FEBRUARY 2, 2017 BY
Also known as the Watlington hoard, it was discovered in Oxfordshire, by metal-dectorist James Mather on October 7, 2015. It includes about 200 coins, seven items of jewellery and fifteen silver ingots. While the find is not particularly large, it is hugely significant because it contains so many coins of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (r.871–99) and his less well known contemporary, Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r.874–c.879).
Among the coins discovered were rare ‘Two Emperors’ penny, of which the hoard contains thirteen examples, shows these two kings seated side-by-side below a winged figure of Victory or an angel. Prior to the discovery of the hoard, only two other examples of the ‘Two Emperors’ were known. The image on the coins suggests an alliance between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. This, remarkably, challenges the accounts found in written sources which dismissed Ceolwulf as a puppet of the Vikings. The coins can therefore offer new insights into this tumultuous period of England’s history and allow us to speculate on Ceolwulf’s disappearance and what role Alfred might have played in his rival’s demise.
‘The Watlington Hoard is one of the most exciting and important acquisitions we have ever made,” says Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, “particularly significant because it was found in Oxfordshire. To be able to keep the hoard in the county and put it on display with the Ashmolean’s Anglo-Saxon collections, which include the world-famous Alfred Jewel, was an opportunity we could not miss.”
The location and date of the find is also significant. Oxfordshire lay on the border of Mercia and Wessex, and Oxford was one of a number of fortified towns developed under Alfred in part to control the Thames which was used as an important route for Viking ships to strike into the heart of England. Viking forces moved both by water and land, and they likely used the ancient trackway known as Icknield Street which passes through Watlington, close to where the hoard was found.
The treasures remained buried for eleven hundred years until James Mather made his discovery. On the verge of giving up after a frustrating day of finding nothing more than ring-pulls and shotgun cartridges, James chanced upon an object he recognised to be a Viking-age ingot. On finding a further cache of silver pennies close-by he realised he had discovered a hoard. In the days following, James, the landowner and archaeologist David Williams of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, explored the site and then block-lifted the hoard out of the soil so that it could be taken to the British Museum to be excavated under laboratory conditions. Here it was x-rayed to reveal the contents and the arrangement of the objects within the soil.
The hoard can be dated by the presence of a single ‘Two-Line’ type penny which was not produced until the late 870s, after the Battle of Edington (May 878) between Alfred’s forces and the Great Heathen Army led by Guthrum. It is possible that the hoard was buried in the wake of this violence or during the ensuing movement of peoples. It is clear that the Watlington Hoard can reveal more about this important moment in the history of England and once acquired it will be studied and published by Ashmolean experts and conservators.
The funds raised to purchase the hoard included a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £1.05 million, a further £150,000 from Art Fund and contributions from private individuals and the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean, the Museum reached its fundraising target within days of the deadline. Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund director, commented that “this is a major acquisition by any standards and we’re delighted for the Ashmolean and its visitors. It was a very focussed and determined fundraising campaign and we’re pleased to have been able to make a significant grant towards it. The Ashmolean’s collection provides a perfect context for the Hoard and we look forward to seeing and learning from the many gallery displays it will make possible in the years to come.”
Following a regional tour of the objects, the hoard will go on permanent display in the England Gallery with the Alfred Jewel and the Museum’s world-class Anglo-Saxon collections.This will begin on 11 February when the treasures will be put on display at the Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock (until 19 March). In collaboration with Oxfordshire Museums Service, the Ashmolean will stage roadshow events around the county which will include talks, object handling sessions and displays of the objects at locations including Bicester, Faringdon and Watlington. The hoard will also be the focus at the Ashmolean’s annual Festival of Archaeology which takes place every year in July.