It’s November 1992, and Eric Lawes is trudging around British farmland in search of a missing hammer. Then, all of a sudden, his metal detector starts going haywire. As Lawes begins digging into the ground, though, it isn’t the lost tool that he finds. No, the metal detectorist has just uncovered an incredible haul of Roman artifacts. And the discovery will change his life forever.
Eric Lawes was born on May 1, 1923, in Hoxne in Suffolk, England. He had two siblings and was raised by his mom, Florence, and dad, Joseph. His father worked as a gamekeeper, but it seems that Lawes had a modest upbringing. Indeed, he reportedly grew up in poverty, with little in the way of a formal education.
You see, Lawes’ formative years fell between World Wars I and II. And this interwar period was a tough time for nearly everyone in Britain – even those living in rural areas that one might have imagined would have been less affected by conflict. Indeed, in villages such as the one where Lawes grew up, many children didn’t attend school and were instead educated outside the walls of the classroom.
Lawes, himself, spent his youth in Hoxne – a small village located around 100 miles northeast of London. And with a population of less than 1,000, Hoxne may at first appear as a charming yet unremarkable place. However, it is in fact rich in ancient history – not that Lawes knew this when he was young.
But although Lawes’ early life was seemingly as ordinary as the village he grew up in, he later actually played a part in uncovering Hoxne’s history. You see, Lawes found a haul of treasure in the area. And not only did the discovery put the village on the map, but Lawes himself also became a minor celebrity and made a small fortune as a result.
But all that must have seemed worlds away when Lawes was younger. You see, his formal education came to an end when he was 14 years old, and for a time he helped out on a farm. Later, he delivered bread for a local bakery, but he quit when the store’s manager realized that the takings were short by a mere halfpenny.
The young Lawes then found some work as a gardener. However, in 1942 he was summoned by the Royal Marines to serve in the Second World War. And when he had returned home safely, he went back to farm work for a time before landing a job with a regional electricity board.
Lawes went on to work at the Eastern Electricity Board for 30 years. And when he retired, his colleagues asked him what he would like as a reward for his service. But he wasn’t interested in what you might think of as a more traditional gift. No, Lawes requested something far more unusual.
As Lawes explained in an interview with the Hoxne Heritage Group, “[The electricity board] asked me what I’d like [for my retirement]. Would I like a watch? And I said to them, ‘No, I’d like a metal detector.’ Why, I don’t know.” But regardless of what compelled Lawes to ask for such a device, it would eventually bring him unexpected fortune.
Yes, in November 1992 a friend of Lawes called on the metal detectorist for his help. The man in question was a farmer, and he had lost a hammer somewhere on his land. The farmer, therefore, asked Lawes to help find his missing tool. And while scouring the fields, Lawes’ metal detector suddenly picked up a clear signal.
So, when his metal detector indicated that he may have found something, Lawes began to dig. But what he ended up finding wasn’t the hammer that his friend had lost. No, as it turned out, the find was actually something far more valuable – so valuable, in fact, that Lawes felt he should seek some additional help.
What had the metal detectorist found, then? Well, the first things that Lawes unearthed were some coins. But he soon began discovering other relics, too – including numerous silver spoons. And when his haul had amounted to two plastic bags filled with artifacts, he realized that he might have uncovered something significant. As such, he reported his find to the landowner before contacting the police and a local archaeological group.
It quickly became clear that Lawes had acted with the utmost diligence, too. Indeed, by informing the authorities as he did, Lawes allowed the Suffolk Archaeological Unit to perform a thorough excavation. And this, in turn, permitted the group to gain a better understanding of what had been found.
For instance, archaeologist Jude Plouvier and his team carefully removed a chunk of earth from the site. The slab was subsequently taken to a laboratory, where its contents were analyzed under a controlled environment. This way, then, the archaeologists were able to determine the artifacts’ age and how to handle them. And what the team found out was impressive.
As it turns out, Lawes had unearthed thousands of gold, silver and bronze coins from the late-Roman era – as well as silver cutlery and gold jewelry. The discovery was so substantial, in fact, that it is recorded as the largest find of its type in Britain. And its value was quite astonishing.
The treasure trove has become known as the Hoxne Hoard. And since its discovery more than 25 years ago, much has been learned about the origins of the treasure. In fact, the hoard dates back to a time of great unrest in Britain’s long history – a time when a large portion of the island was still a part of the Roman Empire.
It is fair to say, of course, that the Romans left their mark on the world. Indeed, in the early centuries A.D., they ruled large territories across what is now Europe, the Mediterranean, West Asia and North Africa. But by the beginning of the 5th century, the Empire had lost its grip on Britain.
Indeed, the southern portion of Britain was subject to the rule of the Roman Empire between 43 A.D. and 410 A.D. But while it was once generally believed that the province’s economy had headed into decline at the turn of the 5th century, subsequent archaeological data has tended to suggest that this idea was incorrect.
In any case, the Roman influence on British shores began to wane. And without the support of the Empire, Britain lay vulnerable to raids from other nations. Battles would be waged from Scotland and Ireland, which existed outside of Roman rule. But ultimately it was Germanic migration that the Empire was unable to withstand, and Roman troops were redeployed from Britain to defend its mainland European territories.
And for those living in Britain at the time, this climate of uncertainty led to what is believed to have been a period of hoarding. That’s right: it seems that Romano-British people hid valuables in the earth to keep the items from falling into the hands of the invading Angles, Picts and Saxons.
