The Mildenhall Treasure
First edition cover
The Mildenhall Treasure is a non-fiction work written by British author Roald Dahl. Unlike his later work, the story is not children's fiction. It tells the story of the discovery in 1946 near Mildenhall in Suffolk of the Mildenhall Treasure, now held in the British Museum.
It was first published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine in the U.S. in 1946. and was first published in book form in the story collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More in 1977. It was published as a single title edition in 1999 by Jonathan Cape, with a newly commissioned cover illustration by Ralph Steadman.
The British author, shortly before he became a fighter pilot in the RAF, visited RAF Mildenhall as well as RAF Lakenheath, both located north of the town. In a note before the true story, Dahl explains how he read in the newspaper about a remarkable find of Roman silver. Very interested, a few days later he drove to Mildenhall to interview the ploughman involved. As Dahl explains in his preface to the second version, before writing the story he went to Suffolk and personally interviewed some people there about the discovery: neighbors, farmworkers, shopkeepers, Gordon's wife and the protagonists. Later he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, due to Dahl's friendship with a busy and hard working married man, Gordon Butcher, father of several children. The first version shows too much of Dahl's indignation against Sidney Ford. He simply entitled the new version ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact it was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. After it was published in America, Dahl sent half the money to Butcher's family.
One of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events, it was first entitled "He plowed up $1,000,000", and it told about the discovery of the treasure in a remote and lonely area of England. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by a local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford.
The Roman Silver pieces with pagan themes from East Anglia were discovered by Gordon Butcher while ploughing with motor changing agricultural practices during the Second World War, in January 1942. The ploughman had been the one hired to do the job, and he removed the treasure from the ground with help from a tractor. He was working for Sydney Ford at the time, although the landowner was another. Butcher supposedly did not recognise the objects for what they were, and the hoard did not come to the attention of the authorities until 1946. Butcher was deprived of the pieces by Ford.
The story is non fiction, and in Dahl's version of events, Ford was fully aware of the significance of the find, but could not bear to part with the treasure. He kept it and restored it in secret, but two of the spoons left out were seen by an unexpected visitor, Dr. Hugh Fawcett.
The treasure was turned over to the police, who started an investigation. An inquest was held in the summer of 1946. As a result, Butcher was deprived of the full ex gratia reward made to finders of buried gold or silver, since the find had not been correctly reported to the authorities. The find was declared "treasure trove" and acquired by the British Museum in London. Eventually the finders were declared to be Ford and Butcher, who each received a thousand pounds compensation. Butcher had no idea that "had he been allowed to take the treasure home originally, he would have almost certainly have revealed its existence and would thus have become eligible to receive one hundred per cent of its value, which could have been anything between half a million and a million pounds."
Richard Hobbs, curator of the British Museum, drew the attention of the academic world to the importance of the fictionalised account by Roald Dahl. Hobbs's first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was in 1977 when, at the age of eight, he was given a copy of Dahl's book. Many children worldwide, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure. Hobbs has since addressed the difficult issues surrounding the actual finding.
- Dahl, Roald (1947). "The Mildenhall Treasure" in Saturday Evening Post (20 September): 20-21, 93-4, 96-7, 99.
- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, ISBN 0-224-01547-8
- The Mildenhall Treasure, ISBN 978-0-224-06017-2
- "Short Stories - "The Mildenhall Treasure"". RoaldDahlFans.com. 2013-08-04. Retrieved 2016-02-16.
- Hobbs, Richard (29 March 2012). "Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure". British Museum. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- Richard Hobbs, 'The Mildenhall Treasure: Roald Dahl's ultimate tale of the unexpected', Antiquity 71 (1997), pp.63-73
- Hobbs 2008
- Richard Hobbs. "The Mildenhall Treasure: Roald Dahl's ultimate tale of the unexpected?" in Antiquity Volume: 71 Number: 271 (1997) pp. 63–73.