An amateur metal detectorist is eagerly scanning the ground on Fred Johnson’s farm in the English countryside. Suddenly, Terry Herbert’s second-hand device begins to beep – and not just once. Then, beneath the soil, he uncovers treasure beyond his wildest dreams. But astonishingly, three years later, he will call his discovery a tragic curse.
It’s July 5, 2009, and Herbert has stumbled across what’s now known as the Staffordshire Hoard. Ultimately, archaeologists will pull more than 3,500 pieces out of the ground – dazzling metalwork forged in silver and gold. And by the time they’re finished, they’ll be left with the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure that has ever been found.
Today, the Staffordshire Hoard is famous around the world, drawing massive crowds whenever it is exhibited in museums. But it all started with Herbert who, with his detector, found the first pieces of gold. Certainly, it should have been a dream come true for any amateur treasure hunter. So what went wrong?
Originally from the town of Walsall in England’s West Midlands, Herbert was in his mid-fifties when the drama began to unfold. Previously, he had worked in a factory making coffins, but by July 2009 he found himself unemployed. But rather than resting on his laurels, he decided to put his free time to good use.
Yes, Herbert picked up a bargain at a yard sale – a metal detector that cost the equivalent of three dollars. And five years previously, he had identified the ideal target. Near his home in the Staffordshire town of Burntwood, there was a field owned by Fred Johnson, a local farmer.
Although Johnson’s land seemed the ideal spot to look for treasure, however, Herbert soon hit a snag. In a 2011 interview with the Sunday Mercury, he summed up the situation. “I was warned off it because I was told Fred would want all of anything that was found,” the eager enthusiast explained.
So let’s rewind to 2009, and Herbert found himself living in a council flat, whilst claiming disability benefits to get by. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his passion for metal detecting. But other than a horse’s harness from the Roman era, he failed to find anything valuable during his adventures.
However, Herbert’s luck was about to change. Somehow, he managed to reach an agreement with Johnson to take a closer look at his land. And while the farmer later claimed that the pair had never been friends, it seems the two were companions after all. Moving on, there was good reason why Herbert, and detectorists before him, had targeted this particular county.
Indeed, because for those with an interest in archaeology, Staffordshire had great potential for numerous finds. You see, from the sixth century onwards, the region fell into Mercia – a kingdom that covered most of central England. And it was there, hundreds of years ago, that famous kings such as Ethelred and Offa ruled over their domain.
But today, little is left of the ancient kingdom that dominated England for 300 years. However, just beneath the surface, relics of the past can still be found, including in Staffordshire. For example, in 1924 Reverend George Wilson was exploring a cave at Beeston Tor when he stumbled across an incredible find.
That’s right – hidden in the cave, Wilson discovered a stash of Anglo-Saxon coins and jewelry, dating from the ninth century. Today, the find is known as the Beeston Tor Hoard, and some of its treasures are in London’s British Museum. So did Herbert believe that he could follow in Wilson’s footsteps?
Well, on July 5, 2009, Herbert was busy scanning his detector over Johnson’s land. According to reports, the 14-acre site was covered in grass at the time. However, the farmer had plowed the field more intensively than normal the year before. Therefore, the soil beneath the treasure hunter’s feet was still freshly churned.
Suddenly, Herbert’s device went off, alerting him to metal in the soil below. And there, just inches down, he discovered what he had been hoping to find – a fragment of brilliant gold. But as he examined his first loot, he had no idea of the incredible events that were about to unfold.
Over the course of the next five days, Herbert, who had 18 years’ experience, continued to search Johnson’s field. And by the end of that period, he had collected more than 240 golden objects. In the past, the treasure hunter had always reported his discoveries to the appropriate authorities and could wait no longer.
So, Herbert contacted Duncan Slarke – the man responsible for assessing archaeological finds for Staffordshire. And soon, the expert arrived at Johnson’s field. In a 2009 interview with the The Guardian, he described the scene. “Nothing could have prepared me for that,” he explained. “I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship. It was breathtaking.”
With Johnson’s permission, a team from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity soon arrived at the site. Keen to see what other treasures might be hiding beneath the surface, they excavated an area some 30 by 43 feet. Meanwhile, Herbert watched eagerly from the sidelines. Surely anything was possible?
As archaeologists continued to pull priceless artifacts from the field, both Johnson and Herbert were sworn to secrecy. In fact, the treasure hunter wasn’t even permitted to tell his fellow enthusiasts about the once-in-a-lifetime find. Meanwhile, a crack team from the British Museum traveled up from London to join in the action.
As the excavation progressed, even the Home Office was called in to assist. Using techniques usually reserved for crime forensics, they scanned the field to ensure that every artifact had been uncovered. And finally, on September 24, the find was announced to the general public: a treasure trove which at the time consisted of some 1,400 items.
At that point, the Staffordshire Hoard comprised some 11 pounds of gold and 5.5 pounds of silver. To add to that, there was a vast collection of garnet jewels. And aside from a few exceptions, the pieces were mostly military in origin. In fact, it’s believed that these elaborate decorations once graced the weapons of a Mercian raiding party.
Thought to date from the 7th century, the discovery entered record books as the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard ever found. And for Deb Klemperer, an expert on pottery from that era, it was an incredible sight. “My first view of the hoard brought tears to my eyes – the Dark Ages in Staffordshire have never looked so bright nor so beautiful,” she told the The Guardian.
