BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 17:23 GMT, Friday, 25 September 2009 18:23 UK

What happens to a hoard of old gold?

The Magazine answers...

The Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold is being described as the most significant find in many years, but just what happens next?

Long queues are snaking around the block at a Birmingham museum where the items are now on view. But after the initial excitement dies down, what exactly will happen to the hundreds of pieces?

Anglo-Saxon warrior graphic
Collection must be valued before museums bid for it
Items cleaned before further study
But some analysis will already be going on

While much of the mud has been brushed off the 1,381 items, a proper investigation into the find will have to wait until a series of important procedures is completed.

First of all, its value must be established. The items found by a man searching a field near his home with a metal detector are classified as "treasure".

This means the bagged-up items will be taken to London where the Treasure Valuation Committee will sit down to work out how much they're worth.

The committee is made up of museum curators and representatives from the antiquities trade under the chairmanship of an expert barrister.

Dr Kevin Leahy, a national finds adviser and expert in early medieval metalwork and Saxon crafts, has logged every item in the collection.

"The idea is to make the committee's decision as transparent as possible. They will study the evidence before them and make a decision there and then," he says. "It's impossible to say what it's worth as it's unique."

Duncan Slarke, Portable Antiquities: ''It is a hugely important find''

But whatever the value is, it will be split 50/50 between the finder, Terry Herbert, and the landowner.

Then interested museums in the UK will be invited to bid for the collection. It's likely to be shared out between a number in Staffordshire who are keen to keep the find in the area.

After ownership of the hoard has been established, the real work on cleaning and preparing the individual items for further study can start.

This is not as simple as washing away mud and grime, Dr Leahy warns.

"Conservation cleaning is expensive and the costs can be massive and should not be undertaken lightly. You have to be pretty careful. Some of the objects appear to have missing pieces, but these pieces might be found in the mud that's clogged holes and openings."

While the cleaning might take some time, analysis of the find can begin straight away.

"Even in their unclean condition, it's already available to scholars," says Dr Leahy.

An X-ray of part of the Staffordshire Hoard
X-rays reveal hidden details

Detailed pictures of many of the items are already up on the Staffordshire Hoard website, allowing scholars and the public to view the items.

"It's not our intent to write the definitive report. Let the whole world work on it."

Such an approach is unprecedented, believes Dr Leahy. "In the past, finds such as these might have been the exclusive study of a handful of experts and the results of their research not known for decades."

Not any more. Anyone can post comments about the items and share knowledge about the period and the hoard.

The find was unearthed only 11 weeks ago, so the speed in which the collection has been processed to this level has set a "hair-singeing record", the Saxon expert says.

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A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

As for the more detailed study, modern techniques enable extraordinary detail to be discovered.

Bombarding tiny specks of material with X-rays, in a process known as X-ray fluorescence, allows the exact chemical make-up of each item to be established.

Archaeologists can then work out the materials used, where it came from and even determine if different fragments come from a single piece that has broken up in the ground.

Further detail can be revealed using an electron microscope. This can throw up so-called workshop traits, the idiosyncratic signature of a particular craftsman or workshop. And this might show if the items were made in one part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and moved to another.

A crowd gather round some items
Interest is high

Such is the scale of the find, Anglo-Saxon scholars believe it will force a rethink on the period. The find is believed to date from somewhere between the late 6th and late 7th Century.

At the time, Staffordshire was the heartland of the Kingdom of Mercia, which was militarily aggressive and expansionist under the kings Penda, Wulfhere, and Aethelred.

However, Dr Leahy says it will not overshadow the other great finds of the period, such as that at Sutton Hoo, a series of burial mounds discovered 70 years ago in Suffolk.

"I believe this find can only enhance our understanding of the finds at Sutton Hoo and elsewhere. This will not subtract from our understanding but add to it."

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