Enigmas both ancient and modern on a tiny island in the English Channel, a lost treasure and two mysterious inscriptions.
Revised and expanded version of an article originally published in Fortean Times, no. 235. All images from Sark, except the first two, are by the author.
The Mystery of the Sark Hoard
The first sight of the island of Sark from the ferry is of a beachless tower of rock lashed with Channel spray. The lighthouse around the western headland is comically compact, a little stub of a beacon. It wasn’t my idea to come here to this island of silence, and already I was feeling confined. The dismal dimensions of this place were obsessing my first encounter. The entire island is three and a half miles from north to south and one and a half miles at its widest point. Market-town sized. Although I was intrigued I didn’t think it would be more than a couple of days before I needed a break from the unrelenting peace and tranquility and headed back to the bright lights of Guernsey. It turned out I was wrong.
Alcatraz and Portmeirion are on my mind as we are taken by tractor cart half a mile up a sheer cliff road. Then by horse-drawn buggy to our destination. The journey begins at a languid two miles and hour and tops out at two and a half miles an hour going downhill. We’re going to a place only half a mile away. You can walk quicker than this. Why aren’t we there yet? You realise that it’s supposed to feel like this, like two hundred years ago, or at least before there were trains. What there is - and that’s not much - is going very slowly. We the visitors are almost outnumbering everything else, even the houses. There are no cars around, only tractors. Fortunately bicycles are allowed, which is good as if I had to go everywhere by horse-buggy I’d surely go mad.
The answer to the classic pub-quiz question about Sark tells us that the smallest of the four Channel Islands is the last constitutional feudal state in Europe, and that it is not part of United Kingdom. For four hundred and fifty years its constitution flowed towards the Seigneur. There are no freeholdings on Sark, only tenants; all land is on permanent lease from the Seigneur who is the only person on the island allowed to keep pigeons or an unspayed dog, and the right to anything found between the low and high watermarks. (With almost every part of the land three hundred feet up in the air, it doesn’t allow for much beachcombing.) The island runs under five executive officers: the Seneschal (responsible for judge and magistrate), the Prevôt (Sheriff of the Court and of Chief Pleas), the Greffier (Clerk), a Treasurer, and a Constable. Chief Pleas is the name for the representative parliament, which until very recently was made of forty-nine or fifty-two members, depending on who you read.
Since January 2007 these facts are hanging in the balance. In 1951 Sarks’ 16th century laws were suddenly discordant with the European Human Rights Act, so concessions were made to ease the feudal bonds. These were further slackened in March 2006. Debates continued to October when after two opinion polls Chief Pleas chose universal franchise. Everyone, tenants and deputies, could stand for election to a reduced Chief Pleas of twenty-eight seats. It looked like good honest Western-style democracy was on the cards. Then at the Christmas meeting a new tenant proposed that the decision be suspended. Resultantly, Chief Pleas suspended the October decision, and appointed another committee to discuss the validity of the polls. The draft law could not go before the Queen’s hand. The hope was that elections could take place by December this year, yet according to Sark’s official website “seven years of work was ignored.” But they’re good at waiting on Sark where you have to wait for everything to arrive, from newspapers and fish to the air ambulance. Democracy will just have to wait longer. [UPDATE: On 16 January 2008 and 21 February 2008, the Chief Pleas approved a law which introduced a thirty member chamber, with twenty-eight members elected in island-wide elections, one hereditary member and one member appointed for life. The first elections were held in December 2008.]
Sark’s main contribution to the annals of True Mysteries is the Sark Hoard, a unique treasure steeped in mystery. It was found by five men in the spring of 1718. They were digging a trench for a hedge under the direction of the mill’s owner, Henry de Carteret, along the edge of a field at the island’s highest point when they found an earthenware pot containing thirteen round and oblong silver-gilt discs, and eighteen silver coins. The find was reported to the Seneschal who declared it to be treasure-trove, and therefore belonged to the Seigneur, Lord John Carteret, who lived well away from Sark in Bedfordshire. It isn’t certainly known if the treasure was received by Lord John, only that seven years later it was in the hands of Heneage Finch, 5th Earl of Winchelsea (1657-1726), who had a niece married to the Seigneur.
We the visitors are almost outnumbering everything else, even the houses. There are no cars around, only tractors. Fortunately bicycles are allowed, which is good as if I had to go everywhere by horse-buggy I’d surely go mad.
