GOLD! When an Ipswich digger driver found buried treasure
PUBLISHED: 19:02 11 August 2019 | UPDATED: 02:16 13 August 2019
The chatter over the garden fences of Ipswich half a century ago was about the discovery of stunning artefacts more than 2,000 years old
It's autumn and thoughts are turning to Bonfire Night. Sneezums, of Fore Street in Ipswich, is advertising fireworks - "The greatest selection in town!" They cost between two old pennies and £6-and-five-shillings apiece, while display sets range from five guineas to a not-insubstantial 100 guineas.
But on Monday, October 28, 1968, the minds of Evening Star readers are on the front-page story, rather than any sparkly and noisy delights to come.
"Driver digs up Iron Age gold" screams the "splash" - the main article. "Ipswich building site discovery" adds a smaller headline.
Soon to turn six, I've been at Gusford primary school that day - not far from the scene of the discovery.
It had been made on the Saturday, when digger driver Malcolm Tricker found five Iron Age torcs - ornate rings, each about eight inches in diameter, worn around the neck.
My mother, an inveterate reader of the Star, explains that gold necklaces have been dug up close to our home in Bridgwater Road. To a five-year-old concerned only with watching Blue Peter on TV, old jewellery is neither here nor there.
But it is, in the great scheme of things. The newspaper suggests that "If the preliminary assessment of their age is confirmed, the find may prove to be the most important archaeological discovery ever made in Ipswich."
'I couldn't really believe it was true'
Ipswich is growing fast in the late 1960s. There's new housing going up, near us, on the edge of the Chantry estate. The area is being referred to as Belstead Hills and is on land once part of the grounds of Stoke Park House.
Malcolm Tricker - employed by J Gerrard and Sons, contracted to help create roads and sewers - finds himself part of that expansion. That October he's involved in the bulldozing of a high earth bank, formerly pasture, to create a level site for the new houses of Holcombe Crescent.
The 26-year-old spots something shiny sticking out of the sandy soil on the face of the bank, about four feet from the top, and pulls out two unusual-looking metal loops. A bit more digging finds three others.
"I had no idea what they were. At first I thought they might be old brass harness fittings," Malcolm says.
He doesn't live far away, in Swallow Road, and during his lunch break takes the five loops home to wash off the sand and dirt. He's struck by the unusual brilliance of the metal.
"I used to work in a scrap metal yard, and I realised these things were too heavy to be brass. They gave out quite a different sound from brass when I tapped them together, and they were quite untarnished. It occurred to me then that they might be gold."
Malcolm and his wife realise he has stumbled upon something likely to be of considerable value. He takes them to Ipswich Museum.
Head attendant Cyril Butcher recognises them immediately as torques (that's the spelling the paper uses at the time, but we'll generally opt for the alternative word from now) and phones museum archaeologist Elizabeth Owles. She's on leave, but hurries to the High Street museum when she hears about the discovery.
"When I saw the torques I couldn't really believe it was true. It was the most exciting find I have ever seen," she says.
Miss Owles does a preliminary acid test that shows the torcs are probably gold. Then she hands them to the police to look after. That done, she heads for Holcombe Crescent.
'Boadicea probably wore something like this'
"I could find no trace of a burial," the archaeologist reports. "In my view they were almost certainly a goldsmith's hoard. They may even have been hidden there by the man who made them. They look as if they could all be the work of the same craftsman."
The five pieces are undamaged, and in such "mint" condition that it's possible they were never worn - perhaps buried for safe-keeping during some kind of crisis and never recovered.
Each is made of intertwined bars of gold, ending in two solid loops. On four of the torcs, the curving loops are decorated with delicate embossed ornamentation typical of the late Iron Age. On the fifth, they're plain.
The weight of the torcs ranges from 27 to 33 ounces and it is thought the gold probably came from Ireland. The decorative work is sharp and well-defined.
Similar torcs had been found at Snettisham in Norfolk, but few are reckoned to be in "such splendid condition" as these.
Miss Owles explains that gold torcs were worn around the neck as an ornament, or possibly as an emblem of rank, by tribal kings or chieftains during the late Iron Age - around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain.
"Queen Boadicea probably wore something like this."
Very few Iron Age relics had ever been found in Ipswich, apparently - which makes this 1968 discovery remarkable. The news report explains: "Where the town now stands was then apparently a kind of no-man's land between the territories of two tribes: the Iceni, who occupied what is now Norfolk and North Suffolk, and the Belgae, who lived in what later became Essex. Queen Boadicea of the Iceni led a revolt against the Roman invaders in AD 60."
A coroner's court would decide if the torcs were treasure trove - which would mean they were the property of the Crown and would likely be handed to the British Museum.
'Probably a one-haul find'
On the Monday - amazingly - work continues on the building site. Foreman Mr GL Burstall explains "My directors feel that this is probably a one-haul find, so work is progressing this morning as though nothing had happened."
In any case, Ipswich Museum didn't have the resources to stage an archaeological dig. Later that week, though, experts from the British Museum examine the torcs and confirm they are genuine Iron Age relics, made about 50BC.
I had more to think about than old stuff in the ground. The next Saturday brings my sixth birthday. Less than five weeks after that my father dies, and then it's Christmas. (I get a Man from U.N.C.L.E. attaché case, featuring a toy gun, invisible ink, fake walkie-talkie, handcuffs and more.) The treasures found over the road never enter my mind. Until now.
What happened next?
An inquest is held in Ipswich a week before Christmas. It declares the torcs treasure trove. They are acquired by the British Museum in 1969. Malcolm Tricker is awarded £45,000 for his discovery.
