J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Walton, accidental archeologist

On 3 Aug 1796, the Blackburn Mail, a newspaper of Lancashire County, England, reported:
A few days ago some ancient figures etc. were discovered in a scar on the Ribble side near Ribchester, a few miles from this place, about 9 feet below the surface of the earth. The river had washed part of them there, which induced the persons who discovered them to dig up the earth, where they found a metal helmet or cap-a-pie, embellished with a number of small figures of men on horseback, with swords in their hands…
The person who first discovered those “ancient figures” was thirteen-year-old John Walton. His father, a clogmaker, went back (presumably bringing John to point out the spot and help with the digging) and unearthed several more Roman artifacts.

About a year and a half later, the Waltons’ sold their discoveries to Charles Townley, a local collector. He put another description of their discovery in a letter to the Society of Antiquaries in London:
These ancient remains, composed chiefly of bronze, were found during the summer of 1796, at Ribchester, the ancient [settlement of] Coccium of the itinerary of Antoninus, situated upon the banks of the river Ribble, in the county of Lancaster, by the son of one Joseph Walton, in a hollow that had been made in the waste land at the side of the road leading to the church, and near the bend of the river. The boy, about thirteen years old, being at play in that hollow, rubbed accidently upon the helmet at the depth of about nine feet from the surface of the ground. When the helmet was extracted the other articles were found with it, deposited in a heap of red sand, which formed a cube of three feet. . . .

These are all the circumstances, relative to this discovery, which I could collect from the before-mentioned Joseph Walton, the person who dug these antiquities out of the ground, and sold them to me on December 8th, 1797.
Another local antiquarian, the Rev. T. D. Whitaker, later described also seeing “a sphinx of bronze” that might have been attached to the top of the helmet. But, he said, John Walton’s cousins had lost it before the family sold the collection.

Now called the “Ribchester parade helmet” and the “Ribchester treasure,” the surviving artifacts are in the British Museum, with replicas in a town museum near the find. John Walton’s name didn’t appear in nineteenth-century accounts, but surfaces (without citation) in modern tellings, like this P.D.F. download from the South Ribble Primary Schools.

(Despite the early newspaper report, the Ribchester Parish Council suggests that the treasure was “more likely to have been found behind one of the cottages opposite the primary school.” That might be based on a late description of the find quoted in this P.D.F. download without a source, suggesting that John Walton was digging near his home rather than exploring the Ribble riverbank.)

TOMORROW: A glimpse of the Ribchester treasure at Boston College.

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