No doubt the Earl, who was a prominent antiquary and collector, would have appreciated the treasure, which although damaged in parts is one of the strangest and most important treasures ever found in the British Isles. On their own the coins, which were Roman and Gaulish, would have been an excellent find. It was the silver-gilt discs, called phalerae that distinguished the treasure, and the ‘curved mount’, the largest and strangest object in the hoard. Phalerae is an antiquarian term referring to types of decoration, usually round embossed metal plates of gold or silver, used to adorn horses or elephants on the head and flanks. Originating with the Etruscans, they came to be the distinguishing mark of consular rank in the Roman Republic where they were the insignia of the equestrian order. Roman soldiers were awarded them for military accomplishments. The largest pair of the Sark Hoard phalerae depict five and six mythological beasts respectively. Four of these beasts have dog’s heads, asses’ ears, and lions’ bodies. Small wings sprout from the uppermost parts of the lions’ front legs. Other creatures are hippocamps (a horse-fish hybrid), with paws instead of hooves, winged gryphons, and bulls. The smaller phalerae represent individual animals: some dogs, a lion, Pegasus, unicorn, hippocamp, bull, elephant, small lion, and a cat biting a cockerel. All are thought to originate from the same school or workshop, probably in 1st century Thrace (the region of southern Bulgaria, northeastern Greece, and European Turkey). These phalerae are extremely rare; only a smattering of similar examples exist in museums across Europe. The curved mount, which depicts two large dolphins and three small fish, is unique. ‘There is no known object with which it may be directly compared or from which its original use can with certainty be deduced,’ wrote Derek Allen in his expert study for the Society of Antiquaries.
If the Hoard itself is strange, the story of what happened to it in the years after it was acquired by the 5th Earl of Winchelsea is more curious still. History is fortunate that precise drawings of the treasure were made by George Vertue, a sculptor and engraver to the Antiquarian Society, in 1725. Winchelsea was a keen exhibitor at the Society of which he was vice-president, yet he never exhibited the Hoard. When Lord Winchelsea died two years later the Hoard passed to Algernon Seymour, earl of Hertford, possibly as a wedding present. He was elected president of the Antiquarian Society, and although he remained president until his death in 1750, he rarely attended meetings and never exhibited the Sark Hoard there, and nothing else is known of its history. The Sark Hoard had vanished. Until Vertue’s engravings were rediscovered and presented in 1968 by Derek Allen, even the very existence of the Hoard had been entirely lost to history for almost two hundred and fifty years.
George Vertue (1684-1756)
Sark’s main contribution to the annals of True Mysteries is the Sark Hoard, a unique treasure steeped in mystery... thirteen round and oblong silver-gilt discs, and eighteen silver coins.
John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, 7th Seigneur of Sark (1690-1763)
Earl of Hertford (1684-1750)
If the Sark Hoard itself is strange and unaccountable, the story of what happened to it in the years after it was acquired by the 5th Earl of Winchelsea is even more curious. History is fortunate that precise drawings of the treasure were made by George Vertue, a sculptor and engraver to the Antiquarian Society, in 1725. When Lord Winchelsea died two years later the Hoard passed to Algernon Seymour, earl of Hertford, possibly as a wedding present. He was elected president of the Antiquarian Society, and although he remained president until his death in 1750, he rarely attended meetings and never exhibited the Sark Hoard there. Winchelsea, who was immensely rich, was a keen exhibitor at the Society of which he was vice-president. He also never exhibited the Hoard, and nothing else is known of its history. The Hoard had vanished. Until Vertue’s engravings were rediscovered and presented in 1968 by Derek Allen, even the very existence of the Hoard had been entirely lost to history for almost two hundred and fifty years.
Drawings of the Sark Hoard made by George Vertue for the Society of Antiquaries in 1725.
Images composed by Jerry Glover.
The windmill close to where to Hoard was found stands at the highest point in the Channel Islands. At four hundred and thirty six years old it is claimed to be the second-oldest tower mill in the British Isles. The site of the Hoard’s discovery is easily found running parallel to the edge of a field (see gallery below). The disturbed soil is where archaeologists from Oxford University had been making trial excavating the previous summer, identifying the archaeological context for the hoard which "appears to be a religious site that was in active use from the First Century BC into the Second Century AD," according to Sir Barry Cunliffe who led the dig. "It is preceded by ‘Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age occupation". They also found Iron Age and Republican coins "presumably scattered from the hoard." Is the main Hoard itself now scattered, or does it remain all in one place somewhere?
If the Sark Hoard itself is strange and unaccountable, the story of what happened to it in the years after it was acquired by the 5th Earl of Winchelsea is even more curious.
Until Vertue’s engravings were rediscovered... even the very existence of the Hoard had been entirely lost to history for almost two hundred and fifty years.
One person who might have been able to subtract from the unknowns is the Reverend John Creyk, the chaplain and close friend of Winchelsea, who was with him up until the moment he died. A letter written by Hertford in 1727 concerns Winchelsea’s bequest to him:
“By his will he left me his Imperial Medals and his Sark Antiquities; - what he wrote upon them is in the possession of Mr. Creyk; - whether he will publish them or not I do not know; - he has the disposal of everything... I will send you Prints of the Sark Antiquities...”
