This 1,200-Year-Old Artifact Is Stunning—but Nobody Knows What It Is

The intricately decorated silver object was likely created by a highly skilled craftsperson in England

The object was found by metal detectorists in Norfolk, England. Andrew Williams / Norfolk County Council

Metal detectorists have unearthed a tiny trinket covered in beautiful, intricate designs in Norfolk, England. The 1,200-year-old gilded silver artifact was likely created by skilled workers, but its purpose remains a mystery.

The strange object is about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Found near the village of Langham, it resembles a small, crumpled cap. It’s adorned with tactile patterns and the image of an animal resembling a horse.

The artifact captivated historian Helen Geake, Norfolk’s finds liaison officer, reports BBC News’ Katy Prickett.

Object's Face Sketch
The object has cylindrical sides and a cicular top adorned with an animal. Jason Gibbons / Norfolk County Council

“It’s so tiny, and yet it was created just as carefully as something like a Bible or piece of jewelry,” says Geake, who has also appeared as an expert on the archaeology television show “Time Team.”

Based on the object’s complicated design, Geake infers that its craftsperson was “multi-talented and doing lots of different things.” The creator likely mixed imported Spanish mercury with powdered gold to create a gilding liquid, not unlike the paints used in illuminated manuscripts—handwritten books adorned with metallics and colorful drawings—made around the same time.

Geake recognizes the spiral pattern on the object’s sides from two illuminated manuscripts, both containing the four gospels of the New Testament: the 1,200-year-old Book of Kells and the 1,300-year-old Lindisfarne Gospel.

The newly discovered artifact dates to the late eighth or early ninth century. Its dominant motif, the animal carved and delicately painted on its top, could be a horse with its head turned backward, says Geake. Outlined by gold, the horse is dark brown, with dark swirling lines drawn through its body. Its face is shown in profile, with one eye visible.

Photos of Object
The object reminds historian Helen Geake of other designs from the period. Andrew Williams / Norfolk County Council

“I love its color,” she tells BBC News. “A lot of the time, we don’t see the colors of the past because clothes don’t survive and enamels drop out of settings.”

The expensive materials and highly detailed artisanship suggest the object was treasured, perhaps serving a meaningful personal or religious purpose, writes the Telegraph’s Craig Simpson. One possibility, Geake suggests, is that it was once a decorative cap on the end of a staff.

Multiple Drawings of the Object
The artifact was found crushed on one side, with a resulting crack in its wall. Jason Gibbons / Norfolk County Council

Archaeological discoveries are “consistently churned up from the Norfolk soil,” according to the Telegraph. In 2022, the county reported the most treasure finds of any area in the United Kingdom.

Though many curious objects have been discovered in Norfolk, Geake says the gilded cap is “completely unlike” any other find. BBC News reports that it has been declared a treasure, and the local Norwich Castle Museum expressed interest in acquiring it, despite its unknown purpose.

“It’s a mysterious object, and you can’t say what kind of thing it’s off at all,” Geake adds. “But it was made by someone with a real eye for loveliness.”

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