Shiny Bright

photo credit: David Rowan licensed under creative commons

On 5th July 2009, a man named Terry Herbert was in a field in Staffordshire which had been recently ploughed. This would not be brilliant, or even newsworthy had he not had his metal detector with him. The farm had been searched previously by metal detectorists, but they hadn’t turned up anything special. But Terry began to find objects made from gold. Over the next five days he had found enough to fill 244 bags and called in the relevant authorities. A proper archaeological excavation was organised and over the summer of 2009 over 3,500 pieces were recovered. It is the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon gold and silver that has ever been found.

Unlike the previous largest discovery at Sutton Hoo, the horde is not part of a burial. All the objects have a military association, there is nothing domestic at all. There are many sword hilts and pommels but no sign of the actual blades. This suggests that the decorative parts of the weapons had been deliberately removed. We know that the Anglo Saxons sometimes did this, because it happens in Beowulf. It’s hard to imagine how such a large amount of beautiful and precious objects ever came to be lost at all. Perhaps they were buried by their owners for safe keeping, maybe they were spoils of war. Or they may just have been stolen. But something must have happened to prevent whoever buried them from returning to recover their treasure.

It was most likely buried somewhere between 650 and 700 AD but many of the pieces are probably heirloom items which are much older. In the seventh century, the site of the find was in the kingdom of Mercia. It is a period of history we don’t know a great deal about. Most people lived in wooden houses and left little evidence of their lives. The best records we have from the time are the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, written by Bede, in Northumbria and the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’, which was composed in Wessex for Alfred the Great. Northumbria and Wessex were both enemies of Mercia, so neither have much useful to say. Only that they were awful and violent, but enemies would say that. We don’t even know that the horde definitely came from Mercia, as it was found right by an major Roman road known as Watling Street, so it could have come from anywhere.

Amongst the horde were three gold crosses, so at least some of the objects must have belonged to Christians. The crosses had been folded up though. Perhaps as they bent when they were torn from their mountings in some sort of looting incident, maybe were just folded so they would take up less space in a bag or box. This might imply that they were taken by an opposing army who were pagans, but it could be that they just weren’t that fussy about religious objects. There is also a strip of gold with this inscription:


If it were spelled properly, this would read: ‘Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ which means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ It is a quote from the Bible which appears in the story of Saint Guthlac, who I mentioned back in April, when he predicted that a man named Æthelbald would become king of Mercia. He predicted that Æthelbald’s enemies would ‘flee from his face’. Æthelbald did become king, in 716. But it would appear that God, on this occasion, did not oblige.

As well as giving us thousands of truly beautifully crafted pieces of Anglo Saxon metalwork, the hoard has also revealed another secret. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths knew how to cheat. They could make twelve to eighteen carat gold look like much purer gold, between twenty-one and twenty-three carats. Tests have shown that it is only the gold on the surface of the object that is pure. They had must have found a way of removing the impurities from the surface. In order to do this, they would have needed to know how to make ferric chloride. Probably they heated water, salt and iron rich clay. When painted onto the gold it would have removed the silver content from the surface and made it look much more shiny. So, even though we don’t know much about what happened in our country in the few hundred years after the Romans left, we should stop calling them the Dark Ages, because those people were pretty bright.

All That Glisters…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYou might have heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. Dick Whittington certainly thought so. I didn’t see any the last time I visited, but there may just be a grain of truth behind that story.

On this day in 1577 Martin Frobisher set sail from Harwich for the New World. Frobisher was a bit of a chancer, basically a pirate with a letter from the Queen saying that he could get on with his job. Ostensibly he was looking for the same Northwest Passage that everyone was looking for. Portugal controlled the shipping lanes all along the coast of Africa, so it was difficult for anyone else to trade with the Far East. They were hoping to find a northern route to China and India by finding a way to sail along the north coast of Canada. But Frobisher had a secret mission. He was looking for gold.

An earlier journey in 1576 to the same spot had not gone well. He set off with three ships but lost two of them on the way and five of his crew were captured by Inuit and never seen again. However, he was so confident that he has found the route, he named his landing place ‘Frobisher Passage’. They returned with a few bits and pieces they’d picked up, tokens of possession, including a small black stone “as great as a halfpenny loaf” if you can imagine such a thing. They didn’t think it was worth much to begin with. There is a story that one of the sailors was given a piece of it in payment for his services. His wife was so disgusted by it that she threw it into the fire, where it changed colour and sparkled “with a bright marquisette of gold”. Then, it was examined by experts and most of them thought it was pretty useless. Two men though, named Burchard Kranich and Jonas Schutz thought that it contained gold.

