In November 2019, George Powell, 38, of Newport, and Layton Davies, 51, of Pontypridd, were sentenced to ten and eight-and-a-half years respectively for theft.
In April 2023, Roger Pilling, 73, and Craig Best, 46, were convicted of conspiring to sell criminal property and later sentenced to five years in prison.
The deeds that led them to incarceration?
Powell and Davies, both metal detectorists, had dug up a hoard of treasure in a field near Leominster, in the county of Herefordshire, part of which forms the border between England and Wales.
However, they failed to declare their find to the landowner or the authorities and later auctioned off the proceeds in the illicit market.
Pilling and Best, on the other hand, knowingly sold parts of the collection, illegally raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit in the process.
The sad thing is, if they had done the right thing, the four men could have enjoyed a substantial financial reward and also made a significant contribution to our understanding of British and Viking history.
To understand where they went wrong and how the people of Herefordshire are working hard to put things right, The Viking Herald spoke with Damian Etheraads, the Museum and Art Gallery Lead for Herefordshire County Council.
From what the authorities have been able to ascertain, the hoard the two detectorists discovered on their ill-fated expedition to the Herefordshire countryside contained a large number of coins and several extremely precious objects, including a gold ring and a silver ingot.
Though the official value of the total hoard has not yet been established, estimates have ranged from 3 million to 12 million GBP.
Having found the collection on someone else's land, Powell and Davies were required by law to inform both the landowner and the authorities.
Yet instead, as Damian tells us, "They took photographs of it, came back, dug it up, took it home, and then sold it off to dealers."
"It was only through chatter in online forums that the Portable Antiquities Scheme was alerted to the fact that a hoard of some description had been found."
The revelation of an online boast about the discovery prompted a prompt police investigation into the hoard, which is estimated to encompass around 300 coins. Photo: British Museum / Herefordshire Council
The search for justice
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is managed by the British Museum and records archaeological finds discovered by the public, soon informed the police about the possible theft, and an inquiry was opened.
"The police investigation was launched quite quickly after it became apparent there was unusual coin activity circulating," Damian continues.
"One of the chaps had been boasting online about finding them and was quickly identified."
"The pair tried to cover their tracks by deleting photographs. The local authority, the finds liaison team, and later the local Herefordshire museum were all involved."
"The British Museum took a leading role, and their help and advice helped identify the missing pieces and also the total number of coins, which is believed to be around 300."
In addition to selling off the treasure, the two detectorists also caused irreparable damage to the area where the hoard was found, making it impossible to conduct further investigations at the site.
"The impact they made on the historical record compounded the theft itself, and in part explains why they were given such severe punishments," Damian adds.
Indeed, in addition to the custodial sentences, the defendants were each ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation.
On the hunt for lost treasure
In parallel with the criminal proceedings to bring the perpetrators to justice, there has also been a national search to retrieve the stolen treasure.
Operating in close collaboration with the British Museum, the police have worked hard to identify artifacts around the UK and beyond that may have originated from the Herefordshire Hoard.
"It is reassuring that the police are taking such an active role in tracking it down and finding artifacts," Damian admits. "West Mercia Police have been taking it very seriously."
Yet although many of the most distinct objects have been recovered, there are still believed to be well over 100 coins that are still unaccounted for.
Once objects have been identified, a painstaking analytical process follows, where they are assessed and categorized by the British Museum.
The local coroner finally confirms their classification. Unfortunately for Herefordshire locals, even once the treasure has been released, it is not automatically allocated to the local council or museum.
Instead, each object is valued and then offered to both the British Museum and other institutions. If a museum is interested, it is then required to bid for ownership.
To ensure the Herefordshire Hoard's future, the local museum service rallied the community and businesses, raising 750,000 GBP through events, grants, and trusts. Photo: British Museum / Herefordshire Council
Above and beyond
As the story of the theft spread throughout the county, the people of Herefordshire were outraged and galvanized by the loss in equal measure.