Ipswich Museum is later presented with replicas of the objects.
JW Brailsford, writing soon afterwards in a Suffolk Institute of Archaeology publication, says the gold torcs also contained a small amount of silver. (Later reports suggest the torcs are more than 84% gold.)
Comparing three of them with torcs found at Snettisham indicated that the Suffolk objects were works-in-progress. The Ipswich torcs "appear to represent three stages of manufacture, and four, if not all five, should be taken as unfinished".
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The conclusion drawn is that "they were deliberately buried by their owner or possibly as loot by some marauder, but in any case hidden for safety in some emergency with the intention of ultimate recovery".
The pieces are, writes the expert, "outstanding examples of Early Iron Age craftsmanship. As an associated group the find is unique and of exceptional interest for the study of prehistoric technology; such a concentration of precious objects must also have significant historical and sociological implications".
Then there were six…
In October, 1970, a sixth torc is discovered by the owner of one of the newly-built Holcombe Crescent houses. Peter Gorham has been sorting out a pile of earth left in his garden after the construction work. He finds the torc four inches down.
An inquest in Ipswich the following February declares it treasure trove. The torc joins the other five at the British Museum. Mr Gorham receives £8,500 or £9,000. (Reports differ.)
This sixth one is "slightly different in design", says specialist Richard Blurton, "but… probably part of the same original group".
Elizabeth Owles writes in a Suffolk Institute of Archaeology publication: "Already Ipswich has provided the richest Iron Age hoard yet found in England, just as in the Mildenhall and Sutton Hoo treasures Suffolk has produced the most spectacular finds of the Roman and Saxon periods."
Miss Owles, by the way, goes on to work at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, retiring as its curator in December, 1985.
Out on the road
One or more of the torcs has been displayed in East Anglia - and much further afield. Exhibitions include:
* 'The Enduring Image' in Mumbai and Delhi, India, in 1997 and 1998
* 'Gold: Power and Allure' - at Goldsmiths' Hall in London in 2012
* 'Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia' at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, in 2013/14
* 'The Ipswich Torcs' at Norwich Castle Museum in 2015 and 2016. Dr John Davies, from Norwich Castle Museum, said: "They are beautiful items, and nationally important."
We can see the torcs in Room 50 of the British Museum, which is devoted to "Britain and Europe 800 BC - AD 43".
"The Iron Age was a time of dramatic change for the people of Britain and Europe," says the museum. "Iron replaced bronze as the material used to make tools and weapons, while religion, art, daily life, economics and politics changed dramatically."
Richard Blurton, writing in 1997 in "The Enduring Image: Treasures from the British Museum", says the torcs were probably deposited together as a hoard in about 75BC. The museum dates them to about 150BC to 50BC.
"The precise function and symbolism of British torcs is not recorded and none has been found in a burial. Gold torcs may have been a symbol of high status since, in the only surviving record, a British chief, Boudicca, is described as wearing a gold necklet when she led her tribal army into battle against the occupying Roman army in AD 60-61," writes Richard, who cautions: "The author, Cassius Dio, was however writing long after the event."
Life in 1968
News of the Ipswich discovery pushed Princess Margaret out of the spotlight. The Queen's sister was pictured on the front page of the Evening Star, but the story ran on an inside page.
The princess had spent the weekend in Suffolk - at Sternfield House, near Saxmundham, with Lt Col Eric Penn and his wife.
On the Sunday night - wearing a rich, red, sequin-studded velvet outfit lost on a black and white picture! - she made a surprise visit to Snape Maltings for a Count Basie jazz concert recorded by the BBC. On the Monday, she took the train back to London from Ipswich station.
* That Saturday, Ipswich Town lost 0-1 at home to Spurs, despite apparently playing well enough to have deserved at least a draw.
The London side was said to have owed its victory to "a superlative performance" by goalkeeper Pat Jennings… who had been given his first taste of League football at Watford five years earlier by Bill McGarry. McGarry was now the Town manager (though soon to depart).
The crowd was 30,243 - just 406 short of the ground record. The result left Ipswich fifth from bottom of the table.
In other news…
* Ipswich Co-operative Society was selling Domestos Regular bleach for 1s 2d, half a dozen Kit-Kats for 1s 6d, and 72 Tetley tea-bags for 4s 11d. Its "super new food hall" in Meredith Road was now open, too.
* Ipswich Odeon was showing Clint Eastwood in the film Hang 'Em High.
* Suffolk Mental Hospitals Management Committee sought a storekeeper for St Audry's Hospital, Melton, near Woodbridge. The pay was £14 and nine shillings for a 40-hour week.
* The unmanned Soviet space-craft Soyuz-2 landed in the Soviet Union after three days in space. Its crewed sister ship, with cosmonaut Georgy Beregovi, continued in flight.
* The Felixstowe Autumn Festival of Drama and the Arts continued at the Spa Pavilion. "Direct from the Edinburgh Festival" was Lindsay Kemp ("Britain's leading Mime"), starring in Pierrot in Turquoise, "a unique entertainment of ballet, mime and music".
* On TV on BBC 1 at 4.10pm was Teaching Nuffield Chemistry: Part 3: Demonstration or Discovery. After that came Jackanory and Blue Peter.
Evening programmes included quiz Ask the Family, police drama Z Cars, comedian Harry Worth and Panorama.
Anglia had The Romper Room, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Coronation Street and World in Action.
BBC 2 didn't burst into life until 7pm, though it was in colour (for those who had colour sets). Its fare included new western series The High Chaparral.
On the wireless, BBC Radio 4 (330m) had The Archers and panel game Just a Minute. Some things don't change…