Months after its discovery, the hoard was put on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. And people queued for hours to catch a glimpse of the shiny treasure. Meanwhile, Herbert’s find was valued at a staggering £3.285 million – the equivalent of around $5 million. On that note, what exactly is the law when things like this are suddenly found?
In the United Kingdom, any discoveries deemed “treasure” are officially the property of the Crown i.e. the reigning monarch’s estate. However, it’s customary for museums or other institutions to offer a reward in exchange for whatever artifacts have been recovered. And in most cases, this equates to the market value of the hoard.
For Herbert and Johnson, then, it was a tense time. Keen to avoid an open market steal, the Birmingham Museum joined forces with The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Staffordshire. And together they worked to raise the necessary funds to have the treasure themselves. But despite a public fundraising drive, they were still around $1 million short as the deadline approached.
Ultimately, however, the National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in with a grant, ensuring the Staffordshire Hoard could be kept together. With the funds successfully raised, Herbert and Johnson were eventually handed the cash. And with each man taking 50 percent of the proceeds, they found themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Today, the Staffordshire Hoard is regarded as one of amateur treasure hunting’s greatest success stories. But behind the scenes, there was no happy ending, apparently. Instead, Herbert and Johnson’s friendship fell apart, with accusations of greed flying between both parties. More than $2 million each, it seemed, had not been enough to buy them peace.
According to Herbert, Johnson had never wanted to split the reward with his friend. “I think Fred wanted all of the money and is now resentful he has had to share it,” he told the Sunday Mercury in 2011. “That’s what is at the heart of this. He’s acting like a child and cutting his nose off to spite his face.”
In fact, Herbert believes that his friendship with Johnson has been irreparably damaged thanks to the hoard. “It does hurt my feelings that he has taken this stance but now I’m not sure there is anyway we can patch things up,” he continued. “Sometimes I wish I’d never found that hoard.”
Interestingly, Herbert claims that Johnson’s first reaction to the treasure was one of disinterest. But then, once the media arrived, he changed his tune. “The next minute he is all over the TV, so I decided to let him have all the glory in the end,” he said. “He has always had a bad attitude and this just sums him up I’m afraid.” But it didn’t end there.
Yes, because bizarrely, Herbert even claimed that he believed Johnson should have been allowed to keep the entire reward. “I think he should have been given all the money from the Hoard, but I don’t make the law do I?” he continued. Meanwhile, Johnson had his own accusations to level at his former friend.
Reportedly, the argument between the two men was sparked when Herbert wanted to resume treasure hunting on the farm. According to the Daily Mail, Johnson dubbed his friend “greedy,” insisting that the entire venture had been done for financial gain. In contrast, the farmer claims, his interest in the hoard was largely of a historical nature.
“To be honest I got fed up of him from the start, I was fed up of his greed,” Johnson told the <em. “From the moment he found the Hoard all he wanted to talk about was how much money we were going to get for it and that, no matter what we do, we shouldn’t accept the first offer.”
However, Johnson claims that, for him, money was not a motivating factor. Moreover, he regretted ever allowing Herbert to search the farm. “I wish I’d never let him on my land in the first place and I wish I had never met the man,” he continued. “It has caused me nothing but bother all of this. It’s not like we were ever friends anyway, he was just very persistent so I let him on my land.”
Furthermore, Johnson expressed regret that the windfall hadn’t gone to someone more deserving of the reward. “When I think of all the people who could have found that hoard over the years and might have benefited from the money that came with it,” he pondered. “Sometimes I just wish one of the poor veterinary students had found it instead, because it would have set them up for life rather than me.”
Despite his apparent disdain for the money, however, Johnson has been enjoying the spoils of success. In fact, he used the cash to finance the construction of a new property on his farm, reported the Sunday Mercury. Meanwhile, Herbert left his council house behind and moved into a luxurious bungalow close by.
But even Herbert, it seems, has not found happiness in his success. “So many people want to meet me these days and talk to me, which is nice and everything, but it can also be a real hassle,” he explained to the Sunday Mercury . “I’m doing my best to enjoy life. I have moved, but it is not like I have gone over the top and bought a Ferrari. But I have to admit I’m not that happy with my lot really.”
Moreover, Herbert expressed frustration that Johnson would not let him resume work on his land. “I know for a fact, there’s a lot more stuff to be found on those fields and if Fred just let people on to his fields they’d eventually find it, and he’d be able to share in half the money again,” he continued.
And just one year after the two men went public with their feud, Herbert was proved right. For in November 2012, a team of treasure hunters from Archaeology Warwickshire managed to gain access to Johnson’s field. And there, they discovered an additional 91 artifacts that are believed to be part of the Staffordshire Hoard.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Herbert and Johnson’s tumultuous relationship proved profitable for a second time. And with most of the second discovery also deemed treasure, both men were again set for a significant reward. Currently, the value of these artifacts has not been disclosed, but it likely represented a significant windfall for the feuding friends.
And while Herbert and Johnson came to view the Staffordshire Hoard as a curse, the archaeological community has always thought differently. For you see, in March 2014 a select few got to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yes, behind closed doors at the Birmingham Museum, the entire collection was assembled together for the first time.
Sadly, the display was for a limited time only, and after a few days the pieces were returned to their respective homes. Today, the hoard can be seen at the Birmingham Museum and separately at The Potteries Museum. But while thousands continue to marvel at the ancient treasure, Herbert and Johnson’s friendship, it seems, is consigned to history.