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  • Lynne Shelby

This Writing Life #13 - Gilli Allan - Buried Treasure Is Not Always What It Seems

Many different things can inspire a work of fiction, and today, I'm delighted to welcome Gilli Allan to my blog with a guest post about the intriguing true story behind her latest novel, Buried Treasure.

Over to Gilli ...

Not many people dig up treasure, but my uncle did …. or did he?

Even as a small girl I was fascinated by archaeology. I even chose it as the subject of my project in the final year of junior school and won the only prize I’ve ever received in my life. My very sketchy overview of the subject, ranged from Cave paintings to Romans (in Verulameum) to Tutankhamen. What I didn’t mention was my family’s connection to a famous find.

It was many decades before I decided to write about archaeology again, but this time, when I came to devise the plot of BURIED TREASURE, I immediately wondered if I could incorporate the story of my uncle’s discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure - the iconic 4th Century AD hoard of Roman silver tableware– into my story. What I already knew – and heard it confirmed by the man himself – was that my Uncle Syd (Sydney Ford) was working on his farm in Mildenhall, Suffolk during WW2, and the plough hit a large metal dish.

On closer inspection this turned out to be the largest item of a hoard of goblets, plates and dishes. He dug it up, took it home and cleaned it, thinking it must be pewter. After a wasted journey to the British Museum in London and finding it closed because of the war, he apparently decided he had done as much as he could, and decided to keep the hoard displayed on his sideboard. At Christmas he kept his oranges and nuts in the big bowl.

After the war, a nosy neighbour tipped off the police and the hoard was confiscated. Syd was always aggrieved that not only was his treasure “snatched”, he never got any credit for finding it and never received any reward.

I believed his account as everyone in the family did, and I had never thought to investigate further, until I came to write BURIED TREASURE. What my researches immediately revealed is that the history of the discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure contains many more questions than answers, and paints my dear old Uncle Syd in a very different, and obscured light.

It was not Sydney Ford but his ploughman, Gordon Butcher, who turned up the treasure. It wasn’t even found on my uncle’s farm at all, but on neighbouring land that he was looking after. Unable or unwilling to be clear about the specific location of where it was unearthed, Syd’s account changed every time he was interviewed. Because of this lack of clarity there has even been doubt cast over the fact the hoard originated in the Mildenhall area at all! Roman villas have been found around there, but excavations have uncovered none of sufficient grandeur to have owned such a service. Perhaps the hoard was hidden in or near Syd’s farm by twentieth century villains who’d stolen it - but from whom or from where has never been established. Or perhaps it was lifted during the depredations of war in Italy, and flown by airman into the airfield at Mildenhall.

The treasure was not “snatched” from Syd unexpectedly. He did know he was going to be relieved of his fruit bowl and the rest. Declared treasure trove, the Mildenhall Treasure can now be seen in the British Museum. And contrary to Uncle Syd’s claim, he was recompensed - £2,000 divided between Sydney Ford and Gordon Butcher, but he was denied any credit for the find. You won’t see his name attached to the display case at the British Museum.

We loved Uncle Syd, he was funny and cheeky and mischievous. But since learning of the inconsistencies in his story I have recalled the twinkle in his eye, and wonder what he knew that he wasn’t telling us.

Thank you, Gilli, for a fascinating insight into the history of your family's role in the discovery of the Mildenhall Treasure, and how it has inspired your writing.

Gilli Allan began to write in childhood - a hobby pursued throughout her teenage years. Writing was only abandoned when she left home, and real life supplanted the fiction.

After a few false starts she worked longest and most happily as a commercial artist, and only began writing again when she became a mother.

Living in Gloucestershire with her husband Geoff, Gilli is still a keen artist. She draws and paints and has now moved into book illustration.

She is published by Headline Accent and each of her books, TORN, LIFE CLASS and FLY or FALL has won a ‘Chill with a Book’ award.

Following in the family tradition, her son, historian Thomas Williams, is also a writer. His most recent work, published by William Collins, is ‘Viking Britain’.

Buried Treasure

Their backgrounds could hardly be further apart, their expectations in life more different. And there is nothing in the first meeting between the conference planner and the university lecturer which suggests they should expect or even want to connect again. But they have more in common than they could ever have imagined. Both have unresolved issues from the past which have marked them; both have an archaeological puzzle they want to solve. Their stories intertwine and they discover together that treasure isn’t always what it seems.

To learn more about Gilli and her writing and to purchase her books, please follow the links below or copy and paste into your browser: (@gilliallan)



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