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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - An amateur treasure-hunter searching in a farmer's field has discovered the largest Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold artifacts ever found in Britain, a haul described by archaeologists as unparalleled.
Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old metal detectorist, came across the hoard in a field in Staffordshire, central England in July.
Much of it was lying close to the surface or even scattered on top of the plowed soil.
Thought to date from the seventh century, the collection of more than 1,500 gold and silver items has been officially declared as treasure trove and thus the property of the state. Herbert will, however, share the financial worth of the hoard, likely to run into millions of pounds, with the landowner.
"It's an incredible collection of material, absolutely unprecedented," said archaeologist Kevin Leahy, an adviser with the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme.
"We've been asked: 'Is this the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold work ever found in this country?' Really, it's the only one ever found -- we've moved into new ground with this material," he told reporters at Birmingham Museum where it will go on temporary display.
The collection contains about 5 kg of gold and 2.5 kg of silver, far bigger than previous finds -- including that of the Sutton Hoo burial ground in eastern England which contains priceless royal treasures found in 1939 in a huge ship grave.
"This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries," said Leslie Webster, former keeper of pre-history and Europe at the British Museum.
"(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells," Webster said.
The Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels are illuminated manuscripts of the four New Testament Gospels written in Latin in the eighth and ninth centuries.
Archaeologists from Staffordshire County Council said in a statement the hoard of mostly gold pieces may have belonged to Saxon royalty and most certainly lay at the heart of the ancient Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.
Historians say the period was characterized by enormous turmoil. England did not exist yet and a number of kingdoms with tribal loyalties vied with each other in a state of semi-perpetual warfare.
The cache comprises sword-hilt plates, fragments of gold helmets, some elaborately decorated, and other pieces of weaponry inlaid with precious stones.
It is thought to date back to at least the seventh century, although there is already debate among experts about when it entered the ground.
A spokesman for the local Stoke on Trent city council said it is likely to be worth millions of pounds. Roger Bland head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum was quoted in the British media as saying he expected it to fetch a seven-figure sum.
Museums will be given the opportunity to bid for the hoard after it has been valued by an official committee.
Editing by Keith Weir