with signs citing James Mather’s contribution to its recovery.

Three years ago, more than a thousand people in the Watlington area attended local events in which Ashmolean curators talked about the hoard. “That is the side that the public has really missed out on in Leominster,” Naylor said. “The interest and excitement have been taken away.” Despite the fact that the Leominster hoard was discovered first, the Watlington hoard has stolen its thunder, reducing it to a footnote in the ongoing reëvaluation of Anglo-Saxon political history. For the time being, the Leominster jewelry and several of the coins have been put on display at the British Museum, in a gallery featuring recent archeological finds; visitors have been able to see up close the chunky gold ring, the slender armband, and a handful of coins that look as thin and delicate as if they had been punched from sheet metal. The county museum in Hereford still hopes to acquire the Leominster hoard, but any display of it will inevitably be colored by the botched circumstances of its only partial recovery. Its main allure may be as a cautionary tale—of a heist gone awry.

The investigation into the missing coins continues. Last year, the Durham Constabulary reported that, in raids of several properties in the North of England, a silver ingot and a large number of Anglo-Saxon coins had been recovered, including some minted by Alfred the Great and Ceolwulf II. The objects were collectively valued at nearly seven hundred thousand dollars. No other details of the raids were offered, and the Durham Constabulary recently declined to comment on whether its find is connected to the Leominster cache. But several people with knowledge of the case told me that the coins are, indeed, believed to be part of the hoard—though likely just a fraction of it.

In late July, Powell, Davies, and Wicks successfully appealed the length of their sentences. Powell’s prison term was reduced from ten years to six and a half, Davies’s from eight and a half years to five, and Wicks’s from five years to three and a half. (Ordinarily, British prisoners become eligible for parole after serving half their sentence.) But the detectorists will soon face more legal troubles. Early next year, Powell and Davies are scheduled to appear at a “proceeds of crime” hearing, where they will be held liable for the value of the objects they are deemed to have stolen. At the end of the Worcester trial, Judge Cartwright said, “There are hidden assets, by way of unrecovered treasure, worth a very large sum—probably millions of pounds.” Should Powell and Davies be unable to restore the hoard to Lord Cawley or to repay him its equivalent value, they face the prospect of even longer prison terms.

Any observer trying to reconstruct what Powell and Davies did can make only informed guesses—piecing together the narrative like an archeologist deducing the past from scant clues. (Lawyers for Powell and Davies, citing the ongoing litigation, declined to comment for this article.) Gareth Williams told me that he thought the detectorists were “determined to be clever, and get one over on the system, and be greedy.” Tim Hoverd, the archeologist from the Herefordshire Council, theorized that the defendants may have already had a habit of selling finds on the black market, “but the amount that they found this time was far too large for them to cope with, and they panicked.” Kevin Hegarty, the prosecutor, suggested that, once Powell and Davies realized that they had failed to get Lord Cawley’s permission to scan on his land, they found it impossible to reverse course. Hegarty told me, “I think they had gone too far, and had dispersed quite a large number of coins, and had the money, and couldn’t get it back. It’s a bit like comedy, in a way, where a character tells a lie, and then has to tell another lie in consequence of that, and then he has to act out all the lies.”

The Vikings left no written explanation of why they buried hoards, but historians believe that these deposits were generally intended to be stored for brief periods. “The thinking is, probably, ‘We are going to be here for several months, and I don’t trust all the people I am with, so I am going to stick it in the ground for safety, and pick it up before we leave,’ ” Williams said. “And then either something happens to that individual, and he can’t come back, or he comes back later, and he can’t find it. Imagine using a tree as your spot for location, and then a big storm comes and blows the tree down, or some other Vikings come along and chop it up for firewood. It’s easy to imagine circumstances in which they couldn’t find what they buried.” This, too, is an unintentionally comic scenario: the Viking not as a ruthless marauder but as a hapless, unwis character wandering a foreign landscape, realizing with dawning dismay that his fortune has slipped through his hands.

Hoverd, who climbed King’s Hall Hill in the footsteps of whoever buried the treasure eleven hundred and forty-odd years ago, told me that he was attracted to an alternative explanation, which didn’t depend on the hoard’s owner having died unexpectedly, or having been unable to locate or return to the spot. He cited an Icelandic saga that describes the law-giving of Odin, the powerful Norse god who rules over Valhalla, the majestic hall that welcomes Viking warriors when they die. One of Odin’s laws states that whatever you put in the ground will return to you after death. Were these warriors actually burying things with no intention of returning for them—because, they thought, they would get them back in the afterlife?

It’s a tempting theory but a problematic one, as John Naylor, of the Ashmolean, explained to me. The text that mentions Odin’s law-giving, the Ynglinga Saga, wasn’t written until the thirteenth century, by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet and chieftain. Snorri, as he is known, might well have been committing to paper an oral tradition dating back centuries. But it’s also possible that Odin’s laws are an elegant fiction devised by High Medieval Scandinavians as a way to fill the holes in their understanding of their ancestors. The desire to arrange perplexing material evidence into a shapely story—a desire that motivates detectives, archeologists, historians, lawyers, and journalists—surely motivated ancient Norsemen, too.

The most plausible, if unsatisfying, resolution to the saga of Powell and Davies is that the hundreds of other coins in the hoard have been dispersed on the black market, never to be regathered. But it is possible to conceive of another narrative—one in which those hundreds of missing coins have not been lost after all but have, in effect, been reburied. In this version of the story, the coins remain concealed in a safe hiding place, in anticipation of Powell and Davies’s eventual release from prison. They have been stowed away, awaiting the finders’ return to the Valhalla of ordinary life.

If the Viking treasure has been rehidden, it will be a very long time until it can be recovered yet again. Tim Hoverd, the archeologist, told me, “You can’t do anything with it at the moment. Everyone will know where it came from.” Given the coins’ dramatic discovery and disappearance, their reëmergence would immediately attract the attention of watchful authorities. In monetary terms, at least, the Leominster hoard has gone from being worth millions to being worth nothing. To Kevin Hegarty, the prosecutor, there was one obvious conclusion: “If you are sitting on these coins, you may as well put them back into the ground.”

All Rights Reserved for Rebecca Mead

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