British Museum reveals bumper haul of treasures found by the public

British Museum reveals bumper haul of treasures found by the public thumbnail

Caroline Nunneley was mudlarking along the shore of the Thames in London – inching on her hands and knees while scanning the mud for archaeological finds – when she suddenly spotted a miniature human skull looking up at her.

She picked up the small, exquisitely carved object and showed it to a friend. “We turned it over and we went: ‘Whoa.’ Because we hadn’t realised that there was a face on the other side.”

What they had found was a late medieval rosary bead, dating back possibly as far as 1450, that had been carved from bone and, thanks to the anaerobic river mud, perfectly preserved for five centuries.

Its twin designs, of a female face – possibly the Virgin Mary – on one side and a skull on the other were intended as a “memento mori” to remind the wearer of his or her mortality.

“She’s just a woman reminding us that one day we were young and beautiful and full of life, and that we have to be aware that time is passing,” says Nunneley, who is from Brighton and has held a mudlarking licence – as required by the Port of London authority – for five years.

The bead is not the largest or most valuable but is certainly one of the more intriguing archaeological finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 2022, the results of which were revealed at the British Museum on Tuesday.

The scheme, which the museum administers in England, records significant finds made by members of the public.

A total of 53,490 finds were recorded in 2022, of which 1,378 met the legal definition of treasure – the highest number ever reported in a single year, most of them found by metal detectorists.

The counties of Lincolnshire (5,101), Norfolk (4,265) and Suffolk (2,727) yielded the most finds, though the richest pickings in terms of treasure came from Norfolk (95), Hampshire (83) and Kent (81).

Jonathan Needham’s archaeological bonanza came on New Year’s Day in 2022, when he was metal detecting with his best friend, Malcolm Baggaley, in a sodden ploughed field near Ellastone in Staffordshire, then walked back over a grassy area “just to clean our boots”.

A faint beep prompted them to dig deeply and Needham reached in, only to pull out a very rare, solid gold dress fastener dating to about 1000BC.

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A museum guest examines a 3,000-year-old gold dress fastener pulled from the soil by Jonathan Needham. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The distinctive, twin-cup design of the object made them wonder at first if it was a drawer handle.

“That’s when Malc said: ‘There’s only one thing what comes out the ground looking that gold, and that’s gold,’” says Needham. They posted a picture on an archaeology Facebook page and were flooded with excited replies. “That’s when we panicked. It was like: ‘Oh, this is important.’ We didn’t realise how important it was.”

The Irish-made iron age fastener is one of only seven examples discovered in England and Wales, and one of the best preserved.

Treasure finds like the fastener are independently valued and may be acquired by a museum; the proceeds are typically split between finder and landowner. The money is not what is important, says Needham, though he admits there has been talk of a Caribbean holiday.

“It means so much to us [as detectorists]. It’s something what you never ever think is going to happen to you in your wildest dreams. It is not even one in a million, it’s a one in a billion chance to find something like that.”