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The Goddess in the Margarine Tub Is Just One of 1,267 Treasures Found by the British Public in 2017

A new report reveals the pieces voluntarily recorded with the U.K.’s Portable Antiquities Scheme last year

(Rod Trevaskus/Oxfordshire County Council)
smithsonian.com

Old margarine tubs don’t exactly have a reputation for harboring priceless treasures. If they’re holding something, it’s usually crumbling matchbooks, bread ties, false teeth, or maybe just some really old margarine. But a farmer in Great Britain lucked out, reports Mark Brown at The Guardian: a tub he’d held onto for over a decade turned out to contain the real deal—a genuine copper-alloy and lead statue of Minerva dating back 2,000 years.

Before you ask, yes, the anonymous individual, who owns land in rural Oxfordshire, was very aware that he had a goddess of wisdom trapped in a margarine tub. He’d previously given metal detectors permission to search his grounds, and about a decade ago, one located the little statuette in a field near the village of Hailey. At the time, the landowner assumed the Minerva sculpture was a modern reproduction, and so he wrapped it in tissue paper and stashed it away in a margarine container.

When another metal detector, retired truck driver Len Jackman, stopped by last year, they got to chatting. As Jackman recollects to Lianne Kolirin at CNN, the man told Jackman about the curious find.

Jackman had a suspicion that the artifact was actually old. A few months later, after scouring the field, Jackman showed the landowner other finds he’d located in the field, and said he’d like to take them to be assessed. “[H]e said if I was going I should take the stuff from the margarine tub,” says Jackman.

Anni Byard, the finds liaison officer for Oxfordshire, who first examined the statue, knew straightaway that it was Roman. It was likely part of a shrine, she tells Brown of the Guardian, and though the head is detached from the body, the statue is still valuable.

The British Museum released details of the find on Tuesday, along with other treasures found by the public in 2017. Treasure, at least in the U.K., has a very specific meaning—according to the Treasure Act of 1996, it refers to coins at least 300 years old, any non-coin object made with at least 10 percent gold or silver that is at least 300 years old, two or more associated ancient metalworks, and any artifacts substantially made from gold or silver “deliberately hidden with intention of recovery.” If the artifact is officially declared to be legal “treasure,” the museum is given first go at it; the finder must sell it to them at a price set by independent experts. If the museum doesn’t want it, the owner is free to keep it or sell it elsewhere. In total, 1,267 pieces of treasure were found in the U.K. in 2017, among 78,000 archeological items. About 93 percent of those objects were found by amateur metal detectors. Adam Sherwin of iNews notes that the Treasure Annual Report and Portable Antiquities Annual Report makes a point to share that 363 pieces of treasure found in 2016 have since been acquired by museums.

Other notable finds of 2017 include a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age gold bulla, or amulet, found the Shropshire Marshes and a 375-year-old silver pocket watch with a rare inscription from London watchmaker Oswald Durant.

“Another record-breaking year of Treasure finds is wonderful news for our knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past,” say Michael Ellis, minister for arts, heritage and tourism. “To know that many previous discoveries continue to go to museums so that the public can benefit is hugely encouraging.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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