In fact, an excerpt from a 9th-century text called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes reference to the time. “The Romans collected all the treasures which were in Britain and hid some in the earth so that no one afterwards could find them,” the script reads. “And some they took with them into Gaul.”
The idea behind hoarding was that owners would one day return to collect their valuables. But the fact that hoards have been dug up in recent years may stand as proof that whoever they belonged to never managed to return. There are difficulties, however, in accurately dating the artifacts, which makes telling their story less than straightforward.
What’s more, precise dating techniques couldn’t be used on the Hoxne Hoard due to a lack of organic materials present in the find. Radiocarbon dating, for example, couldn’t be used on the coins because the method relies on the presence of plant or animal matter. Instead, the team had to apply more rudimentary techniques.
The archaeologists hence studied the inscriptions on the coins, which allowed them to draw out clues as to the hoard’s age. And the evidence seems to suggest that the treasure dated to around 410 A.D. What’s more, this is a view supported by Peter Guest – an archaeologist specializing in the Roman era.
As Guest relayed to the Smithsonian magazine in January 2018, “[Based on the age of the coins] the date after which Hoxne must’ve been buried is 408 or 409. And the traditional model would suggest it was buried around about that point in time.” But the archaeologist’s experience also led him to another theory.
“My perspective is that, actually, we’ve been misdating these hoards,” Guest revealed. “If you look at them a little more carefully, then they should be dated to the period after the separation of Britain from the Roman Empire.” And the archaeologist had, in fact, spotted an anomaly with the coins which might support his hypothesis.
By Guest’s reckoning, it’s possible that the coins could have been in use for many years after the Romans left Britain. You see, the archaeologist had spotted evidence of a method of altering the coins known as “clipping.” And this procedure appeared to have been performed on as much as 98 percent of the 15,000 coins unearthed in the Hoxne Hoard.
The clipping process involved removing the edges of coins and shrinking their size by up to a third. Using chemical analyses, then, Guest – alongside other scientists – determined that the clipped metal was used to manufacture identical coins. And these coins could have subsequently been utilized after the era of Roman rule in Britain.
“The Roman Emperor wasn’t supplying Britain with new gold and silver coins,” Guest stated. “In light of that, the population tried to get over this sudden cutoff in the supply of precious metals by making the existing supplies go further.” But there were other findings, too, that made Lawes’ haul stand out from others.
Coins can be commonplace in finds such as the Hoxne Hoard. But although its 15,000-odd coins make it the largest discovery in Britain, the hoard found by Lawes also contains other artifacts that make it unique. Yes, as well as the aforementioned spoons and jewelry, there were also some other unusual pieces among the treasures.
One of the most prominent objects in the hoard is, in fact, what has come to be known as the “Empress” pepper pot. The trinket is made of silver and was molded to resemble a regal woman. The attention to detail in its original makeup is impressive, too, with focus placed on attributes such as her hair, clothing and accessories.
What’s more, on the underside of the pot is a disc that could be spun to three different positions: one left the pot open for the purpose of refilling; another closed off the pot; and the third position uncovered a series of holes to allow for the distribution of the pepper contained inside.
But while we may think of a pepper pot as being pretty mundane, the “Empress” is an incredibly rare discovery. You see, in the days of Roman Britain, pepper was not at all common. The condiment was a luxury item, in fact, that first showed up in the Roman Empire – from India – sometime during the 1st century. Given the scarcity of pepper at the time, it can therefore be assumed that the Hoxne Hoard once belonged to a wealthy family. But who were its original owners?
Well, given the lack of written records from the times of the Roman Empire, the precise story of the treasure’s burial will likely never be known. But some of the items contained within the hoard give a clue as to the treasure trove’s origins. You see, some of the objects were inscribed.
Among the treasure were around 100 silver ladles and spoons. And although some of these relics were in a state of disrepair, others had clear inscriptions. Yes, the utensils were marked with the names Aurelius Ursicinus and Silvicola, which appeared alongside the Latin phrase vivas in deo. Could these markings be an indication of the treasure’s owners, then?
Sadly, there are no historical records of anyone named Aurelius Ursicinus from the Roman Empire. And although the moniker is the most common inscription found in the hoard, other names can be made out across several artifacts. It would, therefore, be overly presumptuous to ascribe the full hoard to one owner.
But even though there is nothing written of the hoard’s owner, the man who discovered the treasure carved out his own place in history. Yes, Lawes acted with the utmost diligence when he made the discovery – and he was rewarded handsomely for his part in the recovery of the Hoxne Hoard.
In fact, Lawes was given a finder’s fee of £1.75 million – or around $2.32 million. And although the metal detectorist had no legal obligation to do so, he split his prize with the farmer on whose land he found the stash. What’s more, Lawes also seems to have brought the term “metal detectorist” into the common lexicon. Indeed, before the Englishman shot to prominence, the title wasn’t traditionally prescribed to people in the field.
The Hoxne Hoard subsequently came into the possession of the British Museum in London. There, various artifacts from the haul have been on display since April 1994. And for anyone who’s wondering, Lawes also managed to locate the farmer’s missing hammer. The missing tool is on display in the museum too, in fact.
But what did Lawes do with his share of the spoils? Well, using his newfound wealth, the metal detectorist built a single story house in Denham – a village located not too far from his childhood home. And he continued to pursue his passion of metal detecting to the end of his days. Then, just weeks after his 92nd birthday in May 2015, Lawes passed away peacefully in his sleep. Thanks to the Hoxne Hoard, though, his name will likely live on for a good many years yet.