Creyk published nothing on the Hoard. “If the Creyk papers could be found,” wrote Derek Allen, “they might throw light on the hoard and what happened to it.” The rest of Winchelsea’s coin collection became part of the Bodleian antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, but not the Hoard. Allen goes on to wonder, “if the Revd. John Creyk ever returned the treasure to its owner.” Creyk was fast approaching forty at the time Winchelsea died. Fearing for his financial security, might he have filched the hoard and taken it to London where he lived until the end of his life in 1757? Professor Stephen Taylor, a project director of the Clergy of the Church of England database [3,] responded to my question about the income of an early 18th century priest. The answer depended on the circumstances of individual parishes, with tithes from parish agricultural production and ‘surplice’ fees from special services. The norm would probably have been around £20 per annum, with £50 pa regarded as the minimum acceptable income for a clergyman. In todays terms the equivalent would be about £20 000. Creyk was ‘supported’ by the family until his death, by how much is unknown. Did he consider his employers’ support as being insufficient for life in London, and went about tucking away a little extra security in case that support collapsed?
From obscure origins to an unknown destiny, the Sark Hoard was lost, reappeared fleetingly, then was lost again. Professor Barry Cunliffe thinks that, “almost certainly it was melted down at some stage,” which would probably only make sense if the identity of the Hoard had to be obliterated upon having been stolen from the last recorded owner.
The museum on Sark is the smallest I have visited, and all the more charming for it. A copy of a picture just inside the entrance was the first public sighting of a mystery that had come to light in recent weeks, and having covered just about every part of the island in a few days, I was glad of the chance to occupy my remaining time with a little investigation. The stone carving in the picture belongs to the Hester family who were building a house yards from the place I was staying. The carving, an odd set of glyphs and numbers, was puzzling the owners and locals. The museum curator explained a theory that it represented a kneeling figure under a moon, and might be connected to the Knights Templar. It seemed that even this remote place had not escaped The Da Vinci Code influence, and since I was at a loss to see the ‘figure’ myself or know what it meant, I went to see the owner, Jess Hester, who was glad to receive me on the gangplank to the unfinished structure of his grand design on a cliff-top overlooking the Channel. The inscription was roughly hewn from the centre of the mantelpiece, a great stone at least three meters in length. It was recovered with the other fireplace corbels from the Calvados region in Normandy. That was all he knew about it. There were two fireplaces recovered from the same place, both almost identical in size, design and number of corbels; the only difference was that the second fireplace did not have an inscription, just a blank ‘shield’ at the centre of the fireplace. The second fireplace also now belonged in the new house. Judging by their size the fireplaces must have originally been made for a very large dwelling.
My first stop in unravelling the mystery was the British Museum’s Department of Prehistory and Europe. Two curators there could not decipher the inscription, and made no suggestions as to what the writing, if that’s what it is, meant. The Bibliothèque nationale de France could suggest nothing besides trying an antiques specialist in Paris, and their failure to reply to me I take as an admission of defeat. The Victoria and Albert Museum could offer no interpretation of their own but were helpful in pointing me towards the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, who could only point me towards the archaeological departments Oxford and Cambridge. Various history professors at British universities either ignored me (meaning, I surmise, that they don’t know) or pointed out what anyone could see: the possible date of 1609 and the initials ‘BB’ or ‘BR’. Marios Costambeys, director of the Liverpool Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies was at least brave enough to freely admit that he didn’t know what it meant.
There are many datestones set into houses on Jersey, none of which remotely resembles the Sark inscription. Its meaning may well be mundane, maybe a name or family event. The characters - if that’s what they are - seem just out of recognisable reach. If they are writing, they don’t look like any script associated with the Latin alphabet, so perhaps it's a pictograph. What I find to be equally interesting and puzzling is how the majority of those I took to be experts would not exercise their knowledge to produce a best guess, or even offer an educated insight to throw light on the inscription’s origin or context in history.
Inscription on the Hester fireplace,
original image and enhanced
A Pair of Mystery Inscriptions
I posted this video of my family encountering the rock, and after several months the inscription was solved by a YouTube user named GhurkaBoy. The language is Pali, derived from Sanskrit, and is the sacred language of Therevada Buddhism, comprising much of the earliest literature. The inscription reads "Om Muni Padme Hum", "I bow to the Jewel in the Lotus", or the “Jewel Lotus One”, referring to a mantra (or prayer) to Avalokiteshvara, a Bodhisattva representing compassion. Such stones are known as Mani stones, placed in the landscape as an offering to spirits as devotional forms of Chintamani, wish-fulfilling jewels said to be the Hindu and Buddhist equivalent of the Philosopher's Stone in the tradition of Western alchemy. So finally, a mystery solved – well, in a way, for who made it and why this extensive carving in an ancient and distantly-derived language come to be in this unlikely location must remain an unknown for now. As so it probably should.
Sark was to provide one last mystery; gladly more tangible than the Hoard. On a boulder on the northernmost part of the island I found a large carving in a language I didn't recognise. Take a look at the video...
Mani stone with "Om Muni Padme Hum", the Avalokitesvara mantra
Most grateful thanks to Professor Stephen Taylor, Sir Barry Cunliffe, and Jess & Claire Hester.
Isle of Brecqhou viewed from Sark