Soon, they joined forces with the local authorities to launch a special campaign: Bringing the Hoard Home.
The initial and most important goal was to secure the first available part of the hoard.
The local community was heavily involved, including schools, local business people, and amateur history enthusiasts, as well as the Hereford Museum Service Support Group.
"The fundraisers were really important to us, as were all the individual givers," Damian says.
"The museum team also worked extremely hard, doing overtime and various additional tasks that went above and beyond," Damian tells us, emphasizing that his colleagues deserve full credit for the campaign, which began before his appointment.
"We successfully raised a total of 750,000 GBP through public fundraising events, corporate events, grants, and trusts."
Bringing back the hoard
This money has enabled the Herefordshire Museum Service – part of Herefordshire Council – to take ownership of the first available part of the hoard so it can be put on display for the people of Herefordshire to enjoy.
"I think the most remarkable thing is how people have taken it to heart," Damian tells us, "In the local pub, the one thing people could tell me about was the hoard – they have really got behind the story."
The items recovered so far include a pendant made from a rock crystal sphere, a gold octagonal ring with black inlay, a silver ingot, and 29 coins.
"It is quite unusual to find a mix of silver and gold Viking Age hoards," Damian says.
"This suggests it may have been an individual's collection. The fact they've kept the gold objects intact instead of melting them down also indicates the hoard may have belonged to a single person."
Damian notes the rarity of finding both silver and gold together in Viking Age hoards, such as in the Herefordshire collection, suggesting it could represent an individual's accumulated wealth. Photo: British Museum / Herefordshire Council
Brought to light
Though the true size of the hoard is still unknown, there can be no doubt of its historical significance.
Indeed, the uniqueness of the find makes it integral to our understanding of the Vikings' role in the country of Herefordshire and also in a wider context, with some suggestion that it may have been carried there by the Great Heathen Army.
"The nature of the coins suggests that it didn't belong to an Anglo-Saxon native," Damian says.
"It must have been someone who had traveled extensively, which is why it is presumed to be of Viking origin. There is also the silver ingot, which I believe was commonly used in Viking trade."
"In terms of British history, probably the most significant finds are the coins that depict both Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia," Damian continues.
"This alliance was recorded in the narratives of the time, but just as an aside, and until now, no physical evidence had been identified."
"The status of the coins and the position of the kings also show it may have been a much more equal political alliance than previously thought."
Plenty to look forward to
"We've also been able to go out to the schools to show them the objects and provide free workshops as a thank you," Damian tells us.
"It will be one of the key anchor collections on display within our new development. It's a two- to three-year project."
"Until then, we are keeping the access to the collection quite limited, mainly due to security reasons. But we are having regular open days, family fun days, and other projects, with more plans to come in the future."
The Herefordshire Hoard is temporarily at the Hereford Museum Resource Centre, with a new museum being built and educational programs underway. Photo: British Museum / Herefordshire Council
The right side of history
The people who found and then illegally sold the contents of the Herefordshire Hoard are undoubtedly in the wrong.
Yet it is important to remember that the vast majority of metal detectorists are not only law-abiding citizens but have also made a hugely valuable contribution to our understanding of history.
In the UK, metal detectorists are consistently responsible for over 90% of new treasure finds in any given year.
At the same time, Damian is also keen to stress that anyone interested in metal detecting or similar hobbies should always follow the rules.
"You should have the land owner's permission, as well as an agreement that includes what will happen to anything discovered, ideally in writing."
"If you do then go on to discover something, it is best practice to report it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which will assess it and decide if it is treasure or not."
This process helps ensure that both the finder and the landowner are properly rewarded: in most cases, the two parties will each receive 50% of the proceeds of any sale.
And, of course, any treasure or important artifact will be recorded for posterity.
As Damian points out, both the find itself and the context of its location can help provide a deeper understanding of our shared past.
"How any discovery relates to other archaeological finds helps us to paint a more detailed picture of the area," Damian asserts. "A couple of coins can change history."
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