Local Legend Leads to Treasure Trove of Ancient Silver Coins

PHOTO: Conservator Neil Mahrer working in a secret location on the half-ton block of ancient buried treasure.

Sometimes patience pays off … big time.

For thirty years, amateur archaeologists Reg Mead and Richard Miles have been chasing a rumor of buried treasure on the British island of Jersey. They were just two local eccentrics with an odd hobby, until this week when they hit pay dirt, literally.

"To say it's changed our lives would be an understatement," Mead says.

It all began with a local legend. Back in the 1950s, so the story goes, a farmer on the island unearthed a trove of odd-looking silver coins. There were too many to carry, so he filled a potato sack, and plowed the rest back under the ground. Thus began the rumor of a vast hoard.

But Mead, now 70, suspected there was more than legend here. The coins were described as having a horse on one side and an odd head on the other. He recognized those as Celtic, and Celtic coins have been turning up on Jersey for centuries.

So year after year Mead and Miles swept their metal detectors over a single 20-acre field. Thirty years of patience, and this week it was rewarded. Their detector signaled an enormous amount of metal much deeper than they had been digging.

They dug a small hole three feet down, "and as we put the hand trowel in the last couple of inches, you could hear the metal grinding against metal," Mead said. "I pulled the trowel out and there were five silver coins."

"You just go numb," he said. "It's an amazing feeling."

Those five coins were just the beginning. A crane was needed to lift the hoard, which weighed close to a ton.

Over the centuries, the coins and the local clay have congealed into a solid mass. Archaeologists estimate it could contain as many as 50,000 coins, each worth between $200 and $300.

"Whoever buried it, buried it in haste," said Olga Finch, curator of archaeology at the Jersey Heritage Museum. "They dug down as far as they could … and literally just dumped all the coins in the same pit and backfilled it."

The coins are about 2,100 years old. At the time, the Roman armies of Julius Caesar were making their way north through France, pushing the local Celtic tribes toward the coast. Jersey is just a few miles off the French coast.

Finch says the coins were probably the wealth of an entire village in France, somewhere near modern St. Malo.

As the Romans got nearer, the villagers may have sailed across to the island of Jersey and hastily buried their wealth. The trove was found under a hedge, leading to local jokes about an ancient hedge fund.

No one knows why they never got back to claim their buried treasure. Perhaps they were killed by the Romans, or sold into slavery. Or perhaps they just forgot where they put it.

The hoard "has still got its secrets and its stories to reveal, which is exciting," Finch says.

The clump itself must now be laboriously picked apart. Archaeologists say it may also contain jewelry and other personal items.

Legally, it is the British Crown that owns the hoard, but Mead and Miles are expecting to be rewarded for their 30 years of patience, and they plan to share their wealth with the owner of the land.

So will Mead and Miles keep digging?

"We've done our bit." Mead said. Once the excitement has died down, he said, he's looking forward to "a quiet brandy and Coke."

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