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Or: Better Treasure than a Book. Better Book than a Movie.

Roald Dahl fans may recognize this title either on its own or as part of the collection in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. One of my childhood favorites, I didn't realize until many years later that the story is based heavily on the accounts of those involved in the actual 1942 discovery of this very real treasure, now housed in the British Museum.

And there is no movie. Yet.

On the Map

The Mildenhall Treasure appropriately takes its name from the town of Mildenhall in Suffolk, England, a county perched precariously between Cambridge and the sea. One has one's choice of neighbors.

The town is currently better known for the RAF Mildenhall air base--one of the United States Air Force's largest installations in the United Kingdom--and the Mildenhall Air Show, a military dog-and-pony affair annually displaying to the civilian population of England what can be seen by civilian populations elsewhere every day, for free.

Romani Ite Domum!

1700 years ago, however, the area was (tentatively) controlled by another empire, one that had rather exquisite taste in roadways and aqueducts but was nonetheless largely unappreciated by the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants.

In the 4th Century, much of England was in fact Roman Britain, an Imperial outpost where centurion troops and ambitious holiday-makers alike could set up villa and get down to some serious partying. Scores of trinkets left behind by rich and poor have been recovered, dug out of gardens and farms--but one family in particular hosted what must have been a very fine dinner after which no one bothered to clean up. In fact, they probably buried the stuff when their party was crashed by the locals, who by this time in history were making many a pass at the gate.

The Motherus Lodus

Partial contents of the Mildenhall Treasure:

  • Flanged silver bowl with lid; made in Gaul. Lid made separately later. 23cm diameter.
  • Flanged silver bowl; late Roman. 30cm diameter.
  • Large fluted silver bowl, 40.8cm diameter.
  • Medium silver platter; "belonging to Eutherios" etched on underside. 18.5cm diameter.
  • Medium silver platter; "belonging to Eutherios" etched on underside. 18.8cm diamter.
  • Ladles, several, assorted; silver, Dolphin handled. Approximately 15.2cm long.
  • Three silver spoons; likely a set with the fluted bowl.
  • Three silver spoons; marked with Greek chi and rho, alpha and omega. Only overt Christian markings in the treasure.
  • Two silver spoons; marked with names Papittedo and Pascentia and 'vivas'.
  • Large silver dish; niello/silver sulphide engravings. 55.6cm diamter.
  • The Great Dish, or Oceanus Dish; highly engraved with Bacchic imagery. 60.5cm diameter. 8256 grams.

That last, to the Americans among you, is about two feet in diameter--eigteen pounds of silver. Enough to keep you in fillings and free of werewolves for many, many years.

All in all, the Mildenhall treasure contains 34 separate pieces of Roman finery. It can be seen, along with most of Greek and Egyptian history, in the British Museum, and is the largest cache of Roman art history discovered on British soil.

Finders Keepers?

That's complicated. I don't want to ruin Dahl's story for you, but Britain had and has rules about this sort of thing: Treasure Trove. It's Common Law, so no definitive written version exists, or did in the 1940s.

Stated briefly, and thoroughly oversimplified--Treasure Trove is limited to objects of precious metal buried with intention of recovery and of which the owner cannot be traced. If you're lucky enough to stub your toe on something you think could be valuable, have to report it to the coroner, who may make a Treasure inquest. If the inquest calls 'Treasure Trove!' the haul reverts to the Crown (see Gritchka's wu under Treasure Trove for the latest manifestation of the law).

But the finder gets rewarded, according to a valuation done by 'reliable' sources, of which the British Museum is one. The Finder, I say. Not the landowner. The landowner has no right to monetary compensation whatsoever, even if the Finder was trespassing, poaching, or just skipping merrily along holding a lottery ticket he no longer needs.

Which is why Mr. Rolfe, the owner of the land under which the Mildenhall Treasure was discovered, didn't get a brass farthing. But that's the simple part.

So here's why you want to write your laws all down, should you ever become King or Queen of anything important.

So You Say You Hate Your Boss?

In brief:

Mr. Rolfe hires Mr. Ford to plow his fields. Mr. Ford is too busy to do this, so he in turn hires Mr. Butcher. No doubt you already see where this is going.

Mr. Butcher--not a rich man, nor well versed in law, unfortunately--is plowing away, about ten inches deep, when the peg attaching tractor to plow snaps. Investigating, he discovers the tip of a very profitable iceberg. But he can't dig it out on his own, and so goes to his immediate employer for help. Ford returns with him and together they dig up the lot.

But Ford knows the law, and knows just as well it wasn't his eye that spotted the stuff first. So he manages to convince Butcher that the stuff is all made from pewter--common enough in England, and worth about as much to the Crown as Wallis Simpson. Ford takes the stuff home, polishes it up, and leaves it in a drawer for three years, waiting, one presumes, to move it safely.

Top Tip, Metal Detectors--silver oxidizes to a nice green/black crust. Pewter doesn't.

CUT TO: Four years later, 1946. The war's over. The Germans lost. Butcher ain't gettin' any richer. And Ford is still shining up his spoons at home.

And then he gets a visit from a Dr. Fawcett, who, nosy parker, spots a spoon left out in open view and starts asking questions. In short order, the millicents are on the case and claims are being made.

Given the amount of time gone by, and other mitigating factors, the government decided to chuck Ford and Butcher a thousand pounds each. So Butcher rather got the short-end there, as had Ford not suckered him he would have been entitled to 100% of the value--

Between 500,000 and a million pounds.


www.oldcity.demon.co.uk/eastanglia/ towns/mildenhall.html

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