Remarkable post-war find of Gorleston Hoard

BRONZE AGE BONANZA: the Gorleston Hoard was unearthed on the Peterhouse Junior School site at the to

BRONZE AGE BONANZA: the Gorleston Hoard was unearthed on the Peterhouse Junior School site at the top of this 2007 aerial photograph, across the road from the grassed Magdalen Square. Picture: - Credit: Archant

A television series and two recent news items prompted a train of thought culminating in this week’s offering. Admitted, the subject matter of this column is often nostalgic, but to my mind that wistful longing and sentimental affection are for a period still within memory and not dating back aeons to the prehistoric era.

SHOW-CASED: the Gorleston Hoard on display at the opening ceremony of the new public library in 1977

SHOW-CASED: the Gorleston Hoard on display at the opening ceremony of the new public library in 1977. Those admiring it include the mayor, Alex Laird (wearing chain) and, in front of him, the man who performed the opening - distinguished Norfolk journalist Eric Fowler who wrote whimsically about county life under the pen-name of Jonathan Mardle. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

The TV series was The Detectorists, a gentle comedy starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones optimistically scanning the fields with their electronic gear in search of long-buried artefacts. The news items? The discovery near Peterborough of a Bronze Age settlement which sank into fenland 3000 years ago, and a Great Yarmouth Mercury report that in 2015 Norfolk uncovered one-tenth of the buried artefacts dug up in England.

A total of 15,000 finds are made in our county annually, only “a tiny proportion” of which are treasure, according to the Norfolk Historic Environment Services and Portable Antiquities Scheme – a title that would have been daunting before typewriters succeeded the pen.

And it all reminded me of the Gorleston Hoard, a discovery unearthed long before electronic metal-detecting became a popular hobby.

The scene of the remarkable postwar find was the site of the new Peterhouse Junior School in Magdalen Square. As a trench was being excavated by a mechanical navvy, one of the workmen spotted something green sticking out of the earth. When he pulled it clear, he found it was a socketed axe.

The excavation was halted, and he hailed his workmates who joined him in a search in case any other unusual objects had been unearthed.

“They pulled out handfuls of axes,” according to Charles Green, of the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings branch of the Ministry of Works, during a 1952 talk to a meeting organised by the Yarmouth branch of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society in conjunction with Yarmouth education committee - more cumbersome titles.

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In his opinion, it was “a really magnificent collection” and there was no bigger hoard in the country. The discovery comprised no fewer than 118 fragments, including axes, spear-heads and swords, dating back to between 750 BC and 500BC. Their distribution suggested that the original bronze founders were men who went on rounds periodically and camped in one place for perhaps a week before moving on.

When clients brought their worn-out tools to these founders to be exchanged for new ones, the travelling visitors would set up their furnace to melt down the traded-in tools, creating new ones from the old. Experts conjectured that the founders were reluctant to carry away all the heavy metal to their next destination so they buried the surplus to await their return.

Charles Green told the meeting that this was probably the scenario of the Gorleston find which included some rough pieces of bronze and some melted-down old tools in which rivet holes still showed.

He explained that although Flegg was still uninhabited at that time, Lothingland was thickly populated, shown by the fact that the Gorleston Hoard included the remains of no fewer than 70 axes “for there must have been a big population for 70 people to bring in axes at one time.”

It was announced at the gathering that before the Gorleston Hoard went on exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum, it would be on display in the Art School at Yarmouth so local residents could inspect it.

Where is it now? It is on permanent show in the archaeology section of the Time and Tide Museum, the converted former fish curing works on Blackfriars Road in Yarmouth.

However, the Greater Yarmouth official tourism website feature on the Priory Gardens claims that: “It was here that an archaeology dig revealed the Gorleston Hoard.” Hmm...

This Yarmouth neighbourhood is well blessed with other important historic discoveries – Burgh Castle and Caister are prime examples, the name of the latter village derived from an Old English word for a Roman camp or fort, the remains of which have been excavated off the Norwich Road.

Also, discoveries have been unearthed in many spots hereabouts, among them a hoard of historic coins discovered when a builder stepped on them getting out of his Land Rover on Haddiscoe Island. It was subsequently bought by Yarmouth’s Elizabethan House Museum.

Roger Cole, a foreman working on flood defence works, spotted what he thought was a pile of old Co-op dividend tokens...but he had discovered 300 silver half-crowns, shillings and sixpences dating back to between 1550 and 1646 when King Edward VI was on the throne.

Because they were declared officially as treasure, they became the property of the Crown, with finder Mr Cole and the landowner receiving half-shares of the £3000 current value. At the time when they were in circulation, they were worth about £15 face value, much greater than the annual salary of a soldier, so a museum curator reckoned that “as Norfolk was strongly Parliamentarian, it is possible that the hoard was hidden by a nervous Royalist who hoped to recover them later.”

The coins were the largest hoard from the English Civil War period so far found in Norfolk.

In 1991 in this column I reviewed Tales of Old Norfolk, a new book by Wisbech author Polly Mowat who included a treasure story about the Callow Pit at Southwood, near Cantley. She claimed that the pit, once used by smugglers, was given a wide berth at night by local folk because of a headless horseman legend.

Parishioners reckoned that submerged in the deep water in the pit lay a locked iron chest full of gold, but two brave souls ignored the headless rider rumours and, when the water was at its shallowest, succeeded in locating the chest and fished it up.

My 1991 review avoided reporting the outcome so as not to spoil the surprise for readers. I have long since forgotten it. To my surprise, the book is still in print a quarter of a century later so, to learn the secret of the Callow Pit, visit on-line (local history books) to buy a copy.