U3A Archaeology Group

The Salisbury Hoard by Margaret Mckenzie

This talk was given on 31st January 2006

The Salisbury Hoard by Margaret Mckenzie

'Salisbury Hoard' an appreciation of Ian Stead's book of that name by Margaret McKenzie with his permission. Ian Stead was Bronze Age expert at the British Museum before he retired.

In the late 1980s artefacts of special interest began to circulate on the antiques market for which there was no provenance.

Ian Stead was asked to look into it and try to find out more about them. Several collectors and Museums owned various articles which began to fit into a pattern although no one could (or, perhaps would) say who was circulating them or where they had come from. They all seemed to come from one source and that source seemed to be in Salisbury so it began to be called the Salisbury Hoard.

A number of miniature bronze shields formed the most interesting group although the hoard contained arrow heads, knives, miniature pots (cauldrons), pins and brooches, and many other small items. Eventually it was found to comprise over 500 artefacts, all bronze but covering a period of nearly 2000 years. They were found together in one pit 18 inches deep by 12 inches in circumference, neatly packed and arranged with care thus making it a unique collection in its size, time span and manner of disposal.

It took four years to track down the metal detectorists who had found the Hoard and dug it up without the knowledge, or permission, of the land owner. The two men were eventually caught and charged with theft of treasure valued at £85,000. They were given suspended prison sentences.

About a third of the Hoard has been traced and much of that is in the British Museum, although other Museums have retained the artefacts that they had bought. Much of it remains in the hands of individual buyers and collectors in countries as far afield as Germany, America and Japan.


The Salisbury Hoard is the most remarkable hoard of prehistoric metalwork ever found in Britain, but knowledge of it was almost lost with artefacts scattered by metal-detectorists, dealers, auction houses and collectors. Thanks, however, to the dogged persistence of Dr Stead well over half the hoard has now been recovered and acquired by the British Museum, where it will be displayed as one of the most important finds of the century.

Items stolen from the UK in the past include the Salisbury Hoard , a unique collection of more than 500 prehistoric artefacts that were stolen in 1985 by treasure hunters from a site near Salisbury. Two thirds of the hoard has been recovered by the British Museum but a third is still dispersed in the trade. Now, if such a hoard were stolen and taken to a country covered by the Convention, the UK could consider putting in a claim for its return.

The Salisbury Hoard Bronze Age and Iron Age, 2400-200 BC
Found at Netherhampton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

An archaeological detective story

The Salisbury Hoard is the largest group of prehistoric metal objects ever found in Britain.

It first came to light in 1988, when archaeologist Dr Ian Stead was shown a collection of bronze miniature shields. He realized that they were unusual Iron Age artefacts, but did not know who found them or where they came from.

As he investigated, Dr Stead heard rumours that they were among hundreds of objects found in the Salisbury area. It then took years of detective work, including secret meetings in a pub, to uncover the story. Two metal detectorists had discovered the hoard during an illegal search and had sold the objects to dealers.

Proper excavations in 1993 established that over 600 objects had been deposited in a large pit close to a settlement. Most were miniature versions of objects such as shields, tools, daggers and spearheads. They were probably buried as offerings to ancient gods. The shields, for example, may have been intended to bring good luck in warfare. They were buried about 2000 years ago, at which time some of the objects were already 2000 years old. These were possibly Bronze Age objects dug up in the Iron Age and reburied with the other items.

From the collection of the British Museum

Now obviously I'd like to make clear to Christie's, Sotheby's and especially their lawyers that I'm not suggesting for one moment that they'd sell goods if an Islamic fundamentalist turned up on their doorstep with a sack of loot. However I'm not totally convinced that their checks are sufficient to stop them from unwittingly selling illicit material. I don't make this charge lightly. Below is a diagram from Ian Stead's book on the Salisbury Hoard xv. The Salisbury Hoard was illegally excavated in the UK and fenced through the London market. See how many names you recognise.

Diagram of trade of illicit material. From Ian Steads's Salisbury Hoard

It's hard to argue that something isn't very wrong in the antiquities market, when illicit goods can be passed around like that. It's amazing the British Museum was even able to spot something was amiss. It's also worth noting that all the antiquities going overseas should have had export licences. I don't know how many did. It must drive honest antiquities dealers mad with rage. I'm amazed you don't hear the major auction houses demanding a crackdown on the people who bring their trade into disrepute.

It's safe to assume that there is the demand and the means of supplying it once the material is out of Iraq.

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