Amateur metal detectors Michael Webb and his son, Michael Jr., made Irish history when they found found a full set of 8th/9th century Christian communion vessels at Derrynaflan, the site of a former church and monastery.
The monastic site is situated on an island of pastureland surrounded by bogland. Having asked the landowner for permission to search the area, the Webb's detector signaled a large presence of metal just northeast of the remains of the early medieval church.
There, they quickly uncovered a crude pit containing a large, corroded metal basin. Underneath they found a large paten or plate leaning against an elaborately decorated shallow cup. (The cup, with its wide foot, shallow basin, and elaborate decoration closely resembled the famous Ardagh Chalice discovered about fifty miles west of Derrynaflan in 1868). Lying upside down between the cup and the paten was a bronze ladle divided by a perforated insert.
The two men removed the objects and carefully refilled the hole. Dr. Elizabeth Twohig, an archaeologist at University College Cork, advised them to take their treasures to the National Museum of Ireland, where experts could evaluate the find.
Archaeologists then traveled to Derrynaflan to perform a ‘rescue excavation’ (to preserve and record the location, and search for any other significant objects).
This excavation recovered additional panels and fragments (of gold filigree, silver and glass) which were then restored to their proper places on the ladle, paten and chalice.
The discovery of a national treasure, rivaling the Tara Brooch in its exquisite workmanship quickly made national news. The Webbs rejected the reward offer of IR£10k and took the matter to court, seeking the full value of the treasure. (Even though the site of their discovery was a National Monument, and should not have been excavated without a license).
In 1986 however, the High Court ruled in their favor, assessing the worth of the hoard at IR£5.5m and directed the government to pay that amount or return the find to the Webbs.
Naturally, the government filed an appeal and in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the hoard belonged to the state. (However, to encourage the official reporting of finds, the government increased the Webb's reward payment to IR£50k).
This controversy brought with it a change to the law in 1987. The National Monuments Act made the unlicensed search for archaeological objects with a metal detector “or other electronic detecting devices” illegal. State ownership of all archaeological objects, found in Ireland was specified in an Ammendment in 1994, making it an “offence to trade in unreported antiquities or to withhold information about archaeological discoveries” with a fine of IR£50k and a 5 year prison sentence for violation.
The Derrynaflan Hoard (as the find is known) is on display, along with other treasures, such as the Ardagh Chalice, at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
[Photo credit: NMI Ireland museum.ie]