LONDON (AP).- An amateur treasure hunter prowling English farmland with a metal detector stumbled upon what has been described as the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered, a massive collection of gold and silver crosses, sword decorations and other items, British archaeologists said Thursday.
One expert said the treasure would revolutionize understanding of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people who ruled England from the fifth century until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Another said the find would rank among Britain's best-known historic treasures.
"This is just a fantastic find completely out of the blue," Roger Bland, who managed the cache's excavation, told The Associated Press. "It will make us rethink the Dark Ages. That's basically what it's going to do."
The seventh century hoard, found by 55-year-old Terry Herbert on farmland in western England two months ago, consists of about 1,500 pieces of gold and silver, some inlaid with precious stones. So fine is the craftsmanship that experts say it could have belonged to Anglo-Saxon royalty.
Herbert, from the town of Burntwood, found the gold on a friend's farm on July 5 and spent the next five days scouring the field for the rest of the hoard.
"Imagine you're at home and somebody keeps putting money through your letterbox, that was what it was like," Herbert said. "I was going to bed and in my sleep I was seeing gold items."
The hoard was officially declared treasure by a coroner, which means it will now be valued by a committee of experts and offered up for sale to a museum. Proceeds would be split fifty-fifty between Herbert and his farmer friend, who has not been identified. The find's exact location is being kept secret to deter looters.
Bland said he could not give a precise figure for the worth of the hoard, but he said the treasure hunter could be in line for a "seven-figure sum."
Herbert said the experience had been "more fun than winning the lottery," adding that one expert likened his discovery to finding Tutankhamen's tomb.
"I just flushed all over when he said that. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up," Herbert said.
The hoard is in storage at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Some of the items are due to go on display starting Friday.
"The quantity of gold is amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate," said archaeologist Kevin Leahy, who catalogued the find. "This was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good."
Leahy said there was still much to learn about the treasure, its purpose, and its origins.
"It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career," he said. "We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when. It will be debated for decades."
Bland agreed, saying that archaeologists were still baffled by the function of many of the pieces they found.
"There's lots of mystery in it," he said.
Leslie Webster, an expert on Anglo-Saxons who used to work with the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, said the find was "absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells" a reference to famous manuscripts produced around the same time.