Eric Lawes was a retired man with a metal detector on the day he found Great Britain’s most valuable treasure, a Roman-era treasure chest known as the Hoxne Hoard. The chest, which contained over 15,000 coins, provided important clues to Roman Britain’s separation from the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, AD.
12. A New Hobby
Eric Lawes was born in Hoxne, pictured above, and grew up in poverty. Like other men of his era, he dropped out of school at age 14 to work on the farm and help support his family. Lawes once worked as a delivery boy for a bakery but quit when he was accused of being a half-penny short. He was a man of high character who was called up to the Royal Marines and fought in World War II. After his retirement from the Eastern Electricity Board, his coworkers gifted him a metal detector.
11. Pay Dirt
Lawes’ new hobby paid great dividends. It all started simply enough on November 16, 1992, near Hoxne village. Lawes was searching for an old hammer which had once been lost on the farmland. The tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, went with him on his search. However, the metal detector found a strong signal deep in the earth. Lawes started digging and quickly hit literal pay dirt.
10. Quick Thinking
First Lawes dug up a few shovelfuls of gold coins and silver spoons. This was enough for him to realize that he had discovered something special and experts were needed. Lawes called the police and the archeological society. One day later, the archeologists were able to extract an entire chunk of earth containing the whole treasure, which was inside a wooden box. This way they could remove all of the objects back in the lab, making it easier to date the cache.
9. The Hoxne Hoard
When the archeologists extracted every item, they had 15,234 Roman coins, dozens of silver spoons and more than 200 gold objects. The treasure amounted to 60 pounds of gold and silver. But that wasn’t all. There were also 29 pieces of gold jewelry and all manner of vases, bowls, beakers, and a statue of a tigress. The treasure was called the “Hoxne Hoard” after the village where it was found.
8. Byzantine Empire
This treasure is priceless because it was buried around the early part of the Fifth Century, a key turning point in the history of Britain. The Roman Empire was collapsing and the British people were in revolt against the Roman authority. Some of the coins fro the Hoard were Byzantine. When the Roman Empire fell, it split in two, with the Eastern half, centered in Constantinople, becoming the seat of power. Some coins show Constantine II, the son of Constantine the Great.
7. The Pepper Pot
Archeologists were intrigued by the “pepper pot” since it was thought to depict a Roman empress. However, experts subsequently determined that the figure could be an aristocratic lady of the time, and even one of the owners of the Hoxne Hoard. Holes in the base of the pot are there to shake out the pepper. This shows that the owners were engaged in some kind of international trade, since pepper had to be obtained from India. It also shows an intricate hairstyle and decorative pins, revealing something about aristocratic fashion of the time. Although there is no way of knowing who owned the Hoard, there are clues in the form of Roman names inscribed on some of the items. the box was packed and buried carefully, which could mean they wanted to hide it from thieves.
6. Other Theories
There are other theories about why the Hoard was buried. The wealthy landowners may have buried it because they wanted to de-emphasize their Roman identity at a time when the Isles were in revolt. It also could have been stolen by thieves, who then buried it, intending to return at a later time. Other treasure was discovered all over Britain from the same era, but experts do not know why wealthy families started burying boxes of treasure. This is a historical puzzle that has yet to be solved. However, there are clues about what really happened.
5. Attacks from All Sides
When Rome collapsed, it withdrew support for its subjects in Britain. Scottish and Irish raiders then attacked Britain, making an era of terror and violence. There were also invasions from the Germanic peoples. As Peter Guest, author of a book about the Hoxne Hoard makes clear, “[t]he years from the later fourth century to 450, the period including the British hoarding peak, witnessed numerous invasions into the [mainland Europe] Empire by Germanic and Hunnic groups often followed by largescale devastation and disruption.”
4. A Mysterious Text
An old text from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which was published in the 9th century sheds more light on what happened. The entry for the year 418 AD states “In this year the Romans collected all the treasures which were in Britain and hid some in the earth so that no one afterwards could find them, and some they took with them into Gaul.” This lends credence to the theory that the hoards were buried to keep them out of foreign hands. However, none of the other peoples who experienced the collapse of the Roman Empire buried their treasures.
3. A Reward
The Hoard is now in the British Museum. Lawes was rewarded with £1.75 million from the British government for finding the treasure and leaving it intact. Although he was under no obligation to share the money, he split it with Whatling. Eventually, he even discovered the hammer, which is also on display at the British Museum.
2. The Biggest Find
The Hoxne Hoard is the largest of the 40 hoards found in Britain. Rachel Wilkinson, curator for the Romano-British collections, says the way the Hoard was excavated made it one of a kind. Often farmers discover the buried treasure after the field was plowed, but in this case, everything was perfectly intact.
1. A Countryman at Heart
Eric Lawes passed away in 2015 at the age of 92. After his discovery, he split the money with Whatling and built a house. Lawes met Prince Charles and made several trips to London after he found the Hoxne Hoard, but according to friends he remained a countryman at heart. His wife Gepha Bridges predeceased him. He was survived by two sons, Andrew and Peter.