On an early Sunday morning in June, a group of friends decided to search a field near Peebles, Scotland, with metal detectors. One of them, 44-year-old Mariusz Stepien, found an unfamiliar bronze object buried around 1.5 feet underground—and his detector gave off strong signals that more artifacts were hidden nearby.
Stepien called Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit (TTU), which sent in a team of archaeologists after determining that the finds dated to the Bronze Age, TTU head Emily Freeman tells BBC Breakfast. Over the course of a 22-day excavation, the researchers uncovered a hoard of 3,000-year-old objects, including a sword still in its scabbard, chariot wheel axle caps and an entire horse harness, reports Amy Woodyatt for CNN.
“This is a nationally significant find—so few Bronze Age hoards have been excavated in Scotland, it was an amazing opportunity for us to not only recover bronze artifacts, but organic material as well,” says Freeman in a statement quoted by BBC News.
The field’s soil preserved organic material like wood and leather, allowing archaeologists to trace the straps connecting the harness’ rings and buckles and see how the gear was once constructed. The trove also contained evidence of an ornamental rattle pendant that likely adorned the harness. The pendant is the third of its kind found in the United Kingdom and the first found in Scotland, according to BBC News.
While the archaeologists worked on the cache of Bronze Age artifacts, the amateur treasure hunters who first discovered it camped nearby. Dariusz Gucwa, who was with Stepien when he first found the artifacts, tells BBC Breakfast that the friends slept in a tent with sheep and helped guard the site from unwelcome attention.
“Every day there were new objects coming out which changed the context of the find, every day we learned something new,” says Stepien in the statement. “I’m so pleased that the earth revealed to me something that was hidden for more than 3,000 years. I still can’t believe it happened.”
As Alex Nelson writes for the Scotsman, Great Britain’s Bronze Age spanned roughly 2100 to 750 B.C. During this period, bronze—an alloy of copper and tin—grew increasingly popular. The region’s inhabitants also practiced livestock farming and monumental construction, including making some final changes to Stonehenge. Only one other such cache of Bronze Age treasures has been found in Scotland to date: the Horsehope Craig Hoard, which was unearthed in 1864.
To protect the newly discovered trove from the elements, the archaeologists extracted it in a large block of soil. They then covered the block in a fine mesh (visible in a 3-D model created by National Museums Scotland) and prepared it for laboratory analysis.
“Because of the complexity of the hoard, we had to lift it as a block … At the moment, a lot of the objects are still in soil,” Freeman tells BBC Breakfast. “So the immediate next steps will be excavating those objects. And then it will go through the treasure trove process and it will be allocated to a Scottish museum.”