This was enough to send them on the second, much bigger, voyage. They scoured the West Country for miners to take with them and seem to have found only five. Arriving at what is now named Frobisher Bay in Canada, they spent twenty days mining ore and loading it onto their ships. They collected two hundred tons of ore. Significantly, they worked until their baskets wore out and their tools broke. This rather suggests that the men they brought may not have been miners at all, since they didn’t know how to repair the tools of their trade.

Oddly, they returned with only one hundred and forty tons of ore which was locked up in a castle in Bristol. Schutz claimed to have smelted some of the ore and found it to contain £40 worth of gold per ton. Most of it though, he told them, was trapped in the slag and what he really needed was a ‘great workes’ – a really big smelting plant to really, properly get at the gold.

Everyone was pretty excited and set off on a third voyage, this time returning with one thousand three hundred and fifty tons of ore. The smelting works were built at Dartford and everyone thought they were going to be very rich. Sadly, when the ore was treated it was found to yield very little gold. Everyone blamed Schutz for designing such a rubbish 05 31 pyritefurnace but eventually it turned out that the actual problem was that there wasn’t really any gold in the ore in the first place. What it most likely contained were crystals of iron pyrite, which is also called ‘Fools Gold’ and clearly not without reason.

Surprisingly, both Frobisher and Schutz survived the debacle. Frobisher was later knighted for his services in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Schutz went to work for the king of Scotland. His ‘great workes’ were sold and eventually became England’s first paper mill. As for the ore, once it was found to be valueless it was smashed up and used as gravel to pave the streets of London.

In the Wood

02 05 welcome strangerToday I want to tell you about a gold nugget that was found in Moliagul, Victoria in Australia on February 5th 1869. It was discovered by Cornish tin miners John Deason and Richard Oates and it is the largest nugget ever found. A nugget sounds like something small, like a booklet or a piglet, this was more of a ‘nug’. It was around 21 inches long and 10 inches thick. John and Richard were probably part time prospectors who spent the rest of their time farming their bit of land in Moliagul. They had moved there in 1862. It was a sparsely populated area, but nine years earlier there had been a rush which saw around five hundred people camping out in tents and looking for gold. During the 1850s and 60s, a vast amount of gold was discovered in the Victorian Gold Fields. One thousand tons is the total recorded estimate, though the true figure is probably twice that because some people preferred to keep their finds to themselves. Large nuggets were not uncommon, but the 1853 prospectors missed a bit.

On this day in 1869 John Deason was digging round the roots of a tree with a pickaxe when he struck something hard. He tried a little further away and hit it again, then a little further away. It was a large, hard object. He cleared away some of the soil, probably expecting to see a stone, but when he looked a bit closer, he saw the glint of gold. Clearing away more of the dirt, he saw that it was a huge lump of gold. It had been resting only a little over an inch beneath the surface. He tried to pry it out with the pickaxe. The pickaxe handle broke. One of the roots of the tree had grown through the nugget. He went back to the house to fetch his partner Richard, and a crowbar. They had walked over that spot many times. The previous gold prospectors had even camped there. Supposedly one of them had moved his tent because he couldn’t hammer the peg into the ground in one corner. Perhaps that’s just a tall tale, but it’s a good one and bears repeating.

02 05 with the nuggetWhen they got it out of the ground, they found it had quartz in it that was also flecked with gold. It weighed around three hundredweight. Unfortunately it was a Friday afternoon, the bank was closed and they had no choice but to keep it in their house over the weekend. During that time, they managed to keep their discovery a secret but also, by repeatedly heating the nugget on the fire and then cooling it, they managed to break off 72lb of quartz. On Monday, they took the quartz to be crushed and retrieved 60 oz of gold from it. On Tuesday, they and a few friends took it all to the bank in their wagon, hidden under the skirts of Mrs Deason. They were advised to take it to Melbourne, but it was a long way so they decided it was safer to take it to a nearby bank in Dunolly. Deason asked the manager what his price for gold was by hundredweight. The manager gave him the price per ounce. He said no, he wanted the price by hundredweight. The manager sent him away because he thought he was drunk. He returned shortly with his hundredweights of gold and laid it out on the floor to show the shocked bank manager. The scales at the bank were not big enough to weigh it. They had to put it in a wheelbarrow and take it to a blacksmith to be broken up. The total weight of the nugget was 210lb Troy, Within five hours, the whole thing was smelted down and made into ingots. It was found to be 98.61% pure. Most of it was sold to the bank for the sum of £9,000, though they did keep a little for themselves and their friends. The ingots were shipped off to the Bank of England.

Because it was broken up so quickly, there is hardly any visual record of the nugget, which is a shame, as I’d love to see the bit where the tree root grew through it. It does have a name though, it is called ‘The Welcome Stranger’. There is one drawing of it, and a single photograph of John, Richard and their friends and family standing proudly around it.


