In cooperation with the coroner's office, the British Museum is responsible for processing and classifying upwards of 80,000 objects a year under the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
While many objects turn out to be insignificant, up to 1,500 each year are awarded treasure status and receive special protection.
One notable find is a silver pendant shaped like Mjöllnir - Thor's hammer. It was discovered at an undisclosed location in 2016 and is believed to be of Viking origin.
To find out more about its significance and the process behind its classification, The Viking Herald spoke to Gareth Williams, curator of Anglo-Saxon coins in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum.
Saint Benet's Abbey, founded in the 9th century, stands as a silent witness to the era when Viking activity was spreading across regions like Norfolk. Photo: Kemaro / Shutterstock
An area steeped in Viking history
First, we asked why the original location remains undisclosed.
As Gareth explains, "Ideally, finds are recorded with a detailed grid location, although the find spot is normally only identified to the nearest parish or settlement."
"However, landowners sometimes request that only a vaguer location is given, as they don't wish their land to be disturbed by illegal metal detectorists."
The authorities were able to reveal that the piece came from the county of Norfolk, perhaps unsurprisingly given its rich Viking history.
Part of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia, Norfolk suffered several early incursions by the Vikings by land and sea.
Then, in 869, the Great Heathen Army executed Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia, before later wintering at Thetford in west Norfolk.
Later, Norfolk also fell under the Danelaw, where the Norse were apportioned land, power, and titles across the east and north of England.
Even today, the evidence of Viking influence is apparent in areas such as Flegg Island, where many of the place names are of Viking origin.
The legacy of the Great Heathen Army looms large in Norfolk, from executing kings to wintering in places like Thetford. Photo: Silar / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Defining a treasure
Norfolk is also known as the treasure capital of England, consistently taking the top spot for the number of confirmed treasures found annually.
So what makes a treasure, exactly?
"Under the Treasure Act, which replaced the medieval law of Treasure Trove, any find of a single object (other than coins) containing 10% or more of precious metal and more than 300 years old constitutes a treasure," Gareth tells us.
"This is unless it is possible to demonstrate that a modern heir of the original owner has title to it instead, something that happens very rarely."
Once a find has been made, the British Museum is often responsible for investigating it and deciding its authenticity.
In the case of the Thor's hammer pendant, Gareth was responsible for writing the report to the HM Coroner on which the coroner based their decision.
"As a relic of the medieval laws," Gareth says, "The decision is made by the coroner (or crown officer), who today has responsibility for dead bodies and treasure, but historically was responsible for a larger number of crown rights."
Found in Lincolnshire, this gold Thor's hammer pendant serves as another testament to the Viking presence in England, with its design reminiscent of the silver pendant unearthed in Norfolk. Photo: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The long road to declaration
So why does it often take so long to make the declaration?
"The reason for the delay in this case is twofold. We get a lot of treasure cases covering different types of objects, and I tend to process them in batches."
"Thor's hammer pendants were at the front of the queue when Covid interrupted everything, and all treasure cases were put on hold."
"I dealt with this and other similar cases last year once we got going with the treasure backlog," Gareth informs us.
"I can't say why it took so long between my report and the coroner's inquest, but there are more treasure cases from Norfolk than any other county."
"Treasure also normally takes second place to deaths, understandably."
While historical artifacts offer a glimpse into the Viking era, Hollywood's depiction of Thor's hammer showcases the mythological weapon's lasting impact on popular culture. Photo: Peyker / Shutterstock
Searching for context
The pendant itself is estimated to have been made in either the ninth or tenth century. It is made predominantly of silver and is shaped like the hammer symbol associated with the deity.
Gareth points out that there have now been more than 40 Thor's hammers recorded in England.
"Of these, Norfolk is by some distance the most common county in which they have been found," Gareth points out.
"The overall distribution is largely limited to areas of Viking settlement in northern and eastern England."
However, Gareth indicates that while some of these finds can be linked to the Great Heathen Army, most have no archaeological context, which makes it difficult to pinpoint their exact origin.
"Unfortunately, there is no way of telling on the evidence available whether this was associated with the initial phase of activity by the Great Army or with more permanent settlement in the area," Gareth confirms.
Indeed, as the search for a new home for the pendant begins, the mysteries of the Vikings and their influence on the world continue to reveal themselves, one small step at a time.
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