The Middleham Jewel
Every detectorist at one time or another in his or her searching career will become aware of the medieval pendant unearthed in 1985 by Ted Seaton, accompanied by two mates. At first Ted thought that he’d found an old powder compact – until he got it home.
The discovery was adjudged not to be Treasure Trove, made headlines across the world and sold by Sotheby’s for £1.43m. The buyer was never revealed. The three ‘finders’, Ted, Bill Wiggans and Paul Kingston, shared the £1.43m with the farmer and landowner.
Ted’s find was what detectorist dreams are made of and one of the most beautiful, interesting and valuable discoveries in the history of detecting. But it was a time of turmoil in the hobby.
The Plot Thickens
Leaving the country for a new life in Spain, Ted was said to have received death threats. Paul Kingston said at the time that the stress of the find had given him ulcers. Another detectorist, William Caygill, who was absent at the dig because his ‘detector was being repaired’, demanded a share of the money. His claim was dismissed in court. This scenario is one you may recognise and even be familiar. Did the guys have an ‘agreement’ that turned sour?
The jewel faded from the news until 1991, when the unknown owner applied to take it abroad. The Department of Trade and Industry blocked the request (twice) in the hope that a British buyer could be found. Having failed at the original Sotheby’s sale, the Yorkshire Museum launched an appeal to raise the now £2.5m needed – a sharp increase of almost 100%.
With the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, donations from many sources, including American millionaire John Paul Getty Jnr, The Art Fund, North Yorkshire County Council, the Richard III Society and private individuals, the jewel found a permanent home in York, where you can see it today.
It wasn’t until a sitting of the Lords a few years later, the Earl of Perth asked Her Majesty’s Government whether they would set up a body to inquire into the ‘working of the rules of treasure trove and the use of metal detectors. He mentioned the ‘Saga of the Middleham Jewel’, and said that the enquiry was of ‘great urgency’. The Treasure Act (Code of Practice) followed in 1996 was the result. Click on this link to read about the birth of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).
Vera Seaton’s Story
Ted died of heart failure in 2001 and this story is his wife’s account. Vera echoes the phrase about the ‘saga’ of those difficult times in her book’s title and relates how Ted’s ‘day out with the lads’ on the 2nd of September 1985 was just the start of an epic tale.
This relatively short book of 58 pages is written in Ted’s memory, dedicated to the grandchildren and I suspect has been a cathartic experience for the author and one she felt compelled to write.
The narrative skilfully takes the reader from the initial finding to the research, strange visitors, press intrusion, flight to Spain, that court injunction taken out by Mr Caygill claiming part of the proceeds.
With a find as historically important as this, Vera’s unique perspective is interesting as well as compelling to read. I recommend it to all detectorists, not just as a good book, but also as a kind of exemplar of good practice on what they should do if making a great find.
The one and only factual error is the caption to a photograph in the frontispiece ‘Ted and Vera, September 1885. I don’t wish to detract from such an important piece of work, but wonder why the illustration of the jewel on the front cover is rather subdued and not as vibrant as I remember.
In 1985 Robin Hatt, the then editor of The Searcher gave the first report of this magnificent find, part of which is reproduced in Vera’s fine book. The jewel also graced the front cover of The Searcher in November 1987. Robin also gave a report on what happened at that first auction in 1997.
The Middleham Jewel is a 15th-century pendant made by one of the finest medieval London goldsmiths, and unearthed by a metal detectorist near Middleham Castle. Only a wealthy and powerful person could have commissioned such a jewel. In fact, the owner may well have been royal or noble. Its real significance may be in the story of its imagery. Its owner, most probably a woman, had it adorned with images of the Trinity, the Nativity, prayers and saints. These all had significance surrounding childbirth.
The pendant opens and is thought to have contained the holy relic of a saint. In fact, the owner may well have been royal, or at the least, noble. The metal detectorist – Ted Seaton – at first thought he’d found an old powder compact, until he got it home. His discovery was adjudged not to be Treasure Trove and was sold first at auction and then acquired by the Yorkshire Museum with support from many funders including The Art Fund. BBC