Today, the Mildenhall Treasure takes pride of place in the Romano-British galleries of the British Museum. The 34 pieces of exquisitely-worked silver, one of the most important finds of late Roman silver to have survived from anywhere in the empire, have been a major attraction ever since they first went on display in 1946.
Before that, they spent the war years perched on a sideboard in rural Suffolk.
The Discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure
It was on a bitingly cold, snowy day in January 1942 that farmer Gordon Butcher set out to plough some land belonging to landowner Fred Rolfe near Mildenhall. Butcher’s work came to an abrupt halt when his plough encountered a substantial obstacle, which was not an unusual occurrence.
Only this time, his tractor had not stumbled upon a tree root. Suspecting he had found something unusual, Butcher called on his boss Sydney Ford for help and together the two men retrieved the blackened, dirt-encrusted items.
In his short story about the find, ‘The Mildenhall Treasure,’ writer Roald Dahl imagines the scene:
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Ford gathered the top of the sack in his hands, then bent down and picked up the large plate. He checked, stood up again, and holding the sack in his hands, looking to one side, he said, ‘Well, Gordon, I don’t suppose you want any of this old stuff.’
‘I don’t suppose you’d mind if I took it along home. You know I’m sort of interested in old stuff like this.’
Gordon Butcher’s blue-white face turned slowly towards the bulging sack.
‘Of course,’ he said very quietly. ‘You take ‘em along, Mr Ford.’
So Ford took the pieces home and spent much of the war cleaning them up, although it is doubtful his methods would have met with the approval of modern conservators. His grandson later recalled the Great Dish being used at Christmas as a fruit bowl.
Shortly after the war, amateur antiquarian Dr Hugh Fawcett heard that Sydney Ford was the man to see about antiquities in the Suffolk area, and paid him a visit. Fawcett quickly recognised the significance of the Mildenhall finds, and persuaded Ford to send some of them to the British Museum for analysis.
The Law of Treasure Trove
Under the ancient law of Treasure Trove, any items of gold or silver found in the British Isles for which no original owner could be traced belonged to the Crown. This required the reporting of finds of gold and silver.
Ford always maintained he thought the find was made of pewter, and therefore did not require reporting. He was not happy with the outcome of the museum analysis, as a letter to Dr Fawcett made clear:
Dear Dr Fawcett, I reported the find to the police at Mildenhall on the 21st, and they promptly came along and pinched the lot.
At the inquest, the coroner decided Ford and Butcher should receive £1,000 each, substantially less than the find was worth, as they made an attempt to conceal the discovery.
The Mildenhall Treasure
Whatever the circumstances of its discovery, the Mildenhall Treasure is undoubtedly a spectacular find, ranking with the best finds of late Roman silver from across the empire.
The designs are primarily classical, exemplified by the Great Dish, which depicts the head of Oceanus, with dolphins in his hair and a beard formed of seaweed. Two friezes surround him, the outermost showing a drinking contest between Heracles and the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. Bacchic themes were popular on silver tableware throughout the Roman period.
There are some Christian elements in the treasure, namely the Chi-Rho symbol on some of the spoons, accompanied by an alpha and an omega.
Most of the pieces date from the fourth century, with a few such as the covered dish dating to the third century. The style of some of the pieces such as the Great Dish and the Bacchic platters are similar, suggesting they were made in the same workshop.
It is impossible to say where that workshop was, but it is likely that it was in the same place as the Imperial mints such as those at Lyon and Trier, which produced silver and gold coinage in the later Roman empire.
An illustration in the Vergilius Romanus, a fourth century manuscript in the Vatican Museums, shows how the original owners might have used the silver. Three diners are reclining on a curved couch, and in the centre of the drawing is a large platter, similar to the large niello plate in the Mildenhall treasure with its beaded rim. Three small, flanged bowls are placed around the plate as individual serving vessels.
The Significance of the Mildenhall Treasure
The slightly murky circumstances of the treasure’s discovery lead to a number of theories about its origins in the first few years after its appearance at the British Museum. Some archaeologists were doubtful that the treasure had been found in Mildenhall, given the prevailing view at the time that Roman Britain was a cultural backwater. One theory said the Americans had flown it in from North Africa to the air base at Mildenhall, disregarding the fact that the Americans didn’t move into Mildenhall until after the war.
Subsequent discoveries, such as that made in Hoxne in 1992, the largest find of Roman gold and silver ever made in Britain, have shown that Suffolk was indeed a wealthy and sophisticated place in the Roman period. The Mildenhall Treasure gives us a glimpse of just how sophisticated a place it was.