THE FAMOUS GRAVE SHIP OF Sutton Hoo was found, undisturbed, in a mound in East Anglia, England, in the 1930s. One of the most spectacular finds in the history of English archaeology, the burial contained no body, but was loaded with artifacts made of gold, silver, and bronze, from Byzantine silverware to a literally double-edged sword. The find is priceless beyond measure, but one thing it is decidedly not is “treasure.” At least that’s what a local coroner—following seven centuries of precedent—officially determined.
There’s a lot of history in England, and much of it still lies under the earth. Centuries-old objects turn up from under pastures in Sussex and wash up on the banks of the Thames in central London. Defining some of these objects as “treasure” has historically provided a source of revenue for the kingdom, and today it is a vital step in ensuring the preservation of the country’s cultural heritage. But through it all, the duty of declaring which uncovered objects make the cut has always fallen to the same people—coroners, the same ones who are responsible for determining causes of death.
In 1194, Richard the Lionheart’s England was financially strapped by the Crusades abroad and a suite of issues at home. The kingdom was in want of a bureaucratic upgrade if it was to survive. Few people were more qualified to orchestrate this managerial makeover than Walter Hubert, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among the rules Hubert outlined in his Articles of Eyre was a new sort of county officer, one who could help settle local matters and, in the process, ensure a steady flow of revenue into the crown’s coffers. Hubert invented something called a coroner.
“The etymology of the word coroner comes from ‘crown’ and ‘crowner,’ and for centuries, they’ve been the crown’s representative in the regions,” says Ian Richardson, the Treasure Registrar at the British Museum, which today houses the finds from Sutton Hoo. In medieval rural England, coroners were the crown incarnate. They organized local juries and supervised county elections, looked into premature or suspicious deaths, and seized the assets of those who died with no clear heirs.
Read more about the English Coroners who decide what is treasure and what is not on the Atlas Obscura website HERE