My own gold prospecting attempts have been less successful and confined to a small river in Scotland, but I did once find some gold. It was in my house and it has a mystery attached to it, so I thought I’d share it. I can’t give you a date, it was some time back in the late nineties. I had been given some old roof beams from a demolished building. I still have some of them. Others, I used for fuel and burned them on the fire. One day, clearing out the ashes, I found the little splash of melted yellow metal you see on the left. It can only have come from the wood. I have no idea what is once was but have often speculated on how it came to be there. The building it came from was built in 1859 and was variously a workhouse, an infirmary, a maternity hospital and a psychiatric hospital. I’ll never know what it was drove someone to hide their precious golden something in the roof beams of the building, but I wish I’d spotted it before it melted.

Gold Fever

01 24 james w marshallOn this day in 1847, James Wilson Marshall discovered the gold which would spark the California Gold Rush. This is not a story of fame, fortune and happily ever after. James profited not one bit from his precious find. If anything, it made his life considerably worse.

James Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey, but his life wasn’t going so well and, in 1834, he headed west. He settled for a while in Missouri, but contracted malaria while farming along the Missouri River. His doctor advised him to move further west for the sake of his health and, in 1845, he wound up in California working as a carpenter for a man called John Sutter. Sutter was a Swiss settler who had established an agricultural and trading colony, called Sutter’s Fort, a few years earlier. In 1847, Marshall convinced Sutter that it would be a good idea to build a sawmill, about forty-five miles away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the south fork of the American River. The mill would be powered by a large waterwheel. Marshall was put in charge of the project.

01 24 sawmillIn order for the wheel to turn, they needed to dig a large channel, called a tail race, that would let the water flow more quickly. In order to speed up the process, overnight, Marshall and his men would divert the course of the river to wash away the soil. Every morning, Marshall would make an inspection of the channel to see how things were going. It was on the morning of the 24th that he saw something shining in the bottom of the channel. He took a closer look and, as he knew a bit about minerals, he knew it was either iron pyrite or gold. He knew that iron pyrite was brittle, so he tried to crush it. He found that it was quite malleable, so he was sure it must be gold.

Sutter seems to have been none too happy about the discovery of gold on his property and tried to keep it quiet. He may have known it spelt trouble. The workers at Sutter’s Mill continued their building work, but spent their spare time searching for gold. The secret didn’t keep for long. Some of his workers visited a store owned by Sam Brannan and paid for their goods with their gold. It didn’t take Sam long to find out where the gold had come from and May 1848 found him running through the streets of San Fransisco with a bottle of gold dust crying “Gold, gold from the American River.” The cat was out of the bag. Within days half the town’s population had left for the hills and more would soon follow.

People’s lust for gold was so strong that Marshall and Sutter were soon overrun and most of their property destroyed. They were unable to hang onto their claim to the land. They had no more gold and no sawmill either. It was at this point that Marshall, for some unknown reason, decided to claim that he had supernatural powers that could lead him to the richest deposits of gold. This was not a smart move. When he either couldn’t or wouldn’t help the prospectors, they turned on him. He found it very difficult to get work. Everyone knew him to be the first person to find the gold and possibly they just assumed he was rich because they felt that, if anything, he should be employing them. Poor James Marshall. He lost all his property and no one would give him a job. He was forced to hide out in the hills with nothing but rice to eat. Unsurprisingly, he felt extremely badly done by and became a very bitter man. He did eventually receive a government pension of $200 a month for his contribution in 1872. Two years later it was halved, and two years after that, stopped altogether. He lived the rest of his life, until 1885, doing odd jobs and selling his autograph at 50c a time.

01 24 gold prospectorMarshall was not the first person to find gold in California. He was just unlucky that the story of his find spread so quickly and so far, thanks to Sam Brannen. He did not profit from the California Gold Rush and neither did many of the 300,000 prospectors who tuned up in California in search of their fortunes. It was a lawless place and around one in twelve of them would die trying to hang onto their claim. Most shamefully of all, it led to the virtual genocide of Native American tribes who had lived in the area for 14,000 years. Greed is a terrible thing.

The people who were on the periphery of the gold rush, offering goods and services were the ones who really made a profit. Guess who the first millionaire of the California Gold Rush was. It was Sam Brannan. He owned the only store between San Francisco and the California gold fields. He bought up all the picks shovels and pans he could lay his hands on. At the height of the rush in 1849, he was making $150,000 a month. He made his fortune selling hope, at a huge premium.

With such a trail of death, misfortune and wily entrepreneurs, it might be hard to see why any of this is brilliant. But the gold discovered in California contributed the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars to the economy. This new wealth created a high demand for pretty much everything and stimulated economic growth worldwide. It led to serious settlement in the west and the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In San Francisco alone the population rose from just 500 in 1847 to 150,000 by 1870. California came to be perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great fortunes could be made in return for hard work. People still follow the ‘California Dream’ only now they are more likely to be hoping for a career in Hollywood.